Stephen Barnes (Southern Illinois University, Carbondale)
Ralph Waldo Emerson published two major series of Essays. The first was in 1841, the second in 1844. The biographical event to be noted prior to the First Series was the death of his first wife Ellen in 1831. This event invoked many themes in the First Series, including nature's forgetfulness, our overcoming of the past through a casting off, and a transcending of pain and suffering through a severing of relations. The Second Series of Essays appeared in 1844, and his book of Poems is published in 1846. Prior to these works stands a pivotal moment in Emerson's life – the death of his son Waldo in 1842. This event marks a new tack in Emerson's philosophical essays, poetry, and journal entries. He is unable to react as he did to Ellen’s death. He cannot sever himself from Waldo. Instead, he adopts a radically new attitude, one of embracing rather than forgetting, of relations rather than individuality, and of mature acceptance rather than adolescent rebellion.
As a representative essay from Emerson’s First Series, I will use "Circles" to explicate the themes by which he confronted and dealt with Ellen’s death. I will also take recourse to some of Emerson’s journal entries.
There are four main themes running throughout Emerson’s essay "Circles." The first idea is that nature, and hence our own lives, are continually in a state of transition and flux. Emerson is quite aware of this fact, given the transitory nature of his relationships – he is in a time of many deaths, as well as the beginnings of new things.
A second theme, arising out of the first, is that life is very much about moving on, casting off, and in many cases, forgetting. Emerson prefers to put the past behind him. There is too much pain, sorrow, and regret to do otherwise. From forgetting comes individualism, the third idea in "Circles." By shedding the past, Emerson sets himself up as autonomous from it. Furthermore, through these acts of Stoic resignation, he establishes a type of radically separate selfhood. Finally, as a fourth theme, Emerson carries these ideas of individualism into the possibility of self-perfection. Relationships and memories grant no reprise from the pain of Ellen’s death. Perhaps, instead, solace can be found in carrying the self to its highest possible achievement.
In September of 1840, Emerson completed "Circles," praising flux, abandonment, impermanence, and forgetfulness. He lauded the present, the now.
In a journal entry from December of that year, he writes, "Nature ever flows; stands never still. Motion or change is her mode of existence."
It is appropriate that Emerson sent his First Series of Essays to the press at the dawning of a new year, January 1, 1841,
for it is in "Circles" that Emerson praised the power of change and new beginnings. As George J. Stack explains, "All that seems permanent is subject to change, the impertinence of the new. And what is new ‘destroys the old.’ Theories, generalizations, values, beliefs, and ideals that seemed at their birth to be eternal prove victims of the relentless power of temporality."
The circle metaphor begins early in the essay. Understanding its significance is key to comprehending Emerson’s general take on how one is to deal with suffering: "Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning."
Emerson discusses the circle as beginning with a person’s eye, and tracing outward to the horizon. Our life is a realization of two things in this metaphor. First, we are at the center of the world – a very anthropocentric metaphysics. Things that happen to us really are directed at us. We are justified in extracting personal meanings from our experiences. Secondly, life is a moving outward. We are to experience more, see more, and do more. In so doing, we become more: "The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end."
Just as the world is constantly in a state of change, so too should we be. And the best sort of change is that which accommodates more. Rather than seeking a particular understanding of events, we should strive always to see more possibilities, more interpretations of our experiences.
The world is movement for Emerson. It is alive, and any attempt to stop it, to resist its flux is doomed to failure. He writes, "The natural world may be conceived as a system of concentric circles, and we now and then detect in nature slight dislocations which apprise us that this surface on which we now stand is not fixed, but sliding."
This is the way the world works. People die, and new relationships begin. Emerson appears desperate here to convince himself to move on, to seek new horizons. Any attempt to do otherwise is to wallow in the past. One cannot set up defenses against the pains of our experiences, so one should move on: "it seems to me that with every precaution you take against such an evil you put yourself into the power of the evil."
Finally, there is an optimistic note to this constant running, striving, and moving. We become fresh and anew; and we are able seek novelties, realize new hopes, and achieve new possibilities: "In nature every moment is new; the past is swallowed and forgotten; the coming only is sacred. Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit . . . People wish to be settled; only as far as they are unsettled is there any hope for them. Life is a series of surprises."
Part of this theme of ever-present flux is Emerson’s hope for forgetfulness. Not only is the past constantly receding as we move ever onward, but so too should our attachment to it. Emerson admits that he would not be who he is without his past, but he also claims that it is by his past that he is able to live fully in the present, forgetting and moving beyond his previous attachments. The metaphor he chooses in a July 7, 1839 journal entry is apt: "The past has baked my loaf, and in the strength of its bread I break up the old oven." The past has caused him so much pain that the fact of his survival has given him a new strength. This strength allows him to transcend his past, moving beyond into a powerful state of forgetfulness: "The new position of the advancing man has all the powers of the old, yet has them all new. It carries in its bosom all the energies of the past, yet is itself an exhalation of the morning. I cast away in this new moment all my once hoarded knowledge, as vacant and vain. Now for the first time seem I to know any thing rightly."
