Ralph Waldo Emerson | Poetry Foundation (2023)

Ralph Waldo Emerson—a New England preacher, essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher—was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the 19th century in the United States. Emerson was also the first major American literary and intellectual figure to widely explore, write seriously about, and seek to broaden the domestic audience for classical Asian and Middle Eastern works. He not only gave countless readers their first exposure to non-Western modes of thinking, metaphysical concepts, and sacred mythologies; he also shaped the way subsequent generations of American writers and thinkers approached the vast cultural resources of Asia and the Middle East.

Emerson was born on May 25, 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts. As a boy, his first contact with the non-Western world came by way of the merchandise that bustled across the India Wharf in Boston harbor, a major nexus of the Indo-Chinese trade that flourished in New England after the Revolutionary War. Emerson’s first contact with writings from and about the non-Western world came by way of his father, William Emerson, a Unitarian minister with a genteel interest in learning and letters.

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In 1817, at the age of 14, Emerson entered Harvard College. While at Harvard, Emerson had little opportunity to study the diverse literary and religious traditions of Asia or the Middle East. The curriculum focused on Greek and Roman writers, British logicians and philosophers, Euclidean geometry and algebra, and post-Enlightenment defenses of revealed religion. As his journals and library borrowing records attest, however, in his spare time, Emerson paid keen attention to the wider European Romantic interest in the “Orient” or the “East,” which to him meant the ancient lands and sacred traditions east of classical Greece, such as Egypt, the Arabian Peninsula, Persia, China, and India. An aspiring poet, Emerson also gravitated to selections of poetry that took up Eastern themes and Eastern poetry, including the works of Saadi andHafez, which he would embrace in adulthood.

Like other Anglo-American readers of his period, Emerson relied heavily on British colonial agents for his knowledge of India, reading treatises, travelogues, and translations of legal, religious, and poetic texts produced in the wake of Britain’s imperial expansion into India. As a consequence, Emerson’s writing about South Asia (as well as China, Persia, and the Arab world) often traffics in the menagerie of 19th century Euro-American stereotypes and misconceptions. Examples can be found in Emerson’s “Indian Superstition,” a densely allusive poem that he composed for Harvard College’s graduation ceremonies in 1822. In the 156-line poem, Emerson describes how “Superstition,” the personification of religious tyranny in Asia, has enslaved “[D]ishonored India.” With its Romantic primitivism and bombastic imagery, “Indian Superstition” is perhaps closer to caricature than considered literary art. Yet, for all its excess, Emerson’s poem is notable for departing from a common formula of the period according to which a debased India could only be redeemed through Western colonialism. Instead, Emerson urges Indians to resist the shackles of the British Empire as forcefully as they should resist the mental chains of religious superstition. He exhorts ordinary Indians to look upon the example of post-revolution America as an emblem of what a modern democratic nation could achieve.

After he graduated from Harvard, Emerson’s enthusiasm for non-Western subjects waned, primarily because he devoted himself to becoming a Unitarian minister. In 1831 Emerson’s wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson, died of tuberculosis, an event that galvanized a series of personal and professional changes in his life. The next year Emerson resigned his pulpit at the Second Church of Boston, publicly citing the fact that he did not believe in the special divinity of Jesus and thus could no longer administer the sacrament of communion. After traveling through Europe, where he met literary luminaries such as William Wordsworth and Thomas Carlyle, Emerson returned to his ancestral home in Concord, Massachusetts. He began a career as a public lecturer, which lasted almost 50 years, and married Lydia Jackson, whom he affectionately referred to as “Mine Asia”—a pun on Asia Minor, the location of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. In 1836 Emerson publishedNature,the first major statement of his mature philosophy and a groundbreaking book that catalyzed the Transcendentalist movement in New England. Along with Emerson, the New England Transcendentalists were an eclectic group of religious, literary, educational, and social reformers that included Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Theodore Parker, and Henry David Thoreau. The movement grew out of Unitarianism in the greater Boston area; was deeply influenced by British and German Romanticism, especially as interpreted by Samuel Taylor Coleridge; and revolved around a form of philosophical and spiritual idealism that valued intuition over the senses.

