Emerson’s Legacy


School of Practical Philosophy, New York, Feb . 4, 2017


The following is a version of a talk I gave recently at the School of Practical Philosophy in New York.  It has to do with the influence that Emerson had on the generation that followed his own, looking at the work of three individuals: Emily Dickinson, Charles Ives and Swami Paramananda.



Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) The first thing we have to say in this

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Engraved from a drawing by Samuel Worcester Rowse, (1822-1901)

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Engraved from a drawing by Samuel Worcester Rowse, (1822-1901)

talk is to acknowledge the paradox that being influenced by Emerson means that one becomes very different from him. As Catherine Tufariello, whose book I’ll be referencing soon says: “The only way to be a true disciple of Emerson, as Whitman recognized, is to be unlike him.” Those who invoke his name are not really invoking him, but rather acknowledging the Source, the Over-Soul, that was his inspiration. One of his chief claims is that he had no disciples, that he started no school. “I sought not to bring men to me, but to themselves.” His influence is still with us today, although its fingerprints have grown fainter. In a sense, we are all the legacy of Emerson; if you have ever described yourself as “spiritual but not religious,” you are showing that influence. He believed in you and in me, perhaps more than we believe in ourselves. He wrote of his “one doctrine: the infinitude of the private Man.” In essay after essay and lecture after lecture, he encouraged people to live their own lives, not someone else’s. He encouraged people to look at their lives and use them as fodder for greater self-understanding, and not wish them to be different. One way to do this is to pay close attention to what comes our way: the people, the ideas, the events, the circumstances.

I’d also like to point out that he is the first example of the philosophy of the Ideal–by which I mean the general philosophy taught at this school–who wrote in English. Throughout history, people writing about the Ideal wrote in a different language—Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, or Chinese or Latin. It was his mission to use the hodge-podge of American English to express universal Truth. He uses his power as a poet to elevate this language of the people to something that could hint at the infinite. He appreciated the metaphorical nature of language, how it could transcend its object into something divine. As he says in the essay The Poet: “The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency, because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry.” Unlike regular poets who see things and extrapolate metaphors, he lived among the universal meanings of things and saw them embodied in everyday forms. He lived among nouns, whereas most of us live among pronouns.

So in this talk I’d like to feature his use of the ordinary, or these pronouns, as his starting point for inspiration to help us see the nouns. He especially saw this at work in nature, which has no status markers, which is common to all. There is no high and low culture in nature. He sees in it the value of the commonplace. And America, with its Ideal of equality among all people, imperfectly realized as it is, would be the perfect testing place for this inspiration. As he says in his lecture called the Phi Beta Kappa speech or The American Scholar of 1837:

I read with joy some of the auspicious signs of the coming days, as they glimmer already through poetry and art, through philosophy and science, through church and state. One of these signs is the fact, that the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. That which had been negligently trodden under foot by those who were harnessing and provisioning themselves for long journeys into far countries, is suddenly found to be richer than all foreign parts. The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. It is a sign, — is it not? of new vigor, when the extremities are made active, when currents of warm life run into the hands and the feet. I ask not for the great, the remote, the romantic; what is doing in Italy or Arabia; what is Greek art, or Provencal minstrelsy; I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into to-day, and you may have the antique and future worlds.”

In this talk I’ll be looking at three examples of people who responded to this call, acknowledging Emerson’s influence, and who developed a body of work that drew on these universal principles. The hope is that we can use their examples to become more aware of the poetry, the flowing river of metaphors, in our own lives, to cast off our waking sleep and see the love and creative force that’s always available to us in the present moment.

Emily Dickinson, 1847 or 1848

Emily Dickinson, 1830-1886.  Most people know of Emerson’s influence on Walt Whitman, but he also had a strong influence on another—perhaps the other—American poet of the 19th century, Emily Dickinson. Emerson of course “discovered” Whitman who famously said, “I was simmering and simmering and Emerson brought me to a boil.” Emerson saw Whitman as representative of the expansive American poet he predicted. Dickinson on the other hand was a reclusive idiosyncratic poet, like Whitman chronologically a contemporary of Emerson, but who was obscure in her lifetime. Her fame did not come until after his and her death. But I believe that if Emerson had read any of her poems, he would have seen the same genius at work.

