Ralph Waldo Emerson
May 25, 1803-April 27, 1882
Birth Date: May 25, 1803
Place of Birth: Boston, Massachusetts
Death Date: April 27, 1882
Place of Death: Concord, Massachusetts
Genre(s): CRITICISM; NONFICTION; ESSAYS; POETRY
Table of Contents:
Biographical and Critical EssayJump to Additional DLB Essay(s) on This Author:
The American Renaissance in New England
Personal Information: Education: A.B., Harvard College, 1821; Theological School at Cambridge (Harvard Divinity School), 1825-1829.
WRITINGS BY THE AUTHOR:
Ralph Waldo Emerson was not a practicing literary critic in the sense that Edgar Allan Poe and William Dean Howells were, and he was not a theorist as Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling or Friedrich Ernst Schleiermacher were. Yet he was for America what Samuel Taylor Coleridge was for England, the major spokesman for a new conception of literature. From his early essays on English literature and his important first book, Nature (1836), to his greatest single literary essay, "The Poet" (1844), to his late essays on "Poetry and Imagination" and "Persian Poetry" in 1875, Emerson developed and championed a concept of literature as literary activity. The essence of that activity is a symbolizing process. Both reader and writer are involved in acts of literary expression which are representative or symbolic. Emerson's position is an extreme one, and in A History of Modern Criticism (1965) René Wellek has said that "the very extremity with which he held his views makes him the outstanding representative of romantic symbolism in the English-speaking world." Emerson's romantic symbolism, biographical and ethical in intent, poetic in expression, is an attitude that still stirs debate and still can have a liberating and encouraging effect on the modern reader. Emerson always cared more for the present than the past, more for his reader than for the text in hand or the author in question. Poets, he said, are "liberating gods"; and Emerson at his best is also a liberator. "Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books."
Emerson is the chief figure in the American literary movement called Transcendentalism, which was also a philosophical and religious movement. Transcendentalism is complex, drawing upon Platonic, Christian, Stoic, and Hindu thought, but its most immediate affinity is with German Idealism as worked out from Kant to Schelling. Indeed Emerson himself said in a lecture called "The Transcendentalist," delivered in December 1841, "What is popularly called Transcendentalism among us, is Idealism." He then described it: "As thinkers, mankind have ever divided into two sects, Materialists and Idealists; the first class founding on experience, the second on consciousness; the first class beginning to think from the data of the senses, the second class perceive that the senses are not final, and say, the senses gives us representations of things, but what are the things themselves, they cannot tell. The materialist insists on facts, on history, on the force of circumstances, and the animal wants of man; the idealist on the power of Thought and of Will, on inspiration, on miracle, on individual culture." Materialist criticism focuses on facts, on literary history, on the life and mind of the author and his or her intention, and on the text itself. Emerson's ethical and idealist criticism concentrates almost entirely upon the reader and his or her response to a text. Emerson is mainly concerned not with the fact of literary history but with the uses of literature, with its effects on the reader, and its power or lack of power to move us.
Emersonian Idealism was extremely influential in the middle third of the nineteenth century, though it was eventually supplanted by realism and naturalism and the rise of the realist movement. But the reader-centered nature of Emerson's critical stance was important to such thinkers and writers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Marcel Proust, and Virginia Woolf and is now of interest again to postformalist and poststructuralist critics who are newly concerned with the reader's relation to the text.
Emerson's father, William Emerson, the Unitarian minister at Boston's First Church from 1799 until his death in 1811, was an active, popular preacher and a staunch Federalist of very limited means but descended from a long line of Concord, Massachusetts, ministers. Emerson was eight when his father died. His mother, Ruth Haskins Emerson, a quiet, devout, and undemonstrative woman, lived till 1853, long enough to see her fourth child's fame. Emerson had seven siblings. Three died in infancy or childhood. Of those who lived to maturity, Edward died young, at twenty-nine, in 1834 as did Charles at twenty-eight in 1836, while Robert Bulkeley, who lived to age fifty-two, dying in 1859, was feeble-minded. Besides Ralph, only William lived a full and reasonably long life, dying at sixty-seven in 1868.
Emerson went to Boston Public Latin School when he was nine, and to Harvard College when he was fourteen. After college, he tried teaching, then attended divinity school at Harvard. In 1829 he was ordained minister of Boston's Second Church. That same year he married Ellen Tucker. It was very much a love match, and Emerson was deeply shaken by her death only a year and a half later on 8 February 1831. At the same time, he was becoming increasingly reluctant to remain as minister to his church. In October 1832 he resigned, the immediate reason being that he felt he could no longer officiate at a ceremony (communion) that had become meaningless to him. With his wife dead and his career broken off, Emerson now sold his house and furniture and set out for Europe. He spent nine months abroad, almost six of them in Italy, working from Sicily to Naples to Rome, Florence, Venice, then on to Switzerland and Paris. In Paris, at the Jardin des Plantes, he experienced the full power and appeal of the new botanical and zoological sciences, and he now turned decisively from theology to science, vowing to become a naturalist. Going on to England and Scotland, he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and, particularly, Thomas Carlyle, who became a lifelong friend and correspondent.
Returning home in October 1833, Emerson immediately embraced a new career, that of public lecturer. One month after disembarking, he was invited by the Boston Natural History Society to deliver the first of his four lectures on science. That winter he lectured in Concord and Bedford on his Italian trip, and, beginning in January 1835, at Boston's Masonic Temple, he delivered his first open public lecture series, six lectures on "Biography." The fourth lecture in the series, that on Milton, was his first important statement about literature. The Milton lecture was published, posthumously, in Natural History of Intellect (1893), but the other five lectures in the "Biography" series of 1835, like the ten lectures he gave on "English Literature" later that same year, the twelve lectures on "The Philosophy of History" in 1836-1837, and the ten on "Human Culture" of 1837-1838, were only published beginning in 1959 as The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Many of the ideas and phrases were incorporated by Emerson in subsequent lectures and books, which is why he did not publish them. But the early lectures show vividly the development of Emerson's characteristic views about literature.
