Ralph Waldo Emerson

Gnothi Seauton


If thou canst bear
Strong meat of simple truth
If thou durst my words compare
With what thou thinkest in my soul’s free youth,
Then take this fact unto thy soul,—–
God dwells in thee.
It is no metaphor nor parable,
It is unknown to thousands, and to thee;
Yet there is God.


He is in thy world,
But thy world knows him not.
He is the mighty Heart
From which life’s varied pulses part.
Clouded and shrouded there doth sit
The Infinite
Embosomed in a man;
And thou art stranger to thy guest
And know’st not what thou doth invest.
The clouds that veil his life within
Are thy thick woven webs of sin,
Which his glory struggling through
Darkens to thine evil hue.


Then bear thyself, O man!
Up to the scale and compass of thy guest;
Soul of thy soul.
Be great as doth beseem
The ambassador who bears
The royal presence where he goes.


Give up to thy soul—–
Let it have its way—–
It is, I tell thee, God himself,
The selfsame One that rules the Whole,
Tho’ he speaks thro’ thee with a stifled voice,
And looks through thee, shorn of his beams.
But if thou listen to his voice,
If thou obey the royal thought,
It will grow clearer to thine ear,
More glorious to thine eye.
The clouds will burst that veil him now
And thou shalt see the Lord.


Therefore be great,
Not proud,—–too great to be proud.
Let not thine eyes rove,
Peep not in corners; let thine eyes
Look straight before thee, as befits
The simplicity of Power.
And in thy closet carry state;
Filled with light, walk therein;
And, as a king
Would do no treason to his own empire,
So do not thou to thine.


This is the reason why thou dost recognize
Things now first revealed,
Because in thee resides
The Spirit that lives in all;
And thou canst learn the laws of nature
Because its author is latent in thy breast.


Therefore, O happy youth,
Happy if thou dost know and love this truth,
Thou art unto thyself a law,
And since the soul of things is in thee,
Thou needest nothing out of thee.
The law, the gospel, and the Providence,
Heaven, Hell, the Judgement, and the stores
Immeasurable of Truth and Good,
All these thou must find
Within thy single mind,
Or never find.


Thou art the law;
The gospel has no revelation
Of peace and hope until there is response
From the deep chambers of thy mind thereto,—–
The rest is straw.
It can reveal no truth unknown before.
The Providence
Thou art thyself that doth dispense
Wealth to thy work, want to thy sloth,
Glory to goodness, to neglect, the moth.
Thou sow’st the wind, the whirlwind reapest,
Thou payest the wages
Of thy own work, through all ages.
The almighty energy within
Crowneth virtue, curseth sin.
Virtue sees by its own light;
Stumbleth sin in self-made night.


Who approves thee doing right?
God in thee.
Who condemns thee doing wrong?
God in thee.
Who punishes thine evil deed?
God in thee.
What is thine evil meed?
Thy worse mind, with error blind
And more prone to evil
That is, the greater hiding of the God within:
The loss of peace
The terrible displeasure of this inmate
And next the consequence
More faintly as more distant wro’t
Upon our outward fortunes
Which decay with vice
With Virtue rise.


The selfsame God
By the same law
Makes the souls of angels glad
And the souls of devils sad
There is nothing else but God
Where e’er I look
All things hasten back to him
Light is but his shadow dim.


Shall I ask wealth or power of God, who gave
An image of himself to be my soul?
As well might swilling ocean ask a wave,
Or the starred firmament a dying coal,—–
For that which is in me lives in the whole.




The Sphinx

The Sphinx is drowsy,
  Her wings are furled:
Her ear is heavy,
  She broods on the world.
“Who’ll tell me my secret,
  The ages have kept?__
I awaited the seer
  While they slumbered and slept:__

“The fate of the man-child,
  The meaning of man;
Known fruit of the unknown;
Daedalian  plan;
Out of sleeping a waking,
  Out of waking a sleep;
Life death overtaking;
  Deep underneath deep?

:Erect as a sunbeam,
  Upspringeth the palm;
The elephant browses,
  Undaunted and calm;
In beautiful motion
  The thrush plies his wings;
Kind leaves of his covert,
  Your silence he sings.

