Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in May 1803 as the fourth child in a family of eight and brought up in a
family atmosphere supportive of hard work, moral discipline, and wholesome self-sacrifice. Seven of his ancestors were ministers,
and his father, William Emerson, was minister of the First Church (Unitarian) of Boston.
In 1821 Emerson graduated, at the age of 18, from Harvard. Over the next three years he taught school in Boston
in association with his brother William. This mode of life was, however, unsatisfactory to him and, feeling a spiritual calling,
he entered Harvard Divinity School
in 1825 with the view of becoming a minister. Emerson became established as an occasional preacher of sermons in churches
in the Boston area.
same year (September) he married a delicate eighteen year old beauty named Ellen Louisa Tucker. This marriage seems to have
been very much a love-match but Ellen Louisa unfortunately died of Tuberculosis in February 1831.
1832 Emerson resigned from his pastoral appointment because of personal doubts about administering the sacrament of the Lord's
Supper as a permanent sacrament.
Emerson had meanwhile become seriously interested in the Poetry, Philosophy and Essays
of such persons as Plato, Plotinus, Swedenborg, Victor Cousin, Carlyle, Coleridge, and Wordsworth.
On Christmas Day, 1832, Emerson left the United States
for a tour of Europe. Emerson arrived back in New
York in October 1833 and became active as a lecturer in Boston.
His addresses including "The Philosophy of History," "Human Culture," "Human Life," and "The Present Age" were based on material
in his Journals, a collection of observations and notes that he had begun while a student at Harvard. (Encyclopedia Americana)
In the autumn
of 1835 Emerson married Lydia Jackson and the couple moved into a spacious house in Concord
that Emerson had purchased. Lydia Jackson was something of an heiress owning a house in her home town of Plymouth.
Emerson had been introduced as a growing child by a famously intellectually
inclined maiden aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, to taking a great interest in the Neo-Platonists and also translations of the Sacred
Books of the East. He subsequently formed the habit of reading from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita every morning. Some scholars deem
that Emerson's ideas were significantly based on the views of Mary Moody Emerson. Emerson himself admitted that he owed much
to her influence.
In 1836 Emerson helped to start a group of ideas that
became known as the Transcendental Club and published, anonymously and at his own expense, "Nature", a slender work which
has been depicted as "the first document of that remarkable outburst of Romanticism on Puritan ground."
The opening paragraph
"Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism.
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, and a religion by
revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and
through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones
of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines to-day also. There is
more wool and flax in the fields. There are new lands, new men, and new thoughts. Let us demand our own works and laws and
worship." (Joel Porte and Saundra Morris)
This essay received little initial notice but effectively articulates the philosophical underpinnings of the subsequently
widely influential New England Transcendentalism movement.
Emerson in his August
1837 lecture "The American Scholar," which he delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard called for independence,
sincerity and realism in American intellectual life. A second address, commonly referred to as the "Address at Divinity
College," delivered in July 1838 to the graduating class of Cambridge
Divinity College, aroused considerable controversy
because it attacked formal religion and argued for self-reliance and intuitive spiritual experience. Here is are some brief
passages from the Divinity School Address:-
... the doors of the temple stand
open, night and day, before every man, and the oracles of this truth cease never, it is guarded by one stern condition; this,
namely; it is an intuition. It cannot be received at second hand. ...
In how many churches, by how many prophets, tell me, is man made sensible that he is an infinite Soul; that the earth and
heavens are passing into his mind; that he is drinking forever the soul of God? ...
... dare to love God without mediator
or veil ... cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity ... (Joel Porte and Saundra Morris)
Another influential essay was Self Reliance—
read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears
an admonition in such mined, let the subject be what it may.”(Joyce Moss and George Wilson)
The first volume of Emerson's Essays (1841) includes some of his most popular works, such as Self Reliance.
In it Emerson tempered the optimism of the first volume of essays, placing less emphasis on the self and acknowledging the
limitations of real life.