Also in 1835, Emerson moved to Concord and, in September, married Lydia Jackson of Plymouth whom he came to call Lidian (and, sometimes, Asia) and who he tried to get to call him something besides Mr. E. He once told his cousin Sarah Ripley that those "who had baptised the child Lydia had been ill-advised, for her name was Lidian." In 1836 the so-called Transcendental Club met for the first time, bringing together with Emerson, George Putnam, George Ripley, and Frederic Hedge. The group expanded in just a week and a half to include Orestes Brownson, James Freeman Clarke, Convers Francis, and Bronson Alcott. It again expanded to include Theodore Parker, Margaret Fuller, Elizabeth Peabody, and Henry Thoreau. Eighteen thirty-six also saw the publication of Emerson's first book and the birth of his first child, Waldo.
Emerson spent the rest of his life centered in Concord, with another trip to England in 1847-1848, one to California in 1871, and a final trip to Egypt in 1872. Each winter he would travel through New England and the East Coast, and as far west as there were cities on his annual lecture tour, for which he was his own booking agent, advertiser, and arranger. The rest of the year he spent in Concord, which soon became one of the intellectual centers of the country, a sort of American Weimar. The group around Emerson, usually called the Transcendentalists, were defined in one way by Emerson's 1838 Divinity School address, which offended orthodox Unitarians by locating religious authority in the religious nature of human beings, rather than in the Bible or the person of Christ. The Dial, a new magazine founded by the group and edited first by Margaret Fuller, showed the group's interest in the literature of Idealism. In religion, in philosophy, and in literature, the group around Emerson was liberal, learned, forward-looking and reform-minded. The Emersonian "movement" (it was Emerson who said there are always two parties in society, the Establishment and the Movement) or "the newness" was eventually overshadowed by the Civil War, the coming of industrialism, and the rise of realism. But in the late 1830s, 1840s, and into the 1850s, Emerson was at the center of much that was new, exciting, and vital in American cultural life.
His contributions to literary criticism begin with the lecture called "Milton," given first in February 1835. Many of what would become Emerson's characteristic emphases are already evident in the Milton lecture. What Emerson really values in Milton is not his high critical reputation but his power to inspire, which is, Emerson says, greater than that of any other writer. "We think no man can be named, whose mind still acts on the cultivated intellect of England and America with an energy comparable to that of Milton." "Power," "energy," "inspiration": these are the qualities Emerson looks for in a work of literature or in an author. Indeed Emerson is always more interested in the author than the text, and he quotes with approval Milton's comment that "he who would aspire to write well hereafter in laudable things, ought himself to be a true poem; that is, a composition and pattern of the best and honorablest things." Emerson would say later that the reader ought to think of himself as the text and books as the commentary.
Milton's great subject, says Emerson, is not so much the fall of man as liberty. The English poet advocated civil, ecclesiastical, literary, and domestic liberty. He opposed slavery, denied predestination, argued for freedom of the press, and favored the principle of divorce. Milton's writings are valuable not as literary artifacts, Emerson argues, but as pathways to the man. Emerson insists on linking the person and the writing. Milton's poems, like his prose, reflect the "opinions, the feelings, even the incidents of the poet's life." In general Emerson rates Milton's prose at least as high as his poetry, and he boldly redefines Milton's prose as poetry in an important critical statement. "Of his prose in general, not the style alone, but the argument also, is poetic; according to Lord Bacon's definition of poetry, following that of Aristotle, 'Poetry, not finding the actual world exactly conformed to its idea of good and fair, seeks to accommodate the shows of things to the desires of the mind, and to create an ideal world better than the world of experience.'"
In August 1835 Emerson delivered a lecture to the sixth annual meeting of the American Institute of Instruction in Boston "On the Best Mode of Inspiring a Correct Taste in English Literature." In strong contrast to the starchy, neoclassical title, the surviving pages of this talk, published in The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson (volume one, 1959), emphasize the idea that a reader must approach a text with sympathy, empathy, openness, and a willingness to try out the author's point of view. It is, he says, a major principle "that a truth or a book of truths can be received only by the same spirit that gave it forth." This notion is very different from learning a few rules or current ideas and then judging works of literature by whether they conform to those rules and ideas. Emerson also makes a distinction between types of reading and warns us "reading must not be passive." An active reader is one who engages fully with the text. "As we say translations are rare because to be a good translator needs all the talents of an original author so to be a good reader needs the high qualities of a good writer." Above all the reader is to remember that books and poems are not ends in themselves. They convey truths or wisdom, they stand for and convey to us things that exist in nature. "I should aim to show him [the young reader] that the poem was a transcript of Nature as much as a mariner's chart is of the coast."
In the introductory lecture for his 1835 series, "English Literature," Emerson offers a very broad definition of literature as "the books that are written. It is the recorded thinking of man." Later he excludes "records of facts," but even so it is evident that he meant the term literature to take in far more than just poems, plays, and novels. More important, in this lecture Emerson describes all language as "a naming of invisible and spiritual things from visible things," and he here first gives his famous two-part definition of language. First, words are emblematic of things; "supercilious" means literally "the raising of an eyebrow." Second, things are emblematic; "Light and Darkness are not in words but in fact our best expression for knowledge and ignorance." Since both words and things are emblematic, it follows for Emerson that "good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories." He concludes that "the aim and effort of literature in the largest sense [is] nothing less than to give voice to the whole of spiritual nature as events and ages unfold it, to record in words the whole life of the world."
In the next lecture, on "Permanent Traits of the English National Genius," Emerson draws heavily on Sharon Turner's History of the Anglo Saxons (1799-1805) and emphasizes the impact of Anglo-Saxon life and culture on modern England and the English. Emerson was never willing, as this lecture demonstrates, to separate literature from the general culture that produced it. In the next lecture, "The Age of Fable," Emerson contrasts Greek fable with Gothic fable, the former having produced classical myth, the latter medieval romance. Emerson also praises English literature for its instinct for what is common. "The poems of Chaucer, Shakspear [sic], Jonson, Herrick, Herbert, Raleigh betray a continual instinctive endeavor to recover themselves from every sally of imagination by touching the earth and earthly and common things." Emerson devotes an entire lecture to Chaucer, whom he values for being able to turn everything in his world to literary account, so that his work stands not only for him but for his era. Chaucer's numerous borrowings prompted Emerson to articulate a concept of literary tradition that was very modern. "The truth is all works of literature are Janus faced and look to the future and to the past. Shakspear [sic], Pope, and Dryden borrow from Chaucer and shine by his borrowed light. Chaucer reflects Boccaccio and Colonna and the Troubadours: Boccaccio and Colonna elder Greek and Roman authors, and these in their turn others if only history would enable us to trace them. There never was an original writer. Each is a link in an endless chain."
