Emerson, Ralph Waldo (Poetry Criticism)
Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803–1882
American essayist and poet.
Emerson was one of the most influential American writers of the nineteenth century. He was one of the founders of the Transcendental movement which drew together major New England literary figures who shared beliefs in the divinity of nature and of the individual and asserted that each human must make moral determinations individually, regardless of religious dogma. Emerson's poetry reflects the same optimism, mysticism, and love of nature that his essays expressed. Through his essays and poems, Emerson influenced such acclaimed writers as Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlingtion Robinson, and Robert Frost.
Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. His father died when Emerson was eight, and his mother took in borders to meet expenses and keep the family together. Emerson attended Harvard College from 1817 to 1821 and then taught school sporadically from 1821 to 1826. He also attended Harvard Divinity School intermittently from 1825 to 1827. In 1829, Emerson fulfilled the expectations of family members by being ordained, like his father and grandfather before him, as a Unitarian minister. But Emerson brought with him doubts concerning traditional Christian beliefs including the sanctity of the Eucharist, and he resigned from his position as pastor of Boston's Second Church in 1832. His decision to leave the church may also have been kindled in 1831 by the devastating death of his first wife, Ellen, to whom he had been married only a year and a half. After his resignation, Emerson spent the next year traveling in Europe where he met the influential writers William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, and visited the botanical gardens of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, an experience which inspired his interest in the mystical significance of nature. Returning to America in 1833, Emerson settled in Concord, Massachusetts and began a career of lecturing on the popular lyceum lecture circuit. In 1835, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, with whom he had four children, one of whom, his son Waldo, died at the age of six. He anonymously published his essay Nature in 1836, admitting to its authorship only after hearing reviewers acclaim it. The same year he also helped establish what became known as the Transcendental Club, a group whose noteworthy members included Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret
Fuller. Emerson frequently contributed poetry to the Dial (1840-1843) the group's journal, and briefly served as its editor. He lived an active life, writing essays, poems and journals, delivering lectures, traveling, and establishing himself as a major American intellectual. He continued to write and lecture into his seventies, coming to be regarded as the "Sage of Concord." His later years, however, were characterized by a gradually advancing senility. He died in Concord in 1882.
Emerson's poetry emphasizes nature as a symbol of the divine and focuses on the commonplace and everyday experience. Among his influences are the Romantic British poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, the metaphysical poet George Herbert, and the transcendental Persian poets Hafez and Saadi. The most well known of Emerson's mystical poems influenced by the Persian poets are "The Sphinx," the opening poem of his first volume which establishes Emerson's mysterious, prophetic tone; "Hamatreya," an application of Hindu wisdom to the New England setting; "Bacchus," a celebration of poetic inspiration; "Days," a combination of Puritan values and oriental imagery; and "Brahma," a condensation of Hindu ideas that lead to the association of Nirvana with selflessness. Another of Emerson's major themes was the Romantic tribute to nature. It is represented in such famous poems as "The Snow Storm," a poem in blank verse which depicts a fierce winter storm that transforms the New England landscape, "The Rhodora," a lyrical celebration of the native flower which suggests the presence of a divine force in its creation, along with "The Adirondacs," a blank verse tribute to the mountains and "The Titmouse," a paean to the tiny bird that conquers fear. Another thematic grouping contains poems examining personal issues in Emerson's life, such as "Threnody" about the death of his son, "The Problem" which addresses Emerson's personal dilemma of admiration for church leaders despite his refusal to remain within their ranks and "Terminus," an anticipation of his own death. During his life, Emerson was most noted for his patriotic poems such as the classic, public verses "Concord Hymn: Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837" and "Boston Hymn." His edition Selected Poems is a compilation of poems from his first two volumes, rearranged with minor changes. Posthumous publications include Poems and the recently published The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson which makes easily accessible Emerson's rough drafts and comments regarding the composition of his poetry.
Emerson's poetic skills have always been a matter of debate among critics and approaches to evaluating his poems have been quite varied. The focus on thematic analyses began by questioning Emerson's religious doctrines. The early reviewers of Emerson's first book of poetry challenged Emerson's theological base and judged him lacking in Christian values. As nineteenth-century readers found more liberal statements of faith in the publications of other transcendental poets such as Whitman, critics became less harsh in their judgement of Emerson's poems, shifting their thematic analyses to focus on Emerson's success in writing about nature. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Emerson's essays had established his reputation as an outstanding American philosopher, and during the remainder of his life, reviewers were generally reluctant to be overly critical of his poems.