In the interval between the publication of these two volumes, Emerson
wrote for The Dial, the journal of New England Transcendentalism, which was founded in 1840 with Margaret Fuller (later famous
as a critic and feminist) as editor. Emerson succeeded her as editor in 1842 and remained in that capacity until the journal
ceased publication in 1844. In 1846 his first volume of Poems was published.
Emerson again went abroad from 1847 to 1848 and was welcomed by Carlyle.
He also met Martineau, Macaulay, Thackeray, Disraeli, Lord Palmerston, and Tennyson and was elected a member of the Athenĉum
Club. In May he made a brief trip to Paris then in the aftermath of the "Revolution
of 1848" before returning to give a course of lectures in England.
His Journals give evidence of his growing interest in national issues
and, on his return to America, he became more active in the
abolitionist cause delivering many antislavery speeches. As early as 1844 Emerson had delivered an address in the Concord
courthouse in celebration of the anniversary of the liberation of the British West
India Island slaves. All of the Concord
churches refused to open their doors to the convention, so Thoreau secured the court-house. In 1850 Emerson was prominent
in opposition to the enactment of the Fugitive Slave Law.
The Conduct of Life (1860) was the first of his books to enjoy immediate
popularity. Included in this volume of essays are "Power," "Wealth," "Fate," and "Culture." This was followed by a collection
of poems entitled May Day and Other pieces (1867), which had previously been published in The Dial and The Atlantic Monthly.
After this time Emerson did little writing and his mental powers declined, although his reputation as a writer spread. His
later works include Society and Solitude (1870), which contained material he had been using on lecture tours; Parnassus
(1874), a collection of poems; Letters and Social Aims (1876); and Natural History of Intellect (1893), Journals (1909-1914).
Emerson became something of a celebrity - "The Sage of Concord." He was
awarded a Doctoral degree by Harvard in 1866. When his house caught fire in July 1872 neighbors rushed to his aid and succeeded
in saving the books, manuscripts, and furniture. The Emerson house was rebuilt, with improvements, through the popular subscription
of the then considerable sum of $12,000. During the course of reconstruction Emerson and his daughter were prevailed upon
to go abroad and visited England, France,
Italy and Egypt.
In May 1873 the Emersons were awarded a triumphal welcome back to Concord, and
their rebuilt home, by the townspeople.
Emerson passed away in April 1882 and his grave lies at Authors' Ridge
in Sleepy Hollow cemetery in his adopted home town of Concord. (http://www.age-of-the-sage.org/transcendentalism/emerson/ralph_waldo_emerson.html)
Back in the Old World
a heady "Romanticism" in arts and letters was displacing neoclassical Enlightenment values. Where "The Enlightenment" saw
typical individuals "Romanticism" saw unique individuals. Where "The Enlightenment" prized rationality and science as routes
to progress "Romanticism" preferred emotion, imagination, and intuition. Overall a cultural preference, by the "progressives"
of one generation, for a mechanistic and rational world view was increasingly displaced by a cultural preference, as expressed
by a more broad group of "progressives" in the rising generation, for a more organic, more emotional, and more imaginative
form of society. Alongside the emergent preference for Romanticism was a form
of philosophic justification of the value of feeling and intuition as provided by Immanuel Kant (with adaptations as provided
by such persons as Schelling and Coleridge).
Kantian Idealism held that there was a Moral Law within people that shapes their impressions and that
there was a set of innate principles with reference to which the mind gives form to its perceptions and interprets life experiences.
Kant was sure that he had effected a "Copernican Revolution," persuasively suggesting that is the representation that makes
the object possible rather than the object that makes the representation possible. Kant said there were experiences that could
be acquired through "intuitions of the mind;" he referred to the "native spontaneity of the human mind." This introduced the
human mind as an active originator of experience rather than a passive recipient. It also leaves the way dramatically open
for the mind to be viewed as a creative, intuitive, and interpreting organism rather that a reactive and logical machine.
