Literary Criticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson (1803–1882), the most articulate exponent of American Romanticism, was a poet; but he was distinguished primarily by his contributions to literary and cultural criticism. He was the leading advocate of American “transcendentalism” with its insistence on the value of intuition, individuality of perception, the goodness of human nature, and the unity of the entire creation. His views of nature and self-reliance not only influenced American literary figures of his own day, such as Thoreau, Whitman, and Dickinson, but also left their mark on European writers such as George Eliot and Nietzsche, as well as the American pragmatist philosophers William James and John Dewey.

Though he graduated from Harvard Divinity School and became a minister at a Unitarian church in Boston, his personal circumstances (his first wife dying of tuberculosis) and intellectual development led him to harbor doubts about conventional Christian doctrine. He traveled to Europe in 1832, meeting with Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as Thomas Carlyle, with whom he maintained a long correspondence. Beyond the influences of these European literary figures, Emerson’s work bears traces of the ideas of Kant, Hegel, and Schleiermacher. His most renowned volumes and essays include Nature (1836), The American Scholar (1837), the Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College (1838) (where he criticized institutional religion for thwarting individual self-discovery), History, Self-Relianceand The Poet.

Emerson’s essay Nature is one of the most powerful and succinct expressions of a Romantic world view. Emerson sees the universe as composed of “Nature” and the “Soul,” taking up a distinction of Carlyle and some German philosophers such as Fichte between the “self ” and the “not-self.” Everything that falls under the “not-self ” or the “not-me” is considered by Emerson to fall under the term Nature. Characteristically of Romanticism, Emerson believes that nature is apprehensible not to most adults but to the “eye and the heart of the child,” of someone who “has retained the spirit of infancy” (25). He stresses that nature is part of God and through it circulate the “currents of the Universal Being” (26). Whatever is furnished to our senses by nature Emerson calls “commodities.” A higher gift of nature is the love of beauty. Emerson sees beauty as having three aspects: at the lowest level, we derive pleasure from the “simple perception of natural forms.” But this beauty is merely “seen and felt,” and its elements are the mere physical appearances of nature which in themselves have no reality (29–30). Such nature reflects a higher and divine beauty which inspires man to virtue. The highest form under which beauty may be viewed is when it becomes “an object of the intellect,” which “searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God” (32). Hence the beauty in nature “is not ultimate. It is the herald of inward and eternal beauty” (33).

A third use provided by nature to man is language. Nature, says Emerson, is “the vehicle of thought,” in a threefold manner. Firstly, words are “signs of natural facts”: the root of every word is ultimately “borrowed from some material appearance.” For example, “right” originally meant “straight” and “wrong” meant “twisted” (33). Secondly, “it is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual facts. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind” (34). For example, light and darkness are familiarly associated with knowledge and ignorance; a river expresses the flux of all things. Nature makes man conscious of “a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine. This universal soul he calls Reason . . . That which intellectually considered we call Reason, considered in relation to nature, we call Spirit. Spirit is the Creator” (34). What Emerson is indicating here is that nature taken in itself is a mere catalogue of facts. But once it is married to human history, it becomes alive, expressing a “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts.” In this sense, nature is an “interpreter.” It remains for wise men and poet to redeem language from its corruption and to “fasten words again to visible things” (35–36). In other words, language is reconnected with material images, and good writing and discourse are “perpetual allegories.” Like Wordsworth, Emerson advocates the life of the country, a withdrawal from “the roar of cities or the broil of politics,” in order to facilitate such a rejuvenation of language. Emerson goes on to explain that the “world is emblematic. Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind” (36). In a Hegelian sentiment, Emerson notes that “there seems to be a necessity in spirit to manifest itself in material forms.” Material phenomena “pre-exist in necessary Ideas in the mind of God . . . A Fact is the end or last issue of spirit” (37). Hence language is rooted in the divinely overseen and progressive connection between the human spirit and nature; things in the world are themselves signs, are themselves allegorical enactments of higher truths; nature or the world does not exist in and for itself but as a vehicle of man’s spiritual expression.

