- The Spiritual Politics of Ralph Waldo Emerson [Biography]
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Outlines of English and American Literature
Ralph Waldo Emerson
by Long, William J.

Emerson is the mountaineer of our literature; to read him is to have the impression of being on the heights. It is solitary there, far removed from ordinary affairs; but the air is keen, the outlook grand, the heavens near. Our companions are the familiar earth by day or the mysterious stars by night, and these are good if only to recall the silent splendor of God's universe amid the pother of human inventions. There also the very spirit of liberty, which seems to have its dwelling among the hills, enters into us and makes us sympathize with Emerson's message of individual freedom.

It is still a question whether Emerson should be classed with the poets or prose writers, and our only reason for placing him with the latter is that his "Nature" seems more typical than his "Wood Notes," though in truth both works convey precisely the same message. He was a great man who used prose or verse as suited his mood at the moment; but he was never a great poet, and only on rare occasions was he a great prose writer.


Emerson has been called "the wingéd Franklin," "the Yankee Shelley" and other contradictory names which strive to express the union of shrewd sense and lofty idealism that led him to write "Hitch your wagon to a star" and many another aphorism intended to bring heaven and earth close together. We shall indicate enough of his inheritance if we call him a Puritan of the Puritans, a moralist descended from seven generations of heroic ministers who had helped to make America a free nation, and who had practiced the love of God and man and country before preaching it to their congregations.

The quality of these ancestors entered into Emerson and gave him the granite steadfastness that is one of his marked characteristics. Meeting him in his serene old age one would hardly suspect him of heroism; but to meet him in childhood is to understand the kind of man he was, and must be. If you would appreciate the quality of that childhood, picture to yourself a bare house with an open fire and plenty of books, but little else of comfort. There are a mother and six children in the house, desperately poor; for the father is dead and has left his family nothing and everything,--nothing that makes life rich, everything in the way of ideals and blessed memories to make life wealthy. The mother works as only a poor woman can from morning till night. The children go to school by day; but instead of playing after school-hours they run errands for the neighbors, drive cows from pasture, shovel snow, pick huckleberries, earn an honest penny. In the evening they read together before the open fire. When they are hungry, as they often are, a Puritan aunt who shares their poverty tells them stories of human endurance. The circle narrows when an older brother goes to college; the rest reduce their meals and spare their pennies in order to help him. After graduation he teaches school and devotes his earnings to giving the next brother his chance. All the while they speak courteously to each other, remember their father's teaching that they are children of God, and view their hard life steadily in the light of that sublime doctrine.

The College Boy

The rest of the story is easily told. Emerson was born in Boston, then a straggling town, in 1803. When his turn came he went to Harvard, and largely supported himself there by such odd jobs as only a poor student knows how to find. Wasted time he called it; for he took little interest in college discipline or college fun and was given to haphazard reading, "sinfully strolling from book to book, from care to idleness," as he said. Later he declared that the only good thing he found in Harvard was a solitary chamber.

The Preacher

After leaving college he taught school and shared his earnings, according to family tradition. Then he began to study for the ministry; or perhaps we should say "read," for Emerson never really studied anything. At twenty-three he was licensed to preach, and three years later was chosen pastor of the Second Church in Boston. It was the famous Old North Church in which the Mathers had preached, and the Puritan divines must have turned in their graves when the young radical began to utter his heresies from the ancient pulpit. He was loved and trusted by his congregation, but presently he differed with them in the matter of the ritual and resigned his ministry.

Next he traveled in Europe, where he found as little of value as he had previously found in college. The old institutions, which roused the romantic enthusiasm of Irving and Longfellow, were to him only relics of barbarism. He went to Europe, he said, to see two men, and he found them in Wordsworth and Carlyle. His friendship with the latter and the letters which passed between "the sage of Chelsea" and "the sage of Concord" (as collected and published by Charles Eliot Norton in his Correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson) are the most interesting result of his pilgrimage.

The Lecturer

On his return he settled in the village of Concord, which was to be his home for the remainder of his long life. He began to lecture, and so well was the "Lyceum" established at that time that he was soon known throughout the country. For forty years this lecturing continued, and the strange thing about it is that in all that time he hardly met one audience that understood him or that carried away any definite idea of what he had talked about. Something noble in the man seemed to attract people; as Lowell said, they did not go to hear what Emerson said but to hear Emerson.

The Writer

Meanwhile he was writing prose and poetry. His literary work began in college and consisted largely in recording such thoughts or quotations as seemed worthy of preservation. In his private Journal (now published in several volumes) may be found practically everything he put into the formal works which he sent forth from Concord. These had at first a very small circle of readers; but the circle widened steadily, and the phenomenon is more remarkable in view of the fact that the author avoided publicity and had no ambition for success. He lived contentedly in a country village; he cultivated his garden and his neighbors; he spent long hours alone with nature; he wrote the thoughts that came to him and sent them to make their own way in the world, while he himself remained, as he said, "far from fame behind the birch trees."

