Themes and Meanings

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“Inspiration” is the clearest expression in verse of the principles of the American philosophy of Transcendentalism. As such, it is important not only for what it says, but also for the way in which it says it. Part of what the poet says is about the intriguing nature of inspiration itself. On one hand, it is a force by which the creative artist communes with the spiritual reality signaled in nature and which resides in corresponding form in the mind. On the other, it is a divine “electuary,” as Thoreau calls it in the fifth quatrain of the poem, which, while it attunes one to the “ancient harmony,” also leaves the poet “single in the crowd” and alone with eternity. This idea of the poet being both joined and isolated is one of the basic contradictions of a philosophy that glorifies the personal and the intuitive. Thoreau would insist, however, as did his mentor and friend Ralph Waldo Emerson, that the separation is not so much an alienation as it is a form of elevation to a higher level of awareness. Any man or woman, properly attuned, is capable of achieving such an intuitive grasp of the divinity that is at once a part of nature and of his or her own soul. Inspiration, in other words, is open to all humanity.

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Inspiration for the poet, however, is another matter. As Thoreau declares in the last stanza of the poem, the poet—untempted by fame, unmoved by the prospect of earthly rewards—becomes a kind of interpreter, a priest in the service of inspiration, who reconciles all contradictions. The poet is a kind of intermediary between the unthinking mass of humanity, those with “light head erect,” and the force of inspiration which “with one breath attunes the spheres.” The role of poet as priest, in fact, was a popular and influential idea in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Finally, the poem is interesting as an illustration of the very contradictions it seeks to resolve. The poet, for example, insists on the primacy of an intuitive grasp of reality. The intellectual perception of the truth is, in the poet’s phrase, “but learning’s lore.” Yet the poem is not composed intuitively, in a kind of associative method whereby the work takes the shape organically demanded of it by its subject. Romantic literary theory, for example, often supported the idea of a work taking its own shape, like a living organism. By this theory, form was secondary to content. Yet “Inspiration” clearly shows a deliberate, intellectual approach to its composition. The four-line rhyming units, for example, and the tight, rhythmical cadence show the poem’s indebtedness, at least structurally, to an older, more classical tradition.

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