Who was Ralph Waldo Emerson? Information on Ralph Waldo Emerson biography, life story, thoughts, poems and works.
Ralph Waldo Emerson; (1803-1882), American poet, lecturer, and essayist, who was said by Matthew Arnold to have produced “the most important work done in prose in the nineteenth century.” Emerson was the leading member of the group of New England idealists known as the transcendentalists.
Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803, the third of six sons of William and Ruth Haskins Emerson. William Emerson, prominent in local affairs, was pastor of a Unitarian church in Boston, chaplain to the state senate, and an editor of the Monthly Anthology, a literary review. On his death in 1811, the family was left in straitened circumstances, but through the indefatigable persistence of Ruth Emerson and of her sister-in-law Mary Moody Emerson, each of the four older surviving sons completed studies at the Boston Latin School and graduated from Harvard College.
Emerson entered Harvard in 1817 on a scholarship, and during collegiate holidays he taught school. He was not a remarkable student and made no particular impression on his contemporaries. In 1821 he graduated 13th in a class of 59, and was elected class poet only after 6 other students had declined that honor. But at Harvard he began the first volume of the journal that for the rest of his life would be the “savings bank” in which he deposited thoughts and quotations to be withdrawn as needed in later writings.
After graduation he taught again, experimented with fiction and verse, and read randomly in theology until 1825, when he entered the Harvard Divinity School. A year later, he received an M. A. and was “approbated to preach.” In 1827 he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa.
Emerson had been suffering from symptoms of tuberculosis, and in the fall of 1827 he went to Georgia and Florida for his health. He returned to New England late in December and occasionally supplied pulpits in the Boston area. In Concord, N. H., he met Ellen Tucker, a 17-year-old poet who was also tubercular. They were married in September 1829, just after Emerson had been ordained a pastor of the Second Church of Boston. The young couple were won-drously happy, but both were ill. Ellen died in 1831, after less than two years of marriage.
By the end of the following year, Emerson had resigned his pastorate, giving among his reasons his unwillingness to administer the sacrament of the Last Supper, which he considered an anachronistic rite. On Christmas Day of 1832 he left for Europe, even though he was so ill that it was doubted whether he could survive the rigors of a winter voyage.
He traveled through Italy, where he met the English author Walter Savage Landor, and then went to Paris. In London, Emerson met the economist and philosopher John Stuart Mill. At Highgate, just outside of London, he visited Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose Aids to Reflection he had admired but whose rush of conversation seemed now to consist only of quotations from that book. Emerson spent a disappointing day at Rydal Mount in the English Lake district with William Wordsworth, but in Scotland he and Thomas Carlyle, the historian and social critic, laid the foundation of a lifelong friendship.
After his return from Europe in the fall of 1833, Emerson began a career as a public lecturer with an address in Boston. The lecture, entitled The Uses of Natural History, attempted to humanize science by explaining that “the whole of Nature is a metaphor or image of the human mind,” an observation that he was often later to repeat or rephrase. Other lectures followed—on subjects such as Italy, biography, English literature, the philosophy of history, and human culture.
In late September 1834, Emerson moved to Concord, Mass., as a boarder in the home of his step-grandfather Ezra Ripley. On Sept. 14, 1835, he married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth, insisting that she change her name to Lydian to avoid the unpleasant r sound that New Englanders inevitably added to words ending in a. The couple moved to a house of their own in Concord, where they lived the rest of their lives. The house became a gathering place for a group of writers and conversationalists that included the Channings, Amos Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and others. For half a century the meetings of this eminent group made Concord seem “the Athens of America.”
Emerson’s first book, Nature, appeared in 1836. Although only a slim volume, it contains in brief the whole substance of his thought. But it sold so poorly that after a dozen years its edition of 500 copies was not exhausted. His Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard in 1837, The American Scholar, however, was immediately popular, and, when printed, sold well. But a year later his address to the graduating class of the Harvard Divinity School created such a tempest because of its advocacy of intuitive personal revelation that he was not invited back to his alma mater for 30 years.
Since 1836, Emerson had been a member of the Transcendentalist Club, which often met at his house, and in 1840 he helped launch the Dial, a quarterly of literature, philosophy, and religion. For four years the Dial presented transcendentalist views. After the first two years, Emerson succeeded Margaret Fuller as its editor. Though now recognized as almost the “official” voice of transcendentalism, Emerson looked with suspicion on such offshoots of the movement as the experimental communities of Brook Farm and Fruitlands.
In 1841, Emerson published the first volume of his Essays, a carefully constructed collection that contains some of his best-remembered writings, such as Self-Reliance, Compensation, and The Over-Soul. A second series of Essays in 1844 firmly established his reputation. Lectures given in 1845 were published five years later as Representative Men. Poems appeared in 1847.
Later that year Emerson again went abroad, lecturing with success in England, renewing his friendship with Carlyle, meeting other notable British authors, and collecting materials for English Traits (1856). A collection of Addresses and Lectures appeared in 1849 and Representative Men in 1850. In Conduct of Life (1860) he simplified and reinforced earlier themes.
Thereafter, Emerson’s intellectual vigor progressively waned. He continued to lecture, venturing as far west as the Mississippi. The Civil War troubled him, though during the 1850’s he had courageously supported the anti-slavery movement, and when the war broke out he supported the Northern cause.
May Day and Other Pieces (1867) was a second gathering of his poems, and further essays were collected in Society and Solitude (1870). In 1866, Emerson was reconciled with Harvard, when the college gave him an honorary LL. D. degree and invited him to give the Phi Beta Kappa address there the following year. Lectures at Harvard in 1870 were published as Natural History of the Intellect (1893).
