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About this poet

American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. After studying at Harvard and teaching for a brief time, Emerson entered the ministry. He was appointed to the Old Second Church in his native city, but soon became an unwilling preacher. Unable in conscience to administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper after the death of his nineteen-year-old wife of tuberculosis, Emerson resigned his pastorate in 1831.

The following year, he sailed for Europe, visiting Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carlyle, the Scottish-born English writer, was famous for his explosive attacks on hypocrisy and materialism, his distrust of democracy, and his highly romantic belief in the power of the individual. Emerson's friendship with Carlyle was both lasting and significant; the insights of the British thinker helped Emerson formulate his own philosophy.

On his return to New England, Emerson became known for challenging traditional thought. In 1835, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, and settled in Concord, Massachusetts. Known in the local literary circle as "The Sage of Concord," Emerson became the chief spokesman for Transcendentalism, the American philosophic and literary movement. Centered in New England during the 19th century, Transcendentalism was a reaction against scientific rationalism.

Emerson's first book, Nature (1836), is perhaps the best expression of his Transcendentalism, the belief that everything in our world—even a drop of dew—is a microcosm of the universe. His concept of the Over-Soul—a Supreme Mind that every man and woman share—allowed Transcendentalists to disregard external authority and to rely instead on direct experience. "Trust thyself," Emerson's motto, became the code of Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and W. E. Channing. From 1842 to 1844, Emerson edited the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial.

Emerson wrote a poetic prose, ordering his essays by recurring themes and images. His poetry, on the other hand, is often called harsh and didactic. Among Emerson's most well known works are Essays, First and Second Series (1841, 1844). The First Series includes Emerson's famous essay, "Self-Reliance," in which the writer instructs his listener to examine his relationship with Nature and God, and to trust his own judgment above all others.

Emerson's other volumes include Poems (1847), Representative Men, The Conduct of Life (1860), and English Traits (1865). His best-known addresses are The American Scholar (1837) and The Divinity School Address, which he delivered before the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School, shocking Boston's conservative clergymen with his descriptions of the divinity of man and the humanity of Jesus.

Emerson's philosophy is characterized by its reliance on intuition as the only way to comprehend reality, and his concepts owe much to the works of Plotinus, Swedenborg, and Böhme. A believer in the "divine sufficiency of the individual," Emerson was a steady optimist. His refusal to grant the existence of evil caused Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr., among others, to doubt his judgment. In spite of their skepticism, Emerson's beliefs are of central importance in the history of American culture.

Ralph Waldo Emerson died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882.


Selected Bibliography

Prose

Essays: First Series (1841)
Essays: Second Series (1844)
Addresses, and Lectures (1849)
Representative Men (1850)
The Conduct of Life (1860)
English Traits (1865)
Society and Solitude (1870)

The Sphinx

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803 - 1882
The Sphinx is drowsy,
        The wings are furled;
Her ear is heavy,
        She broods on the world.
"Who'll tell me my secret,
        The ages have kept?--
I awaited the seer,
        While they slumbered and slept;--

"The fate of the man-child;
        The meaning of man;
Known fruit of the unknown;
        Daedalian plan;
Out of sleeping a waking,
        Out of waking a sleep;
Life death overtaking;
        Deep underneath deep?

"Erect as a sunbeam,
        Upspringeth the palm;
The elephant browses,
        Undaunted and calm;
In beautiful motion
        The thrush plies his wings;
Kind leaves of his covert,
        Your silence he sings.

"The waves, unashamed,
        In difference sweet,
Play glad with the breezes,
        Old playfellows meet;
The journeying atoms,
        Primordial wholes,
Firmly draw, firmly drive,
        By their animate poles.

"Sea, earth, air, sound, silence,
        Plant, quadruped, bird,
By one music enchanted,
        One deity stirred,--
Each the other adorning,
        Accompany still;
Night veileth the morning,
        The vapor the hill.

"The babe by its mother
        Lies bathed in joy;
Glide its hours uncounted,--
        The sun is its toy;
Shines the peace of all being,
        Without cloud, in its eyes;
And the sum of the world
        In soft miniature lies.

"But man crouches and blushes,
        Absconds and conceals;
He creepeth and peepeth,
        He palters and steals;
Infirm, melancholy,
        Jealous glancing around,
An oaf, an accomplice,
        He poisons the ground.

"Outspoke the great mother,
        Beholding his fear;--
At the sound of her accents
        Cold shuddered the sphere:--
'Who has drugged my boy's cup?
        Who has mixed my boy's bread?
Who, with sadness and madness,
        Has turned the man-child's head?'" 

I heard a poet answer,
        Aloud and cheerfully,
"Say on, sweet Sphinx! thy dirges
        Are pleasant songs to me.
Deep love lieth under
        These pictures of time; 
They fad in the light of
        Their meaning sublime.

"The fiend that man harries
        Is love of the Best;
Yawns the pit of the Dragon,
        Lit by rays from the Blest.
The Lethe of nature
        Can't trace him again,
Whose soul sees the perfect,
        Which his eyes seek in vain.

"Profounder, profounder,
        Man's spirit must dive;
To his aye-rolling orbit
        No goal will arrive;
The heavens that now draw him
        With sweetness untold,
Once found,--for new heavens
        He spurneth the old.

"Pride ruined the angels,
        Their shame them restores;
And the joy that is sweetest
        Lurks in stings of remorse.
Have I a lover
        Who is noble and free?--
I would he were nobler
        Than to love me.

"Eterne alternation
        Now follows, now flied;
And under pain, pleasure,--
        Under pleasure, pain lies.
Love works at the centre,
        Heart-heaving alway;
Forth speed the strong pulses
        To the borders of day.

"Dull Sphinx, Jove keep thy five wits!
        Thy sight is growing blear;
Rue, myrrh, and cummin for the Sphinx--
        Her muddy eyes to clear!"--
The old Sphinx bit her thick lip,--
        Said, "Who taught thee me to name?
I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow,
        Of thine eye I am eyebeam.

"Thou art the unanswered question;
        Couldst see they proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh;
        And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
        It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
        Time is the false reply."

Uprose the merry Sphinx,
        And crouched no more in stone;
She melted into purple cloud,
        She silvered in the moon;
She spired into a yellow flame;
        She flowered in blossoms red;
She flowed into a foaming wave;
        She stood Monadnoc's head.

Through a thousand voices
        Spoke the universal dame:
"Who telleth one of my meanings,
        Is master of all I am."

From Collected Poems & Translations by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published by Library of America.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803

by this poet

poem
The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.
poem
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdom, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my
poem
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
    Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
    And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
    Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
    Down the dark stream