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With the publication of hisEssaysin 1841 andEssays: Second Seriesin 1844, Emerson emerged as a trans-Atlantic literary celebrity. In his essays from this period Emerson did not explicitly take up Eastern subjects or ideas; however, scholars agree that there are similarities between Emerson’s “Over-Soul” in his 1841 essay of that name and the Hindu conception ofBrahman. Scholars also agree that there are similarities between Emerson’s belief described in his 1841 essay “Compensation” and the Hindu doctrine ofkarma. Moreover, in his published writings during this period, Emerson cited maxims, referred to prominent figures, and otherwise incorporated allusions drawn from Asian and Middle Eastern literatures with surprising regularity. He added these “lustres” to his nonfiction writing for at least two reasons. First, by treating non-Western texts with the same respect afforded cultural authorities in the Western traditions, he could disrupt the parochial expectations of his American and European audiences. Second, by adducing evidence from traditions outside of America and Europe, he could assert the universality of his observations on society, fate, ethics, and philosophy. Emerson’s engagement with Eastern cultural sources is also evident in his poetry from the 1840s. For example, inspired by his reading of Persian verse, Emerson wrote “Saadi” in 1842, a poetic tribute to the aphorist, panegyrist, and lyrical poet of the same name.

When scholars discuss the limitations of Emerson’s writing about the East, they often refer to the essay “Plato; or the Philosopher,” published inRepresentative Menin 1850. In that volume, Emerson argues that the Greek philosopher brought together the two “cardinal facts” at the core of all philosophy: Unity and Variety. According to Emerson, the tendency to “dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity” is primarily an Eastern trait, while the impulse toward variety is a Western one. Emerson praises in Plato what he probably valued in himself—an ability to synthesize the best aspects of unity and variety, immensity and detail, East and West. And yet Emerson’s conceptualization of the East in the “Plato” essay poses problems that are worth noting.

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As scholars have observed, when Emerson claims to speak about “Asia,” he seems to have India in mind (that is, the country with the “social institution of caste”). It is a muddling of distinctions that suggests Emerson was unconcerned about the vital differences among the cultures of Asia and the Middle East. Emerson also eschews political or economic comparisons in favor of idealized intellectual ones, supporting the notion that “the East” was more for him an abstract idea than a place inhabited by actual people. Also, even though Emerson purports to offer a balanced view of an East that “[loves] infinity” and a West that [“delights] in boundaries,” his language seems to favor Europe—with its activity, creativity, “discipline,” “arts, inventions, trade, freedom”—over Asia, with its “immovable institutions” and “deaf, unimplorable, immense fate.” Emerson’s vague and polarized thinking in “Plato” closely aligns with the stereotypical typologies about East and West that prevailed in the wider culture, pointing to the limits of Emerson’s intellectual vision when trying to imagine the Eastern Other.

In 1856 Emerson composed a lyric poem originally called “Song of the Soul” and later published in theAtlanticin 1857 under the title “Brahma.” The poem dramatizes an idea that Emerson closely associated with Hinduism; namely, that the material world is essentially an illusory mask of the divine spirit that dwells in all beings. Although it stands to reason that the poem is written from the perspective of Brahma, the Hindu god of creation, or even Brahman, the absolute or universal soul, the speaker in the poem does not name itself. Instead, the speaker enumerates the ways in which it eludes characterization. The opening lines of the four-stanza verse exemplify the riddle-like quality of the poem as a whole: “If the red slayer think he slays, / Or if the slain think he is slain,/ They know not well the subtle ways / I keep, and pass, and turn again.”

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In many ways, “Brahma” is a distillation of Emerson’s reading of Hindu sacred literatures over the previous two decades, from theBaghavad Gitato theKatha Upanishad. When “Brahma” inspired dozens of mocking parodies in theAtlantic—its paradoxical style proved to be too much for many antebellum American readers, who objected to its exotic obscurities—Emerson told his daughter that one did not need to adopt a Hindu perspective to understand the poem. One could easily substitute “Jehovah” for “Brahma,” he explained, and not lose the sense of the verse.

In 1858 Emerson published a long essay, “Persian Poetry,” in theAtlantic. As a way of introducing American readers to what was likely an unfamiliar poetic tradition, Emerson drew parallels between Persian poetry and Homeric epics, English ballads, and the works of William Shakespeare. He also noted that the legends of Persian mythology could sometimes be found in the Hebrew Bible. As part of his exposition, Emerson included his own English translations of the poets Hafez, Saadi,Khayyam, and Enweri, by way of the German translations of Persian poetry by Baron von Hammer-Purgstall. Emerson had no competence in any Asian or Middle Eastern language, and he never read a non-Western text in its original language. But Emerson had been translating von Hammer’s German texts in his journals since 1846. By the end of his life, Emerson produced at least 64 translations, totaling more than 700 lines of Persian verse, many of which can be found in “Orientalist,” a notebook he began to keep in the 1850s.