Emerson traveled to California in 1871 and to Europe again in 1872. In 1879 he joined Bronson Alcott and others in establishing the Concord (summer) School of Philosophy. He died of pneumonia in Concord on April 27, 1882, and is buried in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery there.
Emerson’s thought is sometimes said to be subsumed in a single phrase: the divine sufficiency of the individual. In the essay Self-Reliance he called on his countrymen to know themselves, to trust their insights, and to recognize that what was true for them in their own hearts was inevitably true for all men. “Our age,” he charged in Nature, “is retrospective.” It looks backward, feeding on thoughts of its ancestors. Why depend on revelations of the past? he asked in his Divinity School address. Look into your own hearts, he said, for fresh revelations that are fit for today. In his address The American Scholar he advised his audience to read the great book of Nature. Man-made books are for idle hours, to be put aside when Nature can be confronted face to face.
Central to Emerson’s argument are two consistently held distinctions. The first is that between Nature and Spirit. Nature, he explained, is everything that is not “me.” It consists of all that is corporeal or tangible. It is man’s body and everything that can be apprehended sensually.
Closely allied to the distinction between Nature and Spirit is that between Reason and Understanding. Reason supplies immediate access to truth. Understanding is rational. It depends on man’s ability to read Nature correctly. But because every man is imperfect, the products of Understanding, though often temporarily useful, are inevitably faulty. Each generation will amend them. Understanding produces man-made theories or creeds. Reason plunges directly to truth, which has existed since the beginning of time in the mind of God.
Man’s mind is an imperfect copy of the mind of God, but man’s spirit, or soul, is part of and identical with the great oversoul, which hovers over and enters into all being. The divine spirit resides in every man, accessible if he will seek it out. Understanding produces illusion. Reason discovers facts behind appearances.
Little that Emerson said was startlingly original. His thought was an amalgam of inherited Puritan views tinctured by Unitarianism, of readings in Plato and the Neoplatonists, and of his study of the sacred books of the East. German idealism was filtered to him through the writings of Coleridge and Carlyle. The romanticism of Wordsworth, skepticism of Montaigne, and the mysticism of the 18th century Swedish philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg became part of the pattern. Emerson read widely and eclectically, culling from books whatever reinforced his own convictions. He was not always consistent, preferring flashes of insight to logical argument. Truth was a mystery to be trapped by metaphor. Truth, though single, had many approaches.
Emerson’s thought was in essentials little different from that of many of his transcen-dentalist contemporaries. What sets him apart from almost all of the others is that he phrased his thought so well. For Emerson was primarily a literary artist—a meticulous craftsman.
The unit of his craft has often been thought to be the single sentence, polished and aphoristic. His essays are sometimes described as a string of jewels, attractive because of the brilliancy of each separate gem. This is partly true, for each sentence represents on insight that embraces all truth, a microcosm of the whole—all is in each. But also to be admired is Emerson’s skill in combining sentences to form paragraphs, paragraphs to form essays, and essays to form books, which are unified not by logic but by organic incremental repetition.
The first sentence of History, which is the first piece in the Essays of 1841, states, “There is one mind common to all mankind.” This thought is then rolled forward and becomes the core of what, by the end of the volume, resembles a gigantic snowball that has picked up new substance, enlarging and explicating the initial statement. “Of this mind,” the second paragraph begins, “History is the record.” And so the thought circles forward, identical but expanded, each essay contributing a new angle of vision or another layer of interpretation. “It is much to write sentences,” Emerson said in his journal, “it is more… to arrange many general reflections in their natural order [to]. . . make one homogeneous piece.”
In his search for natural order, Emerson failed finally to bridge the gap between spirit and things. His thought remained dualistic to the end. Like the equestrian in the circus, he said, every man must ride two horses, one foot on each in precarious balance. Man is free to plunge in spirit to depths of truth, but man is also a creature controlled by fate. The best that any man can do, Emerson concluded in Representative Men, is to advance to the limit of his capacities so that he is prepared to respond if his times call for a person of his combination of skills and shortcomings. In English Traits he presented a not altogether pleasant portrait of Saxon supremacy, anticipating the racism of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and in other respects the approaches of the German philosopher Oswald Spengler and the British historian Arnold J. Toynbee. The American psychologist William James recognized Emerson as a pragmatist who knew that what seems for the moment efficient will be replaced by what at another moment is equally useful and perhaps closer to truth.
Emerson’s poetry, often derided in his day as rough and unintelligible, has come to be regarded as genuinely innovative. “It is not metres,” Emerson said, “but metre-making argument that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive that … it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature like a new thing.” To Emerson, the poet was both seer and sayer, whose insights plunged directly toward truth, capturing it in words that “mount to paradise/ By the stairway of surprise.”
His best-remembered poems include Concord Hymn; Each and All; Give All for Love; Days; and The Rhodora, which suggests that “if eyes were made for seeing,/Then Beauty is its own excuse for being.” More difficult but equally characteristic are the symbolically autobiographical Uriel; The Sphinx, which Thoreau tried patiently to explicate but found that its total meaning eluded him; Bacchus, in which Emerson yearns for “wine which never grew/In the belly of the grape”; and Brahma, often anthologized and often parodied, in which the whole of Emerson’s mystic speculation is enigmatically condensed. The longer Threnody, an elegy on the death in 1841 of his son Waldo, restates the conviction that spirit is immortal.
Ralph Waldo Emerson Quotes
Here are some famous quotes by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
- “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
- “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”
- “For every minute you remain angry, you give up sixty seconds of peace of mind.”
- “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”
- “The only person you are destined to become is the person you decide to be.”
- “Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
- “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”
- “Life is a journey, not a destination.”
- “Make the most of yourself, for that is all there is of you.”
- “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”