"We Are Symbols, And Inhabit Symbols"
Context: In his early essay entitled Nature, Emerson gives four uses which Nature subserves to mankind: commodity, beauty, language, and discipline. Nature, suggests Emerson, is the vehicle of thought in a threefold manner, speaking of course as the transcendentalist, the philosophical idealist, he is. In the first place, according to the Emersonian doctrine, words are symbols of facts in nature; secondly, each natural fact is in turn the symbol of a spiritual fact; and, finally, man and the universe he inhabits, what Emerson terms Nature, is a symbol of deity itself. Emerson even suggests that in its infancy language was all poetry. These ideas he takes up again in The Poet, which appeared in Essays, Second Series, in 1844, eight years after the publication of Nature. Emerson stresses the function of the poet and of poetry as expression; this he shows to be the understanding of the symbolic quality of the world about us and the language we use to communicate about it:
. . . For though life is great, and fascinates and absorbs; and though all men are intelligent of the symbols through which it is named; yet they cannot originally use them. We are symbols and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and death, all are emblems; but we sympathize with the symbols, and, being infatuated with the economical uses of things, we do not know that they are thoughts. The poet, by an ulterior intellectual perception, gives them a power which makes their old use forgotten, and puts eyes and a tongue into every dumb and inanimate object. He perceives the independence of the thought on the symbol, the stability of the thought, the accidency and fugacity of the symbol. . . . He uses forms according to the life, and not according to the form. This is true science. The poet alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation, and animation, for he does not stop at their facts, but employs them as signs. . . .