In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson expresses his belief that poetry, like any art, should be organic rather than simply metrically or musically beautiful:For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. . . . The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune.
It is Emerson’s thesis that poetry should not be an embellished art, but a living form which corresponds to higher truth. Like Poe, Emerson believed that true art is the creation of beauty, but he had quite different ideas about what can be considered beautiful. Where Poe believed that the chief merit of poetry is found in its rhythmical beauty and ability to arouse emotion, Emerson held that the worth of a poem lies in its philosophical truth. Emerson likewise believed that the mind of the poet is not “a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms,” but an instrument by which mankind is enlightened. In other words, the verse itself is worthless unless it is an integral part of the truth it conveys:For verse is not a vehicle to carry a sentence as a jewel is carried in a case: the verse must be alive, and inseparable from its contents, as the soul of man inspires and directs the body.
Emerson is no less specific in his views concerning the way in which a poet proceeds to create this type of poem. The true poet, to Emerson, is one who is able to intuit impressions from the “Over-Soul” (that universal truth and spirit of mankind which directs all thinking men) and to relate, through verse, instructive truth found within these impressions. This process entails first a testing of the authority of the impressions (whether they be inferior or superior) and then a spontaneous translation of them, without revision, into poetry. Thus the poet is not a carpenter of entertaining sounds, a man of talent, but rather one who instructs, a man of genius.
Finally, Emerson believed that poetry should be of a specific thematic nature: ideally, a poem should show the unity in nature. Beauty, to Emerson, is that quality of likeness in all of nature’s objects; consequently, in order for a poem to be truly beautiful it must demonstrate the unity which exists in the diverse objects in nature.
Emerson views the poem, the poet, and the creative process as being integral parts of true poetry. The poet must be of a certain character, in effect a philosophical mystic who intuits truth. He must be able to place this truth on paper with strict economy and without revision, with the resulting poem being an unembellished, organic chronicle of the unity of nature.
Emerson’s poetic theory is extremely Platonic and typical of his whole Transcendental doctrine concerning the objectives of the true genius, or “man thinking.” Yet Emerson would probably be the first to admit that, while his theory is quite beautiful, its practical application is difficult. Emerson himself applied it completely to only one of his own poems, “Days.” The poem, which is concerned with the duality of the ideal and the real, is a sort of poetic parable of man’s mortality.
Daughters of Time, the hyprocriticDays,Muffled and dumb like barefoot der-vishes,And marching single in an endless file,Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.To each they offer gifts after his will,Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky thatholds them all.I, in my pleached garden, watched thepomp,Forgot my morning wishes, hastilyTook a few herbs and apples, and theDayTurned and departed silent. I, too late,Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
About these lines Emerson said, “I have written within a twelve-month verses which I do not remember the composition or correction of, and could not write the like today, and have...
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