The two central lectures are devoted to Shakespeare, whose works, Emerson says, represent the whole range of human mind. Shakespeare possessed, to a greater degree than any other writer, the power of imagination, what Emerson defines as "the use which the Reason makes of the material world, for purposes of expression." Put another way, this means "Shakspear [sic] possesses the power of subordinating nature for the purpose of expression beyond all poets." Emerson also cites with approval Milton's definition of poetry as "thoughts that voluntary move harmonious numbers" to describe how "the sense of [his] verse determines its tune."
Emerson wrote several lectures on other great English authors. He devotes an entire lecture to Francis Bacon, whom he admired for his efforts "to expound the method by which a true History of Nature should be formed." Bacon's achievement gave him, said Emerson, "a new courage and confidence in the powers of man at the sight of so great works done under such great disadvantages by one scholar." Bacon's great aim, like Emerson's, was to "make man's mind a match for the nature of things," and Bacon believed, as did Emerson, that we only "command Nature by obeying her." Another lecture was devoted to Ben Jonson, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, and Sir Henry Wotton. Nothing Jonson's learned and intellectual style as a complement to its era, Emerson observes that "his writings presuppose a great intellectual activity in the audience." Herrick's superb command of language moved Emerson both to admire the poet and to articulate his distrust of language considered as an end in itself. He insisted that words stand for things and that things are what matter. "Rem tene, verba sequntur" [Hold fast to things, words will follow], Cato had observed. Emerson now noted "a proposition set down in words is not therefore affirmed. It must affirm itself or no propriety and no vehemence of language will give it evidence."
Another lecture in the "English Literature" series is called "Ethical Writers." The subject seems puzzling at first, but it is important for a full understanding of Emerson's conception of literature. There is a whole class of writers whose primary function is not entertainment, he says, "who help us by addressing not our taste but our human wants, who treat of the permanent nature of man." Such writers include, among the classics, Plato, Plutarch, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius. In English, the list includes Bacon, Thomas Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, Sir Thomas Browne, John Bunyan, and Samuel Johnson. Emerson also includes poets and playwrights in his list, but his emphasis is clearly on a kind of writing which is not fiction, poetry, or drama but primarily wisdom literature or moral literature, everything that we now place under the heading of nonfiction prose. It is a category that includes much of the best-and most helpful--writing ever done, a category in which Emerson himself now holds a high place.
Emerson's idealism is always mentioned in critical discussions of his thought. The equally important ethical aspect of his work is less often insisted upon. But Emerson's characteristically practical idealism cannot be fully appreciated until one recognizes that he evaluated all literature, all philosophy, all religion, by a simple ethical test: how does it help me to live a better life. Matthew Arnold has defined the moral element in literature as that which teaches us how to live. All of Emerson's idealist conceptions also meet this moral test, and those books which have served successfully over time as practical guides to conduct are the books Emerson values most highly. Samuel Johnson maintained in the "Preface to Shakespeare" that "nothing can please many and please long but just representations of general nature." Emerson used a similar criterion. The best ethical writers, he says, are those who write about "certain feelings and faculties in us which are alike in all men and which no progress of arts and no variety of institutions can alter," those writers, in short, who hold fast to "the general nature of man."
Emerson closed his English literature lecture series with a final talk on "Modern Aspects of Letters," in which he discussed Lord Byron, Sir Walter Scott, Dugald Steward, James McIntosh, and Coleridge. Of these his favorite is Coleridge, whom he praises particularly as a critic. Emerson rates Coleridge's Biographia Literaria (1817) "the best body of criticism in the English language," and it may be added that Emerson as a literary critic is closer to Coleridge and owes more to him than to any other single source. Emerson singles out as especially important, in addition to the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge's The Friend (1809), especially the third volume, and his Church and State (1830). Aids to Reflexion (1825), "though a useful book I suppose, is the least valuable." Of particular value to Emerson are Coleridge's "distinction between Reason and Understanding; the distinction of an Idea and a Conception; between Genius and Talent; between Fancy and Imagination: of the nature and end of Poetry: of the Idea of a State." Emerson closes his lecture with an argument that beauty and truth "always face each other and each tends to become the other." He insists that everyone has it in him or her to both create and respond to literature, because literature is based on nature and "all nature, nothing less, is totally given to each new being."
The last of the English literature lectures was given in January 1836. In September Nature appeared. It is a major statement, a book which, like Lucretius's De Rerum Natura, aims at nothing less than an account of "How Things Are," an intense effort to synthesize a first philosophy. Nature shows the warming and shaping influence of Plutarch, Bacon, Coleridge, Plotinus (via Thomas Taylor), Swedenborg (via Sampson Reed), and Kant (via Carlyle, who was also a major influence by himself). Many of the observations, especially on language, from the English literature lectures found their way, often verbatim and at length, into Nature. In some important respects then, key parts of Nature came directly out of Emerson's study of English literature.
The main purpose of Nature is to recover for the present generation the direct and immediate relationship with the world that our ancestors had. "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?," Emerson asks, with emphasis on the word "also." He goes on to inquire, "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?" He had already discussed the poetry of tradition in his English lecture series. Nature is an inquiry into the conditions necessary for a modern literature of insight.
