Sunday, August 20, 2006

night fears: Emerson 8/20/1837

An entry in the Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson
August 20, 1837

Lidian remembers the religious terrors of her childhood
when Young tinged her day and night thoughts, and the
doubts of Cowper were her own; when every lightning
seemed the beginning of conflagration and every noise
in the street the crack of doom. I have some parallel
recollections at the Latin School when I lived in Beacon
Street. Afterwards, what remained for one to learn was
cleansed by books and poetry and philosophy, and came
in purer forms of literature at College. These spiritual
crises no doubt are periods of as certain occurrence in
some form of agitation to every mind as dentition or
puberty. Lidian was at that time alarmed by the lines on
the gravestones.

Emerson was 34 when he wrote this. His brother Charles had died some months before of consumption, the family disease. Too many whom Emerson loved most died young: his first wife Ellen, his brothers, his son Waldo.

When he wrote this entry he was preparing his famous Phi Beta Kappa speech, The American Scholar, to be delivered less than two weeks hence.

Lidian was his second wife, Lydia Jackson; they had married two years prior to this entry in the Journals.

The "Young" who tinged Lidian's day and night thoughts was Edward Young, English poet, who published a pretty morbid book called "Night Thoughts." (examples: "The knell, the shroud, the mattock, and the grave, / The deep damp vault, the darkness and the worm."
(Night Thoughts. Night iv. Line 10.)
, "The spirit walks of every day deceased."
(Night Thoughts. Night ii. Line 180.)
, and "Prayer ardent opens heaven."
(Night Thoughts. Night viii. Line 721.)

"Cowper" was William Cowper, also an English poet, a forerunner of Wordsworth in his celebration of nature and English country life.

Both Young and Cowper were evangelical Christians -- Young became a minister and Cowper composed hymms including some that are well known, including:
GOD moves in a mysterious way,
His wonders to perform;
He plants his footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Olney Hymns (1779)--'Light Shining out of Darkness'
It's pretty safe to say that a kind of super-charged spirituality evoked Lidian's childhood religious terrors.

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