Nature, according to Emerson, also provides a “discipline” to our understanding, offering an immense variety of material which can educate our understanding and reason (38–39). Moreover, nature disposes us toward “idealism,” toward overcoming our immersion in material things and recognizing that the material world is merely an expression of something higher, namely, a system of truth, morality, and beauty. Nature “is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us” (45). The poet communicates this detached pleasure, arising from his ability to lift things from their immediate context and to situate them in larger, spiritual and intellectual realms: “The sensual man conforms thoughts to things; the poet conforms things to his thoughts” (45). The poet has a freedom whereby he can rearrange elements of the given world into a more profound, symbolic reality, effectively asserting the “predominance of the soul” over nature (47).

The poet, says Emerson, “proposes Beauty as his main end,” whereas the philosopher proposes Truth. Nonetheless, they both seek to ground the world of phenomena in stable and permanent laws in an idea whose beauty is infinite. Hence, the “true philosopher and the true poet are one, and a beauty, which is truth, and a truth, which is beauty, is the aim of both” (47). Whereas later writers such as Poe will subordinate the considerations of truth and morality to the overarching aim of beauty, Emerson holds these together in a precarious balance flown into the modern world direct from Plato’s Athens.

Like many Romantics, Emerson laments that the current age is reduced to a mechanical understanding of the world. Man at present, says Emerson, “works on the world with his understanding alone. He lives in it and masters it by a penny-wisdom” (55). Understanding, we recall, is regarded by most Romantics as a categorizing faculty, able to divide up the world in a mechanical way but unable to reach the unifying vision of reason or imagination. In such a view of the world, says Emerson, the “axis of vision is not coincident with the axis of things . . . The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is because man is disunited with himself.” The problem of “restoring to the world original and eternal beauty is solved by the redemption of the soul” (56). By altering ourselves, by transforming the spirit that moves within us, we will transform the world of nature, since the latter is moved and molded by spirit (57).

It is Emerson’s essay The American Scholar that perhaps best articulates some of the distinctive concerns of American Romanticism. Emerson here attempts to give voice to the composition and duties of the American scholar in the context not only of contemporary American culture but also of the broader implications of Emerson’s transcendental beliefs in the unity of the world, and of the human soul, as well as the nature of their connection. At the beginning of the essay, Emerson declares that America’s “day of dependence” on foreign learning is drawing to a close (58). At one level, the essay might be read as a justification of, or as arguing the need for, such cultural and intellectual independence, and a relative freedom from the past. But Emerson’s text skillfully integrates the parameters of this freedom, this independence, this cultural nationalism, within a vision of the overall unity of humankind. His most fundamental premise is that “there is One Man,” who is present to a partial degree in all men: “Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state, these functions are parcelled out to individuals,” and the “original unit, this fountain of power . . . has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered . . . Man is thus metamorphosed into a thing, into many things” (59). Hence, instead of envisioning these subdivisions as “Man farming” or “Man trading” or “Man thinking,” we have effectively reduced man to the specific functions of “farmer,” “trader,” or “scholar” (59). None of these is equipped to look beyond his narrow function; the trader, for example, loses sight of the “ideal worth” of his work and, being entrenched within the “routine of his craft,” his “soul is subject to dollars” (59).

Like Marx, what Emerson is bemoaning here is the fragmentation of the human by division of labor into various isolated and ossified aspects, a fragmentation that has reached a new intensity with the extreme specialization of function in bourgeois society. This specialization has effectively caused the various human faculties to be separated out according to function, losing sight of their original coexistence and unity. Emerson’s proposed remedy for this fragmentation of the human being is, of course, markedly different from the revolutionary strategies of Marx. But it is worth noting the overlap between their perceptions of the circumstance of alienation in the emerging capitalist world. For Emerson, as for many of the Romantic and Victorian thinkers, it is the man of letters, rather than any economic or political agency, who holds the keys to salvation.

