Excerpts from Major American Poets: Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)

As previously noted, I recently started reading a couple cast-off mid-20th-century anthologies of American poetry. As I move through them, I’m going to post interesting snippets from some of the authors in chronological order. Today’s poet is the great Ralph Waldo Emerson.

As most American readers will know, Emerson is one of the towering literary and philosophical figures of the 19th century and the father of American Transcendentalism. Although he is best known for his essays—including “Nature” (1836), “The American Scholar” (1837), and “Self-Reliance” (1841)—he was also an accomplished poet. For a little background on his life, here’s an abridged summary from Biography.com:

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. […] [H]is father was a clergyman, as many of his male ancestors had been. He attended […] Harvard University and the Harvard School of Divinity. He was licensed as a minister in 1826 and ordained to the Unitarian church in 1829.

Emerson married Ellen Tucker in 1829. When she died of tuberculosis in 1831, he was grief-stricken. Her death, added to his own recent crisis of faith, caused him to resign from the clergy.

In 1832 Emerson traveled to Europe, where he met with literary figures Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. When he returned home in 1833, he began to lecture on topics of spiritual experience and ethical living. He moved to Concord, Massachusetts, in 1834 […]

Emerson’s early preaching had often touched on the personal nature of spirituality. Now he found kindred spirits in a circle of writers and thinkers who lived in Concord, including Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau and Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott). […]

Emerson became known as the central figure of his literary and philosophical group, now known as the American Transcendentalists. These writers shared a key belief that each individual could transcend, or move beyond, the physical world of the senses into deeper spiritual experience through free will and intuition. In this school of thought, God was not remote and unknowable; believers understood God and themselves by looking into their own souls and by feeling their own connection to nature. […]

Emerson’s later work […] favored a more moderate balance between individual nonconformity and broader societal concerns. He advocated for the abolition of slavery and continued to lecture across the country throughout the 1860s.

By the 1870s the aging Emerson was known as “the sage of Concord.” […] Emerson died on April 27, 1882, in Concord. His beliefs and his idealism were strong influences on the work of his protégé Henry David Thoreau and his contemporary Walt Whitman, as well as numerous others.

I don’t quite buy into some aspects of Emerson’s thought, particularly his unrealistic emphasis on “self-reliance,” but I certainly admire some of his work. I’ve long been drawn to some of the ideals of Transcendentalism, even if they’re a little overly romantic. I’m looking forward to reading Thoreau later this year.

Anyway, without further ado, here are some of the more interesting snippets from Emerson’s poetry:

On what we can learn from the rhodora, a common flowering shrub…

Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there, brought you.

On cutting the ribbon for a memorial at the Battle of Concord 60+ years after it happened…

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. […]

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set today a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

On the wisdom of the humble bumblebee, the “yellow-breeched philosopher”…

Wiser far than human seer,
Yellow-breeched philosopher!
Seeing only what is fair,
Sipping only what is sweet,
Thou dost mock at fate and care,
Leave the chaff, and take the wheat.
When the fierce northwestern blast
Cools sea and land so far and fast,
Thou already slumberest deep;
Woe and want thou canst outsleep;
Want and woe, which torture us,
Thy sleep makes ridiculous.

On the often unrecognized and unacknowledged value of each of us to the whole…

Little thinks, in the field, yon red-cloaked clown*
Of thee from the hill-top looking down;
The heifer that lows in the upland farm,
Far-heard, lows not thine ear to charm;
The sexton, tolling his bell at noon,
Deems not that great Napoleon
Stops his horse, and lists with delight,
Whilst his files sweep round yon Alpine height;
Nor knowest thou what argument
Thy life to thy neighbor’s creed has lent.
All are needed by each one;
Nothing is fair or good alone.

* The poem shows the narrator becoming aware of how everything contributes to “the perfect whole.” It begins with the observation that “yon red-cloaked clown,” apparently a man standing in a field, does not think about the observer looking at him, nor does the heifer think of the person who hears it lowing.

On perceiving the Holy Spirit of Pentecost out in the world…

Ever the fiery Pentecost
Girds with one flame the countless host,
Trances the heart through chanting choirs,
And through the priest the mind inspires.
The word unto the prophet spoken
Was writ on tables yet unbroken;
The word by seers or sibyls told,
In groves of oak, or fanes of gold,
Still floats upon the morning wind,
Still whispers to the willing mind.

On escaping the ugliness of the human world for the joys of his “sylvan home”…

Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home:
Thou art not my friend, and I’m not thine.
Long through thy weary crowds I roam;
A river-ark on the ocean brine,
Long I’ve been tossed like the driven foam;
But now, proud world! I’m going home.

Good-bye to Flattery’s fawning face;
To Grandeur with his wise grimace;
To upstart Wealth’s averted eye;
To supple Office, low and high;
To crowded halls, to court and street;
To frozen hearts and hasting feet;
To those who go, and those who come;
Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home.

I am going to my own hearth-stone,
Bosomed in yon green hills alone, —
A secret nook in a pleasant land,
Whose groves the frolic fairies planned;
Where arches green, the livelong day,
Echo the blackbird’s roundelay,*
And vulgar feet have never trod
A spot that is sacred to thought and God.

O, when I am safe in my sylvan home,**
I tread on the pride of Greece and Rome;
And when I am stretched beneath the pines,
Where the evening star so holy shines,
I laugh at the lore and the pride of man,
At the sophist schools, and the learned clan;
For what are they all, in their high conceit,
When man in the bush with God may meet?

* A “roundelay” is a short, simple song with a refrain.
** “Sylvan” means consisting of or associated with woods.

On the special earthy pleasures of the wise…

The timid it concerns to ask their way,
And fear what foe in caves and swamps can stray,
To make no step until the event is known,
And ills to come as evils past bemoan:
Not so the wise; no coward watch he keeps,
To spy what danger on his pathway creeps;
Go where he will, the wise man is at home,
His hearth the earth; — his hall the azure dome;
Where his clear spirit leads him, there’s his road,
By God’s own light illumined and foreshowed.

On what the earth might say to us if it had the chance, and the poet’s brief response…

“Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Earth endures;
Stars abide—
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen. […]

“Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound and flood.
But the heritors?—
Fled like the flood’s foam.
The lawyer and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.

“They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?”

When I heard the Earth-song
I was no longer brave;
My avarice cooled
Like lust in the chill of the grave.

On the curse of slavery in the mid-1800s and the materialistic economic ideology that undergirds it…

What boots thy zeal,
O glowing friend,
That would indignant rend
The northland from the south?
Wherefore? to what good end?
Boston Bay and Bunker Hill
Would serve things still; —
Things are of the snake.

The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
‘Tis the day of the chattel
Web to weave, and corn to grind;
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete,
Not reconciled,—
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.

On where our true treasures ought to lie…

Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good-fame,
Plans, credit and the Muse,—
Nothing refuse.

’Tis a brave master;
Let it have scope:
Follow it utterly,
Hope beyond hope:
High and more high […]

On nearing the end of life with acceptance and hope…

It is time to be old,
To take in sail:—
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds,
And said: “No more!
No farther shoot
Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root.” […]

As the bird trims her to the gale,
I trim myself to the storm of time,
I man the rudder, reef the sail,
Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime:
“Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.”

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