Ellen Louisa Tucker

Ellen Louisa Tucker

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ellen Louisa Tucker

One First Love

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Emerson: From Indolence to Illumination

Emerson's Early Indolence & Self-Doubt

In Emerson's early journal entries after graduating from Harvard (1821), we find a young man who's full of doubt about himself— "I complain daily of my world, that it is false, disappointing, imperfect, & uncomfortable; & reason would that I should get thro' it as silently & hastily as I can & especially avoiding to tie any hopes or fears to it." (March 1824)

"My reasoning faculty is proportionately weak, nor can I ever hope to write a Butler's Analogy or an Essay of Hume... I am ill at ease among men. I criticize with hardness; I lavishly applaud; I weakly argue; and I wonder with a foolish face of praise... A score of words & deeds issue from me daily, of which I am not the master. They are begotten of weakness & born of shame. I cannot assume the elevation I ought— but lose the influence I should exert among those of meaner or younger understanding... What is called a warm heart, I have not. The sterner accuser Conscience cries that the Catalogue of Confessions is not yet full. I am a lover of indolence, & of the belly... I cannot accurately estimate my chances of success, in my profession, & in life. Were it just to judge the future from the past, they would be very low. In my case I think it is not. I have never expected success in my present employment." (April 18, 1824)

From the above confessions in his journals, it's hard to see how an indolent youth of 21 will grow into the mighty intellect that we know as Emerson— certainly one of America's wisest and brightest individuals whose words of wisdom still illumine us today.

One First Love: Emerson's Marriage to Ellen Louisa Tucker

Romantic Love works its alchemy on the human spirit. Just as Beatrice inspired Dante to write his Divine Comedy (1300-1321)— the greatest love poem that chronicles the pilgrim's journey from Inferno through Purgatorio to Paradiso, so did Ellen Louisa Tucker wove her beauty and charm into Emerson's heart and soul. She died 17 months after they were married, but their short time together brought untold happiness to Emerson. Ellen was Emerson's apsara, an angel of the spirit who would inspire Emerson to divine insight and illumination. It's interesting that during their time together, Emerson did not make as many Journal entries as before. He was experiencing bliss and ectasy with her every day and had no time to write about them. Here are some of Emerson writings during that period:

I have now been four days engaged to Ellen Louisa Tucker. Will my Father in Heaven regard us with kindness, and as he hath, as we trust, made us for each other, will he be pleased to strengthen & purify & prosper & eternize our affection! Sunday Morning.

Journal, Dec. 21, 1828, Concord, N.H.

She has the purity & confiding religion of an angel. Are the words common? the words are true. Will God forgive me my sins & aid me to deserve this gift of his mercy. (Jan. 17, 1829)

My weight is 144 lb. (July 3, 1829)

Oh Ellen, I do dearly love you— (July 21, 1829)

Quantum scimus sumus ("We are what we know.")— That which we find
within ourselves, which is more than ourselves, and yet the ground of whatever
is good and permanent therein, is the substance and life of all other knowledge.
(Blotting Book Y, before entry of Oct. 9, 1829)

We must beware of the nature of the spiritual world. It has this terrible power of self change, self accommodation to whatsoever we do that Ovid's Metamorphoses take place continually. The nymph who wept became a fountain; the nymph who pined became an echo. They who do good become angels. They who do deformities become deformed. (October 31, 1829)

What is Prayer? It is the expression of human wishes addressed to God. What is God? The most elevated conception of character that can be formed in the mind. It is, the individual's own soul carried out to perfection... Prayer is the effort of the soul to apply itself in all its length & breadth to this sovereign idea; is the attempt to bring home to the thoughts so grand a mind & converse with it as we converse with men. (March 2, 1830)

What it means to be one with God? Go sit alone... see what you can hope to be that is highest & best; see how goodness is the way to wisdom & wisdom is the way to goodness; see how the soul in the infinite vista of the future foresees the hour when it shall desire nothing wrong & therefore nothing false, when desiring every thing right & every thing right being done, it shall find that insensibley it beats pulse for pulse with the Heart of nature, that all its volitions are followed by instant effects, that it is united to God. (Brookline, June 7, 1830)

Humility is properly the exaltion of the Spirit... He that is of an humble, that is, of a wise Spirit will never be ashamed of any thing, that is, will despise nothing. and specially will moral truth be venerable to him... He that humbleth himself shall be exalted because he that humbleth himself— it is a sign that he is exalting his idea of the power of his own nature & of course perceives the mediocrity of his own attainments; and is exalting his view of God. (July 15, 1830)

Immense significance of the precept Know Thyself. In view of this, how ridiculous is Alexander, & Buonaparte wandering from one extreme of civilization to the other to conquer men, himself the while yet unconquered, unexplored, unknown, to himself... How ridiculous the gladiators on our republican arena, greedy of a little showy power over their fellow citizens' property & rights & foregoing the sceptre of spiritual might that belongs to the self comprehender. He that knows himself must always be felt as the superior of him that does not, let the last rule the globe if he will. (July 30, 1830)

