Ralph Waldo Emerson undermines Puritanism with Nature: “Fate”

Ralph Waldo Emerson at 43. Charcoal portrait by Eastman Johnson, 1846. From the collection of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (Wikipedia.)

It is something remarkable that less than 140 years elapsed between the year of witching in Salem (1692) and Emerson’s Address at Harvard Divinity School (1838). Societies did not change that rapidly before then. A society that executed teenagers for bestiality, lashed bare-backed women for preaching at meetings and banished Baptists on penalty of death, not to mention execute ministers on evidence of deranged children, could not so soon transform itself into one that permitted an ordained minister to lecture the premiere minister-factory of the time that not only was Jesus not God but also

“Christianity became a Mythus, as the poetic teaching of Greece and of Egypt, before. He spoke of miracles; for he felt that man’s life was a miracle, and all that man doth, and he knew that this daily miracle shines, as the character ascends. But the word Miracle, as pronounced by Christian churches, gives a false impression; it is Monster. It is not one with the blowing clover and the falling rain.”

It is true that in Europe much the same was being said. David Strauss’s Life of Jesus was published in German in 1836, but it wouldn’t be available in English until George Eliot undertook the grueling task and published it in 1846. Germany, though conservative, was not as religion-bound as New England which even then continued to go through gut-wrenching convulsions of emotional revivalism. And Boston, in any event, was not yet used to receiving its intellectual fashions from continental Europe.

It is also surprising that the revolution that Emerson would undertake was begun with strewn flowers and not clenched fists. Emerson began his Divinity School Address as if it were a pastoral:

“In this refulgent summer, it has been a luxury to draw the breath of life. The grass grows, the buds burst, the meadow is spotted with fire and gold in the tint of flowers. The air is full of birds, and sweet with the breath of the pine, the balm-of-Gilead, and the new hay. Night brings no gloom to the heart with its welcome shade. Through the transparent darkness the stars pour their almost spiritual rays. Man under them seems a young child, and his huge globe a toy.”

But of course the manifesto for this movement was itself an homage of sorts to nature; that alone was a call to arms of sorts. The Pilgrim Fathers, by contrast, made it their purpose to undertake their Errand into the Wilderness, not to live in harmony with nature, but to subdue it. The Wilderness was not something to admire, it was something to be delivered from. God, after all, told the children of Israel that after their deliverance from Egypt (exactly as the Saints had been delivered from the Stuarts) their dwelling for forty years in the Wilderness was not designed as an idyll: “And thou shalt remember all the way which the Lord thy God led thee these forty years in the wilderness, to humble thee, and to prove thee, to know what was in thine heart, whether thou wouldest keep his commandments, or no.” (Deuteronomy 8:2.) The wilderness that the first pilgrims found was a place to be tamed, not romanticized. As minister Michael Wigglesworth rhymed in “God’s Controversy with New-England. Written in the time of the great drought Anno 1662″ (Mss Massachusetts Historical Society):

Beyond the great Atlantick flood
There is a region vast,
A country where no English foot
In former ages past
A waste and howling wilderness,
Where none inhabited
But hellish fiends, and brutish men
That Devils worshiped.

Emerson’s essay Nature (published anonymously in 1836, but later republished as the first essay in his first collection of speeches, Nature; Addresses and Lectures (Boston: James Munroe & Co: 1849), portrayed the natural world, not as a desert and waste howling wilderness (Deuteronomy 32:10), but rather something beneficient and to be admired and studied. As Lewis Leary said of the teaching of the book:

“Nature is the gigantic shadow of God cast on the senses. Nature is the image, the analogue of God. The beneficiency, the beauty, the mystery of nature are like the beauty, the beneficence, and the mystery of God. It is a means by which God reveals his plan to man.” (Lewis Leary, Ralph Waldo Emerson: An Interpretive Essay (Boston: Twayne Publishers: 1980), p 32.)

