The first point is a theory of language which makes the distinction which the modern linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was to make famous, in his (1922), that words are not things, but "signs" standing for things. Words are signifiers, things are what are signified. The important distinction is between signifier and signified. Emerson claims that even those words which "express a mood or intellectual fact" will be found, when traced back far enough, to have a root in some material or physical appearance. Thus, he says, " originally means means ," and so on. This argument is, of course, an etymological not a semiotic one. But Emerson is not a positivist and could not rest with a flat distinction between words as signs or symbols of material objects, and material objects themselves, for this view leads inevitably to the view that the material or physical world is more "real" than words, which are only signs. Emerson here becomes hard to follow, claiming in point two that "it is not words only that are emblematic, it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." (Insofar as Emerson means "idea" or "concept" when he uses the term "spiritual fact," this is close to a semiotic argument.)
Point two is a theory of symbolism, not just linguistic symbolism, but natural symbolism. He illustrates by saying, "An enraged man is a lion.... A lamb is innocence." Emerson believed, following Swedenborg especially, that everything in nature had its correlative in mind, that nature is the externalization of the soul. If modern readers cannot follow Emerson this far, they can at least recognize that Emerson's second point is a useful description of how the writer uses not only language but nature itself as symbols. In reading , for example, we are aware first that the words Moby-Dick stand for a large albino sperm whale and second that the whale itself stands for certain qualities, whether divine, demonic, or natural. Writers use natural objects and events to suggest, mirror, or symbolize inner, mental events.
Emerson went to Boston Public Latin School when he was nine, and to Harvard College when he was fourteen. After college, he tried teaching, then attended divinity school at Harvard. In 1829 he was ordained minister of Boston's Second Church. That same year he married Ellen Tucker. It was very much a love match, and Emerson was deeply shaken by her death only a year and a half later on 8 February 1831. At the same time, he was becoming increasingly reluctant to remain as minister to his church. In October 1832 he resigned, the immediate reason being that he felt he could no longer officiate at a ceremony (communion) that had become meaningless to him. With his wife dead and his career broken off, Emerson now sold his house and furniture and set out for Europe. He spent nine months abroad, almost six of them in Italy, working from Sicily to Naples to Rome, Florence, Venice, then on to Switzerland and Paris. In Paris, at the Jardin des Plantes, he experienced the full power and appeal of the new botanical and zoological sciences, and he now turned decisively from theology to science, vowing to become a naturalist. Going on to England and Scotland, he met , , and, particularly, Thomas Carlyle, who became a lifelong friend and correspondent.
Emerson's father, , the Unitarian minister at Boston's First Church from 1799 until his death in 1811, was an active, popular preacher and a staunch Federalist of very limited means but descended from a long line of Concord, Massachusetts, ministers. Emerson was eight when his father died. His mother, Ruth Haskins Emerson, a quiet, devout, and undemonstrative woman, lived till 1853, long enough to see her fourth child's fame. Emerson had seven siblings. Three died in infancy or childhood. Of those who lived to maturity, Edward died young, at twenty-nine, in 1834 as did Charles at twenty-eight in 1836, while Robert Bulkeley, who lived to age fifty-two, dying in 1859, was feeble-minded. Besides Ralph, only William lived a full and reasonably long life, dying at sixty-seven in 1868.
Returning home in October 1833, Emerson immediately embraced a new career, that of public lecturer. One month after disembarking, he was invited by the Boston Natural History Society to deliver the first of his four lectures on science. That winter he lectured in Concord and Bedford on his Italian trip, and, beginning in January 1835, at Boston's Masonic Temple, he delivered his first open public lecture series, six lectures on "Biography." The fourth lecture in the series, that on , was his first important statement about literature. The lecture was published, posthumously, in (1893), but the other five lectures in the "Biography" series of 1835, like the ten lectures he gave on "English Literature" later that same year, the twelve lectures on "The Philosophy of History" in 1836-1837, and the ten on "Human Culture" of 1837-1838, were only published beginning in 1959 as . Many of the ideas and phrases were incorporated by Emerson in subsequent lectures and books, which is why he did not publish them. But the early lectures show vividly the development of Emerson's characteristic views about literature.
