Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is considered 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. He resigned from his occupation as a Unitarian clergyman in 1832 to travel to Europe, where he befriended Carlyle, Coleridge and Wordsworth among others. In the U.S. he lectured in philosophy, while forming a transcendentalist group comprising fellow writers and poets such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau.
Emerson’s first book, Nature expressed his theories that the imagination of man is shaped by nature and helped spark an entirely new philosophical movement in New England. Essays (1841 and 1844), containing his essays on philosophy and other subjects, brought him international renown. Representative Men (1850) is a collection of lectures held in Oxford and London in 1847. Later lecture collections include The Conduct of Life (1860) and Society and Solitude (1870). His poetry, Poems (1847) and May-Day and Other Pieces (1867) may not have been ground breaking as a whole, but some of his pieces are considered to be among the most important poetry of the 19th century.
Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. 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. Most of his ancestors were clergymen as his father. He was educated in Boston and Harvard, like his father, and graduated in 1821. In 1825 he began to study at the Harvard Divinity School and next year he was licensed to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers. In 1829 Emerson married Ellen Louisa Tucker, who died in 1831 from consumption. Emerson’s first and only settlement was at the important Second Unitarian Church of Boston, where he became sole pastor in 1830. Three years later he had a crisis of faith, finding that he “was not interested” in the rite of Communion. Emerson’s controversial views caused his resignation. However, he never ceased to be both teacher and preacher, although without the support of any concrete idea of God. 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.
On April 27, 1882, Emerson died of pneumonia, caught some weeks before after a rain-soaked walk through his beloved Concord woods. The tiny New England town tolled the bell for each of his years, shrouded itself in black, and prepared for the onslaught of mourners who came from far and near to accompany Emerson to his rest on Poets’ Knoll in Sleepy Hollow cemetery.
“Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.”
“Watch your thoughts for they become words, watch your words for they become actions, watch your actions, for they become habits, watch your habits for they become your character, watch your character for it becomes your destiny.”
“The greatest homage to truth is to use it.”
“The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul.”
“The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.”
“Our faith comes in moments, yet there is a depth in those brief moments which constrains us to ascribe more reality to them than to all other experiences.”
“Thought is the blossom; language the bud; action the fruit behind.”
“The only reward of virtue is virtue.”
“The only way to have a friend is to be one.”
“Sometimes a scream is better than a thesis.”
“Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities have crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense.”
“All I have seen teaches me to trust the Creator for all I have not seen.”
“Hitch your wagon to a star.”
“It is not length of life, but depth of life.”
“A friend might well be reckoned the masterpiece of nature.”
“The less government we have the better.”
“Nothing can bring you peace but yourself.”
“Make yourself necessary to somebody.”
“We become what we think about all day long.”
“What lies beyond us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.”