Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston, Massachusetts, 25 May 1803; died in Concord, Massachusetts, 27 April 1882. He was the second of five sons of the Rev. William Emerson, minister of the 1st Church, Boston. His grandfather at the sixth remove, Rev. Joseph Emerson, of Mendon, Massachusetts, married the granddaughter of Rev. Peter Bulkeley, who was one of the founders of Concord, Massachusetts, and minister of the first Church there. Joseph's grandson, of the same name, was pastor at Malden, and married a daughter of the Rev. Samuel Moody, of York, Maine, and three of the sons of this union were clergymen; among them William. Ralph Waldo's grandfather, who presided over the Church in Concord at the time of the first battle of the Revolutionary war, which took place close by the minister's manse. This grandfather also had married the daughter of a minister, the Rev. Daniel Bliss, his predecessor in the pulpit at Concord. Thus the tendency and traditions of Ralph Waldo Emerson's ancestry were strong in the direction of scholarly pursuits and religious thought.
His family was one of those that constitute, as Dr. Holmes says, the "academic races" of New England. His father was a successful but not popular preacher, whose sympathies were far removed from Calvinism. He published several sermons, and was editor of the "Monthly Anthology" from 1805 till 1811, a periodical that had for contributors John Thornton Kirkland, Joseph S. Buckminster, John S. J. Gardiner, William Tudor, and Samuel C. Thacher. It was largely instrumental in developing a taste for literature in New England, and led to the establishment of the "North American Review." The mother of Waldo was a woman "of great patience and fortitude, of the serenest trust in God, of a discerning spirit, and the most courteous bearing." He strongly resembled his father.
His aunt, Mary Moody Emerson, a woman of high intellectual attainments, was one of his early companions; and in some printed extracts from her journals a mode of thought and expression remarkably similar to that of the now celebrated essayist is traceable. His youngest brother, Charles Chauncey, who died young, in 1834, was distinguished by a singularly pure and sweet character, and contributed to the "Harvard Register" three articles in which there are passages strikingly like portions of the essays afterward produced by Ralph Waldo. The latter concentrated in himself the spiritual and intellectual tendencies of several generations.
He entered the grammar school at the age of eight, and the Latin school, under Master Gould, in 1815; but neither here nor at Harvard did he show unusual ability. After leaving College he engaged in teaching, and began the study of theology under the direction of Dr. Channing, although not regularly enrolled at the Cambridge Divinity School. He read Plato, Augustine, Tillotson, Jeremy Taylor, and had from boyhood been an enthusiast regarding Montaigne's essays, of which he said: "It seems to me as if I had myself written the book in some former life."
In 1826 he was "approbated to preach" by the Middlesex association of ministers; but his health forced him to pass the winter in South Carolina and Florida. He was ordained in March 1829, as colleague of Rev. Henry Ware, Jr., in the pastorate of the 2d Church, Boston, and succeeded to Ware's place within eighteen months. His preaching was eloquent, simple, and effective. He took part actively in the city's public affairs, and showed a deep interest in philanthropic movements, opening his Church, also, to the antislavery agitators. In 1832, however, he resigned his pastorate, and did not thereafter regularly resume ministerial labors. Having decided that the use of the elements in the communion was a mistaken formality the true communion, as he thought, being purely spiritual he refused to make the compromise proposed, that he should put his own construction on the Lord's supper, leaving his congregation to retain their view. The parting with his flock was friendly, and, although long misunderstood in certain quarters, he always maintained a strong sympathy with Christianity.