Because of these new powers, he is able to forget. And this fact has given him great strength. He has overcome the death of Ellen (he believes) and has grown because of it. He writes, "The one thing which we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves, to be surprised out of our propriety . . . The way of life is wonderful; it is by abandonment."
Growth, for Emerson, requires this kind of struggle to overcome – we need a harsh environment to challenge us. But it also requires a kind of forgetfulness, for we cannot dwell on these occurrences; rather, we must move on, always expanding our newly found powers.
It should be noted, however, that even with all of this emphasis upon forgetting, it is far from clear that Emerson ever attained his goal. When his first daughter was born, Emerson’s second wife Lidian insisted that they name her Ellen. In fact, Lidian, it is said, wanted to provide him "with another Ellen," for she knew that she would never compete with his first wife’s memory. In short, the story runs, on February 24, 1839, Ellen was born and Lidian "firmly" announced, "Her name is Ellen." There was no debate.
The next theme of "Circles" has already been mentioned, the primacy of the individual. It is the individual who stands at the center of these outwardly moving circles. And as the individual casts off its past, the individual becomes, on this view, more powerful in its selfhood.
As he is composing "Circles," Emerson’s journal entries reveal this strong sense of individuality. In an entry from the autumn of 1840, he proclaims, "I shed all influences." He truly wants to be his own person, floating free from the pains and tragedies of his life, abandoning them to his old self. He will become anew. And earlier, in May 28, 1839, Emerson writes that we can only really live for ourselves. Any attempt to affix oneself to another, whether that other is a person, ideal, or principle, is doomed to failure. The world is simply too much in a state of change: "There is no history. There is only biography. The attempt to perpetuate, to fix a thought or principle, fails continually. You can only live for yourself; your action is good only whilst it is alive, – whilst it is in you. The awkward imitation of it by your child or your disciple is not a repetition of it, is not the same thing, but another thing. The new individual must work out the whole problem of science, letters, and theology for himself; can owe his fathers nothing."
One of the upshots of this radical individualism is that any improvement of the self must be out of the self. Ameliorating one’s relationships to others is only a way of perpetuating one’s dependence upon them, and hence damaging one’s own good. This fourth and final theme of "Circles," perfectionism, is the ultimate aim of the essay. The ability to live within the constant flow of change, to be able to let go of the past, is a sign of a higher nature, of a greater person.
This flowing out of the self, always seeking to know and be more, is a way of discovering one’s full potential, of transcending the ordinary life to achieve something of the divine.
Furthermore, we must also feel some shame for whom we previously were. Only by criticizing who we were can we have a new self.
And it is clear that Emerson understands these themes to directly impact his own life. In a March 4, 1838 journal entry, he laments the fact that he was not as demonstrative with Ellen, Charles, and Edward as he could have been. He chastises his old self, vowing not to be as he was before: "I will try and learn from this sad memory to be brave and circumspect and true henceforth and weave now a web that will not shrink. This is the thorn in the flesh."
It is at this point, however, that we must recognize an important transition, a radical shift in thought and life. All of the themes of "Circles" – all of Emerson’s resolve to cast off the past and live as a radical individual – will come into question when Emerson confronts the next great tragedy of his life. In 1842, the death of his beloved and first-born child, Waldo, calls for a complete and total reevaluation of all that Emerson believes.
II. "Experience" and "Threnody"
Emerson’s earlier Stoic maneuvers do not work in the case of Waldo’s death, as we can see through an examination of some of Emerson’s journals. On February 4, 1842, he writes, "I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve; that this fact takes no more deep hold than other facts, is as dreamlike as they." Emerson attempts his earlier forgetfulness: from a March 20 journal entry, "I comprehend nothing of this fact but its bitterness. Explanation I have none, consolation none that rises out of the fact itself; only diversion; only oblivion of this and pursuit of new objects." Because he cannot achieve a visceral understanding or feeling of Waldo’s death, he is unable to pass through the experience, to achieve the other side. It clings to him only as an unlived possibility. In other words, Waldo’s ghost haunts him. Emerson admits he has no comprehension of his son’s passing. On January 30, he writes, "Sorrow makes us all children again, – destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest knows nothing . . ." And he admits that he is too powerless and weak to deal with this reality. He does not wish to conclude that the world has cruelly conspired against him, and yet he sees no escape from this horrible possibility. From April of 1842, "In short, there ought to be no such thing as Fate. As long as we use this word, it is a sign of our impotence and that we are not yet ourselves . . . I am a dwarf, and I remain a dwarf. That is to say, I believe in Fate."