Emerson chose a line of inquiry that had been used before, by the Stoics, among others. In order to find answers to the question of how one should live, one should turn not to God, not to the state, not to society or to history for a starting point, but to nature. Man is part of nature, but by virtue of consciousness, he is also, and at the same time, apart from nature. Consciousness is subject: nature or world is object. They are separate, but as the German philosopher Schelling insisted, consciousness or spirit is subjective nature, nature is objective spirit. The opening chapters of Nature describe the different things nature furnishes to consciousness. Passing quickly through "Commodity," in which nature is shown to be useful to human beings in all sorts of material ways, Emerson comes, in chapter three, to "Beauty," in which he argues that our aesthetics are derived from nature. "Primary forms" such as the sky, the mountain, the tree, the animal "give us a delight in and for themselves." Nature is a sea of beautiful forms and the standard of beauty, our conception of beauty in the largest sense, is, says Emerson, "the entire circuit of natural forms,-the totality of nature." Cooperating with nature and complementing it as the source of beauty is the human eye, which is, says Emerson, "the best of artists." Emerson's approach to aesthetics is intensely visual, and this visual quality is so closely tied to his emphasis on subjectivity and his affirmation of the importance of individual vision that a recent writer, Kenneth Burke, equates Emerson's "I" with "eye" and "aye." Typically, too, Emerson is careful to explain that beauty is not simply a matter of beautiful pictures or pleasing landscapes. A higher though similar beauty marks noble human actions. From beautiful pictures we advance to consider beautiful (that is, virtuous) actions. Here, too, nature is the norm. "Every natural action is graceful."
In addition to providing us with beauty, nature also provides us with language, which Emerson treats in chapter four. In a famous-and difficult--opening statement he summarizes his position.
"Nature is the vehicle of thought, and in a simple, double, and threefold degree."
1. Words are signs of natural facts.
2. Particular natural facts are symbols of particular spiritual facts.
3. Nature is the symbol of spirit.
The first point is a theory of language which makes the distinction which the modern linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was to make famous, in his Cours de Linguistique Général (1922), that words are not things, but "signs" standing for things. Words are signifiers, things are what are signified. The important distinction is between signifier and signified. Emerson claims that even those words which "express a mood or intellectual fact" will be found, when traced back far enough, to have a root in some material or physical appearance. Thus, he says, "right originally means straight; wrong means twisted," and so on. This argument is, of course, an etymological not a semiotic one. But Emerson is not a positivist and could not rest with a flat distinction between words as signs or symbols of material objects, and material objects themselves, for this view leads inevitably to the view that the material or physical world is more "real" than words, which are only signs. Emerson here becomes hard to follow, claiming in point two that "it is not words only that are emblematic, it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." (Insofar as Emerson means "idea" or "concept" when he uses the term "spiritual fact," this is close to a semiotic argument.)
Point two is a theory of symbolism, not just linguistic symbolism, but natural symbolism. He illustrates by saying, "An enraged man is a lion.... A lamb is innocence." Emerson believed, following Swedenborg especially, that everything in nature had its correlative in mind, that nature is the externalization of the soul. If modern readers cannot follow Emerson this far, they can at least recognize that Emerson's second point is a useful description of how the writer uses not only language but nature itself as symbols. In reading Herman Melville, for example, we are aware first that the words Moby-Dick stand for a large albino sperm whale and second that the whale itself stands for certain qualities, whether divine, demonic, or natural. Writers use natural objects and events to suggest, mirror, or symbolize inner, mental events.
In the third point, Emerson goes beyond his theories that we use words as signs of things (point 1) and that we find symbolic meanings in things as well as words (point 2) to ask: "Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts?" Emerson wants to say more than this. It is not just we humans who treat the world as emblematic; the world, says Emerson, is emblematic. "Parts of speech are metaphors because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind." The visible world is, he says in a celebrated metaphor, "the dial plate of the invisible" world. This is the full, Transcendental, Schellingian belief that nature and the human mind are in all things related, that mind is the subjective equivalent of the world, world the objective version of mind. Phrased without German symmetry, this notion is a way of affirming, as the Stoics long ago affirmed, that human beings and nature are both creatures of one set of laws. More recently, Alfred North Whitehead has spoken of the same concept in referring to "the full scientific mentality, which instinctively holds that all things great and small are conceivable as exemplifications of general principles which reign throughout the natural order."
Emerson's insistence on the close links between nature and language has important practical implications. Because our verbal language is based on nature, it will follow that after a period of time, language will come to seem separate from nature. The strong, natural, material roots of words will be forgotten, and lesser writers will go on imitating and repeating words they do not really understand. "Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation," says Emerson, "who for a short time believe, and make others believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously upon the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature." So the function of the genius, of the true poet, is to reform such language, to "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things." The poet is he who can reconnect the word supercilious with the raised eyebrow, who can make us see again, but freshly, that the word "consider" means study the stars [con sidere]. "The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images." Thus Emerson's conception of language as based in nature leads him to outline the task of the poet as the renewal of language, the reattachment of language to nature, of words to things. So, too, the idea that nature is itself a language (an idea that haunts the modern mind from at least Linnaeus and the early eighteenth century on) leads to the view that it is the writer's job to decipher what nature has to say, the view that informs all nature writers from Thoreau to John McPhee.
Nature is Emerson's testament to his belief that ideas, forms, and laws (what Emerson sums up as spirit) are more important than physical, phenomenal, material things (what Emerson calls nature). Both exist, of course, but spirit or mind exists prior to nature, and the natural world is, for Emerson, a product of spirit. In the chapter on "Idealism," Emerson concludes: "It is the uniform effect of culture on the human mind, not to shake our faith in the stability of particular phenomena, as of heat, water, azote [nitrogen]; but to lead us to regard nature as a phenomenon, not a substance; to attribute necessary existence to spirit; to esteem nature as an accident and an effect," not as the final reality.