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In 1872 Emerson sailed for England and then Egypt with his daughter, Ellen. As he toured the cities of Alexandria and Cairo, Emerson noted observations about the Pyramids, the Nile River, and his woeful ignorance of the Arabic language. But at 70 years old, Emerson’s most significant writings about the East were behind him. Ten years later, on April 27, 1882, Emerson died in Concord, leaving an enduring legacy as the seminal figure of modern American Orientalism. His lifelong excursions into the libraries of classical Asian and Middle Eastern literatures were those of an enthusiast instead of a rigorous scholar, and he often relied on crude Romantic stereotypes and failed to recognize the differences among the cultures and peoples of the East. But Ralph Waldo Emerson expanded the Eastern horizons of generations of American readers and writers, and he persuasively demonstrated how classical Indian, Chinese, and Persian works could be used as a means to bring the inquiring self into a fresh appreciation of its own profound powers.


What is Ralph Waldo Emerson's most famous quote? ›

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.

What is the theme and main point of the poet by Emerson? ›

First published in the 1844 edition of Essays, “The Poet” contains Emerson's thoughts on what makes a poet, and what that person's role in society should be. He argues that the poet is a seer who penetrates the mysteries of the universe and articulates the universal truths that bind humanity together.

What was the shot heard round the world in Emerson's poem? ›

The scene Emerson describes is the fight at the North Bridge in Concord, Massachusetts. It was there that American minutemen fired on (and successfully turned back) an advancing column of British regulars who had been sent into town to seize a hidden cache of rebel arms.

What is Emerson saying in the poet? ›

In “The Poet,” Emerson also states that good poetry is not solely a matter of technical prowess: “for it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—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. ...

What is the most famous line of all time? ›

Famous Movie Quotes
  • “ May the Force be with you.” - Star Wars, 1977.
  • “ There's no place like home.” - The Wizard of Oz, 1939.
  • “ I'm the king of the world!” - ...
  • “ Carpe diem. ...
  • “ Elementary, my dear Watson.” - ...
  • “ It's alive! ...
  • “ My mama always said life was like a box of chocolates. ...
  • “ I'll be back.” -
Sep 21, 2018

What is the main message of the poem? ›

Theme is the lesson or message of the poem.

What are 3 significant things about Emerson? ›

1 ) Ralph Waldo Emerson was a leader in the Transcendentalism movement in America. 2 ) At the age of 14, Emerson was the youngest student in his class at Harvard. He graduated from Harvard Divinity School as a Unitarian minister. 3 ) Emerson left the Unitarian church in 1832 due to philosophical differences.

What was Emerson's message? ›

In his essay, "Self Reliance," Emerson's sole purpose is the want for people to avoid conformity. Emerson believed that in order for a man to truly be a man, he was to follow his own conscience and "do his own thing." Essentially, do what you believe is right instead of blindly following society.

What does rude bridge that arched the flood mean? ›

The "rude bridge" refers to the Old North Bridge in Concord, and it was customary for American troops to carry the American flag into battle. The phrase "April breeze" refers to the month when the shot was fired.

What was so important about the shot heard around the world? ›

“And fired the shot heard round the world.” Although not uttered at the time of the engagement in April 1775, the “shot” marked the turning point of the fracas between the American Colonies and Great Britain. With shots fired, there was no turning back, and that evening the British found themselves trapped in Boston.

What does their flag to April's breeze unfurled mean? ›

Next to the river are the main characters of the narrative, the “embattled farmers.” They are standing next to the water's edge holding a “flag” which has just “unfurled” in “April's breeze.” The flag stands as a proud representative of the American cause and pursuit of freedom from Great Britain.

What does Emerson believe about God? ›

Like his British Romantic contemporaries, Emerson saw a direct connection between man, nature and God. Historian Grant Wacker describes Emerson's belief: "God was best understood as a spirit, an ideal, a breath of life; everywhere and always filling the world with the inexhaustible power of the divine presence.

What were Emerson's two most important essays? ›

People Influenced By Emerson

His well-known essays were Civil Disobedience and Life Without Principle.

