Emerson and Whitman


In his [Ralph Waldo Emerson’s] view the material creation is but an emblem of spiritual life. … To trace the operations of a subtle divine Presence in the mysteries of being—to ascend from the visible phenomena to universal laws—to embody the absolute, the unchanging, the perfect in the expressive forms of poetry—these are the problems which have challenged his warmest interest, and made him a retired and meditative sage, instead of a man of affairs. … Relying on certain mystic revelations to the soul of the individual, he shows scarcely any trace of logical faculty. … You look in vain for any consecutive order in the array of his thoughts. … Mr. Emerson’s predominant individualism leads him to ignore the past, and live in the present. … He believes in the perennial influence of inspiration. … The individual soul now conceals the elements of poetry, and prophecy, and the vision of God, as in the days of yore. … With this faith, Mr. Emerson attaches no importance to traditional opinion. … No school of philosophy or religion can hold this broad, untrammeled thinker within its walls. Even the great teachers of humanity do not win his fealty. Hints and monitions he may receive from their works, but authority never. … Mr. Emerson, although a rigid observer of the conventional proprieties of life, has little respect for a formal, imitative, stereotyped virtue. The stamp of nature and originality, in his view, would sanction almost any episode from the regular highway of ethics. He judges of character not by its accordance with any artificial code, but by the test of genuineness and native individuality. He rejects no coin that has the true ring, for want of the sign of some approved mint. An idealist in theory … he cherishes a most persistent and unrelenting attachment to reality. … He unites the dreamy mystical contemplation of an Oriental sage with the hard, robust, practical sense of a Yankee adventurer.

— anonymous, “Ralph Waldo Emerson. Phrenology, Physiology, Biography, and Portrait.,” Phrenological Journal, March 1854, quoted in Floyd Stovall, The Foreground of Leaves of Grass (University Press of Virginia, 1974), pp. 292-293



It is quite possible — indeed probable — that Walt Whitman read this article. What is said about Emerson seems to apply also to him.



I admire such thinkers. I would be pleased if such words were used to describe my outlook on life.

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2017

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