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Ralph Waldo Emerson – Biography and Works


Ralph Waldo Emerson is an American poet, essayist and a leader of the philosophical movement of transcendentalism. Influenced by such schools of thought as English romanticism, Neo-Platonism, and Hindu philosophy, Emerson is noted for his skill in presenting his ideas eloquently and in poetic language.

Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Most of his ancestors were ministers (churchmen), and his father, William Emerson, was also a minister of the First Church (Unitarian) of Boston. Emerson graduated from Harvard University at the age of 18 and for the next three years taught school in Boston. In 1825 he entered Harvard Divinity School, and the next year he was sanctioned to preach by the Middlesex Association of Ministers.

In 1832 Emerson resigned from his pastoral appointment because of personal doubts about administering the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. On Christmas Day, 1832, he left the United States for a tour of Europe. He stayed for some time in England, where he made the acquaintance of such British literary notables as Walter Savage Landor, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas Carlyle, and William Wordsworth. His meeting with Carlyle marked the beginning of a lifelong friendship. After, nearly a year in Europe Emerson returned to the United States. In 1834 he moved to Concord, Massachusetts, and became active as a lecturer in Boston.

Emerson helped lead the transcendentalism movement, a 19th century school that looked to individual intuition, rather than scientific rationalism, as the highest source of knowledge. In “Self-Reliance” (1841), one of Emerson’s most important works, he expressed his optimistic faith in the power of individual achievement and originality. He also considered the overarching need to discover and develop a relationship with nature and with God. Henry David Thoreau also played a major role in the transcendentalist movement of the nineteenth century.

Emerson made bold philosophical claims like: “Nature is the incarnation of thought” or that “The world is the mind precipitated.” His form of mystic idealism and Wordsworthian reverence for nature was immensely influential in American life and thought for a long time since Emerson, like the Englishman Carlyle was revered like a sage. Emerson’s concept of the ‘over-soul’ is an idea related to the mystic Unity, “within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all others,’ including the natural objects as well as his fellow beings.