For several years he had been writing poetry, but he published no literary work during the term of his pastorate. The poem "Goodbye, Proud World," incorrectly attributed to the date of his resignation, was written before he entered the ministry. Excepting this piece, little poetry of his early period has been given to the world. He had married, in 1829, Miss Ellen Louisa Tucker, who died in February 1832. In 1833 he went to Europe for his health, visiting Sicily, Italy, and France, and preaching in London and Edinburgh. At this time he met Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle, forming with the last-named writer an enduring friendship, which is one of the most interesting in literary annals. It resulted in a correspondence, which was continued for thirty-six years, and has been published under the editorship of Charles Eliot Norton (Boston, 1883). Returning to the United States in 1834,
Mr. Emerson preached in New Bedford, declined a call to settle there, and went to Concord, where he remained. In the next winter he began lecturing, the subjects of his choice being, curiously enough, "Water" and "The Relation of Man to the Globe." But he soon found themes better suited to his genius, in a course of biographical lectures given in Boston, discussing Luther, Milton, Burke, Michael Angelo, and George Fox. Two of these were published in the "North American Review." This course was followed by ten lectures on English literature in 1835, twelve on the philosophy of history in 1836, and in 1837 ten on human culture. Much of the matter embraced in them was afterward remolded and brought out in his later volumes of essays, or condensed into the rhythmic form of poems.
Mr. Emerson married, in September 1835, Miss Lidian Jackson, of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He then left the "Old Manse," where he had been staying with Dr. Ripley, and moved into a house on the old Lexington road, along which the British had retreated from Concord in 1775. In this" plain, square, wooden house," surrounded by horse chestnut and pine trees, with pleasant garden grounds attached, he made his home for the rest of his life; and, through his presence there, the village became "the Delphi of New England." On 19 April 1836, the anniversary of the Concord fight, Emerson's hymn, composed for the occasion and containing those lines which have since resounded almost as widely as the fame of the deed, "Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world," was sung at the dedication of the battle monument.
In September of the same year his first book, "Nature," an idealistic prose essay in eight chapters which had been written in the same room of the "Old Manse" in which Hawthorne afterward wrote his "Mosses" was published anonymously in Boston. During the summer he had supplied the pulpit of the Concord Unitarian Church for three months, and in the autumn he preached a while for a new society at East Lexington; but he refused to become its pastor, saying: "My pulpit is the lyceum platform." Doubts had arisen in his mind as to the wisdom of public prayer, the propriety of offering prayer for others, and the rightfulness of adhering to any formal worship. From this time his career became distinctively that of a literary man, although for several years he confined himself mainly to lecturing, and most of his prose writings were first given to the public orally. Carlyle had said to Longfellow that when Emerson came to Craigenputtock it was "like the visit of an angel."
In 1836 he edited early sheets of Carlyle's "Sartor Resartus," and in 1838 three volumes of the same author's essays, all of these appearing in book form in this country before they did so in England, and netting a comfortable sum for Carlyle. "Nature," similarly, met with considerable appreciation in England, but in the United States it took twelve years to sell 500 copies. The character of the book was both methodical and rhapsodical. It taught that the universe consists of nature and the soul, and that external nature serves four purposes: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. It ministers to the senses; then to the love of beauty; then it gives us language i. e., supplies words as the signs of natural facts, by which we interpret our own spirits. Natural laws applied to man become moral laws; and thus we perceive the highest use of nature which is discipline. It trains reason, develops the intellect, and becomes the means of moral culture. Thus nature speaks always of spirit, suggests the idea of the absolute, teaches worship of God, whom we cannot describe, and shows us that nature itself is only an apparition of God. "The mind is a part of the nature of things," and God is revealed directly to the soul, spirit being present all through nature, but acting upon us through ourselves and not from without.
In verbal style this treatise has great beauty, and rises to the plane of a prose poem" but the contents perplexed theologians. The author was accused of pantheism, though it is hard to see how the belief so named differs from the professed Christian doctrine of the omnipresence of God. Most of the practical people in the community regarded Emerson as crazy, revolutionary, or a fool who did not know his own meaning. Ex-president John Quincy Adams wrote concerning him in 1840: "After failing in the everyday vocations of a Unitarian preacher and schoolmaster, he starts a new doctrine of transcendentalism, declares all the old revelations superannuated and worn out, and announces the approach of new revelations."
The term transcendentalists was somewhat vaguely applied to a number of writers, among whom Emerson was the chief; but they did not constitute a regularly organized group, and had no very well defined aims in common that could warrant the classification. Emerson himself disclaimed it later, saying "there was no concert of doctrinaires to establish certain opinions or to inaugurate some movement in literature, philosophy, or religion . . . but only two or three men and women, who read alone, with some vivacity. Perhaps all of these were surprised at the rumor that they were a school or a sect, but more especially at the name of ' Transcendentalism.'"
