Ralph Waldo Emerson

Poems

“A river-ark on the ocean brine,
Long I've been tossed like the driven foam;
But now, proud world! I'm going home.”

Notwithstanding Theodore Parker’s opinion that his colleague Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882) was “a poet lacking the accomplishment of verse” I herein present you with the poetry of this aforementioned Emerson.

Unlike his essays and speeches, Emerson’s poetry was more sporadic. Reputable New England publications accepted his work, however, due to his stature as a lecturer and essayist.1

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Poems.
My own beloved copy of Emerson’s Poems published in London at the end of the 18th century.

Poetry was not Emerson’s forte nor what he is known for today.

In fact, when Walt Whitman published his first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855, Emerson wrote a congratulatory letter to the young poet remarking “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed.” One assumes this benedictory catch-all included Emerson’s own work.

Photograph of Ralph Waldo Emerson featured in Emerson's "Poems" in the Examined Life Library.

One Emerson’s very first poems “Goodbye” written when he was merely twenty, “Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home:/Though art not my friend, and I’m not thine… ” intimates a playful tone.

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.

From “Good-Bye”

Read full poem here.

When Emerson delivered such early poems to be published by the well-known Atlantic Monthly, he included a note that read:

“I think you must read them once again with your critical spectacles before they go further.”

Emerson had just graduated from Harvard college and was about to begin Harvard Divinity School. He would follow his male forebears into the Protestant (Unitarian) church as a minister.

But when Emerson’s beloved wife, Ellen Tucker, died of tuberculous in 1832 soon after their betrothal in 1829, his life changed course. Her death added to Emerson’s existing heartache from the loss of several siblings in childhood and his father’s death when Emerson was eight.

To Ellen at the South

The green grass is bowing,
The morning wind is in it;
‘Tis a tune worth thy knowing,
Though it change every minute.

‘Tis a tune of the Spring;
Every year plays it over
To the robin on the wing,
And to the pausing lover.

O’er ten thousand, thousand acres,
Goes light the nimble zephyr;
The Flowers-tiny sect of Shakers-
Worship him ever.

Hark to the winning sound!
They summon thee, dearest,-
Saying, “We have dressed for thee the ground,
Nor yet thou appearest.

“O hasten; ’tis our time,
Ere yet the red Summer
Scorch our delicate prime,
Loved of bee,-the tawny hummer.

Although this poem was not published until 1843, it was written many years previously, around the same time Emerson penned his first major essay, Nature.

In Nature, a slim volume of hefty significance, Emerson explored transcendence as a departure of self. Lines like “If a man would be alone, let him look at the stars. The rays that come from these heavenly worlds will separate between him and what he touches” nod to Emerson’s formidable gift for metaphor.

Illustration by Robert Anning Bell. Featured in Emerson's "Poems" in the Examined Life Library.
Robert Anning Bell’s illustration for John Keats’ poem “Endymion” made for a 1897 republication of the Romantic poet’s major works.

Ellen’s death led to an abrupt change in Emerson’s life.2 In grief or perhaps in longing, the widower, having just reached his third decade, slipped out of the formalized pulpit and began what poet Mary Oliver termed “the greater energies of his life found their sustenance in the richness and the steadfastness of his inner life.”

Newly widowed, Emerson traveled Europe and lingered in England where he met William Wordsworth, Thomas Carlyle, Samuel T. Coleridge and took inspiration from the architectural remnants and narratives of long-gone civilizations.

Art

Give to barrows, trays, and pans
Grace and glimmer of romance;
Bring the moonlight into noon
Hid in gleaming piles of stone;
On the city’s paved street
Plant gardens lined with lilacs sweet;
Let spouting fountains cool the air,
Singing in the sun-baked square;
Let statue, picture, park, and hall,
Ballad, flag, and festival,
The past restore, the day adorn,
And make to-morrow a new morn.
So shall the drudge in dusty frock
Spy behind the city clock
Retinues of airy kings,
Skirts of angels, starry wings,
His fathers shining in bright fables,
His children fed at heavenly tables.
‘Tis the privilege of Art
Thus to play its cheerful part,
Man on earth to acclimate,
And bend the exile to his fate,
And, moulded of one element
With the days and firmament,
Teach him on these as stairs to climb,
And live on even terms with Time;
Whilst upper life the slender rill
Of human sense doth overfill.