The last years of his life were as the twilight of a perfect day. His mental powers failed slowly; he seemed to drift out of the present world into another of pure memories; even his friends became spiritualized, lost the appearance of earth and assumed their eternal semblance. When he stood beside the coffin of Longfellow, looking intently into the poet's face, he was heard to murmur, "A sweet, a gracious personality, but I have forgotten his name." To the inevitable changes (the last came in 1882) he adapted himself with the same serenity which marked his whole life. He even smiled as he read the closing lines of his "Terminus":

      As the bird trims her to the gale,
      I trim myself to the storm of time,
      I man the rudder, reef the sail,
      Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
      "Lowly faithful, banish fear,
      Right onward drive unharmed;
      The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
      And every wave is charmed."

Emerson's Poetry

There is a ruggedness in Emerson's verse which attracts some readers while it repels others by its unmelodious rhythm. It may help us to measure that verse if we recall the author's criticism thereof. In 1839 he wrote:

    "I am naturally keenly susceptible to the pleasures of rhythm, and
    cannot believe but one day I shall attain to that splendid dialect,
    so ardent is my wish; and these wishes, I suppose, are ever only
    the buds of power; but up to this hour I have never had a true
    success in such attempts."

One must be lenient with a poet who confesses that he cannot attain the "splendid dialect," especially so since we are inclined to agree with him. In the following passage from "Each and All" we may discover the reason for his lack of success:

  Little thinks, in the field, yon red-cloaked clown
  Of thee from the hill-top looking down;
  The heifer that lows in the upland farm,
  Far-heard, lows not thine ear to charm;
  The sexton, tolling his bell at noon,
  Deems not that great Napoleon
  Stops his horse, and lists with delight,
  Whilst his files sweep round yon Alpine height;
  Nor knowest thou what argument
  Thy life to thy neighbor's creed has lent.
  All are needed by each one;
  Nothing is fair or good alone.
  I thought the sparrow's note from heaven,
  Singing at dawn on the alder bough;
  I brought him home in his nest at even;
  He sings the song, but it cheers not now,
  For I did not bring home the river and sky:
  He sang to my ear; they sang to my eye.
  The delicate shells lay on the shore;
  The bubbles of the latest wave
  Fresh pearls to their enamel gave,
  And the bellowing of the savage sea
  Greeted their safe escape to me.
  I wiped away the weeds and foam,
  I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
  But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
  Had left their beauty on the shore
  With the sun and the sand and the wild uproar.

Our first criticism is that the poem contains both fine and faulty lines, and that the total impression is an excellent one. Next, we note that the verse is labored; for Emerson was not a natural singer, like Whittier, and was hampered by his tendency to think too much instead of giving free expression to his emotion. [Footnote: Most good poems are characterized by both thought and feeling, and by a perfection of form that indicates artistic workmanship. With Emerson the thought is the main thing; feeling or emotion is subordinate or lacking, and he seldom has the patience to work over his thought until it assumes beautiful or perfect expression.] Finally, he is didactic; that is, he is teaching the lesson that you must not judge a thing by itself, as if it had no history or connections, but must consider it in its environment, as a part of its own world.

As in "Each and All" so in most of his verse Emerson is too much of a teacher or moralist to be a poet. In "The Rhodora," one of his most perfect poems, he proclaims that "Beauty is its own excuse for being"; but straightway he forgets the word and devotes his verse not to beauty but to some ethical lesson. Very rarely does he break away from this unpoetic habit, as when he interrupts the moralizing of his "World Soul" to write a lyric that we welcome for its own sake:

  Spring still makes spring in the mind
    When sixty years are told;
  Love wakes anew this throbbing heart,
    And we are never old.
  Over the winter glaciers
    I see the summer glow,
  And through the wide-piled snowdrift
    The warm rosebuds below.

Typical Poems

The most readable of Emerson's poems are those in which he reflects his impressions of nature, such as "Seashore," "The Humble-Bee," "The Snow-Storm," "Days," "Fable," "Forbearance," "The Titmouse" and "Wood-Notes." In another class are his philosophical poems devoted to transcendental doctrines. The beginner will do well to skip these, since they are more of a puzzle than a source of pleasure. In a third class are poems of more personal interest, such as the noble "Threnody," a poem of grief written after the death of Emerson's little boy; "Good-Bye," in which the poet bids farewell to fame as he hies him to the country; "To Ellen," which half reveals his love story; "Written in Rome," which speaks of the society he found in solitude; and the "Concord Hymn," written at the dedication of Battle Monument, with its striking opening lines:

  By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
    Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
  Here once the embattled farmers stood,
    And fired the shot heard round the world.

