The Ralph Waldo Emerson who married Ellen Louisa Tucker on September 30, 1829 would hardly have recognized the man he became by the time he died in 1882, and he owes much of that transformation to Ellen.
Emerson was a young minister when he met Tucker, preaching at Concord, N.H. as a visiting pastor. He was smitten by her beauty. And though he thought he was past the point in life where he would fall in love, he did fall deeply in love with Ellen. They met when we was 24 and married when he was 26. Ellen was 18.
“Oh, Ellen, I do dearly love you,” he would note in his journals. “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 and purify and prosper and eternize our affection.”
Their’s was an affectionate marriage, and initially full of hope for a future. Shortly after their wedding, the couple moved to Boston. Emerson had accepted the offer to become a minister at the Second Church of Boston at a handsome salary of $1,800 per year.
Emerson suffered with tuberculosis, and so did Ellen. Shortly after their wedding, she had a bad spell, but the couple decided to move to Boston anyway so that Emerson’s mother could help with her care.
By the winter of 1830/31, Ellen became convinced she was not going to live much longer. She bore up under her illness with remarkable good nature, Emerson noted, and she was a delightful companion.
As Ellen grew sicker, a round-the-clock watch proceeded. Emerson’s brother Charles described it in letters to his aunt:
Ellen is still with us, though her spirit seems winged for its flights. She suffered a great deal of distress last night, but today (with the exception of perhaps to or three times a half-hour) she has been in less pain -- sometimes torpid under the influence of her opiates, but at others serene and fully conscious. She spoke this afternoon very sweetly of her readiness to die -- that she told you she should not probably live through the winter -- tho' she did not know that she would have been called so soon -- she saw no reason why her friends should be distressed, it was better she should go first, and prepare the way -- She asked Waldo, if he had strength, to read her a few verses of Scripture -- and he read a portion of the XIVth chapter of John -- Waldo is bowed down under the affliction, yet he says t'is like seeing an angel go to heaven.
On February 8, her strength gave out and she passed peacefully at 9 in the morning. Emerson noted that as she was dying, she prayed that she had not turned angry at the world or at God. “I have not forgot the peace and joy,” were her final words.
Emerson would pray that she remember him in heaven. “Five days are wasted since Ellen went to heaven to see, to know, to worship, to love, to intercede. God be merciful to me as sinner and repaid this miserable debility in which her death has left my soul,” he wrote. And his thoughts turned to the nature of his one, first love:
“Will the eye that was closed on Tuesday ever beam again in the fullness of love on me? Shall I ever be able to connect the face of outward nature, the mists of the morn, the star of eve, the flowers and all poetry with the heart and life of an enchanting friend? No. There is one birth and baptism and one first love and the affections cannot keep their youth any more than men.”
Yet Emerson did go on, albeit a very changed man. He had been wrestling for some time with the issue of whether he could continue with the orthodoxy of the Unitarian Church. He was beginning to believe that man’s relationship with God took shape not through ritual and intellectual study, but individually and through intuition.
He expressed his concerns to the leaders of his church. It was no matter, they said, they were willing to follow his leadership regardless. Emerson left for two weeks travel in the mountains of Northern New England in 1832 to search his soul and decide his future. When he returned, he could not reconcile his weakening belief in the traditions and teachings of the church with his position as minister, and so he resigned.
The leaders of the church again tried to persuade him to stay, but he would not. His mind was made up, and in 1832 he left the church, and began transforming and developing the philosophies he would hold the rest of his life.
After travelling to Europe for 10 months, he began speaking in Boston and further shaping his views of the inherent nature of man. In 1834, following the death of his brother Edward, he moved to Concord, Mass. – a move which planted the transcendental movement in that town. And again, Ellen provided the support he needed.
Ellen came from a wealthy family, and her inheritance passed to him after some wrangling in court. This wealth provided the foundation to support both his writings, the new magazine The Dial, and the writings of other transcendentalists such as Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott and Margaret Fuller who Emerson helped promote and in some cases support financially.
Emerson did marry again, in 1835, to Lydia Jackson. He described his second marriage as “a very sober joy,” much different from the light-headed love he felt for Ellen. As tribute to Ellen, Emerson and Lydia named their daughter Ellen Tucker Emerson.
Ellen would always remain much on his mind. In his journal he notes that on March 29, 1832 – more than a year after her passing – he went to her tomb and opened her coffin. Until the end of his life her rocking chair remained in his house, as well as a small miniature of her.