How Ralph Waldo Emerson Changed American Poetry

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a central figure in the American transcendentalist movement, revolutionized poetry by emphasizing individual intuition, nature, and spirituality as primary sources of insight and inspiration.

Eschewing traditional European forms and themes, Emerson championed that American poets should forge a unique poetic identity rooted in the American experience. His lyrical style merged personal reflection with broader philosophical inquiry, laying the groundwork for a new poetic tradition that encouraged poets to explore their inner selves and their relationship with the universe, redefining the boundaries and possibilities of American verse.

When significant shifts happen in someone's life, they can frequently be linked to heartrending events. In a parallel manner, Emerson's transformation of American poetry had its roots in a personal tragedy: the death of his eldest son, Waldo.

The bond between them was profound. Born in 1836, Waldo was often seen as a source of immense joy for his father. Tragically, Waldo died of scarlet fever in 1842 when he was just six years old.

The loss was devastating for Emerson. In his journals and subsequent writings, it's evident that the death of his young son deeply affected him. Emerson grappled with profound grief and tried to make sense of the loss philosophically and spiritually.

The first evidence of this revolution in poetry Emerson was first noticed in Emerson's personal writings. He was a prolific journal keeper, and his entries following Waldo's death display a raw, immediate grappling with grief. They offer glimpses into the intimate, personal anguish he felt, juxtaposed with his broader philosophical musings.

Then his grief seeped into his poetry.

In "Experience," an essay from his second series, Emerson delves into the nature of grief, loss, and the human experience. While the essay does not solely focus on Waldo, the young boy's death heavily influences its themes. Emerson writes, "Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none." This reflects the unpredictability of life and the inescapable presence of death.

Waldo's death contributed to a noticeable shift in Emerson's philosophy. Before the tragedy, Emerson's works like "Nature" and "Self-Reliance" were imbued with an optimistic faith in individual potential and the benevolence of the universe. Post-tragedy, his writings took on a more somber, introspective tone, reflecting a deeper contemplation of suffering, fate, and the mysteries of existence.

Emerson's letters and reported conversations with close friends and family members after Waldo's death further elucidate his grief. He frequently expressed a longing to connect with Waldo in the afterlife and sought solace in spiritual and philosophical exploration.

To capture Emerson's emotional depth concerning Waldo's death, one would have to consider not only his overt expressions of grief but also the subtle changes in his outlook on life, the nature of existence, and the human soul's journey. This multifaceted exploration reflects a man deeply pained by personal loss, yet ever the philosopher, trying to find meaning and understanding amidst sorrow.

Unknown by most, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson shared a deep and multifaceted relationship, marked by mutual respect, occasional disagreements, and profound intellectual exchanges.

Thoreau lived with the Emerson family at various times, but not continuously. The most notable period was from 1841 to 1843. During this time, Thoreau lived with the Emersons and assisted with household tasks, took care of the garden, and helped with Emerson's children. This arrangement provided Thoreau with a stable environment in which he could focus on his writing and intellectual pursuits, and it further solidified the close bond between the two men. The Emerson home became a hub of intellectual activity.

When Emerson's son Waldo died, Thoreau was profoundly affected, not just because of his empathy for his friend but also due to his personal affection for the child.

Thoreau expressed his sorrow and condolences in personal ways. For instance, he crafted a small green wooden box to hold Waldo's letters and other keepsakes as a gesture of remembrance. Moreover, Thoreau took solitary walks in the woods to reflect upon the transience of life, a theme which deeply resonated in both their works.

However, while Emerson grappled with grief in a more overtly emotional and philosophical manner, Thoreau's response was more subdued and internalized, in line with his nature-focused introspection.

In a broader context, while Thoreau might not have commented extensively on Emerson's grief in his writings, it's evident that he held a deep respect for Emerson's emotional and philosophical processes. Their bond allowed them to support each other during such trying times, even if their personal expressions of sorrow differed.

Despite Emerson's vocal admiration for the art of poetry, his own verses sometimes lack the anticipated energy. In his engaging prose, he champions the unparalleled virtues of poetry with phrases that spark the reader's curiosity. However, the vibrancy of his prose doesn't necessarily ensure that his poetry will evoke similar enthusiasm, even if he surely aimed for his lofty declarations about poetry to be reflected in his own compositions.

In many instances, Emerson's essays, such as "The Poet," include an original short lyric as an epigraph. Regrettably, these poem-epigraphs often pale in comparison to the essays' attempts to exalt them as superior forms of expression. This results in a peculiar juxtaposition between electrifying prose and uninspiring verse, ostensibly meant to pay homage. Emerson's vision of the "poet" as a "complete man," a "man without impediment," a "sayer," and a "namer," akin to Adam, would not have condoned the inclusion of lackluster verses like those appended to "The Poet," which extol "Olympian bards" and "divine ideas" with rhymes as buoyant as a Super Ball.

In "Merlin I," penned during the 1840s, Emerson engages in a futile endeavor by pitting meter against meter and rhyme against rhyme, an unwinnable battle of poetic forms.