Prose Works

Perhaps the most typical of Emerson's prose works is his first book, to which he gave the name Nature (1836). In this he records not his impressions of bird or beast or flower, as his neighbor Thoreau was doing in Walden, but rather his philosophy of the universe. "Nature always wears the colors of the spirit"; "Every animal function, from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the ten commandments"; "The foundations of man are not in matter but in spirit, and the element of spirit is eternity,"--scores of such expressions indicate that Emerson deals with the soul of things, not with their outward appearance. Does a flower appeal to him? Its scientific name and classification are of no consequence; like Wordsworth, he would understand what thought of God the flower speaks. To him nature is a mirror in which the Almighty reflects his thought; again it is a parable, a little story written in trees or hills or stars; frequently it is a living presence, speaking melodiously in winds or waters; and always it is an inspiration to learn wisdom at first hand:

    "Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers.
    It writes biographies, histories, criticisms. The foregoing
    generations beheld God and Nature face to face; we, through their
    eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the
    universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of
    insight, and not of tradition?"

The last quotation might well be an introduction to Emerson's second work, The American Scholar (1837), which was a plea for laying aside European models and fronting life as free men in a new world. Holmes called this work "our intellectual Declaration of Independence," and it was followed by a succession of volumes--Essays, Representative Men, Conduct of Life, Society and Solitude and several others--all devoted to the same two doctrines of idealism and individuality.

Representative Men

Among these prose works the reader must make his own selection. All are worth reading; none is easy to read; even the best of them is better appreciated in brief instalments, since few can follow Emerson long without wearying. English Traits is a keen but kindly criticism of "our cousins" overseas, which an American can read with more pleasure than an Englishman. Representative Men is a series of essays on Plato, Shakespeare, Napoleon and other world figures, which may well be read in connection with Carlyle's Heroes and Hero Worship, since the two books reflect the same subject from widely different angles. Carlyle was in theory an aristocrat and a force-worshiper, Emerson a democrat and a believer in ideals. One author would relate us to his heroes in the attitude of slave to master, the other in the relation of brothers and equals.

The Essays

Of the shorter prose works, collected in various volumes of Essays, we shall name only a few in two main groups, which we may call the ideal and the practical. In the first group are such typical works as "The Over-Soul," "Compensation," "Spiritual Laws" and "History"; in the latter are "Heroism," "Self-Reliance," "Literary Ethics" (an address to young collegians), "Character" and "Manners."

It is difficult to criticize such writings, which have a daring originality of thought and a springlike freshness of expression that set them apart from all other essays ancient or modern. They are the most quotable, the fittest to "point a moral or adorn a tale" that have ever appeared in our literature; but they are also disjointed, oracular, hard to follow; and the explanation is found in the manner of their production. When Emerson projected a new lecture or essay he never thought his subject out or ordered it from beginning to end. That would have been another man's way of doing it. He collected from his notebooks such thoughts as seemed to bear upon his subject, strung them together, and made an end when he had enough. The connection or relation between his thoughts is always frail and often invisible; some compare it with the thread which holds the pearls of a necklace together; others quote with a smile the epigram of Goldwin Smith, who said that he found an Emersonian essay about as coherent as a bag of marbles. And that suggests a fair criticism of all Emerson's prose; namely, that it is a series of expressions excellent in themselves but having so little logical sequence that a paragraph from one essay may be placed at the beginning, middle or end of any other, where it seems to be equally at home.

The Doctrine of Emerson

Since we constantly hear of "idealism" in connection with Emerson, let us understand the word if we can; or rather the fact, for idealism is the most significant quality of humanity. The term will be better understood if we place it beside "materialism," which expresses an opposite view of life. The difference may be summarized in the statement that the idealist is a man of spirit, or idea, in that he trusts the evidence of the soul; while the materialist is a man of flesh, or sense, in that he believes only what is evident to the senses. One judges the world by himself; the other judges himself by the world.

To illustrate our meaning: the materialist, looking outward, sees that the world is made up of force-driven matter, of gas, carbon and mineral; and he says, "Even so am I made up." He studies an object, sees that it has its appointed cycle of growth and decay, and concludes, "Even so do I appear and vanish." To him the world is the only reality, and the world perishes, and man is but a part of the world.