Nevertheless, the scholars and writers of the period under notice, who numbered considerably more than two or three, finally adopted the name that had been forced upon them by changing the name of a periodical gathering held by them from the "Symposium "to "The Transcendental Club." A period of new intellectual activity had begun about 1820, on the return of Edward Everett from Europe, laden with treasures of German thought, which he put into circulation. Gradually his influence, and that of Coleridge and Carlyle in England, produced a reaction against the philosophy of Locke and Bentham, which, denying all innate ideas, and insisting upon purely mechanical revelation, had hitherto ruled Unitarians in Old and New England. The reactionists affirmed the existence of innate ideas, and a faculty in man that transcends the senses and the understanding. Supported by Goethe's deep love of nature as a companion of man, and Wordsworth's conception of it as interfused with spirit, Emerson made a new advance, reiterated the idea of a transcendent faculty, intuitive religion, and perception of God, and embodied in an original form the spiritual interpretation of nature.
The Symposium, or Transcendental Club, began to meet in 1836, first at the house of Dr. George Ripley. Among the members were Emerson, Frederic H. Hedge, James Freeman Clarke, Convers Francis, Theodore Parker, Bronson Alcott, Rev. Cyrus A. Bartol, Orestes A. Brownson, Margaret Fuller, and Miss Elizabeth P. Peabody. Dr. Channing once attended, and was in sympathy with the club, which discussed religion, impersonality, justice, truth, mysticism, pantheism, and the development of American genius. In this last theme perhaps lay the germ of Emerson's oration, "The American Scholar," delivered before the Phi Beta Kappa society at Cambridge in August 1837. This has been well called "our intellectual Declaration of Independence," an event without any former parallel in our literary annals. After eloquently describing the education and duties of the scholar, it protested against the prevailing subservience to European taste, suspected the American freeman of being "timid, imitative, tame," and demanded that the individual man "plant himself indomitably on his instincts and there abide .... We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds .... A nation of freemen will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which inspires all men."
His friend, Bronson Alcott, having set up a school in Boston for teaching young children by methods based on a new theory of education, published in 1837 a book reporting his own conversations with the children on the gospels, which excited severe criticism, and Emerson defended him in the Boston "Courier." He was destined to rouse a much greater hostility himself by his address to the senior class in the Divinity College, Cambridge, 15 July 1838. With great force and beauty of language he attacked the formalism of contemporary religion, and the traditional limited way of using the mind of Christ. "Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead The soul is not preached .... It is the office of a true teacher to show us that God is, not was; that he speaketh, not spake. The true Christianity faith like Christ's in the infinitude of man is lost." To each of the graduates he said: "Yourself a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost, cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hands with the Deity."
The address, pronounced with strong conviction, led to lively controversy, in which Emerson took no part. Ten lectures were given by him, in the winter of 1838'9, on "The Doctrine of the Soul," "Home." "The School," "Love," etc., followed later by "Man the Reformer," "The Method of Nature," and a "Lecture on the Times." In these he treated some of the reforms then agitated temperance, antislavery, nonresistance, no government, and equal labor. Having come to hold the position of a religious reformer, he was looked to for sympathy with other reforms: but he dealt with them in the same spirit as with religion, and proceeded to reform the reformers. He pointed out that "reforms have their higher origin in an ideal justice, but they do not retain the purity of an idea." Their work "is done profanely, not piously; by management, by tactics, and by clamor." Any end pursued for itself, by the practical faculty, must become an offence. The end should be "inapprehensible to the senses"; then it would always be a good, always giving health.
Briefly, it was Emerson's mission not to do practical work for reforms, but to supply impulses and a high inspiration to the workers. In 1841 he lectured on "The Conservative," and the next year on "The Transcendentalist," saying that "transcendentalism "was simply modern idealism, and that the "new views" were the oldest of thoughts cast in a new mould. Yet, seven years before, he had consulted with others about establishing a journal to be known as "The Transcendentalist," and in July. 1840, it was begun, under the name of "The Dial."
