Ralph Waldo Emerson’s American poetry

In January of 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s firstborn child, Waldo, contracted scarlet fever and died within a week. He was five. He had been his father’s exuberant companion, who had, Emerson wrote, “touched with his lively curiosity every trivial fact & circumstance in the household.” Henry David Thoreau, who had lodged with the Emersons, “charmed Waldo by the variety of toys whistles boats popguns & all kinds of instruments which he could make & mend.” The death was a shock to the entire village of Concord, Massachusetts. When the nine-year-old Louisa May Alcott came to the Emersons’ door to ask about Waldo, she was greeted, she wrote, by an Emerson “worn with watching and changed by sorrow.” All he said was “Child, he is dead.” Alcott called it her “first glimpse of a great grief.”

But the grief did not feel real, or real enough, to Emerson. “I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve,” he wrote in a letter the following week. The loss of Waldo spurred an essay, “Experience,” that contains one of the most startling passages in American literature:
The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.
This seems nearly callous, but that’s the point. Emerson had suffered tragic deaths before, and, partly as a result, had developed a theory of spiritual profit and loss: surely the greatest costs led to the richest benefits? When “a great man,” he wrote in “Compensation,” an earlier essay, is “pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill.” But Waldo’s death was so profound that it went uncompensated, even by grief. It taught Emerson “nothing”; it was almost as though his son had never existed. Unluckily, swiftly, even happily, life goes on, only mildly “inconvenienced” by the most devastating loss imaginable.

 “Experience” has a knife’s-edge, emergency intensity that is nowhere to be found in Emerson’s poems, collected in “Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Poetry” (Harvard), edited by Albert J. von Frank. Prose was a zone of fruitful conflict for Emerson, who began his public life writing sermons. He entered Harvard Divinity School in 1825, at the age of twenty-one, to prepare for a career in the Unitarian ministry. Soon he was struck by a painful eye disease, likely caused by tuberculosis, and submitted to two cataract operations. According to Robert D. Richardson’s “Emerson: The Mind on Fire,” Emerson’s reading in Hume, and his knowledge of the “brilliantly clever arguments of Cicero,” began to erode his faith. His days were “slipping past him, one by one, in an irrevocable procession,” Richardson writes. He knew that the “proper emotion” wasn’t humility or even skepticism but “wonder.”

Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks: they tell you where to find it, how to use it, what to do when it fails you. “Nature,” “The Poet,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “Experience”: you can use these essays to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning. They are modular: you can remember bits of one, bits of another, mess up the order, mix and match. Their authority comes not from the Church or the ministry but from the power of their prose. Emerson must have realized that half of the people in church were there to hear language electrified by the preacher; his essays are, as Harold Bloom put it, “interior oratory,” free-range sermons that make their own occasions.

Emerson also wrote a poem about Waldo, “Threnody.” It is often quite beautiful, but it is dressed almost entirely in period costume. The period was the eighteen-forties, and the costume was woodsy, “native,” and politely anti-European. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who returned from Europe to teach modern languages at Harvard, was considered a boldly American poet: he wrote epics about Miles Standish and the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. To Emerson’s contemporaries, experimentation in poetry meant writing about “the bobolink and the humble-bee” rather than the English nightingale and the skylark, which, as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson’s correspondent and early advocate, wrote, Americans “might never have seen or heard anywhere.”

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