Emerson: An Essayist


Emerson, the sage of Concord, is the father of American Transcendentalism. He is one of the greatest essayists of America. He is appreciated in the entire world for his essays. About the significance of his essays Matthew Arnold, a great critic, is of the view, “As Wordsworth’s poetry is, in my judgment, the most important work done in our language during the present century, so Emerson’s ‘Essays’ are, I think, the most important work done in prose.”


From the thematic point of view Emerson’s essays can be categorized into three major categories.  His essays like Self-Reliance, Compensation, Spiritual Laws, The Over-Soul, Circles, Experience, Nature and Realist can be taken as the essays of the first category. These essays of the first category deal with the descriptions of universe and its laws. Love, Prudence, Heroism, Character and Manners fall under the second category. The essays of this second category analyze the moral faculties in human relationship in general. The essays of the third category are History, Art, The Poet, Politics and New England Reformers. Here particular problems of experience have been taken to discuss.


Emerson never deviates from his basic thought. This basic thought remains the same in his lectures and essays. A great scholar points out ‘His essays are twice born. Out of the journals came his lectures and out of his lectures came his essays.’ It is said that Emerson’s essays are the scriptures of thought. They form a catalogue of wisdom. Every statement stimulates thought because it is suggestive as well as expressive. Every thought is potent. Spiller says, “Each of Emerson’s essays is a finely wrought work of art into which he threw his most mature and careful effort.”


Emerson can be compared with Bacon, the father of English essay. His essays are very much like Bacon’s dispersed meditations. He reminds us just as often of Bacon with his confident aphorisms. The fullness of the longer sentences is balanced by sharpness of epigram and the greatness of antithesis. For example:
1. All things are double, one against another.
2. Trust thyself.
3. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads.
4. Books are lamps to guide our steps to the East again, where the dawn is.
5. The drop is a small ocean.


In Emerson’s prose style one can find the skilful use of rhetorical devices like inversion, repetition or interrogation. The sentences of Emerson’s essays are remarkable for their force, subtlety, impressiveness and poetical beauty. The imagery is of great range from the sun and stars down to the meanest weed or insect. The diction is quaint and original. As an essayist Emerson has used several stylistic devices such as figures of speech, analogy, antithetically balanced sentences, epigrams, aphorism and rhetorical devices.  A scholar comments on the use of these various devices, ‘The aptness of analogy in him is reinforced by artistry of expression’.


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