Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American Transcendentalist poet, philosopher, lecturer, and essayist wrote Nature (1836);

To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. Seen in the streets of cities, how great they are! If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile. --Ch. 1

Initially published anonymously, Emerson's first collection of essays, Nature, is the culmination of much soul-searching and scholarly study by Emerson in the fields of philosophy and religion. Never intending to be regarded as a philosopher, Emerson emerged as one of the original thinkers of his age, oftentimes poetically expressing his ideals;

' .... of Nature itself upon the soul; the sunrise, the haze of autumn, the winter starlight seem interlocutors; the prevailing sense is that of an exposition in poetry; a high discourse, the voice of the speaker seems to breathe as much from the landscape as from his own breast; it is Nature communing with the seer.'

Emerson believed in individualism, non-conformity, and the need for harmony between man and nature. He was a proponent of abolition, and spoke out about the cruel treatment of Native Americans. Influenced by the Eastern philosophy of unity and a divine whole, emphasizing God Immanent, to be found in everyone and everything, Emerson sowed the seeds of the American Transcendentalist movement. He realised the importance of the spiritual inner self over the material external self through studying Kantianism, Confucianism, Neo-Platonism, Romanticism, and dialectical metaphysics and reading the works of Saint Augustine, Sir Francis Bacon, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Shakespeare among many others. During his lifetime and since Emerson has had a profound influence on some of the 19th and 20th century's most prominent figures in the arts, religion, education, and politics.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on 25 May 1803 in the Puritan New England town of Boston, Massachusetts to Ruth née Haskins (d.1853) and Unitarian minister William Emerson (d.1811). Young Ralph had a strict but loving upbringing in the household of a minister who died when he was just eight years old. It was the first of many untimely deaths of Emerson's relatives. While his father had died young, he was very close to his mother, siblings, and Aunt Mary Moody who had a great and positive influence on his intellectual growth. Early on young Waldo as he like to be called started keeping journals and later would base many of his essays on his thoughts and observations expressed therein. While his writings were sometimes criticised as being too abstract, he was an eloquent and popular speaker.

After studying the classics at the Boston Latin School, Emerson enrolled in Harvard College, graduating in 1821. He then taught at his brother William's Boston school for young ladies. Emerson's first publication, "Thoughts on the Religion of the Middle Ages" appeared in 1822 in the Christian Disciple. When in 1825, Emerson entered Harvard Divinity School, there was much discussion of and influence from translations of the German critics and Hindu and Buddhist poetry--it was the beginning of his struggle to come to terms with his own Christian beliefs. "Divinity School Address" is one such work.

The same year Emerson was ordained minister in the Second Church in Boston, on 30 September 1829, he married Ellen Louisa Tucker. She died of tuberculosis a few years later and her death caused another wave of religious questioning and doubt for Emerson. He next married Lydia 'Lidian' Jackson (d.1892) on 14 September 1835 with whom he would have four children: Waldo (d. 1842), Ellen (d.1909), Edith, and Edward. They settled in Concord, Massachusetts where they would live for the rest of their lives, their home now the National Historic Landmark Ralph Waldo Emerson House. They entertained many friends and noted artists, free thinkers, poets, authors, and Transcendentalists of the time including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Bronson Alcott and his daughter Louisa May Alcott. Henry David Thoreau built his Walden Pond cabin on Emerson's property; he watched over Emerson's family when he lectured abroad.

In 1832 Emerson resigned his position with the Church and sailed for Europe. His health had been troubling him for some time, and he was advised to take a rest. He visited England, Scotland, France, and Italy, meeting poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, and philosophers John Stuart Mill and Thomas Carlyle, with whom he maintained a lengthy correspondence, published as Correspondence of Thomas Carlyle and R.W. Emerson (1883). English Traits (1856) is based on his travels. Emerson's first book Nature (1836) includes his essays "Nature", "Commodity", "Beauty", "Language", "Discipline", "Idealism", "Spirit", "Prospects", "The American Scholar", "Divinity School Address", "Literary Ethics", "The Method of Nature", "Man the Reformer", "Introductory Lecture on the Times", "The Conservative", "The Transcendentalist", and "The Young American".

Emerson had been lecturing for some time, and in 1838 made his controversial "Divinity School Address at Harvard, whereupon he was labeled an atheist. In 1840 he started The Dial with Margaret Fuller, which served as the official publication of the Transcendentalists until 1844. Emerson was a prolific essayist; many of them first appeared in The Dial, many of them were lectures he had given. Essays: First Series (1841) includes "History", "Self-Reliance", "Compensation", "Spiritual Laws", "Love", "Friendship", "Prudence", "Heroism", "The Over-Soul", "Circles", "Intellect" and "Art". Essays: Second Series (1844) includes "The Poet", "Experience", "Character", "Manners", "Gifts", "Nature", "Politics", "Nominalist and Realist", and "New England Reformers".

The same year Emerson embarked on year-long lecture tour of Europe, his poetry collection Poems (1847) was published. Miscellanies; Embracing Nature, Addresses, and Lectures (1849) was followed by another collection of lectures as essays, Representative Men (1850) that includes essays on Plato and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe--"Uses of Great Men", "Plato; or, the Philosopher", "Plato; New Readings", "Swedenborg; or, the Mystic", "Montaigne; or, the Skeptic", "Shakspeare; or, the Poet", "Napoleon; or, the Man of the World", and "Goethe; or, the Writer". The Conduct of Life (1860) appeared just before Emerson started a North American lecture series. His next collection of poetry May-Day and Other Pieces (1867) was followed by Society and Solitude (1870). Emerson next launched into his "Natural History of Intellect" series of lectures at Harvard University.

In 1872 the Emerson family sailed for Europe and Egypt while their home, badly damaged by fire, underwent repairs. When they returned, Emerson continued to write and address students and admirers alike. At the age of seventy-eight, Emerson caught a cold from being out in the New England rainy damp weather and it turned into pneumonia. On 27 April 1882 Ralph Waldo Emerson died at home in Concord, Massachusetts. Lydia survived him by ten years, and now rests beside him on Author's Ridge in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Middlesex County, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Mine are the night and morning,
The pits of air, the gulf of space,
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days.
I hide in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.
--from "Song of Nature", May-Day and Other Pieces

Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2007. All Rights Reserved.

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