In 1829 James Marsh published an American edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflection. This book, which almost single-handedly laid the ground work for the New England Transcendentalism
movement, fused the material and the spiritual, and advanced the crucial distinction between the Reason and the Understanding.
Marsh added his own "Preliminary Essay," underscoring the distinction between "the understanding," that distinctly Lockean
faculty of rationalizing from the senses and "the Reason," those higher intuitions valued not only by German idealists but
by mystics through the ages.
Soon afterward, Frederic Henry Hedge, a Unitarian minister equally conversant with German thought, wrote
for that denomination's journal, The Christian Examiner, a laudatory article on Coleridge that Hedge claimed was "the first
word, so far as I know, which any American had uttered in respectful recognition of the claims of Transcendentalism." This
article made a very great impression on Ralph Waldo Emerson, who called it "a living leaping Logos."
Added to all of this, the scriptures of the Eastern faiths of Hinduism and Buddhism were increasingly
discovered (by those of European culture) and valued, translated, and published so that they were more widely available. The
Harvard-educated Emerson and others read Hindu and Buddhist scriptures, and examined their own religious assumptions against
these scriptures. In their perspective, a loving God would not have led so much of humanity astray; there must be truth in
these scriptures, too. Truth, if it agreed with an individual's intuition of truth, must be indeed truth.
On Christmas Day, 1832, Emerson left the United States
for a tour of Europe where he made the acquaintance of such literary notables as Samuel Taylor Coleridge,
Thomas Carlyle, William Wordsworth and John Stuart Mill.
Emerson spoke of his experience
in Europe where he wished to expand his knowledge of Transcendentalism, in his journal: “A man contains all that is
needful to his government within himself...All real good or evil that can befall him must be from himself...There is a correspondence
between the human soul and everything that exists in the world; more properly, everything that is known to man. Instead of
studying things without, the principles of them all may be penetrated into from within him...The purpose of life seems to
be to acquaint man with himself...The highest revelation is that God is in every man." (Joel Porte and Saundra Morris) The increasing interest in Transcendentalism in New England
was given a pronounced further boost by two publications, (an American edition of) Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus" and Emerson's
"Nature" in 1836.
the emerging viewpoint authentic religion is "an intuition [that] cannot be received at second hand". The importance Emerson
placed upon a direct relationship with God and nature derived from the concept of the Over-Soul, described in his essay "The
Over-Soul" (1838) as that great nature in which we rest,
“... that Unity,
that Over-soul, within which every man's particular being is contained and made one with all other...the soul in man is not
an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison,
but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect
and the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie, -- an immensity not possessed and that cannot be possessed.
From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things, and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is
all. A man is the facade of a temple wherein all wisdom and all good abide...one of the facts we contemplate is external and
fugitive, and the other is permanent and connate with the soul. The things we now esteem fixed shall, one by one, detach themselves,
like ripe fruit, from our experience, and fall. The wind shall blow them none knows whither. The landscape, the figures, Boston,
London, are facts as fugitive as any institution past, or any whiff of mist or
smoke, and so is society, and so is the world. The soul looketh steadily forwards, creating a world before her, leaving worlds
behind her. She has no dates, nor rites, nor persons, nor specialties, nor men. The soul knows only the soul; the web of events
is the flowing robe in which she is clothed...” (Joel Porte and Saundra Morris)
pamphlet, (thought to be written by Charles Mayo Ellis, 1818-1878), which was entitled An Essay on Transcendentalism, stated
the most commonly held principles of the group.
"Transcendentalism... maintains that man has ideas, that come not through
the five senses, or the powers of reasoning, but are either the result of direct revelation from God, his immediate inspiration,
or his immanent presence in the spiritual world," and "it asserts that man has something besides the body of flesh, a spiritual
body, with senses to perceive what is true, and right and beautiful, and a natural love for these, as the body for its food."
(this spirit was called the Over-soul, the conscience or the inner light.)
