Emerson Transcendentalism Summary

About Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American poet born in 1803, in Boston. His works and views made him the torchbearer of the Romantic movement in America. The American Transcendentalism was a movement equivalent to Romanticism in England. He wrote several essays that laid down his literary opinions.

His poetry was inclined towards subjects pertaining to nature and man’s individualism. Emerson had met the British Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Their influence on the American poet is observable in Emerson’s poetry as well as essays. 

Emerson’s Transcendentalist Views

Just like the Romantics valued Individualism, the Transcendentalists were also firm believers of man’s individual power. The ‘self’ was a key concept of Emerson’s ideology. He stated that the individual self needed no religion or other societal constructs. It was Nature that served all needs of refining the Self and nourishing it. Emerson iterated this view of Individualism by linking it further to the idea of self-reliance.

In his 1841 essay titled “Self-reliance”, Emerson expounded his transcendentalist belief that society tends to corrupt the individuals. For him, an ideal society is one that allows humans to exist as individuals in solitude. For Emerson, individualism was a state of bliss in which the society had little or no corrupting influence on a human. Emphasizing the value of Individualism, Emerson said that 

Society is good when it does not violate me; but best when it is likest to solitude.


This prioritisation of the self combined with the belief that God resides in nature led to what Emerson called the “Oversoul”. This was a term he used for the spirit of Nature. This concept expresses the idea that it is not the traditional idea of God that is sacred. Rather, it is the self-reliant individual who finds spiritual bliss in the natural world.

This Transcendentalist view is very similar to the Romantic idea that childhood was the phase of human life that was made up of innocence and had not been corrupted by the society. Emerson distrusted the societal constructs and institutions. He was the harbinger of a movement that advocated a life away from the world of rules and norms, and closer to the liberating Nature. 

Emerson’s views were very much in keeping with the Romantics who were advocates of the faculties of imagination. Emerson expressed this view in his 1842 essay, “The Transcendentalist” by stating that a Transcendentalist like him ‘believes in inspiration, and in ecstasy’.

Emerson believed in the power of intuition over reason or logic. He classified Transcendentalists as those with the “tendency to respect the intuitions”. This emphasis on subjectivity over objectivity was a hallmark of American Transcendentalism. 

Emerson’s Conception of Nature

Nature was as central in Emerson’s poetry as was in works of Wordsworth or Coleridge. For Emerson, nature was a source of spiritual contentment. Emerson’s remark, “Nature is transcendental” echoes the significance that English Romantics had attributed to Nature. Emerson’s idea of Nature was a pantheistic one.

He did not believe in the conventional idea of God being a higher presence residing in an unreachable place. For Emerson, God was to be found in Nature. Apart from seeking inspiration from Nature just like Wordsworth, Emerson also found spiritual refuge in the laps of Nature. Expounding his pantheistic ideology, Emerson stated,

To the poet, to the philosopher, to the saint, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine.


Emerson’s Transcendentalism Summed Up:

Emerson clarified that Transcendentalism was not a unified movement. He stated that “there is no pure Transcendentalist”. But he agreed upon most of the tenets that are characteristic of the Romantic movement in America. He was the harbinger of an era in American literature which believed that a human needed no societal institutions like religion, education or moral norms. An individual was self-reliant and could turn to Nature, the eternal source of poetic creation and spiritual fulfilment.