She was born in 1830, around the time Emerson was enjoying his first conventional success as pastor of the Second Church of Boston. She seems to have a had a rather conventional childhood with the exception of receiving a good education, unusual for women at the time, at the Amherst Academy in Massachusetts where she lived. She studied classical literature, botany, Latin, history and other subjects that show up in her work.

Most of her poems were written in the early years of the 1860’s. In her later years she became a recluse, seldom leaving her house or even her bedroom, and became a prolific letter-writer as well as poet. After her death, her sister Lavinia discovered some 1800 poems in a locked chest in Emily’s room, and started the process of having them published. Unlike Whitman, Dickinson’s poems are in structure more akin to Emerson’s, usually with a strict, almost sing-song rhythm, and rhyme or “slant-rhyme.”

She seems to have been introduced to Emerson early on, but never met him in person, although she had a couple of opportunities. The first occurred in 1857 when Emerson paid a visit to Amherst to deliver a lecture, and was given a reception at the nearby home of Emily’s brother Austin. She had been reading his essays for a while, but seems to have preferred keeping him as a purely literary Ideal, as she did with several other influences in her life. As Catherine Tufariello says in her essay The Remembering Wine: Emerson’s Influence on Whitman and Dickinson¹ “A girlhood friend, Emily Fowler Ford, remarked that Dickinson was immersed in Emerson’s essays in the mid 1840’s, more than a decade before he made this visit to Amherst, and in 1859 Benjamin Newton, her father’s law apprentice and Dickinson’s beloved ‘Tutor,’ had given her a copy of the 1847 Poems, in which each marked their respective favorites. She remained a reader of Emerson throughout her life and was deeply affected by his death in April 1882.” She wrote that receiving the poems of Emerson “…whose name my Father’s Law Student taught me, has touched the secret Spring”.

I believe that “secret spring” was her experience of what Emerson described in The Over-Soul: “When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause, but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up, and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come.”

I would just mention that this spring, this river, is also available to you and to me. It in fact is you and me, before we pollute it with our personal stuff—worry, anger, criticism, jealousy, self-doubt, self-aggrandizement. This view of the poet as an expressor for the Muse, or God, is one that is shared by creative people from all places and periods. As Tufariello says: “That recognition of the soul’s radical aloneness with God, or the gods, pervades the poetry of Dickinson and constitutes one of her deepest affinities with Emerson.” But also: “Like Whitman, Dickinson affirmed Emerson’s central belief that it is the special mark of poetic genius to be able to find the sublime hidden in the trivial and familiar, to extract the attar of the marvelous from common flowers.” And the images of flowers, and bees, and birds and other natural forms are perhaps the most prevalent in her poetry. But she also was engaged in a dialogue with the Universe, with God, with Death, and she is often right at the border of what is expressible in words.

(At this point I read several of her poems, but you may wish to go to a complete online collection and choose your own.)

Charles and Harmony Ives

Harmony & Charles Ives, ca. 1946 outside their summer home in West Redding, CT [credit: Halley Erskine, from the Charles Ives Papers in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University]

Charles Ives (1874-1954) Ives was a Modernist composer who used bits of popular songs and hymns in his work, which is still considered very atonal and ahead of its time by many. Quotes of folk tunes and marches and symphonies were used on equal footing.

He was born in Danbury CT in 1874, so he was 8 when Emerson died. His life was a study in dissonances—Danbury was a business-oriented town, but his father George Ives was a musician and bandleader who encouraged Charles’s unconventional experiments in music. An early story told by Charles has his father coming home to find him banging out a drum part with his fists on the piano. Instead of chiding him, his father said it was fine and sent him for drum lessons. He became an accomplished organist and would play in churches for much of the rest of his life.

In his early years, Charles was like a musical sponge and absorbed all of the sounds around him, which became, like Emerson’s notebooks, a bank from which he could draw when he needed inspiration. He went to Yale and studied music under the Professor Horatio Parker who imposed on him the kind of discipline he needed. While he was there, his father died of a stroke in 1893, which affected Charles deeply. But as one of his biographers, Jan Swafford, says, “Despite lingering depression over his loss, Ives had a spectacularly successful career at Yale, in every way but academically. His average in musical courses was a respectable B, in everything else D+.” Despite the loss of his father, he was always on the go and was well-liked—funny, talented and popular.