My weight is 157 lb. (Brookline, August 3, 1830)

We never ask the reason of what is good. The sun shines & warms & lights us & we have no curiosity to know why this is so; but we ask the reason of all evil, of pain, & hunger, & musquitoes, & silly people. (Aug. 18, 1830)

Ellen Tucker Emerson died 8th February. Tuesday morning. 9 o'clock. [Feb. 8, 1831]

Five days are wasted since Ellen went to heaven to see, to know, to worship, to love, to intercede. God be merciful to me a sinner & repair this miserable debility in which her death has left my soul... Pray for me Ellen & raise the friend you so truly loved, to be what you thought him... Dear Ellen shall we not be united even now more & more, as I more steadfastly persist in the love of truth & virtue which you loved? Spirits are not deceived & now you know the sins & selfishness which the husband would fain have concealed from the confiding wife— help me to be rid of them; suggest good thoughts as you promised me, & lead me upward. Reunite us, o thou Father of our Spirits.

Will the eye that was closed on Tuesday ever beam again in the fulness of love on me? Shall I ever again be able to connect the face of outward nature, the mists of the morn, the star of eve, the flowers, & all poetry, with the heart & life of an enchanting friend? No. There is one birth & one baptism & one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men... "Take me o god to thyself" was frequently on her lips. Never any one spake with greater simplicity or cheerfulness of dying. She said, 'I pray for sincerity & that I may not talk, but may realize what I say.'... One of the last things she said after much rambling & inarticulate expression was 'I have not forgot the peace & joy.' And at nine o'clock she died. Farewell blessed Spirit who hast made me happy in thy life & in thy death make me yet happy in thy disembodied state.
(February 13, 1831)

It is worth recording that Plotinus said, "Of the Unity of God, Nothing can be predicated, neither being, nor essence, nor life, for it is above all these." Grand it is to recognize the truth of this & of every one of that first class of truths which are necessary. Thus "Design proves a designer", "Like must know like—" or "the same can only be known by the same,"... and 'God without can only be known by God within' & 'Scriptures can be explained only by that Spirit which dictated them'... It would be well for every mind to collect with care every truth of this kind he may meet, & make a catalogue of "necessary truths." They are scanned & approved by the Reason far above the understanding. They are the last facts by which we approximate metaphysically to God.
(February 23, 1831)

Our goodness is so low that it scarce seems to approximate to truth & our knowledge so scanty that it does not approximate to virtue. But in God they are one. He is perfectly wise because he is perfectly good; & perfectly good because he is perfectly wise... The only way to stand is to cling to the Rock. Keep the soul always turned to God. Nothing so vast but feel that he contains it. Let nothing be so real or pure or grand as He is. If your idea of him is dim or perplexed pray & think & act more. It is the education of the soul. It is the sure way of individual increase. Sincerity is always holy, & always strong. Come good or ill, the pure in heart are in the right way. And presently & often, you shall be rewarded with clearer perception, the sense of more intimate communion.

Dear Ellen do you despise knowledge, or through holier organs does the soul fill her thirst & add to her appetite? Do you despise goodness? Oh no never here did you underrate a miser's mite, & not there, not there, my love. O suggest, coming from God's throne, suggest to this lone heart some hint of him. O forget me not, think with me, pray with me.

All Wisdom, all genius is reception. The more perfect the character & the more rich the gifts, the more would the individual seem sunk, & the more unmixed would the truth he possessed appear. He would exist merely to impart & to hang on the first cause— a Socrates, a Jesus. The moment you describe Milton's verse you use words implying not creation but increased perception, second sight, knowledge of what is, beyond the ken of others. Yet these are prophecy... In moral philosophy an acute observer of men can predict the future character of a man from brief observation of him with a precision astonishing to the dull.

He is truly calm who by dint of steady sight discerns the principles on which his being rests & sees that he acts upon grounds that must abide when the sun is quenched. He accustoms himself to the contemplation of infinite ideas & that gives him an air of superiority to his breakfast & his customer, not conceit. He can deal with princes without lowering his brow who lives among thoughts which weigh princes & find them light in the balance.
(Concord, Mass., March 4, 1831)

There is one light through a thousand stars. There is one Spirit through myriad mouths. It will not do to divide or bound what is in itself infinite. Every word of truth that is spoken by man's lips is from God. Every thought that is true is from God. Every right act is from God... The prophet understood his prediction; the apostle willed the cure of the cripple. If you ask how he wrought the miracle I ask how you lift your arm. By God. I suppose that miraculous power is only more power, not different power... There is but one source of power— that is God. (March 13, 1831)

All things take their character from the state of the spectator. Do not complain that the world is barren of interest or destitute of goodness. These curses come home to roost. These arrows rebound on the archer. Blind men in Rome complained that the streets grew dark. To the dull mind all nature is leaden. To the illuminated mind the whole world burns & sparkles with light... You read Bacon, & you are in wonder at the profusion of wise observations which they seem to have barreled up from the vast commonplaces of mankind. The more a man knows, he is the more prepared scholar... Every weed, every atom discloses its relations... "To virtue every day is bright & every hour propitious to diligence." And that is the virtue of increased intelligence that it imparts worth to what was counted worthless. (May 20, 1831)

After a fortnight's wandering to the Green Mountains & Lake Champlain yet finding you dear Ellen nowhere & yet everywhere I come again to my own place, & would willingly transfer some of the pictures that the eyes saw, in living language to my page; yea translate the fair & magnificent symbols into their own sentiments. But this were to antedate knowledge. It grows into us, say rather, we grow wise & not take wisdom; and only in God's own order & by my concurrent effort can I get the abstract sense of which mountains, sunshine, thunder, night, birds, & flowers are the sublime alphabet.