Throughout both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, structural analyses of the poems have acknowledged that they are stylistically imperfect and that Emerson subordinated meter and diction to thematic concerns. Those critics who do not like Emerson's work mark these aesthetic weaknesses as overwhelming flaws in the poetry, while those who enjoy the poems defend Emerson's style as examples of his poetic theory in action, the idea that nineteenth-century American verse needed to be liberated from traditional forms. Albert Gelpi, for example, has asserted that Emerson intended his poems to convey the same moral messages he expounded in his essays and lectures and that he used poetic forms that would best convey these messages as experiences of inspiration. Charles Malloy, an American businessman with a penchant for poetry, was the first to closely analyze most of Emerson's major poems. During the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century he wrote articles for literary journals and delivered lectures in and around Boston explicating and praising individual poems, thus popularizing them. Malloy also founded the Boston Emerson Society, and served as its president for many years. In the 1930s and 1940s studies of Emerson's essay "Persian Poetry" and Emerson's translations of Persian poems resulted in examinations of the degree to which Emerson was influenced by the Persian poets. These studies rekindled interest in Emerson's poems based on analyses of their sources. Regardless of the question of its own merits, Emerson's poetry is often cited as having influenced generations of American poets.
May-Day and Other Pieces 1867
Selected Poems 1876
The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 12 vols. (collection) 1903-4
The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 5 vols, to date (essays, poetry, and other writings) 1971-
The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1986
Other Major Works
Nature (essay) 1836
Essays (essay) 1841; also published as Essays: First Series, 1854
Nature; An Essay, and Lectures on the Times (essays) 1844
Orations, Lectures, and Addresses (essays) 1844
Essays: Second Series (essays) 1844
Nature; Addresses, and Lectures (essays) 1849
Representative Men: Seven Lectures (essays) 1850
English Traits (essays) 1856
The Conduct of Life (essays) 1860
Society and Solitude (essays) 1870
Letters and Social Aims (essays) 1876
Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers (essays) 1894
The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 10 vols, (journals) 1909-14
The Letters of...
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SOURCE: "The Poet," in American Literary Essays, edited by Lewis Leary, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960, pp. 161-74.
[The following is an excerpt from the noted essay, "The Poet, " which first appeared as the introductory essay in Emerson's 1844 collection Essays: Second Series. In this piece, Emerson describes the poet's intuitive sense and ability to record his perceptions, often with symbols from nature.]
Those who are esteemed umpires of taste are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold. Their knowledge of the fine arts is some study of rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form, which is exercised for amusement or for show. It is a proof of the shallowness of the doctrine of beauty as it lies in the minds of our amateurs, that men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form upon soul. There is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy. We were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan to be carried about; but there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ, much less is...
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SOURCE: "Poetry and Imagination," in Christian Examiner, Vol. 42, March, 1847, pp. 250-701.
[In this excerpt from his review of Emerson's Poems, Bartol offers a theological evaluation determining that Emerson's religious beliefs weaken his poetry.]
… The heart in [Emerson's] poetry is less than the head, and this causes a deficiency for which nothing else can fully atone. Only a transcendent splendor and wealth of intellect could redeem many of his pieces from condemnation and forgetfulness, as being frigid and unfeeling. These are sad flaws in such noble workmanship. Did a fellow-feeling for human nature in all its varieties equal and fill out his other traits, we might think the great poet of America had been born, to bring on our flourishing Augustan age. But, as yet, our hearts acknowledge a more genial and enlivening influence from several of our other native bards. Would that one whom we unfeignedly respect might not only show his power of soaring to the empyrean, but hover with a more wide and loving interest over the lot of his fellow-men! It may be for want of this all-embracing sympathy that his flights are so infrequent, and that he can but seldom continue long on the wing. If he could but kindle his soul with some great conception of human fortunes, and write a generous epic of this our human life, including its great trials and accomplishments, its sublimer aspirations and hopes, we...
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SOURCE: "Emerson's Poems," in Brownson's Quarterly Review, Vol. 4, April, 1847, pp. 262-76.
[Brownson, an early Transcendentalist who became an ardent Roman Catholic, edited his own magazine from 1844 to 1875 as a vehicle for his religious beliefs and wrote popular books containing the sensationalized religious tone evident in this excerpt. Here Brownson criticizes Emerson's poetry by describing it as the voice of a depressed and delusional poet under the influence of Satan.]