From December 1836 to March 1837 Emerson gave his first series of independent lectures, the first that is, that he designed himself and gave under his own auspices. It was called the Philosophy of History, and it was a very important series for Emerson, since out of it evolved the great essays on "History" and "Self Reliance" that he would publish in his first volume of Essays in 1841. There is also a lecture on "Literature" in the Philosophy of History series, given in January 1837. The general theme of the series is stated in the introductory lecture: "We arrive early at the great discovery that there is one Mind common to all individual men; that what is individual is less than what is universal; that those properties by which you are man are more radical than those by which you are Adam or John; than the individual, nothing is less; than the universal, nothing is greater; that error, vice, and disease have their seat in the superficial or individual nature; that the common nature is whole." Literature, then, is the written record of this mind, and in one important sense literature is always showing us only ourselves. This lecture contains Emerson's most extreme--and least fruitful--statement of his idealist conception of literature. He contrasts art with literature, explaining that while "Art delights in carrying a thought into action, Literature is the conversion of action into thought." In other words, "Literature idealizes action." In an abstract sense this may be so, but Emerson is generally at his best when he sees literature moving us toward action, not away from it. In another place this lecture has a very valuable comment on how literature is able to reach into our unconscious. "Whoever separates for us a truth from our unconscious reason, and makes it an object of consciousness, ... must of course be to us a great man." And there is also a rather uncharacteristic recognition of what Gustav Flaubert would call le mot juste. "The laws of composition are as strict as those of sculpture and architecture. There is always one line that ought to be chosen, one proportion that should be kept, and every other line or proportion is wrong.... So, in writing, there is always a right word, and every other than that is wrong."
At the end of August, as part of the commencement ceremonies for the Harvard class that included Henry Thoreau, Emerson delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society an address on the American scholar. Often hailed in Oliver Wendell Holmes's phrase as our "intellectual declaration of independence," An Oration, Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, at Cambridge, August 31, 1837 did indeed suggest that "our day of dependence, our long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close." He insisted that "we have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe." But the address is not primarily, or even strongly, nationalistic. Emerson calls for the self-reliance of the individual, of whatever nationality. "The American Scholar," as the Phi Beta Kappa oration is popularly known, is one of Emerson's most successful, most effective literary statements. It sparkles with good writing, and it leans strongly on common sense and on the ethical and practical aspects of literary activity. He defines "scholar" broadly to include everyone we would class as student or intellectual, but Emerson goes further, trying to identify that aspect of any and all persons which engages in thought. The scholar is "Man Thinking" (as the address was retitled in 1844), which he sharply distinguishes from the specialist, the "mere thinker," who is no longer a whole person.
Books of course are an important part of "The American Scholar," and Emerson gives a description of what he calls "the theory of books." "The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him--life; it went out from him--truth." But once the book is written, says Emerson, there "arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,--the act of thought,--is instantly transferred to the record." The book is now regarded as perfect, untouchable, unimprovable, and what might have been a guide becomes a tyrant, leading the young people in libraries to read and admire the books of others when they would be better off writing their own. By overvaluing the finished book and underrating the act of book writing, we become mere bookworms, a book-learned class who value books as such. "Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees." "The American Scholar" makes a major protest against what Walter Jackson Bate has called the burden of the past and what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Books "are for nothing but to inspire," Emerson declares. "I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system." Books must not be overestimated. They can too easily intimidate us and make us forget that "the one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul." Another way to keep the great work of past writers in proper perspective is to read actively and not passively. "There is then creative reading, as well as creative writing." The most valuable part of the text may be what the reader brings to it. "When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion." Emerson is set against any suggestion that we should worship the great books of the past. We can learn from them, of course, but "the man has never lived that can feed us ever." The human spirit, fluid and restless and charged with heat and energy, will always be breaking out with new experiences, and Emerson draws on personal observation from his Italian trip of 1833 to make a bold metaphor of the human mind as "one central fire which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples."
The essay makes one more important literary point. Emerson takes it as a welcome sign of the times that "instead of the sublime and beautiful, the near, the low, the common" was being explored and made into poetry. "I embrace the common," he says. "I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low .... the meal in the firkin, the milk in the pan." Like Wordsworth's call for a language of common men, this recognition of Emerson's went further than his own practice could usually follow. But Emerson's endorsement of common language had a powerful effect on the rising generation of young American writers, first on Thoreau and Walt Whitman, then on Emily Dickinson and others.
On 15 July 1838 Emerson delivered what has come to be known as the "Divinity School Address" before the senior class of the Harvard Divinity School and their guests. In this important speech, which critic Joel Porte says Emerson was born to deliver, Emerson flung down a major challenge to Orthodox and even Unitarian Christianity. Emerson argues that the concept of the divinity of Jesus and the absolute authority of the Bible are obstacles to true religious feeling. This is not to say Emerson did not value the Bible. He did, and very highly; and this very address has been described as taking its form, that of the jeremiad, from a book of the Old Testament. What Emerson wished to do was to warn of the consequences of revering any one text as the sole fountain of truth. To hold up the text of the Bible as infallible was to divert attention from the creation of the text. "The idioms of his [Jehovah's] language, and the figures of his rhetoric, have usurped the place of his truth; and churches are not built on his principles, but on his tropes." Furthermore, if the ancient Hebrew and Greek writings known as the Old and New Testaments respectively are regarded as the sole legitimate revelations, then we in the present age are contenting ourselves with this history of revelations to an earlier generation, and we are denying the possibility of a religion by revelation to us. "Men have come to speak of the revelation as somewhat long ago given and done, as if God were dead." In order to affirm the possibility of a living religion for the present, one must be careful not to get caught in a system that believes no prophet since Jesus has anything to say and no text since the Bible has religious validity.
Emerson contends that religion is a vital principle, as alive today as at any time in the past. It therefore follows that we can and should have our own prophets and our own gospels. This point is a religious one, of course, but it is also literary, since it is essentially a question of how to interpret a text, in this case the Bible. (It is also true for Emerson, as for Whitman, that the function of the prophet is very close to the function of the poet.) Emerson evolved a consistent position in clear contrast to such later theorists as D. H. Lawrence and the New Critics. Emerson's argument is that we should trust the teller, not the tale. Emerson is an antiformalist in literary (as in religious) matters. In more modern terms, his argument is that we should not privilege the text, any text, above either the author or the reader. Emerson's interest in the author is not so much a critical position as an interest in the process of creativity.
A week after the epoch-making address to the Divinity School, Emerson gave another address, called "Literary Ethics," at Dartmouth, which, as Porte has noted, is undeservedly neglected. As the Cambridge address called for "a religion by revelation to us," so the Dartmouth address calls for a literature adequate to America. So far, says Emerson, "this country has not fulfilled what seemed the reasonable expectation of mankind." In painting, sculpture, poetry, and fiction, American authors had evolved only "a certain grace without grandeur," in work that was "itself not new but derivative."
