From the archives:
"Four Poems" (November 1857)
By Ralph Waldo Emerson
"The President's Proclamation" (November 1862)
"A day which most of us dared not hope to see, an event worth the dreadful war, worth its costs and uncertainties, seems now to be close before us." By Ralph Waldo Emerson
"Boston Hymn" (February 1863)
A poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
"Voluntaries" (October 1863)
A poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
The Works of Ralph W. Emerson
A collection of essays, lectures, and poems by Emerson, along with biographical information.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
December 23, 2003
merson was one of the first great American writers—a master who sought to embody a uniquely American voice and prove the United States's worth in Europe. In his famous "American Scholar" address at Harvard University in 1837, he declared American intellectual independence from the Old World: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds." By the time he joined Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes at Boston's Parker House Hotel in 1857 to plan for the publication of a new magazine (The Atlantic Monthly), he was secure in his reputation as the Sage of Concord, and had become one of the most famous writers of his day on both sides of the Atlantic. His youthful desire to develop an American high culture persisted in his goals for the new magazine. In his view, The Atlantic would play a crucial role in promoting serious thought and learning in the United States. After attending several meetings about the project, he noted to himself,
A journal is an assuming to guide the age—very propre and necessary to be done, and good news that it shall be so...
When the magazine began publication a few months later, Emerson became a regular contributor. As one of the magazine's star writers he was paid ten dollars per page, instead of the usual six. However, in keeping with the standard practice of the 1850s, The Atlantic withheld the names of its writers, and thus, famous as he was, Emerson disseminated his observations under a cloak of anonymity. Emerson himself had insisted, "The names of contributors will be given out when the names are worth more than the articles."
The best the Editor can do, is, to see that nothing goes into the Book but important pieces. Every piece must have something sterling, some record of real experiences. It suffices that it be weighty.... Great scope and illumination ought to be in the Editor, to draw from the best in the land, & to defy the public, if he is only sure himself that the piece has worth and is right. Publics are very placable and will soon find out when they have a Master. The value of [raising sufficient funds for the magazine] is to be able to hold out for a few months, and go on printing, until the discerning minority of the public have found that the Book is right, and must be humbly and thankfully accepted, and abandon themselves to this direction, too happy that they have got something good and wise to admire and to obey.
The Atlantic's inaugural issue featured four of Emerson's poems, including what has become perhaps his most famous, "Brahma"—a sixteen-line poem written from the perspective of the Hindu god of creation. The issue also included an essay, "Illusions," in which Emerson argued that human experience is created through internal perceptions and desires, which both obscure external reality and produce pleasure from it.
The senses interfere everywhere, and mix their own structure with all they report of....
A month later, in "Solitude and Society" (December 1857), he contrasted the varying levels of social affinity felt by different temperaments, and considered the advantages and disadvantages of each. He wrote of "that necessity of isolation which genius feels," and pointed out that
Our first mistake is the belief that the circumstance gives the joy which we give to the circumstance. Life is an ecstasy. Life is sweet as nitrous oxide; and the fisherman dripping all day over a cold pond, the switchman at the railway intersection, the farmer in the field, the Irishman in the ditch, the fop in the street, the hunter in the woods, the barrister with the jury, the belle at the ball, all ascribe a certain pleasure to their employment, which they themselves give it.
To the culture of the world, an Archimedes, a Newton is indispensable; so she guards them by a certain aridity. If these had been good fellows, fond of dancing, Port, and clubs, we should have had no "Theory of the Sphere," and no "Principia."
Yet at the same time, he argued, one's nobler identity is often brought out by the company of others.
'Tis hard to mesmerize ourselves, to whip our own top; but through sympathy we are capable of energy and endurance. Concert exasperates people to a certain fury of performance they can rarely reach alone. Here is the use of society: it is so easy with the great to be great! so easy to come up to an existing standard!—; as easy as it is to the lover to swim to his maiden, through waves so grim before.
Emerson revealed a tendency toward misanthropy when he wrote that "the people are to be taken in very small doses. If solitude is proud, so is society vulgar." Best, he argued, to find some middle ground between the two:
Nature delights to put us between extreme antagonisms, and our safety is in the skill with which we keep the diagonal line. Solitude is impracticable, and society fatal. We must keep our head in the one and our hands in the other.
In its early years, The Atlantic Monthly was often a political forum for abolitionist writers, and it strongly supported the Union when the Civil War broke out. In 1862, Emerson availed himself of the platform the magazine afforded to exhort his countrymen to call for a federal law abolishing slavery. In his essay "American Civilization," Emerson argued that slavery was a degenerate tradition, and an affront to American morality:
Well, now here comes this conspiracy of slavery, — they call it an institution, I call it a destitution, — this stealing of men and setting them to work, — stealing their labor, and the thief sitting idle himself; and for two or three ages it has lasted, and has yielded a certain quantity of rice, cotton, and sugar. And standing on this doleful experience, these people have endeavored to reverse the natural sentiments of mankind....
In short, he argued, "Emancipation is the demand of civilization. That is a principle; everything else is an intrigue."
In this national crisis, it is not argument that we want, but that rare courage which dares commit itself to a principle....
We want men of original perception and original action, who can open their eyes wider than to a nationality, namely, to considerations of benefit to the human race, can act in the interest of civilization.