Emerson succeeded Margaret Fuller as the editor, and during its continuance, until April 1844, published more than forty of his own pieces, prose and verse, in its columns. The poems included such famous ones as "The Problem," "Woodnotes," "The Sphinx," and "Fate." This periodical contained much delicate and valuable writing, but failed of pecuniary support. Associated as he was with the idealists, in the capacity of chief intellectual leader, he took a cordial interest in the semi socialistic experiment at Brook Farm (1840 to 1847), with which some of the brightest New England men and women of that day were connected; but he did not join the community, Hawthorne, who was actually a member and lost money in the undertaking, has been much criticized for having viewed it independently; but Emerson, outside, held a similar neutral attitude, and wrote an account of the affair, in which, touching it humorously at points, he called it "a French Revolution in small, an Age of Reason in a patty pan."
In 1841 appeared the first volume of his essays, made up from lectures. It embraced "History," "Compensation," "Self Reliance," "Heroism," "The OverSoul," "Spiritual Laws," "Love," "Friendship," "Prudence," "Intellect," "Circles," and "Art." A second series was published in 1844, containing "Character," "Gifts."" Manners,"" The Poet," "Politics," "New England Reformers," and a new one on" Nature." These made a favorable impression in France and England, and laid the basis of his lofty reputation in this country as a prose writer. Two years later he collected in a volume of "Poems" his scattered metrical pieces, many of which had been printed in periodicals. He did not escape sharp criticism, but the circle of his admirers rapidly widened.
A new periodical, "The Massachusetts Quarterly Review," began its career at Boston in 1847, edited by Theodore Parker, a disciple of Emerson, who expounded the "new views" in a more combative way; and Emerson wrote for it an "Editor's Address," inculcating a wise and sincere spirit in meeting the problems of the state, of slavery, and socialism. In October of that year he sailed to England on a lecturing tour, repeated a course on "Representative Men" in various places, read a special series in London on "The Mind and Manners in the Nineteenth Century," and lectured frequently in Scotland. He was enthusiastically received by large audiences, met a great number of the foremost men and women of the time, and was a guest in many private houses. In 1849 he returned home and published "Representative Men "(1850). Here he contributed to the "Memoirs" of Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1852) an account of her conversations in Boston and her Concord life. He also, having visited Paris while abroad, gave a lecture on "France," which has never been printed; and at the Woman's Rights convention in 1856 delivered an address that took advanced ground, for that date, in favor of larger liberty for women.
In this year the result of his observations in England was published in the volume entitled "English Traits," which gained cordial recognition both at home and abroad, and has been translated into several foreign languages. It is certainly the best analysis of the English people that has been written by an American, and probably the best produced in any country. The style is succinct and exact, sown with epigram, as in most of Emerson's writings; but, the purpose being more objective than that of his essays, the saving common sense that underlies all of his thinking is here brought constantly and predominantly into view. Previously to this publication he had given seven lectures in Freeman place chapel, Boston, and another in New York, and had also made addresses before the Antislavery society in both cities. While in the ministry he alone had opened a Church to abolition speakers, and his sympathies were always on the side of emancipation. In 1835 he countenanced Harriet Martineau in her outspoken condemnation of slavery, and in the height of her unpopularity invited her to his house. Again, in 1844, he spoke stirringly on the anniversary of West Indian emancipation, and scourged his countrymen for tolerating Negro servitude. His own plan was to buy the slaves, at a cost of $2,000,000,000, and he put faith in moral and spiritual influences to remove the evil, rather than in legislation. He never formally united with the abolition party, but he encouraged it, and his influence was great. As the contest grew warmer, he rose to the emergency and took a more active part, even making campaign speeches for John G. Palfrey, who, having missed reelection to congress on account of his antislavery course in that body, was nominated as free soil candidate for governor of Massachusetts.
The assault on Charles Sumner by Preston S. Brooks called forth another vigorous speech. In November 1859, he said before the Parker fraternity that John Brown, were he to be hanged, would "shake the gallows glorious, like the cross." A few days afterward he spoke at a John Brown meeting at Tremont temple, with Wendell Phillips, and took part in another at Concord, and in still a third at Salem, Massachusetts. In January, 1861, also, he addressed the Antislavery society at Boston, in the face of disturbance by a mob. Though he was not a chief agitator of the cause, these efforts, so alien to his retired habits as a student, poet, and meditative writer, made him a marked advocate of freedom.
