Walt Whitman described with enthusiasm his pleasure at seeing Emerson at F. B. Sanborn’s home in Concord, even though the man he had earlier called his “dear Master” and “original true Captain” said almost nothing that evening, remaining “silent through the whole talk and discussion.” Whitman’s pleasure consisted, he said, of the apparent rudeness of looking “squarely at E., which I did a good part of the two hours.” 1 This behavior seems less eccentric given the fact that the year was 1881, some fourteen years after Emerson had declared in the poem “Terminus” that “It is time to grow old, / To take in sail,” for by this time he lived in a serene vacancy that the biographer Rusk later called “only a twilight existence.” 2 Because the last decade of his life was marked by dwindling activity and acuity, especially after the Emerson home was devastated by fire in the summer of 1872, his later years usually receive scant attention. Among biographers, for example, Robert D. Richardson, Jr. devotes sixteen pages to these ten years, Carlos Baker a mere six. 3 Rusk’s 1949 The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson, still indispensible, seems generous in giving these years fifty or so pages, though (as in other biographies) much of that concerns not Emerson’s authorship but his travels in Europe and the Near East with his daughter Ellen in 1872–73.
Other scholars and critics, too, all but ignored this period until Nancy Craig Simmons published her 1983 essay “Arranging the Sibylline Leaves: James Elliot Cabot’s Work as Emerson’s Literary Executor,” which for the first time gathered and analyzed the evidence for something that scholars had long known: because of his failing abilities, Emerson’s later authorship became inseparable from a remarkable editorial collaboration—initiated by Ellen and presided over by Cabot—which was responsible for virtually all of his lectures and essays after 1872. Simmons dubbed this editorial workshop, which simply continued without the author after his death in 1882, “the Emerson factory,” and she observes that the works it produced “have never seemed completely authentic.” 4
A monolithic sense of Emerson’s last decade as one of debility and necessary collaboration would be misleading, however, for his decline was progressive, not instantaneous; nor was it unrelenting. In Rusk’s words, “much of the old fire could flare up again” at given times. [End Page 971] Bronson Alcott lamented in 1874 that the failure of Emerson’s mind and memory “must be mortifying” to one of such “facile genius,” yet he also expressed impatience with how trenchant Emerson’s opposition to his theories continued to be: “my friend complains of growing old, says that his memory is gone. . . . Does he exaggerate, as a rhetorician must?” 5 Second, while Emerson’s aphasia and related difficulties with the essays and lectures are indisputable, one might ask whether these difficulties applied equally to poetry late in his life. 6 The two are not necessarily identical. While work by Simmons and others sheds invaluable light on Cabot and the authority of the late prose, inadvertently it has obscured Emerson’s own work on his poetry during this period, specifically the preparation of his last volume, the 1876 Selected Poems.
His poetry, which remains underappreciated by twentieth-century readers, is usually encountered through the canon-defining texts that appeared in the posthumous Poems volumes in the Riverside (1884) and Centenary (1904) editions. Emerson had established his reputation as a formidable poet, however, with two books of his own, the 1847 Poems and 1867 May-Day and Other Pieces. Selected Poems, his third collection, appeared in October, 1876 as the ninth volume of James R. Osgood and Company’s “Little Classic” edition of his works. For this book Emerson culled, and in some cases heavily revised, almost sixty pieces from the earlier books and added a number of new ones. Even though he meant this volume to be his self-designed monument to a long life as a poet, it has been practically invisible within his oeuvre and has occupied a kind of limbo between the two earlier and...