But he seemed to realize that composing the kind of music he wanted to compose would not pay the bills. After graduating, he moved to New York, got a job as a clerk in an insurance company, and eventually went on to found his own successful firm, which made him relatively rich and allowed him the freedom to compose the music he wanted. As he wrote in an essay, “…instead of studying how to make it worth men’s while to buy my baskets, I studied rather how to avoid the necessity of selling them.” He composed voluminously during his lifetime, but hardly got to hear any of his works performed. Near the end of his life he found a small cadre of admirers, including Leonard Bernstein, who championed his work. But for most he remains an acquired taste—he demands full attention and an open mind and heart.

As with Dickinson, I haven’t been able to find how he came to love the Transcendentalists, but it also seems to have happened rather early. One of his most famous pieces is the piano solo Concord Sonata, from about 1920, which has four movements: Emerson, Hawthorne, The Alcotts, and Thoreau. It is his attempt to evoke in music the great variety of personalities that emerged there at that time. About the same time, he published a book called Essays Before a Sonata, which attempted the same thing in words. In his dedication to it he says: “These prefatory essays were written by the composer for those who can’t stand his music,–and the music for those who can’t stand his essays; to those who can’t stand either, the whole is respectfully dedicated.”

I’d like to read a passage from the essay on Emerson, that I think expresses his omnivorous appetite for all musical forms and their ability to evoke the Universal.

Emerson seems to use the great definite interests of humanity to express the greater, indefinite, spiritual values–to fulfill what he can in his realms of revelation. Thus, it seems that so close a relation exists between his content and expression, his substance and manner, that if he were more definite in the latter he would lose power in the former,–perhaps some of those occasional flashes would have been unexpressed–flashes that have gone down through the world and will flame on through the ages–flashes that approach as near the Divine as Beethoven in his most inspired moments–flashes of transcendent beauty, of such universal import, that they may bring, of a sudden, some intimate personal experience, and produce the same indescribable effect that comes in rare instances, to men, from some common sensation. In the early morning of a Memorial Day, a boy is awakened by martial music–a village band is marching down the street, and as the strains of Reeves’ majestic Seventh Regiment March come nearer and nearer, he seems of a sudden translated–a moment of vivid power comes, a consciousness of material nobility, an exultant something gleaming with the possibilities of this life, an assurance that nothing is impossible, and that the whole world lies at his feet. But as the band turns the corner, at the soldiers’ monument, and the march steps of the Grand Army become fainter and fainter, the boy’s vision slowly vanishes–his “world” becomes less and less probable–but the experience ever lies within him in its reality. Later in life, the same boy hears the Sabbath morning bell ringing out from the white steeple at the “Center,” and as it draws him to it, through the autumn fields of sumac and asters, a Gospel hymn of simple devotion comes out to him–“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”–an instant suggestion of that Memorial Day morning comes–but the moment is of deeper import–there is no personal exultation–no intimate world vision–no magnified personal hope–and in their place a profound sense of a spiritual truth,–a sin within reach of forgiveness–and as the hymn voices die away, there lies at his feet–not the world, but the figure of the Saviour–he sees an unfathomable courage, an immortality for the lowest, the vastness in humility, the kindness of the human heart, man’s noblest strength, and he knows that God is nothing–nothing but love! Whence cometh the wonder of a moment? From sources we know not. But we do know that from obscurity, and from this higher Orpheus come measures of sphere melodies flowing in wild, native tones, ravaging the souls of men, flowing now with thousand-fold accompaniments and rich symphonies through all our hearts; modulating and divinely leading them.”

As Whitman did with poetry, Ives took a look at the rulebook for music and casually tossed it over his shoulder. The range of expression in the Concord Sonata shows his understanding of the range of the Transcendentalists—from the wild dissonances of the Emerson movement to the comfortable hominess of the Alcott. He can combine the raucous raging river of Whitman and the pure spring of Dickinson in the same piece. We may not “like” the result, but we know we are standing in the presence of someone who has heard the “melodies flowing in wild, native tones, ravaging the souls of men….”

At this point I played a video I had shot of a performance of Ives’s Violin Sonata #4, “Children’s Day at the Camp Meeting,” 3d movement, from 1916.  But there are a number of performances of Ives’s music on youtube.

Swami Paramananda, ca. 1910

Swami Paramananda (1884–1940) was an Indian holy man, who was sent to the US to open an ashram, and who discovered Emerson here. He was a disciple of Swami Vivekananda, of the Ramakrishna Order, who is usually credited with opening the doors of the West to Vedanta and meditation, having given a lecture at the World Congress of Religions in Chicago in 1893. Vedanta, which is another form of non-sectarian philosophy/religion, is another name for the practice of this school. After the congress he spent time traveling across America, and establishing Vedanta Centers in various cities, including New York. Schools like ours are relative newcomers to the Vedanta and meditation scene, and we can only acknowledge the work of those that came before us.