… Mr. Emerson's poems … fail in all the higher requisites of art. They embody a doctrine essentially false, a morality essentially unsound, and at best a beauty which is partial, individual. To be able to regard them as embodying the beautiful, in any worthy sense of the term, one must cease to be what he is, must divest himself of his own individuality, and that not to fall back on our common humanity, but to become Mr. Emerson, and to see only after his peculiar manner of seeing. They are addressed, not to all men, but to a school, a peculiar school, a very small school, composed of individuals who, by nature or education, have similar notions, tastes, and idiosyncrasies. As artistic productions, then, notwithstanding they indicate, on the part of their author, poetical genius of the highest order, they can claim no elevated rank. The author's genius is cramped, confined, and perverted by his false philosophy and morality, and...
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SOURCE: "Nine New Poets," in The North American Review, Vol. LXIV, No. 135, April, 1847, pp. 402-34.
[In this excerpt, Bowen finds fault with Emerson's meter, rhyme and "obscure" allusions. Bowen's negative response to the poems represents the general reaction of early reviewers to Emerson's first book of poetry.]
… [Mr. Emerson's] mystical effusions have been for some years the delight of a large and increasing circle of young people, and the despair of the critics. He is a chartered libertine, who has long exercised his prerogative of writing enigmas both in prose and verse, sometimes with meaning in them, and sometimes without,—more frequently without. Many of his fragments in verse—if verse it can be called, which puts at defiance all the laws of rhythm, metre, grammar, and common sense—were originally published in The Dial, lucus a non lucendo, a strange periodical work, which is now withdrawn from sunlight into the utter darkness that it always coveted. These fragments, with some new matter, are now first collected in a separate volume, and published, as we believe, with a sly purpose on the part of the author to quiz his own admirers. His prose essays, on their first appearance, were received with about equal admiration and amazement; always enigmatical and frequently absurd in doctrine and sentiment, they also contained flashes of better things. Quaint and pithy apothegms,...
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SOURCE: "Emerson as a Poet," in Harvard Magazine, Volume 1, October, 1855, pp. 422-33.
[In this excerpt from an article appearing in the magazine associated with Emerson's alma mater, Harvard University, the anonymous critic commends Emerson as an intellectual poet whose original verse derives its inspiration from both American nature and Eastern religions. Written eight years after Emerson first published Poems, the critic's positive response reflects the changing attitude toward poetic styles during the 1850s.]
The venerable and historic town of Concord (not Concord, New Hampshire, famous for its small-beer school of politicians) is likely, in addition to its Revolutionary renown as the spot where
to be famous hereafter as the residence of the essayist, poet, popular lecturer, and transcendental philosopher, Emerson, who, whatever may be thought of him by his contemporaries hereabouts, is certainly destined to a permanent and world-wide reputation,—to become a fixed star in that luminous cluster of original thinkers who from their high places exercise a steady and never-waning influence on the intellectual growth of mankind. Concord, Massachusetts, therefore, as the scene of one of the events which inaugurated the American Revolution, and as the home of one of the first intellectual men of the age, is in no particular danger, in the long run, of being eclipsed by its namesake...
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SOURCE: A review of May-Day and Other Pieces, in North American Review, Vol. CCXVI, July, 1867, pp. 325-27.
[Norton, an editor of leading journals during the 1860s and a professor at Harvard University for twenty-five years, wrote internationally reknowned literary and social criticism and historical essays that produced a wide cultural influence. In this excerpt, he praises Emerson's second book of poetry by expressing a willingness to accept Emerson's uneven poetic style as a minor flaw in light of the greater contribution made by Emerson's moral and spiritual themes.]
In the exquisite poem in this volume [May-Day and Other Pieces] called "Terminus" Mr. Emerson speaks of himself as one who
Obeys the voice at eve obeyed at prime.
He has, indeed, unquestioned right thus to speak of himself, for he has been true, as few men ever were, to the voice of his own genius, and his obedience has been to him both inspiration and power. Many years ago he said of the poet: "He is isolated among his contemporaries, by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later." And in his own experience he has had proof of this assertion. He has had the happiness of living long enough to see his contemporaries, those at least of the younger generation, drawing to him, and...
