Although Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetry was but a small part of his overall literary output, he thought of himself as very much a poet—even in his essays and lectures. He began writing poetry early in childhood and, at the age of nine, composed some verses on the Sabbath. At Harvard, he was elected class poet and was asked to write the annual Phi Beta Kappa poem in 1834. This interest in poetry continued throughout his long career.
During his lifetime, he published two small volumes of poetry, Poems and May-Day and Other Pieces, which were later collected in one volume for the centenary edition of his works. Altogether, the centenary volume contains some 170 poems, of which perhaps only several dozen are noteworthy.
Although Emerson produced a comparatively small amount of poetry and an even smaller number of first-rate poems, he stands as a major influence on the subsequent course of American poetry. As scholar, critic, and poet, Emerson was the first to define the distinctive qualities of American verse. His broad and exalted concept of the poet—as prophet, oracle, visionary, and seer—was shaped by his Romantic idealism. “I am more of a poet than anything else,” he once wrote, although as much of his poetry is found in his journals and essays as in the poems themselves. In An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society, Cambridge (1837; better known as The American Scholar), he called for a distinctive American poetry, and in his essay “The Poet,” he provided the theoretical framework for American poetics. Scornful of imitation, he demanded freshness and originality from his verse, even though he did not always achieve in practice what he sought in theory. Rejecting the derivative verse of the Hartford wits and the sentimental versifiers of his day, he sought an original style and flavor for an American poetry close to the native grain. The form of his poetry was, as F. I. Carpenter argues (Emerson Handbook, 1953), the logical result of his insistence on self-reliance, while its content was shaped by his Romantic idealism. Thus his cumulative influence on American poetry is greater than his verse alone might imply.
Expression mattered more than form in poetry, according to Emerson. If he was not the completely inspirational poet called for in his essays, that may have been more a matter of temperament than of any flaw in his sense of the kind of poetry that a democratic culture would produce. In fact, his comments often closely parallel those of Alexis de Tocqueville on the nature of poetry in America. Both men agreed that the poetry of a democratic culture would embrace the facts of ordinary experience rather than celebrate epic themes. It would be a poetry of enumeration rather than elevation, of fact rather than eloquence; indeed, the democratic poet would have to struggle for eloquence, for poetry of the commonplace can easily become flat or prosaic. Even Emerson’s own best verse often seems uneven, with memorable lines interspersed with mediocre ones.
Part of the problem with Emerson’s poetry arose from his methods of composition. Writing poetry was not for him a smooth, continuous act of composition, nor did he have a set formula for composition, as Edgar Allan Poe advocated in “The Philosophy of Composition.” Instead, he trusted inspiration to allow the form of the poem to be determined by its subject matter. This “organic” theory of composition shapes many of Emerson’s best poems, including “The Snow-Storm,” “Hamatraya,” “Days,” and “Ode.” These poems avoid a fixed metrical or stanzaic structure and allow the sense of each line to dictate its poetic form. Emerson clearly composed by the line rather than by the stanza or paragraph, in both his poetry and prose, and this self-contained quality often gives his work a gnomic or orphic tone.
Although some of his poems appear to be fragmentary, they are not unfinished. They lack smoothness or polish because Emerson was not a lyrical but a visionary, oracular poet. He valued poetry as a philosophy or attitude toward life rather than simply as a formal linguistic structure or an artistic form. “The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty,” he observed in “The Poet.” With Percy Bysshe Shelley he believed that the poet was the visionary who would make people whole and teach them to see anew. “Poets are thus liberating gods,” Emerson concluded, because “they are free, and they make free.” Poetry is simply the most concentrated expression of the poetic vision, which all people are capable of sharing.
Thus Emerson’s poems seek to accomplish what the essays announce. His poems attempt to reestablish the primal relationship between humans and nature that he sought as a substitute for revelation. Emerson prized the poet as an innovator, a namer, and a language maker who could interpret the oracles of nature. In its derivation from nature, all language, he felt, was fossil poetry. “Always the seer is a sayer,” he announced in his Harvard Divinity School address, and through the vision of the poet “we come to look at the world with new eyes.”
Of the defects in Emerson’s poetry, the chief is perhaps that Emerson’s muse sees rather than sings. Because his lines are orphic and self-contained, they sometimes seem flat and discontinuous. Individual lines stand out in otherwise undistinguished poems. Nor do his lines always scan or flow smoothly, since Emerson was virtually tone-deaf. In “The Poet,” he rejects fixed poetic form in favor of a freer, more open verse. For Emerson, democratic poetry would be composed with variable line and meter, with form subordinated to expression. The poet in a democracy is thus a “representative man,” chanting the poetry of the common, the ordinary, and the low. Although Emerson pointed the way, it took Walt Whitman to master this new style of American poetry with his first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), which Emerson promptly recognized and praised for its originality. Whitman thus became the poet whom Emerson had called for in The American Scholar; American poetry had come of age.