In December 1839 Emerson gave two lectures on literature as part of a series called "The Present Age," much of the material of which went into a paper called "Thoughts on Modern Literature," published in the Dial in October 1840 and reprinted in Natural History of Intellect (1893). Here Emerson lists, in order of importance, three classes of literature. "The highest class of books are those which express the moral element; the next, works of imagination; and the next, works of science." Though he calls Shakespeare "the first literary genius of the world, the highest in whom the moral is not the predominating element," he insists that Shakespeare's work "leans on the Bible: his poetry supposes it." By contrast, "the Prophets do not imply the existence of Shakespeare or Homer." Shakespeare is secondary, the prophets of the Bible are primary. These views compensate and balance those in the Divinity School address. Indeed "Thoughts on Modern Literature" seems to have been intended by Emerson as a sort of corrective of some of his early views and various misinterpretations of them. One of the best things in "Thoughts on Modern Literature" is a long and very specific treatment of the problem of subjectivity. Defending the subjectivism of the age, Emerson is at great pains to distinguish true subjectivism (the right of each single soul, each subject "I" to "sit in judgment on history and literature, and to summon all facts and parties before its tribunal") from narrow-minded insistence on one's own personality or mere "intellectual selfishness." "A man may say I, and never refer to himself as an individual," says Emerson in a phrase that prefigures his concept of the representative poet.
Emerson is of most interest as a theorist of literary activity. Of practical criticism of specific texts or reviewing of new books he did relatively little. His most active period of practical criticism covers the years 1840 to 1844, when he was very much involved with the Dial, a quarterly magazine designed specifically by Emerson and his friends to champion the new views, including Transcendentalism. The new journal said in its manifesto that it was interested in making new demands on literature, and it complained that the rigors of current convention in religion and education was "turning us to stone." But even as the new journal was launched, Emerson showed himself well aware of the limits of the enterprise, and of language itself. "There is somewhat in all life untranslatable into language...." He continues, "Every thought has a certain imprisoning as well as uplifting quality, and, in proportion to its energy on the will, refuses to become an object of intellectual contemplation. Thus what is great usually slips through our fingers."
Some things did not slip through his fingers. Emerson could be a brilliant and pungent critic on occasion. In a letter to Margaret Fuller on 17 March 1840, he told her he had been reading "one of Lord Brougham's superficial indigent disorderly unbuttoned penny-a-page books called 'Times of George III,'" thereby describing a kind of book of which too many are published in every age. Emerson wrote for the Dial notices of Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast (1840), which he liked, saying "it will serve to hasten the day of reckoning between society and the sailor." He praised the poetry in Jones Very's Essays and Poems (1839), "as sincere a litany as the Hebrew songs of David or Isaiah, and only less than they, because indebted to the Hebrew muse for their tone and genius." In a review of Tennyson, he commented, "So large a proportion of even the good poetry of our time is either over-ethical or over-passionate, and the stock poetry is so deeply tainted with a sentimental egotism that this, whose chief merit lay in its melody and picturesque power, was most refreshing." Emerson was also an early admirer of the poetry of Henry Thoreau and Ellery Channing. He was Carlyle's American agent, so to speak, and through Emerson's effort Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1835) was published in book form in Boston before an English publisher could be found for it. When Walt Whitman sent Emerson a copy of the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), Emerson wrote back an excited letter, calling the poems "the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed." He recognized the "great power" in the work and praised it for having "the best merits, namely, of fortifying and encouraging."
Indeed, Emerson's practical criticism, like his numerous and repeated offers of help to young writers, was more often encouragement than judgment, meant to be fortifying not critical. Not for nothing did Matthew Arnold rank Emerson with Marcus Aurelius as "the friend and aider of those who would live in the spirit." In October 1844 Emerson published his Essays: Second Series, in which the lead essay, "The Poet," was his best and most influential piece of literary criticism. It opens with a sweeping critique of those critics and "umpires of taste" whose "knowledge of the fine arts is some study of rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form, which is exercised for amusement or for show." We have lost, Emerson says, "the perception of the instant dependence of form upon soul." He goes on to say flatly, "there is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy." "The Poet" is Emerson's response to this challenge. It is his "doctrine of forms."
To begin with, Emerson asserts that "the poet is representative," standing "among partial men for the complete man," apprising us "not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth." Instead of treating the poet as a superior kind of person, placed by his talent above the ordinary run of human beings, Emerson here lays down the cornerstone of a modern democratic aesthetic. The poet is a greater person than the ordinary, but his very greatness is his representative nature. The poet realizes and actualizes the humanity we all share and can realize in ourselves. This concept of the representative poet would form the major theme of Emerson's 1850 book, Representative Men, and it is an important concept for the early Whitman.
Emerson's second main point is "the poet is the sayer, the namer." That is to say Emerson here rejects the idea that the poet is primarily a maker, a craftsman, or wordsmith. Formalist critics from Jonson to Poe had emphasized the craft of writing, seeing the poet as a maker. For Emerson, the poet is a seer and a sayer, a person inspired, a transmitter of the poetry that inheres in nature and in us. He is not just a maker of verses. Emerson's poet is the inspired, divine, prophet-bard who has access to truth and whose function is to declare it, as Barbara Packer shows in Emerson's Fall (1982). From this notion it follows that poems are not "machines made out of words," or "verbal constructs." By contrast, for Emerson, "poetry was all written before time was." The poet's job is to establish contact with the primal, natural world, "where the air is music," and try to write down in words what has always existed in nature. When Robert Frost writes that "Nature's first green is gold," he is giving words to something that has been going on for eons, namely the first appearance of light greenish gold when the leaves first begin to break out of the bud in spring.
Emerson's poet is much more than a technician of meter, a person of "poetic talents." Emerson's poet "announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells." Picking up the Miltonic definition of poetry he had endorsed earlier, Emerson says, in a famous phrase, "for it is not metres but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem." The essence of the poem lies not in the words but behind the words, in "a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing."