Club published a magazine, The Dial, (from a base in Elizabeth Palmer Peabody's bookshop) and some of the club's members (including
Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Sullivan Dwight) participated with several other persons in an idealistic experiment in communal
living at Brook Farm, in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, during the 1840s. Similarly
Bronson Alcott, and others, were involved with the smaller scale Fruitlands community at Harvard.
of American Romanticism is also known as the American Renaissance. There was a fairly astonishing period of literary creativity
in Transcendentalist New England circles between 1850-1855. The classics and masterpieces produced in these years include:-
Emerson's Representative Men,
The Scarlet Letter, and The House of Seven Gables,
Melville's Moby-Dick and Pierre,
Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's
Thoreau's Walden, and
Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
In time Transcendentalism
came to seem less relevant to people who had formerly taken a keen interest in it. This alteration was partly a case of Transcendentalism
having seemed to say all that it had to say and also a case of the emergence of Social Realities that channeled people's attention
elsewhere. People now demanded a social "Realism" in artistic and literary movements. Romantic literary forms seemed too idealized
and grandiose in heroism and tragedy to reflect real life. Imagination was seen as being at odds with a necessity to accurately
depict everyday reality and to examine fully ethical dilemmas, choices, and consequences.( http://www.age-of-the sage.org/transcendentalism/transcendentalism.html)
A very essential piece of poetry that Emerson
wrote was Daemonic Love. The reason this poem is so interesting to analyze is because it contains Emerson’s views on
the treachery and hardships of love, but also his views on life and society.
The poem begins by stating philosophical views
about man and his creation “man was made of social earth/ child and brother from his birth/ tethered by a liquid cord…”
etc. This, are very obviously Emerson’s views on creation, these maybe even some of his political views.
We continue to move from this innocent birthing
to the upbringing of this child. Emerson then says “Throbs of a wild religion stirred” which can be interpreted
in many different ways. One may chose to see it as the reader does: Emerson was brought up in an extensively strict minister
filled household and because of this lost faith in the holy communion…Why would he insert such a passage saying that
this wild religion is imposed on a child?
He continues in his elabortate verse to introduce
us to a girl/woman whom he portrays as a motherly figure. He is in love with her and she is the only one that can fix his
wounds, she is the only one that can make him ignore what is being imposed upon him. One might suggest that this woman is
Louisa May Alcott.
Although he shows disgust towards this “religion”
of which he speaks of he does continue to cite god, does he then still believe? And when there is a mysterious departure of
this woman soon after the man and the woman have met, one might relate this to Alcott dying soon after her marriage from Tuberculosis.
Even when Emerson speaks of this departure it is through words of the scripture “ye shall climb on the heavenly stair…”
etc. He continues and expresses that he longs to meet her in paradise.
He then continues upon this whim and speaks of
love which he has experienced beyond the world of materialism in which we live. This is tres Transcendentalist, because he has experienced love beyond what the manipulative world has to offer he has
experienced love in all naturalness which to him is very pure because human nature is tainted by civilization.
He goes on to explain that men do not understand
the true meaning of much of anything because of this societal taint “and the brains of men thenceforth/ in crowded and
in still resorts/ teem with unwonted thoughts.” Yet as he continues in this verse it seems he does believe humans understand
“Mortals deem the planets bright/ and there is truth in their thought/ and the lone sea man all the night/ sails astonished
amidst the stars a wrought.”
He continues to explain that one must accept
struggle with grace (interesting I am struggling with this exact issue at the moment) “Graces of a subtler strain.”
He expresses ideas that a teenager might find themselves getting at a therapeutic boarding school so that they may grow and
mature; apparently Emerson has continues to influence today’s society n’est-ce-pas?
In conclusion, this poem is very Romantic and
very Transcendentalist. It speaks of fantastic mythical creatures, of fate, deamons, and love…yet it has a beautiful
contrast which speaks of awareness, advice, society, and the tainted influence of society on man. A very interesting poem
which has an intricate cover of mythical information and an interesting undertone of transcendentalist features and opinions.
This poem is representative of not only Ralph Waldo Emerson, but his ideas, and also the basis which Transcendentalism and
Romanticism lie upon.