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SOURCE: A review of May-Day and Other Pieces, in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 20, September, 1867, pp. 376-78.
[Howells, one of the most popular novelists of the late nineteenth century, was an editor of Atlantic Monthly for fifteen years. In this excerpt Howells praises selections from Emerson's second book of poetry and states that Emerson's poetry, while challenging, offers great intellectual rewards.]
We wonder whether those who take up Mr. Emerson's poem now, amid the glories of the fading summer, are not giving the poet a fairer audience than those who hurried to hear his song in the presence of the May he celebrates. As long as spring was here, he had a rival in every reader; for then we all felt ourselves finer poets than ever sang of the season, and did not know that our virtue was but an effect of Spring herself,—an impression, not an expression of her loveliness, which must pass with her. Now, when the early autumn is in every sense, and those days when the year first awoke to consciousness have grown so far away, we must perceive that no one has yet been allowed to speak so well for the spring of our New World as this poet. The very irregularity of Mr. Emerson's poem seems to be part of its verisimilitude, and it appears as if all the pauses and impulses and mysterious caprices of the season—which fill the trees with birds before blossoms, and create the soul of sweetness and...
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SOURCE: "Emerson's Poems," in Ralph Waldo Emerson/John Lothrop Motley: Two Memoirs, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899, pp. 239-64.
[Holmes, a contemporary of Emerson's, was a famous medical doctor and fellow writer. In the following excerpt, Holmes discusses Emerson's poetry by comparing Emerson to the great writers throughout history, ranking Emerson highly for the moral statements he makes in symbolic terms but also criticizing him slightly for the unevenness of his poetic rhythm.]
… The difference between Emerson's poetry and that of the contemporaries with whom he would naturally be compared is that of algebra and arithmetic. He deals largely in general symbols, abstractions, and infinite series. He is always seeing the universal in the particular. The great multitude of mankind care more for two and two, something definite, a fixed quantity, than for a + b's and x2's,—symbols used for undetermined amounts and indefinite possibilities. Emerson is a citizen of the universe who has taken up his residence for a few days and nights in this travelling caravansary between the two inns that hang out the signs of Venus and Mars. This little planet could not provincialize such a man. The multiplication-table is for the every-day use of every-day earth-people, but the symbols he deals with are too vast, sometimes, we must own, too vague, for the unilluminated terrestrial and...
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SOURCE: "Poems," in Emerson: Poet and Thinker, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1904, pp. 205-20.
[In this excerpt Cary, a professional journalist-biographer, praises Emerson's poetry, finding it equal to William Wordsworth's in its "moral purpose." To Cary, Emerson epitomizes America's mid-nineteenth century call for poets to fulfill an organic ideal of verse.]
Emerson delayed until 1847 the first edition of his poems, "uncertain always," he wrote to his brother, whether he had "one true spark of that fire which burns in verse." It is not probable that to-day any critic of importance could be found to share his doubt. Whatever may be said of his prose there is one thing that must be said by all men of his poetry, that it is the expression of a poet. We may search for lines that do not scan, for endings that do not rhyme, for a metre that does not flow or march or sing, for dialect and colloquialism, intricacy of diction, and grammatical inversion. We may find any or all of these and we shall not have disturbed by a hair's breadth our inner knowledge that we have been pecking and quibbling over the loveliest product of our national life. "It is his greatest glory as a poet," Dr. Garnett wrote in his account of Emerson, "to have been the harbinger of distinctively American poetry to America." Possibly: but it is not our least glory as a nation that thus early in our literature one poet could make our wilderness...
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SOURCE: "A Puritan Plus Poetry," in Companionable Books, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922, pp. 335-55.
[In the following excerpt, Van Dyke emphasizes Emerson's ability to describe the beauty of nature and to spark the reader's imagination.]
… [Emerson's] prose is better known and more admired than his verse, for several reasons: first, because he took more pains to make the form of it as perfect as he could; second, because it has a wider range and an easier utterance; third, because it has more touches of wit and of familiarity with the daily doings of men; and finally, because the majority of readers probably prefer prose for silent reading, since the full charm of good verse is revealed only in reading aloud.
But for all that, with Emerson, (as with a writer so different as Matthew Arnold,) I find something in the poems which is not in the essays,—a more pure and subtle essence of what is deepest in the man. Poetry has a power of compression which is beyond prose. It says less and suggests more.