Emerson is here talking about the concept of "organic form" as opposed to "mechanic form." The distinction was clearly made by Coleridge. "The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the proportions of the material--as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened." Thus, for most modern poets, to use a sonnet form is to use mechanic form. "The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it developes, itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form." Emerson's own essays grew organically, and both Thoreau's Walden and Whitman's Leaves of Grass can be seen as examples of the organic form here described. In Emerson's doctrine of forms, the form should follow from the nature of the evolving material. In Emerson's terminology, form depends on soul.
Nature had claimed that education, reflection, and self-cultivation lead us to invert "the vulgar views of nature, and brings the mind to call ... that real, which it use[d] to call visionary." Now Emerson pushes one step further, poetry is "the science of the real," which is to say that it is not concerned so much with the material or the phenomenal as it is with underlying laws. Emerson had made this stand clear in earlier essays, but in "The Poet" he discusses more fully the poet's use of language. The poet must not only use words, but he must be able to use things--nature--as a language. "Nature offers all her creatures to him as a picture language," Emerson says. "Things admit of being used as symbols, because nature is a symbol, in the whole and in every part." If the student asks what nature is symbolic of, the answer is, symbolic of the human spirit. "The universe is the externalization of the soul." This idea, too, had been said by Emerson before, though not with such epigrammatic authority. What really happens in poetic practice is suggested by Emerson when he says, "the world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it." What the poet realizes is that not only words and things, but "we are symbols, and inhabit symbols."
There is more in the essay on the origin of words. "The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture," Emerson says, in a passage that was noted by Richard Trench, the English author who first suggested the idea of the Oxford English Dictionary. "Language is fossil poetry," Emerson explains, saying that "Language is made up of images, or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin." Coleridge had linked genius to organic form, saying genius was the mind's "power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination." Emerson now links genius with the revival and renewal of language. "Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things," he says, and the epigrammatic force of his own language pushes back against entropy itself.
"The Poet" also suggests the true function of the critic. "And herein is the legitimation of criticism, in the mind's faith, that the poems are a corrupt version of some text in nature, with which they ought to be made to tally." Emerson, however, is still more interested in the function of the poet than in the text, and he goes on now to explain that so many poets flirt with intoxication because they are really trying to tap into a realm of experience larger than that offered by their own private lives. Whether we think of it as the world-soul, or collective consciousness, or the oversoul, the poet must transcend his own limited and personal experience in order to participate in the broader experience of the common human spirit. In an important--and difficult--passage, Emerson says, "it is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, besides his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power, on which he can draw...."
It is finally the imagination, not wine, which intoxicates the true poet, and the same quality works in us, too. "The use of symbols has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for all men.... This is the effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms." Consider, for example, the sense of delight with which we are momentarily freed of the tyranny of English numbers by the child's book which tells us, if we are tired of counting to ten in the same old way, to try a new way, such as "ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim." Of such language, Emerson says, "We seem to be touched by a wand, which makes us dance and run about happily like children." He concludes, in a phrase that sums up the essay, "poets are thus liberating gods." Themselves free, they set us free--free, for example, to take only what we want from the books we read. "I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary." Thus Emerson cheerfully and knowingly dismisses all but the very best of even his own writing.
The true poet will be "the translator of nature into thought" and will not get lost in unintelligible private symbolism, in "the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one." Nearing the end of the essay, Emerson notes that he looks "in vain for the poet whom I describe.... We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer." It is a passage which seems to predict the advent of Walt Whitman. Emerson continues, "yet America is a poem in our eyes, its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres." Eleven years later, Whitman's Leaves of Grass appeared as if in answer.
There is only one paragraph about America and American poetry in "The Poet." Emerson specifically says he is "not wise enough for a national criticism," and he ends the essay as he began, with a consideration not of the American poet but of the modern poet. The essay closes with a repetition of the idea that it is the process of poetry, not the resulting text, that constitutes the live essence of poetry, and he puts it in yet another of his triumphant aphorisms. "Art is the path of the creator to his work." True poetry is not the finished product, but the process of uttering or writing it.
Representative Men (1850), a book made up of lectures first given in 1845 on Plato, Swedenborg, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Napoleon, and Goethe, is the fullest account of Emerson's biographical approach to literature. This subject is not new with him. It goes back at least to his early lecture on Milton, but it now has a new emphasis. Just as he had once claimed that there is properly no history, only biography, so Representative Men comes close to saying there is properly no literature, there are only literary persons. "There must be a man behind the book," he says of Goethe. "It makes a great difference to the force of any sentence whether there be a man behind it or no." Emerson's representative figures are his Plutarchan heroes. The book is a pantheon of heroes, chosen not from among warriors (except for Napoleon), but from among thinkers and writers, who are of use to us because they represent or symbolize qualities that lie in us, too. They are essays in symbolic literary biography. Assuming that language is representative, that is, symbolic, Emerson says that "Behmen and Swedenborg saw that things were representative." Then, moving, not toward circular idealism, but toward biography, he states: "Men also are representative: first of things, and secondly, of ideas." Emerson identifies in each of his figures some permanent quality of the human mind. He is also a prestructuralist in that he believes that the world people make and inhabit is determined partly or even largely by the structure of the human mind. "Our colossal theologies of Judaism, Christism, Buddhism, Mahometism are the necessary and structural action of the human mind." It follows from this that our reading is a process of recognizing our own thoughts, or capabilities for thought and imagination, in the work and lives of others. Emerson sums this up concisely. "The possibility of interpretation lies in the identity of the observer with the observed." The democratic aesthetic also follows from this. "As to what we call the masses, and common men,--there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere."
