Discuss Emerson as an Essayist (Ralf Waldo Emerson)

Emerson as an Essayist 

Discuss Emerson as an Essayist
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Introduction : Robert Waldo Emerson:-

Emerson is one of the greatest American essayists of the 19th century. He is appreciated all over the world for his essays. About the significance of his essays Mathew Arnold, a great critic, is of the view, "As Wordsworth's poetry is, in my judgement, the most important work done in our language during the present century, so are the Emerson's essays, I think, the most important work done in prose"

His prose style is marked by its aphoristic quality and epigrammatic terseness. The sentences are remarkably impressive, handled with subtleness and have poetic beauty.

Ralf Waldo Emerson
Emerson as an essayist
Born May 25, 1803, US
Died April 27, 1882, US
School Transcendentalism
Interest Individualism, nature, divinity, cultural criticism
Essays Self-Reliance, Compensation, The Over-Soul, Experience, The Transcendentalist, The Poet
Notable Ideas Self-reliance, transparent eyeball, double consciousness, stream of thought,
Era 19th century philosophy
Influences Coleridge, Plato, Shakespeare, Carlyle
Influenced Arnold, Thoreau, Lincoln, Nietzsche, Dickinson

Emerson as an Essayist:-

Emerson is quite different from other English essayists like Addison, Lamb, Hazlitt, Stevenson and Arnold. He was essentially a philosophical thinker and a transcendentalist. His essays are steeped in sublime thoughts and has a touch of philosophy. His essays 'the poet', 'the over soul','self reliance' contain sublime thoughts. As a transcendentalist he has done his best in these essays. With his confident aphorism, he often reminds us of Bacon. His essays are very much like Bacon's dispersed meditation.

Emerson has used a number of stylistic devices such as figures of speech, analogy, epigrams, antithetically balanced sentences and rhetorical etc. In any of his essays the use of these various devices is cleary evident. 

Emerson's essays can be grouped into three categories from the thematic point of view. His self reliance, Spiritual laws, compensation, the oversoul, Nature, Circles falls under the first group of classification. They deal with the description of universe and its laws. In the second category comes essays like Heroism, Prudence, Love, Manners and character. These essays analyse the moral faculties in human relationships in general. His essays such as History, The poet, New England, Art and Politics can be taken as the essays of third category which deals/concerned with the particular problems and experience.

Generally, English essays are short, but Emerson's essays are long enough. They may be called lectures on the basis of their forms. Some of them may be called the treatise or orations. The body of essays is vast, containing various topics under main title. But, Emerson never departs/deviates from his subject, it remains the same throughout his lectures and essays. A scholar points," his essays are twice born, out of the journals come his lectures and out of his lectures come his essays".

The construction of Emerson's essays is very loose with illogical sequence of paragraphs. The points of his thoughts are incoherent by the virtue of logical discussion. 

According to some critics, it is idle to examine Emerson's essays if we think of style as per the meaning of order and arrangement; but if we think of the style simply as manner, as a reflection of personality, there is no style to compare with that of his in English literature. 

The perception of analogy also takes the less direct but more assertive form of metaphor. It is  the philosopher's game played with appearance and reality.

It can't be denied that Emerson is one of the greatest prose stylists in the English literature but he also has some evident/glaring faults and shortcomings. A critic is of the opinion that, Emerson, an essayist is not an Artist. He is alleged to have got no sense of composition and lacked the gift of sustained construction. There are allegations on him of writing loosely with no proper use of syntax. When he starts elaborating ideas his sense of form gets vanished and continuation becomes irrational and incoherent. Although he has a large vocabulary, his instinct leads him to the simplest words. He chooses his expressions from the most unexpected places, from nursery and apocalypse to mystic books.

Howsoever loose the construction of his essays be, they possess appealing beauty and dazzling brilliance. He was an intellectual, a deep thinker and a eloquent speaker, who provided his readers with the maximum in a shorter time.  His essays are replete with his wisdom and full of rationality.

                   Gandhi after reading Emerson's essays commented," The essays to my mind contain the teaching of indian wisdom in a western genre".


  1. Yank as a tragic hero.
  2. Summary of Self Reliance by Emerson.
  3. Summary of Thoreau's Civil Disobedience.
  4. Walt Whitman as a poet of democracy.
  5. Thoreau's view on government.

Frequently Asked Questions:-

1) Emerson's essays 'Self Reliance' talks about :-

a) the relationship of human soul with God
b) the relationship between soul and personal ego
c) a man can become strong and self reliant only when he rejects all outside support and stands alone
d) all of these

2) Who is called the father of American transcendentalism?

a) Emerson
b) Robert Frost
c) William Wordsworth
d) Coleridge

3) Who were the two founding fathers of American transcendentalism?

Answer- Emerson and Thoreau.

4) Who created the philosophy of American transcendentalism?

Answer- Ralf Waldo Emerson followed by Henery David Thoreau.

5) What are the five pillars of transcendentalism?

  1. Self Reliance
  2. Connection to nature
  3. Freethought
  4. Non-conformity
  5. Confidence.


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