Waldo Ralph Emerson
Collected Essays


"The civilized man has built a coach, but has lost the use of his feet." ("Self Reliance")

"Next to the originator of a good quotation in the first quoter of it." ("Letters and Social Aims")

Ralph Waldo Emerson, philosopher and poet, was the son of a Unitarian minister in Boston. His father died when he was only eight years old, leaving him and his four brothers, one of whom was mentally retarded, with his mother and aunt. Emerson left for Harvard University where he studied theology and followed his father into the priesthood. He was ordained as a member of Boston's second church in 1829 with a salary of $1200 per year.

This conventional existence was not to last long. John Jay Chapman recalled that "My grandmother told me that the first time she ever heard Emerson's name was when a neighbour said to her: 'Oh, have you heard? The new minister of the Second Church has gone mad.'" This occurred soon after the death of his first wife when he resigned his post as a minister, deciding that he was no longer able to believe in the sacrament of the Communion.

With little sense of what his next move would be, Emerson left for Europe in 1833. There, he met he great poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth - now very much in their autumn years - and formed an important friendship with Thomas Carlyle. Returning to America, he set out on a career as a lecturer and developed the concept of Transcendentalism (see his essay, "Nature" (1836), where this quasi-religious idea is expounded). This concept was clearly influenced by Wordsworth and the other Romantic poets' idealising of nature. Emerson became a speaker and thinker of considerable fame with his lectures and inspiring essays.

Emerson published his poems in the Dial which he edited between 1842 and 1844. A first collection of Essays was published in 1841, and contained the famous "Self-Reliance" in which he asserted that, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind." The second collection of his Essays in 1844 offered up "The Poet", where he saw the very geography of America as the potential source of imaginative verse. Walt Whitman particularly was to rise to this challenge. Emerson continued to give lectures in the mid-1840s on Representative Men (as the published volume would put it in 1850) such as Plato and Napoleon.

In 1847, Emerson travelled back to England where he was well received. His own extremely insightful view of the country can be found in English Traits (1865). In America he continued writing, now for Atlantic Monthly, and was involved in the anti-slavery campaign before his mental powers diminished in his last decade. Eight volumes of Journals and Notebooks are available for those who want to discover more.

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