Early in the essay "Experience," begun in the fall of 1842,
Emerson reiterates the fact that he grieves because he cannot bring himself to grieve. He feels that he is left with "no scar" from Waldo’s passing, and that he has yet to fully experience the reality of his son’s death. He finds suffering to be "shallow," and remarks, "Nothing is left us now but death." Death, at least, is a "reality," something that he can trust.
There is a paradoxical tension here – that death is both the cause of his suffering, and the only thing to which he can cling. Waldo’s death makes no sense. And yet death in general is strangely comforting, because it at least can be relied upon. He knows it to be the case. Thus, the only thing he can understand and to which he can attach himself is that which causes his pain and brings him to the need for some explanation. He finds this situation cruel, and cries out that our condition is one of absurdity, that we can have no real grasp on our world: "I take this evanescence and lubricity of all objects, which lets them slip through our fingers then when we clutch hardest, to be the most unhandsome part of our condition. Nature does not like to be observed, and likes that we should be her fools and playmates . . . Direct strokes she never gave us power to make; all our blows glance, all our hits are accidents."
It is this condition, then, that is his lot. He is torn between the knowledge that the only thing he can hold secure is that which is causing him to doubt the security of everything. This paradoxical confusion is the absurdity of his situation: "Our love of the real draws us to permanence, but health of body consists in circulation, and sanity of mind in variety or facility of association. We need change of objects. Dedication to one thought is quickly odious."
We love the stable, that which we can understand and grasp. Nevertheless, the reality of our situation is that this permanence is not satisfying. It does not explain the death of Waldo. It merely tells us that there should be some explanation, but gives us no clues to help us in our moments of crisis. So philosophical theories do not help. They are too rigid, not adaptable to the felt texture of life. In fact, philosophy, in seeking to know, breaks through our methods of coping to reveal those truths that we precisely most do not need when confronted with the horrors of life: "Life is not intellectual or critical, but sturdy. Its chief good is for well-mixed people who can enjoy what they find, without question . . . We live amid surfaces, and the true art of life is to skate well on them."
It is at this point that Emerson interjects a distinction between Power and Form, which continues throughout the rest of "Experience,"
and then shows up again in "Fate" as Power and Circumstance, Power and Fate, and Thought and Nature.
Power is that impulse in us that pursues understanding, that seeks to make sense of the world. Form, however, resists this push. It is the always-present resistance to our probing eyes. Fate, Form, or Nature is the limit on our Power, whatever we cannot penetrate or overcome. It is, of course, fluid. So we must be willing to adapt, to grow when possible.
We live, for Emerson, in the battle between these forces: "Life is a series of surprises, and would not be worth taking or keeping if it were not . . . Nature hates calculators."
As much as we may try to order our world, the world resists our thought. It avoids our categories. Or, in the words of William James, "Experience, as we know, has ways of boiling over, and making us correct our present formulas."
We would do well, as the Emerson of "Circles" could, if we would simply live with this ever-fleeting lack of security. But, according to this later Emerson, something in us cries out against that. He writes, "the universal impulse to believe, that is the material circumstance and is the principal fact in the history of the globe."
We want to understand, and are downtrodden when we are thwarted. Emerson would like to surrender his quest for intelligibility, but concurrently admits his impulse to know is too great to be neglected: "People disparage knowing and the intellectual life, and urge doing. I am very content with knowing, if only I could know."
Emerson has traveled far afield from "Circles." He is no longer content simply to forget Waldo. It cannot be done. The impulse to grasp his situation is too strong. He cannot escape his desire to know. Perhaps his love for Waldo was too great. Perhaps this is why Emerson does not feel his death. In a real sense, Waldo has not been separated from him. And for this reason, there is no scar. In "Fate," he writes, "The secret of the world is the tie between person and event."
There is no scar because Emerson now is the death of Waldo. There was no ripping apart, no separation. Waldo and his death are folded into Emerson and are always present. The comfort, if we may call it that, in Emerson’s later understanding is that there is this always-ongoing battle between Power and Form. There is no resolution. There is no logos. There is only the pursuit, the successes and failures, the triumphs and the pains. He cannot understand Waldo’s passing, for Waldo has not passed – he still lives in Emerson and in all others whose lives he touched. We are all always already passing through the struggle between the desire to know and the realization that to know is impossible. And thus, the only possible resolution for Emerson is to hold these twin truths in mind, despite all the implicit contradictions and impossibilities: "One key, one solution to the mysteries of the human condition, one solution to the old knots of fate, freedom, and foreknowledge exists; the propounding, namely, of the double consciousness."