In the foregoing statements Emerson expresses a characteristically Romantic vision in his own exquisite mode. Like other Romantics, he rejects the world of mainstream bourgeois philosophy, the world of separate, atomistically conceived entities; a world where the human faculties have fallen from their original unity, and grope in presumed independence; a world of dualism, where nature is viewed as external to the human self, where object and subject, no longer coterminous and enjoying mutual harmony, glide beyond each other’s limits in the mode of alienation and incommensurability. Emerson is not returning to some pre-bourgeois vision of pre-established harmony between the self and world; he seems to be articulating a more Hegelian position, one that sees subjectivity and objectivity arising as part of the same movement and in necessary mutual relation. The atomism and fragmentation of the bourgeois world is effectively seen as an intellectual regression to a vision that remains frozen in the mode of separateness, a vision that denies the reality of relation and relatedness, a vision that places the part before the whole, a vision that denudes the immediate “fact” of its constituting contexts. Though Emerson talks of nature as the “web of God,” he also identifies nature with the expanse of the human self; hence, his vision of unity is based less on the idea of the divine than on a particular notion of human subjectivity influenced directly or indirectly by Kant and Hegel, one that sees the apparatus of subjectivity and objectivity as intrinsically commensurate; in other words, our minds and the objects we perceive are mutually adapted to (and constrained by) each other. Kant had said, for example, that we see objects “in” space because spatiality is part of our subjective apparatus for perceiving the world.

The major influences on the scholar include not only nature but also “the mind of the Past,” which is transmitted most clearly by books. For Emerson, a book represents the attempt of a previous scholar to receive raw data from the world, to reflect on this, and to give it the “new arrangement of his own mind . . . It came into him, life; it went out from him, truth. It came to him, short-lived actions; it went out from him, immortal thoughts. It came to him, business; it went from him, poetry.” Hence, scholarship (which Emerson is using in a broad sense, to encompass, among other things, poetry) is a process of “transmuting life into truth” (61). However, since no scholar or artist can entirely exclude “the conventional, the local, the perishable” from his book, each age must renew the task of interpreting the world: “Each age . . . must write its own books,” and cannot simply stand on the authority of books written for an earlier generation or era (61). If books are overprized, as they are by the “sluggish and perverted mind of the multitude” (the similarities to Marx having somewhat receded in Emerson’s text), the influence of books becomes tyrannical: they encourage the reliance by scholars on “accepted dogmas” rather than “their own sight of principles.” And instead of Man thinking, “we have the bookworm,” the book-learned class who would rank books as a third estate along with the world of nature and the soul. Unfortunately, says Emerson, colleges and institutions are built on the book, on the authority of the “past utterance of genius.” But the active soul, the true genius, who sees “absolute truth,” will not be constrained by the insights of the past, and looks forward. The scholar should rely on books only in times when he cannot “read God directly” (62). In a sense, Emerson’s argument here presents an inverted form of what Eliot will later claim in his influential essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Eliot urged the individual writer to subordinate himself to tradition, to the “mind of Europe,” which itself enabled and set the archetypal patterns of the individual poet’s insight into his own present. For Emerson, the “mind of the past,” being restrictive, is precisely what the contemporary writer must transcend in expressing the reality of his own era.

The final educative influence on the scholar, according to Emerson, is “action” (as opposed to a life composed exclusively of speculation). Emerson concedes that action is “subordinate” with the scholar but essential: “Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.” He insists that we possess knowledge only to the extent that we have lived; “we know,” he says, “whose words are loaded with life, and whose not” (64). The point here, of course, is that made by all empiricist philosophies: that knowledge arises from experience and cannot indeed go beyond the limits of our actual experience. In other words, we cannot know about the world or about life through abstract reasoning, through the mere testimony of others, or through obeisance to religious or political authority. To this extent, the scholar must seek out varieties of experience, and must be “covetous of action. Life is our dictionary . . . This is the way to learn grammar. Colleges and books only copy the language which the field and the work-yard made” (65). The implication is that the meanings of words are first found in experience; dictionaries merely formalize and artificially stabilize those meanings, while academic institutions provide frameworks of interpretation of experiences after the fact, after they have occurred.