The "Atlantic Monthly" made its first appearance in November 1857, with James Russell Lowell as the editor, and Emerson became a contributor, printing in all twenty-eight poems and prose articles in the first thirty-seven volumes. "The Romany Girl," "Days," "Brahma," "Waldeinsamkeit," "The Titmouse," "Boston Hymn," "Saadi," and "Terminus," which are among his best known poems, belong to this period; and in the "Atlantic" in 1858 appeared his essay on Persian poetry, which is instructive as to the influence of oriental verse upon Emerson's. He continued to lecture in different parts of the country, and at the Burns festival in Boston in January 1859, made an after dinner speech which is described as imbued with a passion uncommon in his utterances. A competent judge who had heard the chief orators of the time, to surpass anything accomplished by them, said its effect on the assembly, and it seems to have indicated a reserve power in Emerson seldom suspected.
In 1860 and 1862 he lost by death his friend Theodore Parker and his intimate companion Thoreau, both of whom he celebrated in memorial addresses. The "Conduct of Life" was published in the former years series of essays on fate, power, wealth, culture, behavior, worship, considerations by the way, beauty, and illusions. With a diminished admixture of mysticism, it offered a larger proportion of practical philosophy, and stated the limitations of fate in life, while but reaffirming the liberty of the individual. Hitherto Emerson's books had sold very slowly; but of the "Conduct of Life" the whole edition, 2,500 copies, was sold in two days. This is an index of the great change that had occurred in the popular estimate of him since the issuing of his first volume, "Nature," twenty-seven years before. He who had been feared as a revolutionist, or laughed at as erratic, was now, at the age of fifty-seven, accepted as a veritable prophet and sage. The people and the times had, in a measure, grown up to him. A new "Dial" having been established in Cincinnati about this time, he wrote for its pages. During the civil war he delivered a lecture on "American Civilization" at the Smithsonian institution in February 1862; an address in Boston on the emancipation proclamation, September of the same year; and at Concord, 19 April 1865, he pronounced a brief eulogy on Abraham Lincoln.
On 30 May 1867, he attended at the organization of the Free religious association in Boston, and stated his view as to religion briefly thus: "As soon as every man is apprised of the Divine presence in his mind, and sees that the law of duty corresponds with the laws of physical nature that duty, social order, power of character, wealth of culture, perfection of taste, all draw their essence from this moral sentiment "then we have a religion that exalts, that commands all the social and all the private action." Emerson passed many severe criticisms on his countrymen, publicly accused America of wanting in faith, hope, enthusiasm, and in a letter to Carlyle called it an intelligent but sensual, avaricious America. The war, with its heroisms and exhibitions of moral strength, gave him new courage, new belief in the national future. His Phi Beta Kappa oration of 1867 on "The Progress of Culture" expressed even snore sanguine expectation than "The American Scholar," thirty years before. He received the degree of LL.D. from Harvard in 1866, and was elected to the board of overseers in 1867. He began to feel the approach of age, and in 1866 wrote the noble poem "Terminus." "It is time to be old, To take in sail; I trim myself to the storm of time, I man the rudder, reef the sail, Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime."
Nevertheless, in the following year he brought out "MayDay," a long poem, the freshest and most youthful in tone of any that he had written, accompanied by many other pieces, some of which had appeared previously. In the next three years, 1868'70, he read at Harvard a number of lectures on "The Natural History of the Mind," which have not been collected. The essays entitled "Society and Solitude" were published in 1870. They are noticeable for an easy, almost conversational tone, differing remarkably from the earlier published essays and "English Traits." The same is true of "Letters and Social Aims" (1875). Emerson's method of composition was to jot down notes from reading and observation, which were entered in a commonplace book, with a memorandum on the margin. From this he drew the material for his lectures, which, heard from the platform, were flowing in style and clear in sequence. When he prepared them for publication, much of the incidental matter and connecting links were struck out. The latest two volumes were arranged for the press when the author, growing old, gave them a less rigorous revision, and relied upon help from others.