“The waves, unashaméd,
  In difference sweet,
Play glad with the breezes,
  Old playfellows meet;
The journeying atoms,
  Primordial wholes,
Firmly draw, firmly drive,
  By their animate poles.

“Sea, earth, air, sound, silence,
  Plant, quadruped, bird,
By one music enchanted,
  One deity stirred,–
Each the other adorning,
  Accompany still;
Night veileth the morning,
  The vapor the hill.

“The babe by its mother
  Lies bathéd in joy;
Glide its hours uncounted,–
  The sun is its toy;
Shines the peace of all being,
  Without cloud, in its eyes;
And the sum of the world
  In soft miniature lies.

“But man crouches and blushes ,
  Absconds and conceals;
He creepeth and peepeth,
  He palters and steals;
Infirm, melancholy,
  Jealous glancing around,
An oaf, an accomplice,
  He poisons the ground.

“Out spoke the great mother,
  Beholding his fear;–
At the sound of her accents
  Cold shuddered the sphere:–
‘Who has drugged my boy’s cup?
  Who has mixed my boy’s bread?
Who, with sadness and madness,
  Has turned my child’s head?

I heard a poet answer
  Aloud and cheerfully,
“Say on, sweet Sphinx! thy dirges
  Are pleasant songs to me.
Deep love lieth under
  These pictures of time;
They fade in the light of
  Their meaning sublime.

“The fiend that man harries
  Is love of the Best;
Yawns the pit of the Dragon,
  Lit by rays from the Blest.
The lethe of Nature
  Can’t trance him again,
Whose soul sees the perfect,
  Which his eyes seek in vain.

“To vision profounder,
  Man’s spirit must dive;
His aye-rolling orb
  At no goal will arrive;
The heavens that now draw him
  With sweetness untold,
Once found,–for new heavens
  He spurneth the old.

“Pride ruined the angels,
  Their shame them restores;
Lurks the joy that is sweetest
  In stings of remorse.
Have I a lover
  Who is noble and free?–
I would he were nobler
  Than to love me.

“Eterne alternation
  Now follows, now flies;
And under pain, pleasure,–
  Under pleasure, pain lies.
Love works at the center,
  Heart-heaving alway;
Forth speed the strong pulses
  To the borders of day.

“Dull Sphinx, Jove keep thy five wits’
  Thy sight is growing blear;
Rue, myrrh and cummin for the Sphinx,
  Her muddy eyes to clear!”
The old Sphinx bit her thick lip,–
  Said, “Who taught thee me to name?
I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow;
  Of thine eye I am eyebeam.

“Thou art the unanswered question Note;
  Couldst see thy proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh;
  And each answer is a lie.
So take thy question through nature,
  It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
  Time is the false reply.

Uprose the merry Sphinx,
  And crouched no more in stone;
She melted into purple cloud,
  She silvered in the moon;
She spired into a yellow flame;
  She flowered in blossoms red;
She flowed into a foaming wave:
  She stood Monadnoc’s head.

Through a thousand voices
  Spoke the universal dame
“Who telleth one of my meanings
  Is master of all I am.”

The Dial, 1841



Bring me wine, but wine which never grew
In the belly of the grape,
Or grew on vine whose tap-roots, reaching through
Under the Andes to the Cape,
Suffer no savor of the earth to scape.

Let its grapes the morn salute
From a nocturnal root,
Which feels the acrid juice
Of Styx and Erebus;
And turns the woe of Night,
By its own craft, to a more rich delight.

We buy ashes for bread;
We buy diluted wine;
Give me of the true,–
Whose ample leaves and tendrils curled
Among the silver hills of heaven
Draw everlasting dew;
Wine of wine,
Blood of the world,
Form of forms, and mold of statures,
That I intoxicated,
And by the draught assimilated,
May float at pleasure through all natures;
The bird-language rightly spell,
And that which roses say so well.

Wine that is shed
Like the torrents of the sun
Up the horizon walls,
Or like the Atlantic streams, which run
When the South Sea calls.

Water and bread,
Food which needs no transmuting,
Rainbow-flowering, wisdom-fruiting,
Wine which is already man,
Food which teach and reason can.

