I’ve been reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s collected essays over the last couple of months, two or three each week, never more than one in a day. I’ve been familiar with the more famous essays for a long time now — I remember teaching “Self-Reliance” and my favourite essay, “Experience,” almost a decade ago — but at the start of this year it occurred to me that there were a number of essays I hadn’t read, so I decided to take a look at them all.
More than anything else, more than the quality of Emerson’s ideas, what I admire most about the essays is the incomparable rhetoric, the sheer extravagant beauty of the expression. Happily, I read them in the Modern Library’s collection of Essential Writings, edited by Brooks Atkinson and with an introduction by Mary Oliver. Even more happily, Oliver’s superb essay was made freely available online last year, so you can see for yourself how precisely she nails the essence of the Emersonian aesthetic:
Emerson’ s trick — I use the word in no belittling sense — was to fill his essays with “things” at the same time that his subject was conceptual, invisible, no more than a glimmer, but a glimmer of immeasurable sharpness inside the eye. So he attached the common word to the startling idea. … [In addition,] his writing is made up of the nineteenth-century sentence, so nimble with commas. The sparks of his expression move forward softly and reasonably, in their shapely phrases — then they leap.
That’s it exactly. Think of the words Emerson uses, words of extraordinary visibility and palpability: “pith and marrow,” “pinnacle,” “trench,” “wavelet,” “chain,” “knot,” “roots,” “fruitage,” “throb.” Look at how he tethers each of them to some sort of ineffable concept, not quite as if attempting to convey the concept by way of a metaphor but rather as if the concept had assumed a physical form, as if it could be understood almost by producing a sensation on the skin. It’s one-of-a-kind prose, and it’s invigorating to see Oliver do it justice in her own distinctly poetic way.