"Language Is Fossil Poetry"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: As a transcendentalist, a philosophical idealist, Emerson believed in an ultimate reality, the Oversoul. As early as 1836, in his essay entitled Nature, he gave his theories a form, including his theory of language as symbolism. Words, as he saw them, are more than symbols for specific facts on the present level of existence; he saw them as symbols for symbols, the specific facts in their turn being symbols of transcendental facts, or realities, on a higher level of existence. To the poet, with whom Emerson lodges the responsibility for expression, he gives the opportunity for creating language at both levels. The poet is then the ultimate knower, who helps, by his expression in the medium of language, the rest of mankind to see that the universe is "the externalization of the soul." From this standpoint, of course, the poet is the true scientist, giving the best insight to the ultimate nature of things:

By virtue of this science the poet is the Namer, or Languagemaker, naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachments or boundary. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. . . .