Wine which Music is,–
Music and wine are one,–
That I, drinking this,
Shall hear far Chaos talk with me;
Kings unborn shall walk with me;
And the poor grass shall plot and plan
What it will do when it is man.
Quickened so, will I unlock
Every crypt of every rock.

I thank the joyful juice
For all I know;–
Winds of remembering
Of the ancient being blow,
And seeming-solid walls of use
Open and flow.

Pour, Bacchus! the remembering wine;
Retrieve the loss of men and mine!
Vine for vine be antidote,
And the grape requite the lote!
Haste to cure the old despair,–
Reason in Nature’s lotus drenched,
The memory of ages quenched;
Give them again to shine;
A dazzling memory revive;
Refresh the faded tints,
Recut the aged prints,
And write my old adventures with the pen
Which on the first day drew,
Upon the tablets blue,
The dancing Pleiads and eternal men.




Waldo Emerson is truly the center of the American transcendental movement, setting out most of its ideas and values in a little book, Nature, published in 1836, that represented at least ten years of intense study in philosophy, religion, and literature, and in his First Series of essays.

Born in 1803 to a conservative Unitarian minister, from a long line of ministers, and a quietly devout mother, Waldo–who dropped the “Ralph” in college–was a middle son of whom relatively little was expected. His father died when he was eight, the first of many premature deaths which would shape his life–all three brothers, his first wife at 20, and his older son at 5. Perhaps the most powerful personal influence on him for years was his intellectual, eccentric, and death-obsessed Puritanical aunt, Mary Moody Emerson.Yet Emerson often confessed to an innate optimism, even occasional “silliness.”

His undergraduate career at Harvard was not illustrious, and his studies at the Harvard Divinity School were truncated by vision problems, but he was ordained a minister of the Second Church in Boston, shortly before marrying Ellen Tucker in 1829. He resigned in 1832 after her death from tuberculosis, troubled by theological doctrines such as the Lord’s Supper, and traveled extensively in Europe, returning to begin a career of lecturing. In 1835 he married Lydia Jackson; they lived in Concord and had four children while he settled into his life of conversations, reading and writing, and lecturing, which furnished a comfortable income.

The Emerson house was a busy one, with friends like Elizabeth Hoar, Margaret Fuller, and Henry Thoreau staying for months to help out and talk. He, Bronson Alcott, and George Ripley decided to begin a magazine, The Dial, with Margaret Fuller editing, in 1840; Emerson would edit the final two years, ending in 1844, and he wrote essays for many issues. His Essays (first series) were published in 1841.

Meanwhile, tragedy struck with the sudden death of his five-year old son Waldo in 1842, soon after the death of John Thoreau from lockjaw, and a darker, tougher strain appears in Emerson’s writing, beginning with his memorializing poem, “Threnody.”But Emerson pulled himself together to give a series of lectures in New York and in 1844 he had a new volume of essays prepared. He began planning a series of lectures on great men and publication of his poems in 1846, while speaking out against the annexation of Texas and reading deeply in texts of Persian and Indic wisdom.

In 1845 he began extensive lecturing on “the uses of great men,” a series that culminated with the 1850 publication of Representative Men; by that year he was giving as many as 80 lectures a year. Through a career of 40 years, he gave about 1500 public lectures, traveling as far as California and Canada but generally staying in Massachusetts. His audiences were captivated by his speaking style, even if they didn’t always follow the subtleties of his arguments.

In 1847 Emerson travelled to England, noticing in particular the industrialization and the chasm between upper and lower classes. When he returned to Concord nine months later, he had a new approach to English culture, which he expressed in his lectures on the “Natural History of Intellect” and his 1856 book, English Traits.

In 1851 he began a series of lecture which would become The Conduct of Life, published in 1860. He was vigorous in middle age, traveling frequently, but was increasingly aware of his limits and failing energy. He had become quite famous, a major figure in the American literary landscape, a celebrity which brought both adultation and satire. He had been a profound inspiration for many writers, especially Henry Thoreau and Walt Whitman. He continued his speeches against slavery, but never with the fire of Theodore Parker. In 1857 he wrote an essay on “Memory” but ironically, in his later years, his own memory would falter, especially after his beloved house burned in 1872. He died quietly of pneumonia in 1882.

Ann Woodlief, Virginia Commonwealth University



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