(1850), a book made up of lectures first given in 1845 on , Swedenborg, Montaigne, , Napoleon, and Goethe, is the fullest account of Emerson's biographical approach to literature. This subject is not new with him. It goes back at least to his early lecture on , but it now has a new emphasis. Just as he had once claimed that there is properly no history, only biography, so comes close to saying there is properly no literature, there are only literary persons. "There must be a man behind the book," he says of Goethe. "It makes a great difference to the force of any sentence whether there be a man behind it or no." Emerson's representative figures are his Plutarchan heroes. The book is a pantheon of heroes, chosen not from among warriors (except for Napoleon), but from among thinkers and writers, who are of use to us because they represent or symbolize qualities that lie in us, too. They are essays in symbolic literary biography. Assuming that language is representative, that is, symbolic, Emerson says that "Behmen and Swedenborg saw that things were representative." Then, moving, not toward circular idealism, but toward biography, he states: "Men also are representative: first of things, and secondly, of ideas." Emerson identifies in each of his figures some permanent quality of the human mind. He is also a prestructuralist in that he believes that the world people make and inhabit is determined partly or even largely by the structure of the human mind. "Our colossal theologies of Judaism, Christism, Buddhism, Mahometism are the necessary and structural action of the human mind." It follows from this that our reading is a process of recognizing our own thoughts, or capabilities for thought and imagination, in the work and lives of others. Emerson sums this up concisely. "The possibility of interpretation lies in the identity of the observer with the observed." The democratic aesthetic also follows from this. "As to what we call the masses, and common men,--there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere."
There is only one paragraph about America and American poetry in "The Poet." Emerson specifically says he is "not wise enough for a national criticism," and he ends the essay as he began, with a consideration not of the American poet but of the modern poet. The essay closes with a repetition of the idea that it is the of poetry, not the resulting text, that constitutes the live essence of poetry, and he puts it in yet another of his triumphant aphorisms. "Art is the path of the creator to his work." True poetry is not the finished product, but the process of uttering or writing it.
The true poet will be "the translator of nature into thought" and will not get lost in unintelligible private symbolism, in "the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one." Nearing the end of the essay, Emerson notes that he looks "in vain for the poet whom I describe.... We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in ." It is a passage which seems to predict the advent of . Emerson continues, "yet America is a poem in our eyes, its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres." Eleven years later, 's appeared as if in answer.
It is finally the imagination, not wine, which intoxicates the true poet, and the same quality works in us, too. "The use of symbols has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for all men.... This is the effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms." Consider, for example, the sense of delight with which we are momentarily freed of the tyranny of English numbers by the child's book which tells us, if we are tired of counting to ten in the same old way, to try a new way, such as "ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim." Of such language, Emerson says, "We seem to be touched by a wand, which makes us dance and run about happily like children." He concludes, in a phrase that sums up the essay, "poets are thus liberating gods." Themselves free, they set us free--free, for example, to take only what we want from the books we read. "I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary." Thus Emerson cheerfully and knowingly dismisses all but the very best of even his own writing.
Emerson calls 's work the bible of educated people, claiming that it is "impossible to think, on certain levels, except through him." Swedenborg saw, and stands for, the interconnectedness of human beings and nature. and Goethe exemplify and stand for the power to express, to convert life into life-giving words. Emerson ends each essay with a review of the shortcomings of the subject. is too literary, not enough the prophet. Swedenborg is over-whelmed by a private and rigid symbolism his reader cannot fully share. The effect of these negative conclusions is to prevent the reader from idolizing or enthroning , Swedenborg, or any other great person. The great ones are of interest to us only because each has something to teach us, and it is the present reader, the student, and not the great writer or teacher whom Emerson really cares about. Each great representative figure "must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation." So the praise of Goethe, whom Emerson seems to have admired above all writers, is for such things as the creation of Mephistopheles in (1808-1832). In order to make the devil real, Goethe "stripped him of mythologic gear, of horns, cloven foot, harpoon tail, brimstone and blue-fire, and instead of looking in books and pictures, looked for him in his own mind, in every shade of coldness, selfishness, and unbelief that, in crowd or in solitude, darkens over the human thought." Thus Goethe reimagines Mephistopheles: "He shall be real; he shall be modern; he shall be European; he shall dress like a gentleman." The result, says Emerson, is that Goethe "flung into literature, in his Mephistopheles, the first organic figure that has been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the Prometheus."
"The Poet" also suggests the true function of the critic. "And herein is the legitimation of criticism, in the mind's faith, that the poems are a corrupt version of some text in nature, with which they ought to be made to tally." Emerson, however, is still more interested in the function of the poet than in the text, and he goes on now to explain that so many poets flirt with intoxication because they are really trying to tap into a realm of experience larger than that offered by their own private lives. Whether we think of it as the world-soul, or collective consciousness, or the oversoul, the poet must transcend his own limited and personal experience in order to participate in the broader experience of the common human spirit. In an important--and difficult--passage, Emerson says, "it is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, besides his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power, on which he can draw...."