In 1870 and 1871 he wrote introductions to a translation of Plutarch's "Morals" and W. E. Channing's poem "The Wanderer." "Parnassus," a collection of poems by British and American authors, was brought out, with a short introduction, in 1874. Emerson was nominated in the latter year for the lord rectorship of Glasgow University by the independents, and was defeated by a vote of 500 in his favor against 700 for Benjamin Disraeli. In 1875 he made a short address at the unveiling of French's statue of "The Minuteman" on the Concord battlefield. He responded to an invitation from two societies of the University of Virginia in 1876 by lecturing to them on "The Scholar."
In March 1878, he read a paper at the Old South Church, Boston, on "The Fortune of the Republic," in which, commenting with sagacity on current tendencies in the national life, he said: "let the passion for America cast out the passion for Europe." The same year he printed in the "North American Review The Sovereignty of Ethics"; in 1879 he read "The Preacher" in Divinity College, Cambridge, and an essay on "Superlatives" was published in "The Century" magazine for February 1882, shortly before his death. Two posthumous volumes of essays and reminiscences have appeared: "Miscellanies," and "Lectures and Biographical Sketches "; and many brief poems heretofore unpublished have been included in a new edition.
In July 1872, Emerson's house at Concord was partly destroyed by fire. This shock hastened the decline of his mental powers, which had already set in, and impaired his health. His friends' spontaneously asked to be allowed to rebuild the house, and deposited in bank for him over $11,000, at the same time suggesting that he go abroad for rest and change. With his daughter Ellen he visited England and the Nile, and returned to Concord in May 1873, to find his house rebuilt and so perfectly restored to its former state that few could have discovered any change (see view on page 346). Welcomed by the citizens m a mass, he drove to his home, passing beneath a triumphal arch erected m his honor, amid general rejoicing. After 1867 Emerson wrote no poems, and little prose, but revised his poetry and arranged the "Selected Poems." Always inclined to slow speech, sometimes pausing for a word, he succumbed to a gradual aphasia, which made it difficult for him to converse. He forgot the names of persons and things. He had some difficulty in discriminating printed letters, and for the last five years of his life was unable to conduct correspondence. Yet he read through all his own published works "with much interest and surprise," and tried to arrange his manuscripts, which he examined thoroughly. He also, following his custom of reading a paper annually before the Concord lyceum, gave there, in 1880, his hundredth lecture to the local audience. On that occasion the several hundred people in the hall spontaneously arose at his entrance and remained standing until he had taken his place on the platform. He took an interest in the Concord school of philosophy, organized in 1880, and supplied to its sessions an essay on "Natural Aristocracy." Most of these later productions were put together from portions of earlier compositions.
Throughout this time of decline he retained the perfect courtesy and consideration for others that had always characterized him. He was apparently quite able to comprehend the essence of things around him, and, to a certain extent, ideas; but the verbal means of communication were lost. He had so long regarded language and visible objects as mere symbols that the symbols at last melted away and eluded him. He continued to read everything in printed form that he found upon his table, whispering the words over like a child, and was fond of pointing out pictures in books. In April 1882, he took a severe cold, and, attended by his son, Dr. Edward Waldo Emerson, died of pneumonia. He was buried in the cemetery at Concord, near the graves of Hawthorne and Thoreau, in ground over which he had often walked and talked with them and with Margaret Fuller.
Emerson was tall and slender, not of robust physique, rather sallow in the face, with an aquiline nose, brown hair, and eyes of the "strongest and brightest blue." His head was below the average in circumference, long, narrow, but more nearly equal in anterior and posterior breadth than most heads, His appearance was majestic. He was calm, kindly in expression, and frequently smiled, but seldom laughed. His manners were dignified but exquisitely simple. He was a ready listener, and often seemed to prefer listening, as if he were to be instructed rather than to instruct. He rarely showed irritation. His hospitality was almost unbounded, and he frequently waited upon the humblest of his guests with his own hands. He was never well-to-do until in his latest years. In 1838 he wrote to Carlyle that he possessed about $22,000 at interest, and could earn $800 in a winter by lecturing, but never had a dollar "to spend on a fancy." He worked hard every summer writing, and every winter traveling and lecturing. His habits were regular and his diet frugal, the only peptic luxury in which he indulged being pie at breakfast. Every morning was spent in his study, and he would go all day without food unless called to eat. His bedtime was ten o'clock, but, if engaged in literary work, he would sit up until one or two, and was able to do this night after night. He fulfilled the duties of a citizen by attending town meetings punctiliously.
