Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson who was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston
was known as, "the leading member of the group of New
England idealists known as the transcendentalists." [Benet-
17] His father, editor of the "Monthly Anthology" - a
review of literature, and pastor at the Unitarian Church in
Boston, died in 1811, when Ralph Waldo was only eight. With
a scholarship to Harvard, Emerson entered in 1817. Not an
outstanding student, Emerson graduated thirteenth out of 59
students in 1821, and was elected class poet. After his
graduation, he taught, even though he was suffering from
symptoms of tuberculosis. Many generations of the Emerson
family were ministers, so Ralph Waldo knew in the beginning
that he was to become one. By the time he was twenty-two,
he wished to be called Waldo. At this time he was enrolled
for the Divinity School at Harvard, but his being sick made
him have to give up his work for a while.
In Concord, New Hampshire he met another poet, Ellen
Tucker, also suffering with tuberculosis. Even though she
was only 17, while Ralph Waldo was 24, they got married.
They were both happy, but both very ill. Ellen died only
after two years of their marriage. In the same year that
Emerson met Ellen, he became a preacher, but it didn't last
long. His chest was weak and he had to give it up.
His travels to Europe led him to meet many men, even though
he was very sick. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William
Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle were among the few. Carlyle
stayed his friend throughout his whole life.
Nature as a metaphor or image of the human mind was the
topic of his lecture, "The uses of Natural History" after
he got back from Europe. His attempt being to, "humanize
science." [Grolier pg.304]
His later marriage to Lydia Jackson lasted the rest of his
life. They lived in Concord, Massachusetts. Lydia was
forced by Ralph Waldo to change her name to Lydian. His
reasoning for this was because of New Englander's habit of
pronouncing things that ended with 'a', with an 'r' sound
at the end. Their house guested many writers and
conversationalists, including Henry David Thoreau. His
first novel, "Nature", was finished in 1836 and even though
only 500 copies were published, not all of them were sold.
It was not until his second series of essays that he built
Although many people respected Emerson's thoughts, many of
them weren't original. A number of them were inspired by
the Puritan religion, readings from Plato and the
Neoplatonists. His unique ability of stating things so well
as a poet, simplified his philosophy for the average
person. Poets have a way of writing things in one line that
usually takes a paragraph to explain. It puts more
importance and meaning into what they are saying. His
messages were also easy to understand due to his, "organic
nature," [Hodgins- 185] that made us understand and, "that
was alive and virtually connected to our own spirit. He
placed us inside the world in a new way.
Ralph Waldo Emerson died of pneumonia in 1882 and was
buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. Even though he was ill
for most of his life, his optimistic attitude inspired many
The following are a number of Emerson's writings that were
compiled and annotated by Thomas and Hodgins in their
respective biographies on Ralph Waldo Emerson. There was no
easy system of philosophy to Emerson. "He did not pretend
to know the truth. The truth is as hard to capture and
bottle up as light." [Thomas-250] Emerson was not afraid to
say that he was wrong. He would simply change his opinion.
All men are vital parts of one organism- mankind.
Transcendentalism came as the term for this oneness of man,
through his relationship to God.
Dignity of the common man. "Come out of the cemeteries of
the past!" "Look forward into the woodlands of the future!
The eyes of man are set in his forehead, not in his
hindhead."... "Build your own world." [Thomas- 352]
Nobility of the commonplace- ... "the world exists for
you." [Thomas- 253]
Asserting oneself- "All that Adam had, and Caesar could,
you have and can do." ... "There are no bounds to the
possibilities of man." [Thomas- 253]
Be of good cheer!- "This world belongs to the cheerful, the
energetic and daring." [Thomas- 253]
Friendship. The life of man is a search for friendship. It
is not just a passion, but an action in our souls. "The
Alps and the Andes come and go as rainbows." [Thomas- 255]
Peaceful Pioneers was Emerson's philosophical dream. A
world with no wars, friends who were courageous,
independent, joyous and loving. Hawthorne said that when he
would meet Emerson on one of his walks, "...it was
impossible to dwell in the vicinity without inhaling the
mountain atmosphere of his lofty thoughts." [Thomas- 256]
"Great geniuses have the shortest biographies. Their
cousins can tell you nothing about them." [Hodgins-184]
"I am glad to the brink of fear."... "In the woods, we
return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can
befall me in life- no disgrace, no calamity..."...
"Standing on the bare ground- my head bathed by the blithe
air, and uplifted into the infinite space- all mean egotism
vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I
see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate
through me; I am part or parcel of God."... "I am the lover
of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I
find something more dear and connate than in streets or
villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the
distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as
beautiful as his own nature."[Hodgins- 186] Taken from,
"There is never a beginning, there is never and end, to the
inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always
circular power returning into itself. Therein it resembles
his own spirit, whose beginning, whose ending, he never can
find- so entire, so boundless."... "The theory of books is
noble." [Hodgins- 187] Taken from, "The American Scholar."
"There is a time in every man's education when he arrives
at the conviction that envy is ignorance, that imitation is
suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as
his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good,
no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but though his
toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him
to till."... "Trust thyself; every heart vibrates to that
iron string."... "To be great is to be misunderstood..."
[Hodgins- 190] Taken from, "Self-Reliance"
"Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes wee made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:"
[Hodgins- 193] Taken from, "Rhodora"
"He sings the song, but it cheers not now,
For I did not bring home the river and the sky;
Nothing is fair or good alone.
Again I saw, again I heard,
The rolling river, the morning bird;
Beauty through my senses stole;
I yielded myself to the perfect whole."
[Hodgins- 194]Taken from, "Each and All"
"It is time to be old
To take in sail
And every wave is charmed."
[Hodgins- 197] Taken from, "Terminus"
"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."
[Hodgins- 198] Taken from, "Concord Hymn"
"America means opportunity, freedom, power. The genius of
this country has marked out her true policy: opportunity-
doors wide open- every port open. If I could, I would have
free trade with all the world, without toll or customhouse.
Let us invite every nation, every race, every skin; white
man, black man, red man, yellow man. Let us offer
hospitality, a fair field and justice for all." [Thomas-
Hermann Hesse compares Siddhartha's thoughts with Emerson's
thoughts on nature. In the novel, Siddhartha, it states
that, "It seemed to him as if the river had something
special to tell him, something which he did not know,
something which still awaited him." [Hesse- 100] Emerson
agrees with this when he says, "Man is a stream whose
source is hidden..." [Hodgins- 181] These quotations agree
with each other by stating that the river has more than
what it looks like. The river in Siddhartha's quote says
that it has something to tell him. Emerson's stream
symbolizes man. This method of personification helps give
importance and that symbolism that is stated. What we learn
from both of these quotes is that a river is more than just
what you look at, as is everything. If you find time to
connect with the river or stream, you will have the ability
to connect with yourself.
Benet, Laura. Famous American Poets. Dodd, Mead and Co.,
Hesse, Hermann. Siddhartha. New Directions Publishing Co.,
Cantwell, Robert. Famous American Men of Letters Dodd, Mead
and Co., NY. c.1956
Encarta. Microsoft Encarta. c.1996
Grolier. Encyclopedia Americana Grolier Inc., CT. vol.10
Hodgins, Francis. Adventures in American Literature HBJ
Publishers, Orlando. c.1985
Thomas. Living Biographies, Great Philosophers Doubleday
and Co. USA c.1941