"He Builded Better Than He Knew"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Emerson begins and ends this poem by stating his religious problem, but in the middle he discusses the influence of the Oversoul in the processes of the world. In spite of his admiration for the church and the clergy, Emerson feels spiritually unable to be a preacher himself. In the background of the poem is his resignation from the Unitarian ministry. He feels uplifted and inspired by all religions, for they are all inspired by the Oversoul, the divine element in nature and in man. The "Universal Mind" (the Emersonian Deity) inspired both the Delphic oracle and the writers of the Bible. Emerson states his problem and then shows how the Deity aids man in spiritual and artistic creation:

I like a church; I like a cowl,
I love a prophet of the soul;
And on my heart monastic aisles
Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles;
Yet not for all his faith can see
Would I that cowléd churchman be.
Why should the vest on him allure,
Which I could not on me endure?
. . .
The hand that rounded Peter's dome
And groined the aisles of Christian Rome
Wrought in a sad sincerity;
Himself from God he could not free;
He builded better than he knew;–
The conscious stone to beauty grew.