Ode, Inscribed to W. H. Channing by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The principal argument of the poem is that the times are clearly out of joint. Its strongest sentiments relate to the failure of men (such as Webster) to stand on the side of freedom and humanity, and against slavery and military aggression, whether in Mexico or in Poland. Though the poem is not a call to arms, its lofty stanzas accuse the “little men” who have betrayed Virtue and Right and give only lip service to Freedom. Instead, men force things and people out of their proper spheres and thereby “mix and mar,” confusing things with human values. This idea is expressed sardonically in the use of “chattel” (line 48)—placed appropriately at the center of the ode—which means “movable possessions”; here, it refers to both livestock and slaves. In their passion to aggrandize themselves, men have reduced humanity to a thing and elevated things to a place of eminence. The poet suggests a remedy: One should live for “friendship,” for “love,” and for “truth’s and harmony’s behoof” (lines 67-68). One must not be too zealous and get taken in by the “priest’s cant” and “statesman’s rant” or drawn into their “politique.”

The poet is centrally concerned with the arena in which the issues are bruited and the battle waged. He depicts this concern by using geographical references (New Hampshire, Boston Bay, and the “southern crocodile,” for example) and by instancing local figures and activities (the horseman, neatherd, merchant, and so on). In this way, the poem asserts that though one must be cognizant of the revered past, the present has a place and importance equal to the other, if not superior to it, and the issues addressed are endemic to the setting.

A strong faith permeates the ode and explains in part the poet’s attack on the “little men” and those who have lost sight of Virtue and Freedom; it is a faith in order...

(The entire section is 483 words.)