Emerson calls Plato's work the bible of educated people, claiming that it is "impossible to think, on certain levels, except through him." Swedenborg saw, and stands for, the interconnectedness of human beings and nature. Shakespeare and Goethe exemplify and stand for the power to express, to convert life into life-giving words. Emerson ends each essay with a review of the shortcomings of the subject. Plato is too literary, not enough the prophet. Swedenborg is over-whelmed by a private and rigid symbolism his reader cannot fully share. The effect of these negative conclusions is to prevent the reader from idolizing or enthroning Plato, Swedenborg, or any other great person. The great ones are of interest to us only because each has something to teach us, and it is the present reader, the student, and not the great writer or teacher whom Emerson really cares about. Each great representative figure "must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation." So the praise of Goethe, whom Emerson seems to have admired above all writers, is for such things as the creation of Mephistopheles in Faust (1808-1832). In order to make the devil real, Goethe "stripped him of mythologic gear, of horns, cloven foot, harpoon tail, brimstone and blue-fire, and instead of looking in books and pictures, looked for him in his own mind, in every shade of coldness, selfishness, and unbelief that, in crowd or in solitude, darkens over the human thought." Thus Goethe reimagines Mephistopheles: "He shall be real; he shall be modern; he shall be European; he shall dress like a gentleman." The result, says Emerson, is that Goethe "flung into literature, in his Mephistopheles, the first organic figure that has been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the Prometheus."
Emerson's final word is reserved for Goethe not Faust, the creator not the creation, and what he says of Goethe is true of Emerson himself. "Goethe teaches courage, and the equivalence of all times.... We too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavens and the earthly world. The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know; in the high refinement of modern life, in art, in sciences, in books, in men, to exact good faith, reality and a purpose; and first, last, midst and without end, to honor every truth by use." Thus, Emerson, like most critics who get their bearings from Plato, has little to say about fiction, about the novel. Fiction he regarded as unreal, but poetry was for him, "the science of the real." In his later writings, while he would comment on novels and romances occasionally, he continued to deepen and widen his conception of poetry.
He also continued to be alert to the social and political contexts of literature. In a speech about Robert Burns in 1859, published in Miscellanies (1884), he noted shrewdly that Burns, "the poet of the middle class, represents in the mind of men to-day that great uprising of the middle class against the armed and privileged minorities, that uprising which worked politically in the American and French Revolutions, and which, not in governments so much as in education and social order, has changed the face of the world." In 1870 he included an essay called "Books" in a volume titled Society and Solitude. The essay contains Emerson's reading list, his recommendations about the best books to read. Coming during the same period as Matthew Arnold's concept of "touchstones," it is an interesting prefiguration of the premise that underlies modern general education, namely that there is a body of knowledge that all educated people should share. For the Greeks, for instance, he lists Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Plato, and Plutarch, then goes on to give some background reading in ancient history and art. It is an eminently practical essay, as well as a useful indication of Emerson's own broad taste.
In 1871, in a short speech on Sir Walter Scott, Emerson linked Scott to his times, noting how Scott, "apprehended in advance the immense enlargement of the reading public ... which his books and Byron's inaugurated." In 1875 Emerson published an anthology of poetry, called Parnassus, which is remarkable both for its inclusions and its exclusions. The volume is heavily weighted toward English poetry. In addition to the expected poets, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Keats, there are substantial selections from such poets as Blake and Clough. Among American poets, there is no Poe, no Whitman, and no Emerson, but interesting selections from--among many others--Thoreau, James Freeman Clarke, Frederic H. Hedge, Bret Harte, and Lucy Larcom. Emerson's range is shown in his inclusion of selections from the Greek Simonides to the Hindu Calidasa.
Emerson had been an admirer of ancient Persian poetry since the mid 1840s, though he only published his essay on Persian poetry in the 1876 volume Letters and Social Aims. Quoting freely from Firdousi, Saadi, Hafiz, Omar Chiam (Khayyám), and others, Emerson expressed his admiration and helped create an audience for the special qualities of Persian verse. Emerson delightedly describes the open avidity with which the ancient Persians approached poetry. "The excitement [the poems] produced exceeds that of the grape." He admired Hafiz's "intellectual liberty" and his unorthodox, unhypocritical stance. "He tells his mistress, that not the dervis, or the monk, but the lover, has in his heart the spirit which makes the ascetic and the saint." Emerson admires "the erotic and bacchanalian songs" of Hafiz, and he especially prizes the way "Hafiz praises wine, roses, maidens, boys, birds, mornings and music, to give vent to his immense hilarity and sympathy with every form of beauty and joy." In this interest in the great Persian poets, we glimpse the Dionysian side of Emerson, the side that appealed so deeply, for example, to the young Nietzsche. It is an important side, without which we run the risk of missing the real Emerson.
The longest essay in Letters and Social Aims is "Poetry and Imagination." It is a fully developed piece, longer in fact than the 1836 book, Nature, and important as the last major restatement and reaffirmation of Emerson's conception of the literary process as one of symbolizing. "A good symbol is the best argument," he writes and explains why. "The value of a trope is that the hearer is one; and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes.... All thinking is analogising, and 'tis the use of life to learn metonomy." If we are symbols and nature is symbol, then what is the reality behind or sustaining the symbols? Emerson's reply is "process." "The endless passing of one element into new forms, the incessant metamorphosis, explains the rank which the imagination holds in our catalogue of mental powers. The imagination is the reader of these [symbolic] forms. The poet accounts all productions and changes of Nature as the nouns of language, uses them representatively." The result is that "every new object so seen gives a shock of agreeable surprise." "Poetry," Emerson concludes, "is the only verity.... As a power, it is the perception of the symbolic character of things, and the treating them as representative," and he quotes William Blake to the same end.
Emerson's critical theory did not really change after Nature and "The Poet," but it did become more practical, more carefully thought out, and better focused. Emerson began as an American idealist or transcendentalist, and as that position enlarged and deepened with time, Emerson came to be seen not only as a great modern representative of the Platonic, idealist tradition but a major romantic symbolist. His work can also be seen as an early prefiguring, in some ways, of modern movements toward symbolism, structuralism, and reader-centered criticism. The central aspect of his still-vital influence, however, is his insistence that literature means literary activity.
FURTHER READINGS ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The main collection of Emerson papers is the Ralph Waldo Emerson Memorial Association collection in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
Written by: Robert D. Richardson, Jr., University of Colorado
Source: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 59: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1800-1850. A Bruccoli Clark Layman Book. Edited by John W. Rathburn, California State University, Los Angeles and Monica M. Grecu, University of Nevada at Reno. Gale Research, 1987. pp. 108-129.
Source Database: Dictionary of Literary Biography
Back to Fall Reading List
USEM 27B Syllabus
Andreas Teuber's Home Page