Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays

It was with great anticipation that I read Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays (both the First Series as well as the Second Series), but my expectations were not met. In a sentence I thought Emerson used too many words to say things that could have been expressed more succinctly.

The Essays themselves are a set of unsystematic short pieces of literature describing what one man thinks of various classic themes, such as but not limited to: history, intellect, art, experience, gifts, nature, etc. The genre itself — the literary essay or “attempts” — was apparently first popularized by Montaigne and mimicked by other “great” authors in the Western tradition including Bacon, Rousseau, and Thoreau. Considering this, maybe the poetic and circuitous nature of Emerson’s “attempts” should not be considered a fault.


Because it was evident that later essays did not necessarily build on previous ones, I jumped around from chapter to chapter as whimsy dictated. Probably one of the first I read was “Art” where he describes the subject as the product of men detached from society.

It is the habit of certain minds to give an all-excluding fulness to the objects, the thought, the world, they alight upon, and to make that for the time the deputy of the world. These are the artists, the orators, the leaders of society. The power to detach and to magnify by detaching, is the essence of rhetoric in the hands of the orator and the poet.

But at the same time he seems to contradict himself earlier when he says:

No man can quite emancipate himself from the age and country, or produce a model in which the education, the religion, the politics, usages, and arts, of his times shall have not share. Though he were never so original, never so wilful and fantastic, he cannot wipe out of his work every trace of the thoughts amidst which it grew.

How can something be the product of a thing detached from society when it is not possible become detached in the first place?


I, myself, being a person of mind more than heart, was keenly interested in the essay entitled “Intellect” where Emerson describes it as something:

…void of affection, and sees an object as it stands in the light of science, cool and disengaged… Intellect pierces the form, overlaps the wall, detects intrinsic likeness between remote things, and reduces all things into a few principles.

At the same time, intellect is not necessarily genius, since genius also requires spontaneity:

…but the power of picture or expression, in the most enriched and flowing nature, implies a mixture of will, a certain control over the spontaneous states, without which no production is possible. It is a conversation of all nature into the rhetoric of thought under the eye of judgement, with the strenuous exercise of choice. And yet the imaginative vocabulary seems to be spontaneous also. It does not flow from experience only or mainly, but from a richer source. Not by any conscious imitation of particular forms are the grand strokes of the painter executed, but by repairing to the fountain-head of all forms in his mind.

The Poet

Emerson apparently carried around his journal wherever he went. He made a living writing and giving talks. Considering this, and considering the nature of his writing, I purposely left his essay entitled “The Poet” until last. Not surprisingly, he had a lot to say on the subject, and I found this to be the hilight of my readings:

The poet is the person in whom these powers [the reproduction of senses] are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue offering the largest power to receive and to impart… The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty… The poet does not wait for the hero or the sage, but as they act and think primarily, so he writes pirmarily what will and must be spoken, reckoning the others, though primaries also, yet, in repsect to him, secondaries and servants.

I found it encouraging that science was mentioned a few times during his discourse on the poet, since I believe a better understanding of one’s environment comes from the ability to think both artistically as well as scientifically, an idea I call arscience:

…science always goes abreast with the just elevation of the man, keeping step with religion and metaphysics; or, the state of science is an index of our self-knowledge… All the facts of the animal economy, — sex, nutriment, gestation, birth, growth — are symbols of passage of the world into the soul of man, to suffer there a change, and reappear a new and higher fact. He uses forms according to the life, and not according to the form. This is true science.

Back to the beginning

I think Emerson must have been a bit frustrated (or belittling himself in order be percieved as more believable) with a search for truth when he says, “I look in vain for the poet whom I describe.” But later on he summarizes much of what the Essays describe when he says, “Art is the path of the creator to his work,” and he then goes on to say what I said at the beginning of this review:

The poet pours out verses in every solitude. Most of the things he says are conventional, no doubt; but by and by he says something which is original and beautiful. That charms him.

I was hoping to find more inspriation regarding the definition of Unitarianism throughout the book, but alas, the term was only mentioned a couple of times. Instead, I learnd more indirectly that Emerson affected my thinking in more subtle ways. I have incorporated much of his thought into my own without knowing it. Funny how one’s education manifests itself.

Word cloud

Use this word cloud of the combined Essays to get an idea of what they are “about”:

nature  men  life  world  good  shall  soul  great  thought  like  love  power  know  let  mind  truth  make  society  persons  day  old  character  heart  genius  god  come  beauty  law  being  history  fact  true  makes  work  virtue  better  art  laws  self  form  right  eye  best  action  poet  friend  think  feel  eyes  beautiful  words  human  spirit  little  light  facts  speak  person  state  natural  intellect  sense  live  force  use  seen  thou  long  water  people  house  certain  individual  end  comes  whilst  divine  property  experience  look  forms  hour  read  place  present  fine  wise  moral  works  air  poor  need  earth  hand  common  word  thy  conversation  young  stand  

And since a picture is worth a thousand words, here is a simple graph illustrating how the 100 most frequently used words in the Essays (sans stop words) compare to one another:

emerson words

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Eric Lease Morgan

Artist- and Librarian-At-Large

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