It was the contemplation of Nature that led Emerson far from the habit of mind of the Puritans. When a Puritan considered a problem of the natural world not expressly answered by scriptures, whether it be demons or comets or small pox, he gathered as many scriptural allusions as he thought might apply and the authority of scripture-based divines of the past, and used logical deductions to reach his answer. Emerson believed that Nature itself provided the answers to all the important questions, including those that involved the unseen world. That is because the things beyond the visible world correspond so directly, one-on-one, to the world of nature that you discover by inference from nature rather than deduction from authority:

“Every fact is related on one side to sensation, and on the other to morals. The game of thought is, on the appearance of one of these two sides, to find the other: given the upper, to find the under side. Nothing so thin but has these two faces, and when the observer has seen the obverse, he turns it over to see the reverse. Life is a pitching of this penny,- heads or tails. We never tire of this game, because there is still a slight shudder of astonishment at the exhibition of the other face, at the contrast of the two faces. A man is flushed with success, and bethinks himself what this good luck signifies. He drives his bargain in the street; but it occurs that he also is bought and sold. He sees the beauty of a human face, and searches the cause of that beauty, which must be more beautiful. He builds his fortunes, maintains the laws, cherishes his children; but he asks himself, Why? and whereto? This head and this tail are called, in the language of philosophy, Infinite and Finite; Relative and Absolute; Apparent and Real; and many fine names beside.” “Montaigne; or, the Skeptic,” Representative Men: Seven Lectures [originally published 1850] in The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson [Centenary Edition], edited by his son, Edward Waldo Emerson, Vol 4 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co: c1876), p 149.

Using this method of asking questions, Emerson comes to an entirely different view of the world from the Puritan’s universe of an angry God, helpless humanity and the depravity of flesh:

“The destiny of organized nature is amelioration, and who can tell its limits? It is for man to tame the chaos; on every side, whilst he lives, to scatter the seeds of science and of song, that climate, corn, animals, men, may be milder, and the germs of love and benefit may be multiplied.” “The Uses of Great Men,” Representative Men (cited above), Vol 4, p 35.

Margaret Fuller. Engraving from Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, New York Public Library.

It was this view of the world, neither emotionally fanatical nor intellectually rigorous, that attracted Emerson’s following of devoted idealists. The original founders of the Transcendentalist Club were serious men with serious agendas—George Palmer Putnam, publisher of books on art and literary classics, founder and first Superintendent of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Frederick Henry Hedge, minister and Kantian; George Ripley, journalist and founder of a Utopian commune. The Club would attract, largely by the proselytizing of Emerson, some whose seriousness was not apparent, such as Henry David Thoreau, or who were more idealistic than practical, like A. Bronson Alcott, or even unstable, like Jones Very. Some from this group would form a literary journal, The Dial, which under the editorship of Margaret Fuller (perhaps the most widely read and serious intellectual of the lot) produced America’s first self-conscious literary movement.

Emerson tried to make the magazine of popular interest and so provided many poems. Unlike many of the later poems which are harnessed to illustrate an essay, the poems he wrote for The Dial are lyrical and occasionally wistful. It is as though when he was less interested in making a serious point, he was  better able to make a poetic one. And so it seems here.


from The Dial (No 2: 1842)

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

That you are fair or wise is vain,
Or strong, or rich, or generous;
You must have also the untaught strain
That sheds beauty on the rose.
There is a melody born of melody,
Which melts the world into a sea.
Toil could never compass it,
Art its height could never hit,
It came never out of wit;
But a music music-born
Well may Jove and Juno scorn.
Thy beauty, if it lack the fire
Which drives me mad with sweet desire,
What boots it? What the soldier’s mail,
Unless he conquer and prevail?
What all the goods thy pride which lift,
If thou pine for another’s gift?
Alas! that one is born in blight,
Victim of perpetual slight:—
When thou lookest on his face,
Thy heart saith, Brother! go thy ways;
None shall ask thee what thou doest,
Or care an apple for what thou knowest,
Or listen when thou repliest,
Or remember where thou liest,
Or how thy supper is sodden;—
And another is born
To make the sun forgotten.
Surely he carries a talisman
Under his tongue,
Broad are his shoulders and strong,
And his eye is scornful,
Threatening and young.
I hold it of little matter,
Whether your jewel be of pure water,
A rose diamond or a white,
But whether it dazzle me with light.
I care not how you are drest,
In the coarsest or in the best;
Nor whether your name is base or brave,
Nor for the fashion of your behavior,
But whether you charm me,
Bid my bread feed and my fire warm me,
And dress up Nature in your favor.
One thing is forever good,—
That one thing is Success,—
Dear to the Eumenides,
And to all the heavenly brood.
Who bides at home, nor looks abroad,
He carries the eagles—he masters the sword.

