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Taylor Swift + Ralph Waldo Emerson 4-eva

The pop superstar’s recent commencement address channeled the Transcendentalist icon’s notions about hard knocks and resilience.

Taylor Swift spoke during a graduation ceremony for New York University at Yankee Stadium on May 18.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

A funny thing can happen when you read Ralph Waldo Emerson while listening to Taylor Swift.

I’d never associated one with the other, even when I’d crack open “Self-Reliance” and crank up “Evermore” — until I happened upon the singer-songwriter’s recent New York University commencement address while I was buried in a book researching Emerson’s guidance for grads.

I was taken aback by Emerson’s dark attitude toward a college student who’d been awarded top honors at an exhibition in the 1800s.

“I did not know he was so fine a fellow,” Emerson reportedly told Edward Everett Hale, a fellow writer and Unitarian minister who’d also attended the exhibition. “And now,” Emerson continued, “if something will fall out amiss, if he should be unpopular with his class, or if his father should fail in business, or if some other misfortune can befall him — all will be well.”


How could the so-called Sage of Concord — a Transcendentalist revered for his eternal optimism, the writer who told us “to laugh often and much” — lay out a future in which social ostracism or family bankruptcy might befall a young scholar with his whole life ahead of him?

In his 1899 book about Emerson, Hale recalled feeling “indignant” at Emerson’s privately uttered remarks. He softened his opinion only later upon learning that early misfortunes had been pivotal in Emerson’s development.

“I did not then know that when he was but eight years old his father had died,” Hale wrote, noting that the Emerson family’s money troubles during young Ralph Waldo’s formative years served only to invigorate him.

In his 1841 essay “Compensation,” Emerson embraced the concept of polarity, likening life to “the ebb and flow of waters.”

“For every thing you have missed,” Emerson wrote, “you have gained something else; and for every thing you gain, you lose something.”


Wittingly or no, Taylor Swift echoed Emerson almost directly in her address in May to NYU graduates at Yankee Stadium. The “haters gonna hate” singer challenged students rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic to consider the possibility of an upside to their disappointment.

“I’m trying to tell you that losing things doesn’t just mean losing,” said Swift, who was awarded an honorary doctorate in fine arts. “A lot of the time, when we lose things, we gain things too.”

When each was growing up, Emerson and Swift sought popularity with their peers but found it elusive. Both put their perceptions on the page. Emerson began recording his thoughts in a journal he dubbed “The Wide World” during his junior year at Harvard College. Swift started writing songs at age 12. “Since then, it’s been the compass guiding my life,” she told grads, “and in turn, my life guided my writing.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson, circa 1870.Otto Herschan

As a boy in Boston, Emerson dealt with haters of a sort, never daring to sled for fear of the neighborhood bullies, according to an 1887 article in The Atlantic Monthly. Author J. Elliot Cabot wrote that Emerson never owned a sled “and would not have dared to use one, for fear of the Round-Pointers, rough boys from Windmill Point and the South End, who ‘were always coming;’ taking Summer Street on their way to the Common, where they had pitched battles with the West-Enders. His mother had cautioned him against the rude boys in the street, and he used to stand at the gate, wistful to see what the rude boys were like.”


And Emerson was teased, according to Cabot, for having but one coat to share with his brother, taking turns going with and without “and in bearing the taunts of vulgar-minded school-fellows inquiring, ‘Whose turn is it to wear the coat to-day?’”

For Swift, being shunned by her peers fueled her songwriting career, which has included lyrics like “I could build a castle out of all the bricks they threw at me” from her hit “New Romantics” off her album “1989.”

“The times I was told no or wasn’t included, wasn’t chosen, didn’t win, didn’t make the cut . . . looking back, it really feels like those moments were as important, if not more crucial, than the moments I was told yes,” Swift told graduates.

“Not being invited to the parties and sleepovers in my hometown made me feel hopelessly lonely, but because I felt alone, I would sit in my room and write the songs that would get me a ticket somewhere else.”

In calling herself out as sounding like “a consummate optimist,” the 11-time Grammy Award winner again reminded me of Emerson, who once, in a letter to his aunt, referred to himself as “ever the Dupe of Hope.”

“Anyway . . . hard things will happen to us,” Swift said. “We will recover. We will learn from it. We will grow more resilient because of it.”


Swift urged grads to live with enthusiasm, to “catch and release” old hurts. “What I mean by that is, knowing what things to keep, and what things to release,” she explained. “You can’t carry all things, all grudges, all updates on your ex. . . . Decide what is yours to hold and let the rest go.”

Or, as Emerson once put it, “finish every day and be done with it.”

Rebecca Taylor is a writer based in New York. Follow her on Twitter @ProfessorTaylor.