What is Emerson's famous metaphor? ›

Probably the most pervasive metaphor throughout Emerson's writings is the image of water. The fluidity of water, its clarity, and its shapeless character seem to have fascinated him. Water has several meanings, all of which relate to basic concepts associated with independence, transcendence, and spiritual insight.

What are 2 famous quotes? ›

Quotes by Famous People
  • The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. - ...
  • The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. - ...
  • Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. ...
  • If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor. -
Jan 2, 2023

What is a very powerful quote? ›

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” — Reinhold Niebuhr.

What are some 3 word quotes? ›

110 Memorable Three-Word Quotes That Are Short And Sweet
  • “I'll be there.”
  • “I love you.”
  • “Maybe you're right.”
  • “I trust you.”
  • “Go for it.”
  • “Got your back.”
  • “How are you?”
  • “I want you.”
Mar 21, 2022

What is the most inspiring quote? ›

100 Inspirational Quotes
  • "When you have a dream, you've got to grab it and never let go." ...
  • "Nothing is impossible. ...
  • "There is nothing impossible to they who will try." ...
  • "The bad news is time flies. ...
  • "Life has got all those twists and turns. ...
  • "Keep your face always toward the sunshine, and shadows will fall behind you."
Dec 29, 2022

What best quote can sum up your life? ›

Life Quotes
  • " The purpose of our lives is to be happy." — Dalai Lama.
  • " Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." — John Lennon.
  • " Get busy living or get busy dying." — Stephen King.
  • " You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." — Mae West.
  • " ...
  • " ...
  • " ...
  • "
Dec 5, 2022

What are 2 inspirational quotes? ›

You can do it quotes
  • “Do the best you can. ...
  • “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” ―Theodore Roosevelt.
  • 'It's never too late to be what you might've been.” ―George Eliot.
  • “If you can dream it, you can do it.” ―Walt Disney.
  • “Trust yourself that you can do it and get it.” ―Baz Luhrmann.
May 24, 2022

What was Ralph Waldo Emerson motto? ›

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.

What did Emerson say was genius? ›

To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius.

What are 5 famous quotes? ›

Quotes by Famous People
  • The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall. - ...
  • The way to get started is to quit talking and begin doing. - ...
  • Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. ...
  • If life were predictable it would cease to be life, and be without flavor. -
Jan 2, 2023

What did Emerson believe about life? ›

Emerson is quoted as saying “My life is for itself and not for a spectacle.” I think that he means that each and every person has their own life to live and that they shouldn't devote their time to worrying about what other people are doing. You have enough to worry about with what's going on in your own lives.

What are Emerson rules to live by? ›

Emerson's principles for a good life are simple: Live with enthusiasm and passion. Don't take things too seriously or too lightly. Take each day as it comes, and do your best to be the person you want to be. Be curious about the world around you and try to understand what makes other people tick.

What does Emerson say about small minds? ›

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.

What are 3 famous metaphors? ›

Famous metaphors
  • “The Big Bang.” ...
  • “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. ...
  • “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” ...
  • “I am the good shepherd, … and I lay down my life for the sheep.” ...
  • “All religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” ...
  • “Chaos is a friend of mine.”

What is Emerson's main argument in The American Scholar? ›

In his speech, titled “The American Scholar,” Emerson called for the young country to develop a national intellectual life distinct from lingering colonial influences. He also delivered an incisive critique of his audience, condemning academic scholarship for its reliance on historical and institutional wisdom.

What lesson does the speaker learn in Emerson's? ›

American Renaissance
What lesson does the speaker learn in Emerson's poem"Each and All"?not to separate parts from the whole
With which statement would Emerson most likely agree?a fulfilled person is one who has followed his or her conscience
The final mood of the poem"The Raven" is one of _______.despair
12 more rows

What is Emerson's overall purpose in his essay? ›

Its sense of freedom and renewal of spirit. What is Emerson's overall purpose of his essay? To get people into/excited about nature.

What is the summary of Emerson's essay? ›

Emerson argues that people must embrace nonconformity to recover their self-reliance, even if doing so requires the individual to reject what most people believe is goodness. Emerson believes that there is a better kind of virtue than the opinions of respected people or demands for charity for the needy.

What is the summary of Emerson's essay the over? ›

Emerson now focuses on how the Over-Soul unites people and manifests itself in society. He asserts that God's spirit is present in our every conversation: "In all conversation between two persons, tacit reference is made as to a third party, to a common nature.


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