Replenished by life’s cultural fecundity, Emerson returned to Massachusetts, settled in Concord (the Revolutionary War battle town turned farming community) and became a lay preacher of his own beliefs: awakening of the heart, spiritual enlightenment of the soul, oneness of man with his immediately-perceived world.

Photograph of Ralph Waldo Emerson's home. Featured in Emerson's "Poems" in the Examined Life Library.
Emerson’s homestead in Concord, Massachusetts where he lived from 1835 until his death in 1882. Learn more.

Emerson was a failed preacher in the strictest professional sense (like Vincent van Vogh only a few years later) but his preaching abilities served him his entire life.

In his day Emerson was as well-known for his speaking as he was for his writing. He befriended Hawthorne, the Alcott family, acted as mentor to Henry David Thoreau (Emerson was almost twenty years older and it was on Emerson’s land that Thoreau lived when he wrote Walden), and benefactor to Walt Whitman.

Nature

The rounded world is fair to see,
Nine times folded in mystery:
Though baffled seers cannot impart
The secret of its labouring heart,
fogo first appeared as
Throb thine with Nature’s throbbing breast,
And all is clear from east to west.
Spirit that lurks each form within
Beckons to spirit of its kin;
Self-kindled every atom glows,
And hints the future which it owes.

Unlike Whitman whose free verse heralded a whiplash of poetic genius on the world, Emerson’s poetry is small, at times concave. Comparing Whitman’s “I sing the body electric/The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them…” to Emerson’s “With tender light and youthful cheer/The spousals of the new-born year” leaves one in precious doubt of the character differences of the two men, at least in poetic verse.

“I give you joy of your free and brave thought. I have great joy in it” Emerson wrote to Whitman, well-aware of the latter’s nuanced abilities. Although his own poetic grandeur was not to be, it was Emerson who, above anyone else, put meaning and image to transcendentalism.

For Emerson, the value and distinction of transcendentalism was very much akin to this swerving and rolling away from acute definition. All the world is taken in through the eye, to reach the soul, where it becomes more, representative of a realm deeper than appearances: a realm ideal and sublime, the deep stillness that is, whose whole proclamation is the silence and the lack of material instance in which, patiently and radiantly, the universe exists.

From Mary Oliver’s Upstream

Photograph of deer. Featured in Emerson's "Poems" in the Examined Life Library.
“Beauty and grace are performed whether we see them or not, least we can do is be there.” Annie Dillard’s observations of nature and self at the most conscious level. Photograph by Scott Danzig.

Mary Oliver, the self-professed cosmic sister to Whitman and student disciple of Emerson, is in many ways the modern embodiment of Emerson’s thought. Even her poetry, though constructed differently, follows the same soul-anchoring observations about the ‘untrimmable’ light of being.

Something fashioned
this yellow-white lace-mass
that the sea has brought to the shore and left.

like popcorn stuck to itself
or a string of lace rolled up tight
or a handful of fingerling shells pasted together
each with a tear where something

escaped into the sea. I brought it home
out of the uncombed morning and consulted
among my books. I do not know
what to call this sharpest desire.

From Mary Oliver’s “Something”

Both poets deliver the universe in the figuration of the immediate, and both peer into the reflected darker, unanswered fragments of self and the suggested greatness beyond.

Emerson’s Poems sing a soft undernote to his bellowing chorus of essays. They also signal the skill and depth of this man who influenced – directly and indirectly – a pantheon of devotees. From Rilke’s aspirations to “go into self” to Hesse’s ruminations on mountaintops, to Neruda’s gasp at simple beauty. Emerson is echoed in the spell songs of Robert Macfarlane and the forestry work of Peter Wohllebren. May he always exist somewhere.

Ralph Waldo Emerson