Emerson once kept an Aeolian harp in a window of his residence, aspiring to create, in verse, an instrument that nature herself could play. However, this instrument itself was antiquated, ostentatious, and domestic in nature.

Emerson's profound ideas were undoubtedly ill-served by the frail verse structures he constructed for them. Watching these structures strain and falter under the weight of his intellect and ambition led him, in "The Poet," to not only call for a new type of poem, one he could theoretically have composed, but also for an entirely new type of individual, a persona he was not and had no desire to become. His most exceptional poems, including "Each and All," "Brahma," "The Rhodora," and "The Snow-Storm," represent the refinement of oratory into the specialized rhetorical techniques of poetry. However, his mercurial prose itself possessed the essence of poetry, with its sentences resembling successive signal flares launched into the ether. What he proclaims about the poet holds truer for these astonishing prose performances:

For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form. The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For, the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.

In this passage, much like in numerous instances within his remarkable essays, it reveals its intrinsic character, a distinctive "architecture" unique to itself. This encapsulates the essence of Emerson's call for a literature of "insight and not of tradition." Every sentence serves as an embodiment of innovation, a manifestation of "a new thing." Emerson did not aspire to craft verses about the New World; rather, he aimed to use poetry as a means to rejuvenate the world. Consequently, it is truly captivating to observe how he orchestrated his own eventual obsolescence. At times, his poems may appear deliberately modest, as if they were clearing the path for the rapidly advancing future, constantly approaching from behind. His prose served as a form of poetry in itself, beckoning for its own reflection, a poetry whose "argument" eclipsed its forms.

Emerson was not the poet envisioned in his work "The Poet." In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville foretold the emergence of an American poetry devoid of "legendary lays," "ancient traditions," "supernatural entities," masks, and personifications. Americans led lives saturated with "trivial" and "uninspiring" pursuits, lives deemed "anti-poetic." For an American poet, the only plausible subject was humanity itself, and, as Tocqueville articulated, "the poet needs no more." Emerson, despite cultivating the persona of an elder for most of his life, advocated for the rise of "a brood of Titans" who would ascend the Western mountains on a mission of genius and love.

In July of 1855, Emerson encountered the very poet he had longed for. He retrieved a package from the Concord post office, which contained the initial edition of "Leaves of Grass," sent anonymously from Brooklyn by its author. Although the book lacked a signature, it bore a frontispiece portrait, the name "Walter Whitman" on the copyright page, and the exultant declaration inside, "Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos." After a brief search, Emerson unearthed Whitman's name and the distributor's address in a newspaper advertisement. He then composed his renowned letter to Whitman, extending a welcome to him on the threshold of immortality: "I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start."

In response, Whitman incorporated Emerson's letter into the subsequent edition of his book, along with twenty fresh poems and his own expansive letter to Emerson, spanning several thousand words, extolling the "immense foundation of the supremacy of Individuality—that novel moral American continent" whose "shores you found."

I say you have led The States there—have led Me there. I say that none has ever done, or ever can do, a greater deed for The States, than your deed. Others may line out the lines, build cities, work mines, break up farms; it is yours to have been the original true Captain who put to sea, intuitive, positive, rendering the first report, to be told less by any report, and more by the mariners of a thousand bays, in each tack of their arriving and departing, many years after you.

Whitman's enduring presence became an integral part of the American cultural landscape from that pivotal moment onward. Yet, it would take some time for another equally influential figure to emerge – Emily Dickinson. She held in high regard an edition of Emerson's poems gifted to her by an admirer. Moreover, her brother and sister-in-law, Austin and Susan Dickinson, had the privilege of hosting Emerson multiple times at their stately residence, the Evergreens, situated just across the field from Emily's own home.

While Dickinson's poetic style bears little resemblance to Emerson's, he provided the essential framework and served as the catalyst for the fervent intellectual endeavors of his disciples. In essence, Emerson functioned as their guiding force, their intellectual beacon. It is worth noting that had Emerson's own poems been only slightly superior to what they were, the landscape of American literature as we now recognize it might never have taken shape. Our preeminent writers, upon witnessing their own creative visions overshadowed by Emerson's brilliance, could have chosen to remain devoted readers of his works.


  1. Adam on January 15, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    Hi there, I was reading this with interest but it ends abruptly with a colon. Did the copy-pasting go wrong or is there something I didn’t get…?

    • admin on January 19, 2018 at 12:13 pm

      Adam, thank you for alerting us. We are in the process of restoring the site with a new cleaner design and it is quite the daunting task. We will get this corrected as soon as we can.

  2. pengfei li on May 17, 2018 at 3:57 am

    if a man has a heart of justice, to certain degree and scales he is god., primitive truthfulness rather than ritual and ceremony

  3. RemyVinna on April 9, 2020 at 12:23 pm

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    Rise your one’s nearest and friends

  4. Caroline Coley on April 13, 2020 at 4:29 pm

    I am currently writing a research paper and I am interested in knowing the publisher for this source. Can you please provide me with any information you may have regarding the citation of “The Over-Soul.” Thank you in advance for your help.

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