Born in Boston, Waldo was one of the eight children of William Emerson, the eminent minister of the First Church in Boston. Upon the death of his father when Waldo was eight, his mother fought against poverty by taking in boarders.
After Waldo attended Harvard College and Harvard Divinity School, he became the minister of the Second Church in Boston (Unitarian). But when he could not in good conscience continue to conduct the Lord’s Supper, he resigned. His young wife died of tuberculosis, which also killed his father and two brothers. After a visit abroad, where he met Coleridge and Carlyle, he moved to Concord, Massachusetts, remarried, and began his remarkable ministry of literature.
In 1836, his first book, Nature, initiated a new movement, Transcendentalism, which fostered a new renaissance of American literature and life rooted in the affirmation: “The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes proclaimed Emerson’s 1837 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa address on The American Scholar America’s Declaration of Intellectual Independence. “We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe,” Emerson said and predicted that America would become the pole star for a thousand years. “A nation of men will for the first time exist because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul.”
At his Divinity School Address delivered in 1838, hearers were urged to acquaint themselves at first hand with deity. This radical Christian critic of “corpse cold Unitarianism” also declared, “Miracle is monster.” Andrews Norton, Professor of Biblical Literature, branded Emerson’s work “the latest form of infidelity.” Ralph Waldo Emerson was not invited back to Harvard for thirty years. Then he was awarded an honorary degree and elected a Harvard overseer.
Although rheumatism and poor eyesight plagued him, Emerson persisted in delivering lectures as far away as California, and writing poems, essays, letters, and in his journal, all celebrated in 2003, the bicentennial of his birth. The poet, “Sage of Concord,” has long been recognized as the most important figure in America’s cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raised to them and thee.
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