Emerson concludes his essay by outlining the duties and virtues of the scholar: all of these, he says, are comprised in “self-trust,” a notion that has several dimensions. To begin with, the scholar is “self-relying and self-directed,” being constrained neither by tradition or religion, nor by fashion and the opinion of popular judgment. Indeed, he seems to stand in a relation of “virtual hostility” to society (67). Emerson anticipates Nietzsche in his view that the mass of contemporary humanity are bugs, a mass which acts like a herd; in a thousand years, only one or two men will approximate “to the right state of every man.” The remainder are content to bask in the light and dignity of a great man or hero (70). Yet the task of Emerson’s heroic scholar, unlike that of Nietzsche’s overman who rises above common morality, is to reaffirm and re-establish man’s lost connections with his universal, unified self. By having the courage and wisdom to descend into the secrets of his own mind, he fathoms the secrets of all minds and reveals what is “universally true” (68). He is the one who sees “facts amidst appearances,” who “raises himself from private considerations” and momentary opinions that cloud the enduring judgment of “Reason from her inviolable seat.” It is the scholar alone who knows the world: “He is the world’s eye. He is the world’s heart” (67). It is he who wakes people from their sleep-walking dream in search of money and power, leading them to this fundamental lesson: “The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature . . . in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason.” In somewhat Hegelian fashion, Emerson even sees successive scholars as embodying the points of view taken by “the universal mind” (70–71).

Notwithstanding these universalizing functions of the scholar, Emerson welcomes recent literature that explores, not the sublime and the beautiful, but the low and the common, the local and the contemporary (71). Ironically, Emerson’s notion of universality is sustained precisely by its refusal to be constrained by past wisdom, by the need to confront what is true and enduring in the present era. And it is here that the duties of the scholar devolve into the particular duties of the American scholar: “this confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe” (73). He appeals to the young man of America to “plant himself indomitably on his instincts,” and to attain the perspective of his “own infinite life.” He ends with an eloquent call for an independence that is based on relation, on integration within a totality: “We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds . . . A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men” (74). Emerson’s is a powerful voice attempting to situate American ideals such as self-reliance and independence (at both national and individual levels) within a pre-capitalist harmony of self and world, a harmony equated with attunement to the workings of the divine and thereby precariously balanced between secular and religious vision.

In his Address Delivered before the Senior Class in Divinity College at Harvard (1838), Emerson undertakes a critique of institutional Christianity in America. Emerson’s central criticism is that religion has lost contact with its original impetus, which was exploratory, creative, and intuitive; it is now based on mere precedent, tradition, and expediency. The current decaying state of the Church and the condition of “wasting unbelief ” mark the greatest calamity that can befall a nation – loss of worship: “then all things go to decay. Genius leaves the temple to haunt the senate or the market. Literature becomes frivolous. Science . . . Society lives to trifles” (89). Emerson also spurns modern attempts to found a new system of religion, such as the worship of the “goddess of Reason,” which ends in “madness and murder” (92).

Emerson’s proposed solution to this dismal state of affairs is partly founded on the Stoic doctrine “Obey thyself ” (84). He admonishes the future preachers at the Divinity School “to go alone; to refuse the good models . . . and dare to love God without mediator or veil,” to cast away “all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity” (90–91). As he has said in other essays, he reaffirms here that it is in the soul that “redemption must be sought,” and it is through such redemption that the world can be transformed, since the world is the mirror of the soul (89, 93). Only such redemption can counter the “loss of the universal” in modern secular democracy, along with the latter’s “exaggeration of the finite and selfish” (91). Emerson’s essay is an articulate expression of a Romantic view of religion, and indeed of the rootedness of a Romantic view of letters in a transformed conception of religion, one that stresses individuality, creativity, and exploration even in the realm of morality.

In fact, in his essay The Transcendentalist (1842), Emerson derides the supposedly “sturdy capitalist” whose apparently solid enterprise actually rests on “quaking foundations” (141). Interestingly, Emerson’s very definitions of transcendentalism are forged in the heat of his opposition to the bourgeois obsession with materialism (both as a philosophy and as a way of life, according prominence to economic interests above all else). The term “transcendental,” says Emerson, derives from Kant’s philosophy, which laid stress on certain forms of perception that belonged to the subjective apparatus (145). Emerson points out that transcendentalism is a form of idealism, and that the transcendentalist’s experience “inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded center in himself . . . necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence . . . He believes in miracle, in the perpetual openness of the human mind to new influx of light and power; he believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy” (142). Transcendentalists, says Emerson, are characterized by their withdrawal from society, their disinclination even to vote, and their passion for “what is great and extraordinary” (146, 148). They stand aloof from contemporary society, which is marked by “a spirit of cowardly compromise and seeming which intimates a frightful skepticism, a life without love, and an activity without an aim” (149). Their attachment is to “what is permanent,” and they speak for “thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable” (153–154). It is clear that the term “transcendental” has acquired a meaning here very different from that which it sustains in Kant’s work: it signifies not merely an idealism which rises above the immediacy of the senses, a localized emphasis on materialism, and a mutual isolation or disconnectedness of the phenomena of the world, toward a more unified and longer-term perspective that sees the various elements of the world as the cumulative product of the human mind or spirit; but also a transcendence that refuses to take the bourgeois world as real, that seeks to locate reality itself in another, higher, realm insulated from space, time, and history.