In the same year, when he was fifty-eight, Emerson contributed the essay "Old Age" to The Atlantic, perhaps in acknowledgment of his own accumulating years. Emerson is direct about the physical effects of aging: "From the point of sensuous experience, the estimate of age is low, melancholy, and skeptical. Frankly face the facts, and see the result. Tobacco, coffee, alcohol, hashish, prussic acid, strychnine, are weak dilutions: the surest poison is time." But he argues that as the body grows old, the intellect often gains strength.
Skill to do comes of doing; knowledge comes by eyes always open, and working hands; and there is no knowledge that is not power....
fter Emerson died in 1882, at the age of seventy-nine, The Atlantic continued to print his work (some of which had previously been published elsewhere). One such piece was "Country Life" (November 1904), the text of a speech he had delivered in 1858, in which he extolled the virtues of familiarizing oneself with nature—especially through walks in the countryside. "I think," he wrote, "'t is the best of humanity that goes out to walk. In happy hours, I think all affairs may be wisely postponed for this walking." Emerson continued, "The conversation with Nature [is a] religious duty."
When life has been well spent, age is a loss of what it can well spare,—muscular strength, organic instincts, gross bulk, and works that belong to these. But the central wisdom, which was old in infancy, is young in fourscore years, and, dropping off obstructions, leaves in happy subjects the mind purified and wise.
Emerson was a member of an informal group of Concord residents known as the "Walden Walking Society" (consisting of himself, Ellery Channing, Henry David Thoreau, and Bronson Alcott) that met for long country strolls and conversation every Sunday morning. In his essay, Emerson paid special tribute to Thoreau, portraying him as the model nature lover, more in touch with the land than the agriculturalist—and also a clever prankster.
The true naturalist can go wherever woods or waters go; almost where a squirrel or a bee can go, he can.... My naturalist knew what was on [the farmer's] land, and the farmer did not, and sometimes he brought them ostentatiously gifts of flowers, fruits, or rare shrubs they would gladly have paid a price for, and did not tell them that he gathered them in their own woods.
As Emerson's writings continued to appear posthumously in The Atlantic, biographical essays and reflective analyses of his work also proliferated in the magazine's pages. In an 1887 article "A Glimpse of Emerson's Boyhood," Emerson's friend, secretary, and future biographer James Elliot Cabot drew upon interviews with Emerson's childhood friends and acquaintances. Emerson, Cabot explained, was descended from a long line of ministers. His father, William, a Unitarian minister, died when he was eight, and Emerson's mother raised her six children with a strong emphasis on learning, hoping that they too would be ministers one day. (Emerson was a member of the clergy for several years in early adulthood, but eventually decided he wasn't suited for it.)
Even at a young age, those who knew him recalled, Emerson seemed destined for literary pursuits. "My one deep impression," an old friend explained, "is that, from his earliest childhood, our friend lived and moved and had his being in a higher sphere, in an atmosphere of letters, quite apart by himself." Yet Cabot's article revealed a quirkier side to the young Emerson as well, suggesting that he was not wholly won over by scholarly pursuits. In a letter to his aunt and mentor, Mary Moody Emerson, an eight-year-old Ralph Waldo wrote of his morning routine: "I have from about quarter after 7 till 8 to play or read. I think I am rather inclined to the former."
Another contemporary of Emerson's, Henry James Sr.—the father of Henry James the novelist and William James the psychologist—sought to explain just what it was about the adult Emerson that was so commanding. In "Emerson" (an article written before Emerson's death, but published in The Atlantic in December 1904), James recalled the dramatic first impression Emerson had made on him when he attended a series of his lectures many years earlier. Although James, who had very strong religious and philosophical ideas of his own, disagreed completely with nearly everything Emerson said, he found himself magnetized by his personal aura and moral authority. Emerson's influence, according to James, was not intellectual but "personal ... consisting altogether in his own vivid personal luster or significance."
It was utterly impossible to listen to Mr. Emerson's lectures, without being perpetually haunted ... by the subtlest and most searching aroma of personality.... When he looked over the heads of his audience into the dim mysterious distance, and his weird monotone began to reverberate in your bosom's depths, and his words flowed on, now with a river's volume, grand, majestic, free, and anon diminished themselves to the fitful cadence of a brook, impeded in its course, and returning in melodious coquetry upon itself, and you saw the clear eye eloquent with nature's purity, and beheld the musing countenance turned within, as it were, and hearkening to the rumour of a far-off but oncoming world: how intensely personal, how exquisitely characteristic it all was!...
James saw Emerson as a great personal inspiration. He suggested, "It is impossible to read him when you are young and as yet undismayed by the experience of life, without instantly speculating how you shall begin forthwith to live."
I often found myself, in fact, thinking: if this man were only a woman, I should be sure to fall in love with him.
Many years later, in "Dry Light and Hard Expressions" (July 1957), the renowned literary critic Alfred Kazin returned to the question of how Emerson cast his spell. Kazin compared Emerson with Thoreau, and considered wherein each writer's talents lay. Thoreau, according to Kazin, was gifted in his ability to wholly connect with nature and express that communion in writing. Emerson's ability, on the other hand, lay in immersing himself not in the external world of nature, but in the world of his own thoughts, and in finding there the insight of a visionary.
Emerson is at his best ... when he is idiosyncratic, spare and strange; in those moods of almost sleepy reflection and passive wonder one feels that he is entirely open to his unconscious, that he can get it to speak through him in the same way, to use his own image, as the tree puts itself forth through its leaves and branches.
His truest moments come when he speaks in slightly veiled disclosures from on high....
Emerson's writing arm somehow moves exactly to the pressure of the vision in his brain. Like Blake "taking down" the "Songs of Innocence," he has only to dip his pen and write.
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