[Text note: The above text is as the poem appeared in the second issue of the The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy and Religion (Boston: E.P. Peabody: 1842), pp 205-06. In the Centenary Edition of the Complete Works (cited above), Vol. 9, pp 31-32, the poem is titled “Destiny.” There are numerous punctuation revisions, and several minor word changes involving contractions. The two relatively major emendations are: line 23: “a rush” replaces “an apple”; and line 40: “In coarsest weeds or in the best” replaces “In the coarsest or in the best”.]

It seems a question more important to Yankee social climbers than a philosopher, but why the gods bless some with material wealth and what consequences that has in this world and the next always bothered Emerson. “Fate” is about more than material possessions, but it encompasses the specific case. When he was in his early 20s he wrote this poem:


from “Poems of Youth and Early Manhood, 1823-1834,” Collected Works (Centenary edition, cited above), Vol 9, p 380

When success exalts thy lot,
God for thy virtue lays a plot:
And all thy life is for thy own,
Then for mankind’s instruction shown;
And though thy knees were never bent,
To Heaven thy hourly prayers are sent,
And whether formed for good or ill,
Are registered and answered still.

The same year that The Dial was being organized Emerson published his first series of essays, entitled simply Essays in 1841, republished as Essays: First Series in 1847. One of the essays, “Compensation” explained why the issue of worldly success interested him so long: “it seemed to me when very young, that on this subject life was ahead of theology, and the people knew more than the preachers taught.” (Complete Works (Centenary edition, cited above), Vol 2, p 93.) The preachers taught that laying up a store of wealth in the present world brought wretchedness. This confused Emerson.

“What did the preacher mean by saying that the good are miserable in the present life? Was it that houses and lands, offices, wine, horses, dress, luxury, are had by unprincipled men, whilst the saints are poor and despised; and that a compensation is to be made to these last hereafter, by giving them the like gratifications another day, — bank-stock and doubloons, venison and champagne? This must be the compensation intended; for what else? Is it that they are to have leave to pray and praise? to love and serve men? Why, that they can do now. The legitimate inference the disciple would draw was, — ‘We are to have such a good time as the sinners have now’; —- or, to push it to its extreme import, — ‘You sin now; we shall sin by and by; we would sin now, if we could; not being successful, we expect our revenge to-morrow.'” (Id. at 94-95.)

And thus is the setup for an excursion into reflective thought patterned on the writing of Emerson’s hero, Montesquieu, one of the five “Representative Men” Emerson wrote of. The essay, like many of Emerson’s essays, bear striking similarities to the thinking style of Montesquieu, who Emerson referred to as “the Skeptic.” Those similarities, as well as how Emerson comes out on the issue of just deserts in this lifetime, is beyond this post, but you should give yourself the pleasure of reading the essay in its entirety. We’ll conclude, however, with the poem that illustrates that essay, to give yet another of Emerson’s poems related to the main selection.


from Essays (First Series) (1841)

The wings of Time are black and white,
Pied with morning and with night.
Mountain tall and ocean deep
Trembling balance duly keep.
In changing moon, in tidal wave,
Glows the feud of Want and Have.
Gauge of more and less through space
Electric star and pencil plays.
The lonely Earth amid the balls
That hurry through the eternal halls,
A makeweight flying to the void,
Supplemental asteroid,
Or compensatory spark,
Shoots across the neutral Dark.

Man’s the elm, and Wealth the vine;
Stanch and strong the tendrils twine:
Though the frail ringlets thee deceive,
None from its stock that vine can reave.
Fear not, then, thou child infirm,
There’s no god dare wrong a worm.
Laurel crowns cleave to deserts,
And power to him who power exerts;
Hast not thy share? On winged feet,
Lo! it rushes thee to meet;
And all that Nature made thy own,
Floating in air or pent in stone,
Will rive the hills and swim the sea,
And, like thy shadow, follow thee.

In his visits to American universities at the end of his life, Borges always mentioned Emerson as one of his favorite poets. It surprised many people at the time, and no doubt Borges was attempting to be provocative as well as show his love of the literature of the United States. But in many respects Emerson is what Borges became: a poet of the intellect, one who tried to tame verse for philosophy. Emerson seems much more tame than Borges in his prose, but given the context he arose from, isn’t his transcendental vision of nature the “magical realism” of his day?

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