Emerson’s essay Politics (1844) expresses his skepticism regarding the functioning of government and political parties. He observes that governments exist to protect two types of rights, personal rights and property rights (156). Emerson cautions against the dangers of the “turbulent freedom” of modern times and warns that “in the despotism of public opinion, we have no anchor” (161). Hence he believes in less government and advocates instead, like Socrates, the “influence of private character.” The state exists, he says, to “educate the wise man . . . and with the appearance of the wise man, the State expires” (163). The cultivation of character, attuned to nature and higher, spiritual interests, “promises a recognition of higher rights than those of personal freedom, or the security of property” (165).

Many of the foregoing themes, concerning nature, the religious sentiment, and the transcendentalist attitude of withdrawal from the currently degraded state of politics, are brought together in Emerson’s essay The Poet (1844). In Emerson’s eyes, the poet is of course a transcendentalist. The universe, he says, has three children, “the Knower, the Doer and the Sayer. These stand respectively for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty.” These three are equal, and the poet “is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty” (189).

It is the poet whose province is language; nature offers its vast variety to him as a “picture-language.” He uses the things in nature as types, as symbols; hence, objects in nature acquire a second value, and nature “is a symbol, in the whole, and in every part” (192). Emerson helps us to make sense of this by reminding us that the “Universe is the externization of the soul,” and that its symbolic value lies in its pointing beyond itself, toward the supernatural (193). In this way, the world is a “temple” whose walls are covered with emblems and symbols. The poet, in articulating these symbols, provides a remedy for the “dislocation and detachment from the life of God that makes things ugly.” The poet “re-attaches things to nature and the Whole,” seeing things “within the great Order” (195). In other words, whereas ordinary perception is filled with images of discrete and unrelated objects, the poet, by “ulterior intellectual perception,” is able to see the connectedness of things, especially the symbolic connection between material and spiritual elements (196). Hence the poet’s very language, as well as the nature of his perception, is attuned to the workings, the perpetual flux, of nature. By this token, the poet is “the Namer or Language-maker,” naming things by their appearance or essence, but always intuitively aware of the connection between these, of the broader, perhaps teleological, picture in which each object exists. Such insight, which Emerson describes as “a very high sort of seeing,” is effected by the faculty of imagination (198), which is effectively “the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life” (199). In other words, the intellect is freed from its bondage to the restrictive bodily sphere of practical interests and survival.

Emerson refers to poets as “liberating gods . . . They are free, and they make free” (201). They liberate us from the tyranny and fragmentation of conventional perception, from “the jail-yard of individual relations,” and enable us to see ourselves and the world in a more comprehensive and far-reaching light (199, 201). Every thought is a prison, says Emerson, and the poet liberates by yielding a new thought. We prize this  liberation because “we are miserably dying” (202). As with his essay The American Scholar, Emerson concludes by calling for poetic universality to comprehend what is peculiarly American. There exists, as yet, no poet of genius in America: “our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians . . . the northern trade, the southern planting . . . are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for meters” (204). Emerson’s words proved prophetic in Whitman’s “I sing America.” As with the transcendentalist, Emerson calls on the poet to “leave the world, and know the muse only,” to “abdicate a manifold and duplex life,” and to “lie close hid with nature,” away from “the Capitol or the Exchange.” The poet is he for whom “the ideal shall be real” (206). Emerson is true to the Romantic inversion of the categories of the bourgeois world: that world is insular, incomplete, and denuded of all relation, all context in which it would find its true meaning. To redeem such relation is the poet’s task.



Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature, Romanticism

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