Swami Paramananda, whose name means “Great Bliss,” was born Suresh Chandra Guha-Thakurta, became a disciple at the age of 17 and was sent in 1906 to found other centers, which are still active: one in California and one in Cohasett Massachusetts. His centers are rather unique in that they give prominence to women as spiritual teachers, like Emerson believing in equality between men and women. They also avoided ornate trappings that some temples were employing, favoring instead simple décor that did not dwell on its Indian origins.

Paramananda by all accounts had a childlike simplicity about him that disarmed many who had preconcieved notions about what a swami should be like. But he also possessed the practicality needed to shepherd these centers through the outright animosity of the Christian establishment, the comings and goings of individuals, and the inevitable personality conflicts and in-fighting that unfortunately plague so many supposedly spiritual enterprises. He also had to deal with natural disasters such fire and flood that almost destroyed the one in California. But he also had the spiritual understanding to write voluminously on Vedanta and other traditions. And he himself was a poet, drawing heavily on nature for his own inspiration.

Again, we don’t know exactly when he discovered Emerson, but he acknowledged Emerson’s role in preparing the ground for Eastern religion. Emerson had in his library some of the first editions of the Bhagavad Gita and other Indian texts in the US, and quoted them regularly in his essays and lectures. In his essay, ironically, on Plato or the Philosopher, Emerson had written:

In all nations there are minds which incline to dwell in the conception of the fundamental Unity. The raptures of prayer and ecstasy of devotion lose all being in one Being. This tendency finds its highest expression in the religious writings of the East, and chiefly in the Indian Scriptures, in the Vedas, the Bhagavat Geeta, and the Vishnu Purana. Those writings contain little else than this idea, and they rise to pure and sublime strains in celebrating it.

In his book Emerson and Vedanta which was first published in 1918, Paramananda writes “He also possessed an unusual grasp of Indian Philosophy and picked out here and there its fairest thoughts to mingle with his own. To-day it is easy to find many translations of Oriental writings; but in his time the translations were few and imperfect; yet because he possessed the same quality of mind, he was able to draw out of them the essence.”

In 1930, amid an onslaught of dubious yogis trying to capitalize on America’s economic uncertainty, he delivered a talk to his followers that contained these words that could have been lifted from Emerson’s Self-Reliance: “It does not make any difference what you call yourself; be something that satisfies your own soul. Do not always look around to see whether your friend or your neighbor or the public approves; gain the sanction of your innermost being. The recognition that you desire from others, seek it from within….” (Levinsky, p. 372)

So I’d like to quote again from Paramananda’s book which shows the high esteem in which he held Emerson:

Emerson’s great openness, fairness and love of Truth enabled him to understand the teachings of all nations; and whenever he came across great truths, he recognized and absorbed them. When a man can thus perceive the highest in other men, it deals a death-blow to all littleness. In comparing Emerson’s philosophy with the Vedic teaching there is no intention to belittle the genius of Emerson. The universal facts of life are the same in East and West, in the remotest past and the present. It was because Emerson had discovered certain profound truths in his own soul, that he was able to accept with delight the same truths when he discovered them elsewhere. Only a man who is an expert in the higher realms of knowledge, can analyze and appreciate the value of ideas of rare quality when he finds them; and Emerson was able to do this. We are destined more and more to be thrown together, and I hope and pray that it may be the will of the Cosmic Being to destroy the fictitious barriers which exist between East and West, North and South; and enable us to meet in the one universal Truth. All great minds do this. They cannot be satisfied to live in the narrow holes of their own. They must expand; and as they expand, they leave behind them all sense of difference. Those who are able to abide in this unbroken unity become free souls and enjoy the supreme cosmic Bliss and Infinitude.” From Emerson and Vedanta, p. 26-7

So Paramananda and Emerson, like Dickinson and like Ives, were very different, but tapped into the same creative stream, that stream which is also flowing in all of us. We may not all be able to express it in the same way, but the important thing is to acknowledge it and try to trace it back to its Source.

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¹In The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Joel Porte and Saundra Morris, eds., Cambridge University Press, 1999.