Emerson wrote to the girl whom he afterwards married: "I am born a poet,—of a low class without doubt, but a poet…. My singing, to be sure, is very husky and is for the most part in prose. Still I am a poet in the sense of a perceiver and dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul and in matter, and specially of the correspondence between them." This is...
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SOURCE: "The Poetry of Emerson," in Some Aspects of Modern Poetry, Hodder and Stoughton, N.D. pp. 55-68.
[Noyes was a prolific, twentieth-century, British poet and the author of books about Tennyson and Voltaire. In the following excerpt, Noyes compares Emerson to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe with a focus on the poems, "Humble-Bee," "Give All to Love," and "Bacchus. " He also presents Emerson as a creative force in the development of modern poetry linking Emerson to Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.]
Twelve years ago, during a first visit to America, I was surprised to find that the man whom I had always believed to be the greatest poet of that country, both in the depth of his thought and in the subtlety of his music, was hardly recognized as a poet at all. He was counted among the first of their prose-writers, very much as Matthew Arnold in England was once held to be primarily a critic. But this American poet at that time was hardly ever mentioned among the poets of his country. They spoke of Edgar Allan Poe, Longfellow, Whitman, Lanier, Bryant, Lowell, and Whittier; but seldom of the man who, as I believed, stood head and shoulders above all these—Emerson. Oliver Wendell Holmes, it is true, with the quick insight of a poet, had long ago said of the "Threnody" that it had "the dignity of Lycidas without its refrigerating classicism," and that it had also all the...
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SOURCE: "Poetry, England, and the War," in Emerson: A Study of the Poet as Seer, Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1928, pp. 192-228.
[Gay edited a collection of verse for college students. In the following excerpt, he criticizes Emerson's poetry for its lack of "smoothness" and links this poetic flaw to what he perceives as Emerson's theory of poetry with its emphasis on the poem as a philosophical statement rather than an aesthetically stylized work of art.]
In September, 1844, Emerson purchased, on the shore of Walden Pond, a plot of eleven acres, to which, on the advice of friends, he added three or four more of pine woods adjoining. No purchase of his life gave him more pleasure than this. He nicknamed the plot his Garden, visited it almost daily, and composed many of his poems there. In the preceding year he first procured a copy of Saadi's Gulistan and was pleased to find that it agreed with the conception of the poem "Saadi" written the year before. The attraction of the Persian poets grew with the years, and his references to them or quotations from them in his later books are numerous. His general reading became more and more abstract: the Chinese classics, the Vishnu Sarna, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Calvin, Behmen, Spinoza, Berkeley, are most often quoted during the years 1843-45, and the references to poetry are much less numerous than formerly. Science still interests...
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SOURCE: "Emerson's Theory of Poetry," in Poetry, Vol. XXII, July-August, 1931, pp. 263-73.
[In the following excerpt, Gorely explores Emerson's method of poetic composition by referring to his journals and his essay, "The Poet. " She discusses the value that Emerson places on inspiration and truth as forces that guide the poet in rhythmical expression.]
In the first essay of the series of 1844, [The Poet] Emerson considers the nature and function of the true poet. He begins his discussion with these words: "The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth." The significance of this thought can only be understood after a study of Emerson's theory of man. That is fundamental. Therefore, very briefly, the main lines of the doctrine must be indicated, especially man's relation to the rest of the world, his nature, and his problem.
Emerson believes in the oneness of the world. God, or the Oversoul, is the life or essence in all things "swallowing up all relations, parts, and times within itself." This life is transcendent. It is the source of thought, the starting point of action. Emerson writes that "the sovereignty of this nature whereof we speak, is made known by its independency of those limitations which circumscribe us on every hand." Moreover, it is...
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SOURCE: "Emerson and Poetry," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 1, January, 1955, pp. 82-94.
[Gross is an American-Literature scholar whose area of specialization is Nathaniel Hawthorne with an additional focus on African-American Literature and Emerson criticism. In the following excerpt, Gross examines contradictory aspects of Emerson's theories of poetry and rates Emerson's poetry unfavorably. The critic points out specific flaws in the poems "Each and All" and "The Rhodora" but presents "Days" as Emerson's finest poem.]