Much question has been made whether Emerson was rather a poet than a philosopher, or whether he was a philosopher at all. An exact philosopher he was not; but all that he wrote and said was based upon philosophic ideas. He was an intellectual rather than an emotional mystic, an idealist who insisted upon the application of idealism to the affairs of daily life. He believed that "Nature is the incarnation of a thought The world is mind precipitated." He believed in the Over Soul as a light guiding man, the light of intuitive perception, in God as the soul of the world, and in the human soul as one with that Over Soul. He was not able to formulate these or other beliefs of his logically. Writing to his former colleague, Henry Ware, he said" "I could not give an account of myself if challenged I do not know what arguments are in reference to any expression of a thought. I delight in telling what I think but if you ask me how I dare say so, or why it is so, I am the most helpless of mortal men."
This continued to be his position to the end. He relied upon intuition, and thought that every one might bring himself into accord with God on that basis, He expressed what he felt at the moment, and some of his sayings, even in a single essay, seem to be mutually opposed. But if the whole of his works be taken together, a type of thought may be discerned in the conflicting expressions, coherent and suggestive, like that presented by the photographs of several generations of a family superimposed on one plate. In the beginning he seems to have looked somewhat askance at science; but in the 1849 edition of "Nature" he prefixed some verses that said: "And, striving to be man, the worm Mounts through all the spires of form." This came out ten years before Darwin's "Origin of Species," and twenty years sooner than "The Descent of Man." Lamarck's theories, however, had been popularized in 1844. But Emerson here showed how quick he was to seize upon the newest thought in science or elsewhere if it seemed to be true. Eleven years passed, and he declared in the essay on "Worship," in "Conduct of Life The religion which is to guide and fulfill the present and coming ages must be intellectual. The scientific mind must have a faith which is science There will be a new Church founded on moral science, at first cold and naked, but it will have heaven and earth: for its beams and rafters, science for symbol and illustration. It will fast enough gather beauty, music, picture, poetry."
While he thus advanced in viewing science, he advanced also in viewing all other subjects "but it was from the point of view of intuition and oneness with what he called the Over Soul. Everything that he said must be looked at in the light of his own remark, "Life is a train of moods." But his moods rest upon the certainty, to him, of his own intuition. Emerson's presentation of his views is generally in a large degree poetic. His poems sum up and also expand his prose. The seeming want of technical skill in his verse is frequently due to a more subtle art of natural melody that defied conventional rules of versification. The irregular lines, the flaws of metre and rhyme, remind us of the intermittent breathings of an Eolian harp. Emerson's poetic instrument may have been a rustic contrivance, but it answered to every impulse of the winds and the sighs of human feeling, from "Monadnoc" to the "Threnody" upon the death of his child son. Sometimes he unconsciously so perfected his poetic lines that, as Dr. Hohnes says, a moment after they were written they "seemed as if they had been carved on marble for a thousand years," as this in "Voluntaries": "So nigh is grandeur to our dust, So near is God to man, When duty whispers low, Thou must, The youth replies, I can." Matthew Arnold has pronounced his essays "the most important work done in prose" in this century" but Professor C. C. Everett, discussing the qualities of Emerson in the "Andover Review" for March 1887, describes his philosophy as that of a poet, and adds, "so his ethics is the ethics of a poet." He regards the poems as the most complete and worthy expression of Emerson's genius.
But other critics do not generally accept Dr. Everett's discovery of passion in Emerson's poetry. As has been well remarked by another writer, the verse, in general abstractly and intellectually beautiful, kindles to passion only when the chosen theme is distinctly American or patriotic. Emerson constantly preached by life and pen a new revelation, a new teacher of religion and morals, putting himself always in the place of a harbinger, a John crying in the wilderness. Julian Hawthorne has written of him: "He is our future living in our present, and showing the world, by anticipation, what sort of excellence we are capable of."