Ralph Waldo Emerson Poetry: American Poets Analysis
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetic achievement is greater than the range of his individual poems might suggest. Although perhaps only a handful of his poems attain undisputed greatness, others are rich in implication despite their occasional lapses, saved by a memorable line or phrase. As a cultural critic and poetic innovator, moreover, Emerson has had an immense influence through his essays and poetry in suggesting an appropriate style and method for subsequent American poets. He tried to become the poet he called for in The American Scholar, and to a degree, his poems reflect those democratic precepts. Determined to find distinctively American art forms, he began with expression— not form—and evolved the forms of his poems through their expression. Inspired by the “organic aesthetic” of the American sculptor Horatio Greenough, whose studio in Rome he visited in 1833, Emerson abandoned traditional poetic structure for a loose iambic meter and a variable (though often octosyllabic) line. Instead of following a rigid external form, the poem would take its form from its particular content and expression. This was the freedom Emerson sought for a “democratic” poetry.
Emerson’s best poetry is thus marked by two qualities: organic form and a vernacular style; his less successful pieces, such as “The Sphinx,” are too often cryptic and diffuse. These strengths and weaknesses both derive from his attempt to unite philosophical ideas and lyricism within a symbolic form in which the image would evoke its deeper meaning. “I am born a poet,” he wrote to his fiancé, Jackson, “of a low class without doubt, yet a poet. That is my vocation. My singing, to be sure, is very ’husky,’ and is for the most part in prose. Still I am a poet in the sense of a perceiver and dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul and in matter, and specially of the correspondence between these and those.” Correspondence, then, is what Emerson sought in his poetry, based on his theory of language as intermediary between humans and nature.
In “The Poet,” Emerson announced that “it is not metres, but metre-making argument that makes a poem.” His representative American poet would be a namer and enumerator, not a rhymer or versifier. The poet would take his inspiration from the coarse vigor of American vernacular speech and in turn reinvigorate poetic language by tracing root metaphors back to their origins in ordinary experience. He would avoid stilted or artificial poetic diction in favor of ordinary speech. This meant sacrificing sound to sense, however, since Emerson’s “metre-making arguments” were more often gnomic than lyrical. As a result, his poems are as spare as their native landscape. They are muted and understated rather than rhapsodic, and—with the exception of his Orientalism—tempered and homey in their subject matter, since Emerson was more of an innovator in style than in substance. Emerson’s “Merlin” provides perhaps the best definition of what he sought in his poetry:
Thy trivial harp will never please Or fill my craving ear; Its chords should ring as blows the breeze, Free, peremptory, clear.
Emerson’s poems fall into several distinct categories, the most obvious being his nature poems; his philosophical or meditative poems, which often echo the essays; his autobiographical verse; and his occasional pieces. Sometimes these categories may overlap, but the “organic” aesthetic and colloquial tone mark them as distinctly Emersonian. Two of his most frequently anthologized pieces, “Days” and “The Snow-Storm,” will serve to illustrate his poetic style.
“Days” has been called the most perfect of Emerson’s poems, and while there is a satisfying completeness about the poem, it resolves less than might appear at first reading. The poem deals with what was for Emerson the continuing problem of vocation or calling. How could he justify his apparent idleness in a...
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