Truth produces confidence in itself. Truth contains its ultimate reason. As a ball whose heat increases lights its own path. Few are free. Truth makes free. The man who thinks all good to consist in wealth, that is, the miser, not only mistakes, but is under the dominion, as we say, of an error... You desist at once from a thousand enforced works & words— you are free from this delusion. You are free to follow the natural constitution of your mind & the Universe. (June 15, 1831)

The best part of wisdom can never be communicated. (June 20, 1831)

I write the things that are
    Not what appears;
Of things as they are in the eye of God
    Not in the eye of Man.

(July 6, 1831)

Shall I ask wealth or power of God who gave
An image of himself to be my Soul
As well might Ocean ask a wave
Or the starred firmament a dying coal
For that which is in me lives in the whole

(July 6, 1831)

God cannot be intellectually discerned. (July 21, 1831)

The world becomes transparent to Wisdom. Every thing reveals its reason within itself. The threads of innumerable relations are seen running from part to part & joining remotest points of time & space. 'It sounds to the intelligent' "There was never a cloud at sea but meant something" which means, seamen understand some things in meteorology.

Education is the drawing out the Soul. (Sept. 13, 1831)

God is not in a hurry... God will provide opportunities. Calmly wait. Now is an opportunity. You can't be true to their principles but you can to yours now in sitting with them. Your understanding of religion is that it is doing right with a right motive. Stick to that mighty sense. (Nov. 4, 1831)

In connexion with the great doctrines of Compensation or Reaction, we get the best insight into the theory of Prayer. It teaches that Prayer does not at all consist in words but wholly is a state of mind. Consider it also in connexion with the doctrine that God is in the Soul of man, & we shall make another step towards truth... And when he is wholly godly or the unfolding God within him has subdued all to himself, then he asks what God wills & nothing else & all his prayers are granted. (November 23, 1831)

The day is sad, the night is careful, the heart is weighted down with leads, what shall he do who would belong to the Universe, "& live with living nature a pure rejoicing thing?" O friend, that said these words, are you conscious of this thought & this writer? I would not ask any other consolation than to be assured by one sign that the heart never plays false to itself when in its scope it requires by a necessity the permanence of the soul. (December 2, 1831)

How we came out of silence into this sounding world is the wonder of wonders. All other marvels are less. (December 10, 1831)

I visited Ellen's tomb & opened the coffin. (March 29, 1832)

All true greatness must come from internal growth. (October 17, 1832)

Blessed is the day when the youth discovers that Within and Above are synonyms.
(Dec. 21, 1834)

The ecstasy which Emerson experienced during his marriage to Ellen Louisa Tucker, and the deep despair after her death brought about a new way of seeing for Emerson. God is not to be intellectually grasped but intuitively experienced. Then we find Heaven within us and Love everywhere. No wonder the young Emerson of 30 could say that the 60-year old seasoned poets of England (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Landor) as "deficient in religious truth." Emerson did not learn this "first philosophy" from books but from his first-hand experience upon Ellen's death just as Dante wrote his Vita Nuova when Beatrice died, and went on to write his greatest poem, the Commedia for his eternal beloved. Emerson's Ellen died at 9 o'clock in the morning similar to Dante's Beatrice who died "in the ninth hour of the ninth day of the month" (Vita Nuova, XXIX). While Beatrice inspired Dante to write his Commedia (1300) ten years after her passing (1290), Emerson's Essays (1841) would appear ten years after Ellen's death (1831). In both cases their first love would play the role of a muse who in their "disembodied state" inspired their poetic spirit to cosmic illumination as well as literary fame. In the two short poems of July 6, 1831, Emerson is seeing from God's viewpoint as well as living in God's wholeness in his Soul. How petty is wealth or power which most people aspires to, when one has experienced this state of transcendence. From Emerson's journals we see that he has tasted this bliss in abundance.


Emerson's Journal entries were typed from:
The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson,
Volume III, 1826-1832, Edited by William H. Gilman & Alfred R. Ferguson,
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press,
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1963

Notes: The photo of Ellen Louisa Tucker is from Edith W. Gregg's One First Love: The Letters of Ellen Louisa Tucker to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Belknap Press, Cambridge, Mass. (1962) I bought this book around 1964 at the Cornell Bookstore on their used bookshelf for $5 even though the book was brand new. I've added a red-yellow duotone in Adobe Photoshop to the original B&W photos of Ellen and Emerson on this page.

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