The Idealist

The idealist, looking first within, perceives that self-consciousness is the great fact of life, and that consciousness expresses itself in words or deeds; then he looks outward, and is aware of another Consciousness that expresses itself in the lowly grass or in the stars of heaven. Looking inward he finds that he is governed by ideas of truth, beauty, goodness and duty; looking outward he everywhere finds evidence of truth and beauty and moral law in the world. He sees, moreover, that while his body changes constantly his self remains the same yesterday, to-day and forever; and again his discovery is a guide to the outer world, with its seedtime and harvest, which is but the symbol or garment of a Divine Self that abides without shadow of change in a constantly changing universe. To him the only reality is spirit, and spirit cannot be harmed by fire or flood; neither can it die or be buried, for it is immortal and imperishable.

Such, in simple words, was the idealism of Emerson, an idealism that was born in him and that governed him long before he became involved in transcendentalism, with its scraps of borrowed Hindu philosophy. It gave message or meaning to his first work, Nature, and to all the subsequent essays or poems in which he pictured the world as a symbol or visible expression of a spiritual reality. In other words, nature was to Emerson the Book of the Lord, and the chief thing of interest was not the book but the idea that was written therein.

The Individualist

Having read the universe and determined its spiritual quality, Emerson turned his eyes on humanity. Presently he announced that a man's chief glory is his individuality; that he is a free being, different from every other; that his business is to obey his individual genius; that he should, therefore, ignore the Past with its traditions, and learn directly "from the Divine Soul which inspires all men." Having announced that doctrine, he spent the rest of his life in illustrating or enlarging it; and the sum of his teaching was, "Do not follow me or any other master; follow your own spirit. Never mind what history says, or philosophy or tradition or the saints and sages. The same inspiration which led the prophets is yours for the taking, and you have your work to do as they had theirs. Revere your own soul; trust your intuition; and whatever you find in your heart to do, do it without doubt or fear, though all the world thunder in your ears that you must do otherwise. As for the voice of authority, 'Let not a man quit his belief that a popgun is a popgun, though the anointed and honorable of the earth affirm it to be the crack of doom.'"

Such was Emerson's pet doctrine of individualism. It appeared with startling vigor in The American Scholar at a time when our writers were prone to imitate English poetry, German sentimentality or some other imported product. It came also with good grace from one whose life was noble, but it had a weak or dangerous or grotesque side that Emerson overlooked. Thus, every crank or fanatic or rainbow-chaser is also an individualist, and most of them believe as strongly as Emerson in the Over-Soul. The only difference is that they do not have his sense or integrity or humor to balance their individualism. While Emerson exalted individual liberty he seemed to forget that America is a country devoted to "liberty under law," and that at every period of her history she has had need to emphasize the law rather than the liberty. Moreover, individualism is a quality that takes care of itself, being finest in one who is least conscious of his own importance; and to study any strongly individual character, a Washington or a Lincoln for example, is to discover that he strove to be true to his race and traditions as well as to himself. Hence Emerson's doctrine, to live in the Present and have entire confidence in yourself, needs to be supplemented by another: to revere the Past with its immortal heroes, who by their labor and triumph have established some truths that no sane man will ever question.

A New World Writer

There are other interesting qualities of Emerson, his splendid optimism, for instance, which came partly from his spiritual view of the universe and partly from his association with nature; for the writer who is in daily contact with sunshine or rain and who trusts his soul's ideals of truth and beauty has no place for pessimism or despair; even in moments of darkness he looks upward and reads his lesson:

  Teach me your mood, O patient stars,
    Who climb each night the ancient sky,
  Leaving on space no shade, no scars,
    No trace of age, no fear to die!

Though he was and still is called a visionary, there is a practical quality in his writing which is better than anything you will find in Poor Richard's Almanac. Thus the burden of Franklin's teaching was the value of time, a lesson which the sage of Concord illuminates as with celestial light in his poem "Days," and to which he brings earth's candle in his prose essay "Work and Days." [Footnote: The two works should be read in connection as an interesting example of Emerson's use of prose and verse to reflect the same idea. Holmes selects the same two works to illustrate the essential difference between prose and poetry. See Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, p. 310.] Indeed, the more one reads Emerson the more is one convinced that he is our typical New World writer, a rare genius who combines the best qualities of Franklin and Edwards, having the practical sense of the one and the spiritual insight of the other. [Footnote: In 1830 Channing published an essay, "National Literature," in which he said that Benjamin Franklin and Jonathan Edwards were the only writers up to that time who had worthily presented the American mind, with its practical and ideal sides, to foreign readers.] With his idealism and individuality, his imagination that soars to heaven but is equally at home on solid earth, his sound judgment to balance his mysticism, his forceful style that runs from epigram to sustained eloquence, his straight-fibered manhood in which criticism finds nothing to pardon or regret,--with all these sterling qualities he is one of the most representative writers that America has ever produced.


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