It should also be noted that the Second Series of Essays, including "Experience," was published amidst a new upswing in political activity on Emerson’s part. As he sees his inseparability from Waldo, it also seems that he has a new respect for the social fabric of which he is a part. As Cavell writes, "Emerson’s ‘Experience’ . . . is essentially a working out of the violence of the image of change, of the taking of a spiritual step, as it were, as a series of rememberings, say disfragmentings, reconstitutions of the members of, and of membership in, one’s stranded state."
Emerson begins his opposition to slavery and the relocation of the Cherokees. These themes appear more and more in his later writings.
When the Second Series of Essays was published on October 19, 1844, it marked a move in Emerson from questions concerning what we can know to what we should do. The world may not be comprehensible, we may not be able to fit tragedy and suffering into our systems, but we still must act.
In this way, Emerson’s commitment to individualism is tempered, and becomes more and more a commitment to a positive, contextually sensitive notion of freedom and the acceptance of differences. He thus begins praising the communitarian spirit he sees in many other writers, including Brownson, W. H. Channing, Greene, Peabody, and Bancroft
– a far cry from his days of "shedding all influences."
To conclude, then, allow me to offer a brief reading of Emerson’s poem "Threnody," written as a lamentation on Waldo’s death, which I believe encapsulates many, if not all, of the above themes. The first part of the poem is a questioning. It is the work of Power seeking to understand. Emerson cries out to Nature to heal his son as it heals itself through the ongoing process of seasonal renewal. But he knows this cannot be: "Nature, who lost, cannot remake him," and he writes that, "Fate let him fall."
Emerson continues, bemoaning that he misses the sights and sounds of Waldo’s presence. The loss, however, is always the fault of the world: "Perchance not he but Nature ailed, / The world and not the infant failed." Perhaps Waldo’s genius was too much for the world; perhaps he "Brought the old order into doubt / His beauty once their beauty tried."
It may well be the case that Waldo’s Power was too great. He questioned the Form of the world through his beauty, energy, and activity. He, for Emerson, caused the balance between Form and Power to waiver. The battle, the chase threatened to come to an end. Unable to bear this possible end, the world caused Waldo’s end. In effect, he was simply too great to be supported by this mortal realm.
In the second half of the poem, the "deep Heart" answers Emerson. He is not to learn from past "tutors" but from the "joyful eye" of Waldo. The beauty of his son gives him fresh insight, a new life, in much the same way as the Christ of Scripture, "Mary’s Son, Boy Rabbi, Israel’s paragon."
Waldo, thus, has not truly left. He remains present in Emerson’s being; he is one with Emerson’s deep Heart. Furthermore, Death acted as a healer. Otherwise, Waldo’s beauty and genius would have been too much for the world, destroying all its limitations: "My servant Death, with solving rite, / Pours finite into infinite."
So despite the fact that the need for Nature’s limitations (such as his son’s disease) caused Waldo’s death, Emerson is told not to close himself off to the world: "Wilt though not ope thy heart to know / What rainbows teach, and sunsets show?"
We have no reason to despair because the world, or Nature, or Fate is "Not of adamant and gold" but is of warm, flowing, organic being. It changes and grows, "Built of furtherance and pursuing, / Not of spent deeds, but of doing."
In this way, the world and Emerson are always in process, regrowing, and recreating themselves. His suffering is thus not overcome, but rather folded into him, allowing Emerson to transcend the absurdity of his condition through the salvific powers of continuity with his past. He no longer strives to feel and forget – in other words, to overcome. Rather, he grows, embracing the horror of his loss as inseparable from his new life, in all of its wounded possibility.
In addition to Ellen’s death in 1831 came his brother Edward’s death in 1834, his brother Charles’ death in 1836, and the birth of his son Waldo, also in 1836.
Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995), 339-340.
All journal entries are drawn from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960).
Gay Wilson Allen, Waldo Emerson: A Biography (New York: The Viking Press, 1981), 369.
George J. Stack, Nietzsche and Emerson: An Elective Affinity (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1992), 16.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Circles," in Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Stephen E. Whicher (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1960), 168.
Stack, Nietzsche and Emerson, 285-287.
Richardson, Emerson, 312.
David Jacobson, Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye (University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993), 86.
Stack, Nietzsche and Emerson, 83.
Allen, Emerson, 378.
Stanley Cavell, Conditions Handsome and Unhandsome: The Constitution of Emersonian Perfectionism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), 16.
Richardson, Emerson, 381.
Emerson, "Experience," in Selections, 256-257.
Ibid., 261, 264.
Emerson, "Fate," in Selections, 336, 339, 349.
Ibid., 336, 338.
Emerson, "Experience," 265.
William James, "Pragmatism’s Conception of Truth," in Pragmatism, edited by Bruce Kuklick (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1981), 100.
Emerson, "Experience," 268.
Emerson, "Fate," 347.
Cavell, Conditions, xxx.
Richardson, Emerson, 399.
Emerson, "Threnody," in Selections, 428-429.