"I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in his journal only a week after his five-year-old son Waldo died of scarlet fever. Yet Emerson’s difficulty was not lack of feeling – quite the opposite, as it turned out. His grief was so profound he could not fathom it. His bailiwick normally was the heights, not the depths; his was the Olympian view, hobnobbing with gods rather than mortals. The drawback with mortals was just that: they were mortal, not the least his own beloved son. “You are gods, sons of the most high, all of you,” the Psalmist had sung. “Nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.” How could this be? A mind that had engendered thoughts for the ages proved unequal to the task of comprehending this simple fact: the Lord taketh away. The Lord taketh away!
Emerson’s lifelong friend, Judge Ebenezer Rockwood Hoar, wrote, “I think I was never more impressed with a human expression of agony than when Mr. Emerson led me into the room where little Waldo lay dead and said only, in reply to whatever I could say of sorrow or sympathy, ’Oh, that boy! that boy!’” In the days and months following, his agony found expression in his journal and in a remarkable poem entitled “Threnody.” His initial journal entry, written on January 28, 1842, the day after Waldo’s death, was brief: “Yesterday night at 15 minutes after eight my little Waldo ended his life.” Two days later Emerson wrote, “He gave up his little innocent breath like a bird.” He added, “Sorrow makes us all children again, destroys all differences of intellect. The wisest knows nothing.” And again: “It seems as if I ought to call upon the winds to describe my boy, my fast receding boy, a child of so large & generous a nature that I cannot paint him by specialties, as I might another.” Call upon the winds he did in the opening stanza of his poem “Threnody”:
The South-wind brings
Life, sunshine, and desire,
And on every mount and meadow
Breathes aromatic fire;
But over the dead he has no power,
The lost, the lost, he cannot restore;
And, looking over the hills, I mourn
The darling who shall not return.
Emerson struggled to regain the heights in his essay “Experience,” begun that fall and published two years later, in an effort to make sense of what remained for him utterly inexplicable. The tone is oddly detached. “People grieve and bemoan themselves,” he wrote, “but it is not half so bad with them as they say.” He went on to observe that those who “court suffering” may do so in hopes of finding something real but instead discover that their experience is “scene-painting and counterfeit.” “The only thing grief has taught me,” he insisted, “is to know how shallow it is.” He compared the death of his son to the loss of an estate, a great inconvenience perhaps, but nothing more. The loss would leave him much as it found him, neither better nor worse. Similarly, we remain untouched by our experience of life, even by calamity. Or as Emerson expressed it, “…souls never touch their objects.”
The reason, of course, that grief taught him nothing is that Emerson never allowed himself to grieve. The odd detachment, the explicit denial of feeling, and the pervasive sense of unreality are all evidence of that. The enormity of his loss simply was too threatening to his tender heart and to a mind that otherwise reveled in enormity. Far from remaining untouched by this event, the death of his son had pierced his soul. These days we know much more about the psychology of loss, and Emerson’s reaction is by no means unique. The trouble, as critic Sharon Cameron has observed, is that “grief is never given in to and therefore is never given up.” And so Emerson was never able to grasp truth was found not in the heights but in the depths. Judge Hoar, his lifelong friend, was present at Emerson’s deathbed as he was been when young Waldo died 40 years earlier. Emerson’s once-sterling mind was now clouded by dementia, but there was one thing he could not forgot. His dying words were, “Oh, that beautiful boy.”
Sharon Cameron, “Representing Grief: Emerson’s ‘Experience’”