The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Emerson, Ralph Waldo
EMERSON, Ralph Waldo, an American poet and essayist, born in Boston, Mass., May 25, 1803. He is the son of the Rev. William Emerson, pastor of the first church in that city. In his eighth year, on the death of his father, he was sent to one of the public grammar schools, and was soon qualified to enter the Latin school. Here his first attempts in literary composition were made, consisting of original poems recited at exhibitions of the school. He entered Harvard college in 1817, and graduated in August, 1821. He does not appear to have held a high rank in his class, though the records show that he twice received a Bowdoin prize for dissertations, and once a Boylston prize for declamation. He was also the poet of his class on “class day.” While at the university he made more use of the library than is common among students, and was distinguished among his classmates for his knowledge of general literature. For five years after leaving college he was engaged in teaching school. In 1826 he was “approbated to preach” by the Middlesex association of ministers; but his health at this time failing, he spent the winter in South Carolina and Florida. In March, 1829, he was ordained as colleague of Henry Ware, at the second Unitarian church of Boston. He belongs to a clerical race. For eight generations, reckoning back to his ancestor Peter Bulkley, one of the founders of Concord, Mass., there had always been a clergyman in the family, either on the paternal or maternal side. He was the eighth in succession of this consecutive line of ministers. In 1832 he asked and received a dismission from the second church, on account of differences of opinion between himself and its members touching the Lord's supper; and in December he sailed for Europe, where he remained nearly a year. On his return in the winter of 1833-'4 he began his career as a lecturer, with a discourse before the Boston mechanics' institute on the subject of “Water.” Three others followed, two on Italy descriptive of his recent tour in that country, and the last on the “Relation of Man to the Globe.” In 1834 he delivered in Boston a series of biographical lectures on Michel Angelo, Milton, Luther, George Fox, and Edmund Burke, the first two of which were afterward published in the “North American Review.” In this year also he read at Cambridge a poem before the Phi Beta Kappa society. In 1835 he fixed his residence at Concord, Mass., where he has since lived. During the winter he delivered in Boston a course of 10 lectures on English literature. These were followed, in 1836, by 12 lectures on the philosophy of history; in 1837, by 10 lectures on human culture; in 1838, by 10 lectures on human life; in 1839, by 10 lectures on the present age; in 1841, by 7 lectures on the times; and since that period he has delivered several courses of lectures in Boston. A small volume entitled “Nature” (1836), an oration before the Phi Beta Kappa society, with the title of “The American Scholar” (1837), an address to the senior class of the Cambridge divinity school (1838), and “The Method of Nature” (1841), contained the most prominent peculiarities of his scheme of idealism, and by their freshness and depth of thought, and compact beauty of expression, allured many readers into becoming disciples. In 1840 a quarterly periodical called “The Dial” was commenced, with Miss Margaret Fuller as editor, assisted by A. B. Alcott, William H. Channing, Mr. Emerson, Theodore Parker, George Ripley, and others. It was published for four years, and during the last two years of its existence it was under the editorship of Mr. Emerson. In 1841 the first, and in 1844 the second series of his “Essays” were published. In 1846 he collected and published a volume of his poems. The next year he visited England to fulfil an engagement to deliver a series of lectures before a union of mechanics' institutes and other societies. In 1849 he collected in one volume entitled “Miscellanies” his “Nature” and nine lectures and college addresses, which had been previously issued in pamphlet form, or printed in “The Dial.” In 1850 “Essays on Representative Men,” a series of masterly mental portraits, with some of the features overcharged, was published. To the “Memoirs of Margaret Fuller Ossoli,” which appeared in 1852, he contributed some admirable interpretative criticism. In 1856 he published “English Traits,” a work in which he seizes and emphasizes the characteristics of the English mind and people; and in 1860 “The Conduct of Life.” His contributions to the “Atlantic Monthly” have been collected. “May Day and Other Pieces” (poems) appeared in 1867; “Society and Solitude” in 1870. A revised edition of his “Prose Works Complete” was published in 1869. Mr. Emerson has also delivered many unpublished addresses on slavery, woman's rights, and other topics of public interest; and he has been one of the most prominent of the lecturers who address the lyceums of the country. — As a writer, Mr. Emerson is distinguished for a singular union of poetic imagination with practical acuteness. His vision takes a wide sweep in the realms of the ideal, but is no less firm and penetrating in the sphere of facts. His observations on society, on manners, on character, on institutions, are stamped with sagacity, and indicate a familiar knowledge of the homely phases of life, which are seldom viewed in their poetical relations. One side of his wisdom is worldly wisdom. The brilliant transcendentalist is evidently a man not easy to be deceived in matters pertaining to the ordinary course of human affairs. His common-sense shrewdness is vivified by a pervasive wit. With him, however, wit is not an end, but a means, and usually employed for the detection of pretence and imposture. Mr. Emerson's practical understanding is sometimes underrated from the fact that he never groups his thoughts by the methods of logic. He gives few reasons, even when he is most reasonable. He does not prove, but announces, aiming directly at the intelligence of his readers, without striving to extract a reluctant assent by force of argument. Insight, not reasoning, is his process. The bent of his mind is to ideal laws, which are perceived by the intuitive faculty, and are beyond the province of dialectics. Equally conspicuous is his tendency to embody ideas in the forms of imagination. No spiritual abstraction is so evanescent but he thus transforms it into a concrete reality. He seldom indulges in the expression of sentiment, and in his nature emotion seems to be less the product of the heart than of the brain. Mr. Emerson's style is in the nicest harmony with the character of his thought. It is condensed almost to abruptness. Occasionally he purchases compression at the expense of clearness, and his merits as a writer consist rather in the choice of words than in the connection of sentences, though his diction is vitalized by the presence of a powerful creative element. The singular beauty and intense life and significance of his language demonstrate that he has not only something to say, but knows exactly how to say it. Fluency, however, is out of the question in a style which combines such austere economy of words with the determination to load every word with vital meaning. But the great characteristic of Mr. Emerson's intellect is the perception and sentiment of beauty. So strong is this, that he accepts nothing in life that is morbid, uncomely, haggard, or ghastly. The fact that an opinion depresses, instead of invigorating, is with him a sufficient reason for its rejection. His observation, his wit, his reason, his imagination, his style, all obey the controlling sense of beauty, which is at the heart of his nature, and instinctively avoid the ugly and the base. Those portions of Mr. Emerson's writings which relate to philosophy and religion may be considered as fragmentary contributions to the “Philosophy of the Infinite.” He has no system, and indeed system in his mind is associated with charlatanism. His largest generalization is “Existence.” On this inscrutable theme his conceptions vary with his moods and experience. Sometimes it seems to be man who parts with his personality in being united to God; sometimes it seems to be God who is impersonal, and who comes to personality only in man; and the real obscurity or vacillation of his metaphysical ideas is increased by the vivid and positive concrete forms in which they are successively clothed.