In view of the multitude of learned articles and books on the subject of Emerson's theory and practice of poetry, there is perhaps some need of justifying another treatment of the subject. For the most part scholars and critics have been content to describe Emerson's theory by ample quotation from his writings and have then gone on to cite various poems by way of illustration. On the whole, far too little attention has been paid to the theory's aesthetic validity: that is, whether such a theory as Emerson subscribed to, or at least theoretically advocated, is capable of producing successful poetry, or even poetry at all.
Two extremely opposite positions on Emerson's theory can be seen in the treatments of it by F. O. Matthiessen and Miss Jean Gorely. After carefully but uncritically delineating Emerson's theory, Miss Gorely concludes her article ["Emerson's...
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SOURCE: "Toward the 'Titmouse Dimension': The Development of Emerson's Poetic Style," in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 2, March, 1972, pp. 255-70.
[In this excerpt, Yoder presents a chronological study of Emerson's poems to reveal the development of Emerson's poetic style. Yoder finds that Emerson's use of poetic techniques, his themes, and his poetic structures follow a progression that coincides with his changing concept of the "poet's identity."]
… The task of defining Emerson's poetry is difficult because, unlike Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the acknowledged giants of nineteenth-century American poetry, Emerson has no distinctive, original, easily defined style. It has been customary to borrow Emerson's own favorite organic metaphor and condemn him on just this ground, that his poetry never ripened and blossomed into unique, distinctive expression; in other words, that he never found himself as a poet. The charge carries some truth; Emerson was, after all, a diffident, often dissatisfied experimenter, as he himself wrote:
Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which I now see so much; and...
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SOURCE: "Artful Thunder," in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 69-96.
[Donald Yannella is an American educator and a scholar of nineteenth-century American Literature. In this excerpt he shows that while "not all are great" Emerson's poems are "technically accomplished works" worthy of a distinguished rank in American poetry. Yannella begins by interpreting Emerson's poetic theory as stated in "The Poet," and proceeds to explicate a selection of Emerson's poems grouped together thematically.]
Emerson was forty-three years old when the first of his three volumes of poetry was issued on Christmas Day 1846. (It bears the publication date 1847.) Before any reader addresses himself to the verse, however, it is helpful to have some understanding of Emerson's theory of poetry and his views about the poet's purposes and functions. Properly understood, the poet and his art are central in the Transcendental fabric Emerson wove.
His interest in the subject began early—when he was a schoolboy, in fact—and grew with the years. He read widely and analytically, and was sensitive, discriminating, and articulate on the subject, as is evident from the great amount of space he devoted to aesthetic theory, poets, and poetry in his journals, letters, and lectures. In addition to these numerous references during the 1830s and early 1840s, as well as later, he offered one entire...
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SOURCE: "The Nature of War in Emerson's 'Boston Hymn,'" in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 49, No. 3, Autumn, 1993, pp. 21-58.
[In this excerpt Cadava discusses the relation between historical events and Emerson's poem, "The Boston Hymn," focusing on Emerson's response to the Emancipation Proclamation, abolition, and the moral necessity for the Civil War as factors in the poem's creation. Cadava also links Emerson's presentation of God and use of natural imagery to Puritan concepts.]
Less than five years before the outbreak of the Civil War, Emerson announces a crisis in the structures of political and linguistic representation. "Language has lost its meaning in the universal cant," he writes, "Representative Government is misrepresentative; Union is a conspiracy against the Northern States which the Northern States are to have the privilege of paying for; the adding of Cuba and Central America to the slave marts is enlarging the area of Freedom. Manifest Destiny, Democracy, Freedom, fine names for a ugly thing." He makes this statement within the context of the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This Act had repealed the Missouri Compromise and legislated that the question of slavery be determined by individual state constitutions rather than by a national policy of exclusion. For Emerson, that slavery is to be preserved and extended signals a contradiction in the meaning of...
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Burkholder, Robert E. and Myerson, Joel. Emerson: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994, 234 p.
Annotated bibliography of writings on Emerson, arranged chronologically between 1980 and 1991.
Burkholder, Robert E. and Myerson, Joel. Emerson: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985, 842 p.
Annotated bibliography of writings on Emerson, arranged chronologically between 1816 and 1979.
Myerson, Joel. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, 802 p.
Lists and describes works written or edited by Emerson, arranged chronologically.
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981, 751 p.
Critically acclaimed biography focusing on Emerson's intellectual sources.
Cabot, Eliot. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889, 809 p.
Written by Emerson's friend, literary executor and authorized biographer, it contains material from Emerson's private papers,...
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