January 27, 2010

Emerson's hyacinthine boy

The so-called "Concord Sage" was only just beginning to make his mark as the figurehead of Transcendentalism when, in 1842, his son died. Young Waldo Emerson was the first son of Ralph Waldo Emerson and succumbed to scarlet fever on January 27, 1842. "Wallie," as he was nicknamed, was five years old.

Ralph Waldo Emerson was deeply affected by the death of his son, who he referred to as the "world's wonderful child." He was an intelligent and precocious child and, as his father said, "too precious & unique a creation to be huddled aside into the waste & prodigality of things." Emerson spent much of that spring composing a memorial poem to his son. The poem, "Threnody," serves as a biography of the boy's short life and particularly of the potential wasted by his death.

Not mine — I never called thee mine,
But Nature's heir, — if I repine,
And seeing rashly torn and moved
Not what I made, but what I loved,
Grow early old with grieft that thou
Must to the wastes of Nature go, —
'Tis because a general hope
Was quenched, and all must doubt and grope.

Wallie was buried at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord, Massachusetts. His gravestone bears an inscription which quotes the poem's second stanza:

The hyacinthine boy for whom
morn well might break and April bloom
The gracious boy who did adorn
the world where into he was born

Scholar Philip F. Gura noted that Wallie's death was "an event that marked a decisive shift in [Emerson's] philosophy." At the time, Transcendentalism was a still-new, often-mocked ideology, only recently defined in Emerson's essay "The Transcendentalist. The Dial, the movement's magazine, was in trouble; and only a few years earlier, his "Divinity School Address" got him banned from speaking at Harvard. His next major work was his Essays: Second Series, which included "The Poet" (a direct inspiration to Walt Whitman) and "Character."

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