Last Updated on May 24, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3064
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 work-oriented culture? “Days” thus contains something of a self-rebuke, cast in terms of an Oriental procession of Days, personified as daughters of Time, who pass through the poet’s garden bringing various gifts, the riches of life, which the poet too hastily rejects in favor of a “few herbs and apples,” emblematic of the contemplative life. The Day scorns his choice, presumably because he has squandered his time in contemplation rather than having measured his ambition against worthier goals. The Oriental imagery employed here transforms a commonplace theme into a memorable poem, although the poet never responds to the implied criticism of his life; nor does he identify the “morning wishes” that have been abandoned for the more sedate and domestic “herbs and apples,” although these images do suggest meanings beyond themselves.
A thematically related poem is “The Problem,” in which Emerson tries to justify his reasons for leaving the ministry, which he respects and admires but cannot serve. Perhaps because he was more poet than priest, Emerson preferred the direct inspiration of the artist to the inherited truths of religion, or it may have been that, as a romantic, he found more inspiration in nature than in Scripture. The third stanza of “The Problem” contains one of the clearest articulations of Emerson’s “organic” aesthetic, of form emerging from expression, in the image of the artist who “builded better than he knew.” The temples of nature “art might obey, but not surpass.”
This organic theory of art reached its fullest expression in “The Snow-Storm,” which still offers the best example in Emerson’s poetry of form following function, and human artistry imitating that of nature. Here the poem merges with what it describes. The first stanza announces the arrival of the storm, and the second stanza evokes the “frolic architecture” of the snow and the human architectural forms that it anticipates. Nature freely creates and humans imitate through art. Wind and snow form myriad natural forms that humans can only “mimic in slow structures” of stone. As the wind-sculpted snowdrifts create beauty from the materials at hand, the poem rounds on itself in the poet’s implicit admiration of nature’s work.
One of the most intriguing of Emerson’s poems is “Hamatraya,” which contains an attack on Yankee land-greed and acquisitiveness, cast as a Hindu meditation on the impermanence of all corporeal things. In “Hamatraya,” the crass materialism of his countrymen evokes Emerson’s serenely idealistic response. No one finally owns the land, he asserts, and to pretend so is to be deceived. The land will outlive successive masters, all of whom boast of owning it. In the enduring cycle of things, they are all finally returned to the earth they claimed to possess. Emerson uses dramatic form and the lyrical “Earth-Song” as an effective counterpoint to the blunt materialism of the first two stanzas. His theme of all things returning unto themselves finds its appropriate metaphor in the organic (and Hindu) cycle of life. Hindu cosmology and natural ecology complement each other in Emerson’s critique of the pretensions of private land-ownership.
Another of Emerson’s Oriental poems, his popular “Brahma,” is notable for its blend of Eastern and Western thought. Here Emerson assumes the perspective of God or Brahma in presenting his theme of the divine relativity and continuity of life. Just as Krishna, “the Red Slayer,” and his victim are merged in the unity of Brahma, so all other opposites are reconciled in the ultimate unity of the universe. This paradoxical logic appealed to Emerson as a way of presenting his monistic philosophy in poetic terms. The poem owes much to Emerson’s study of the Bhagavadgt (c. 200 b.c.e.-200 c.e.; The Bhagavad Gita, 1785) and other Oriental scriptures, the first stanza of “Brahma” being in fact a close parallel to the Hindu text. The smooth regularity of Emerson’s ballad stanzas also helps to offset the exotic quality of the Hindu allusions and the novelty of the poem’s theme.
Religious myth is also present in “Uriel,” which Robert Frost called “the greatest Western poem yet.” Even if Frost’s praise is overstated, this is still one of Emerson’s most profound and complex poems. Again it deals with the reconciliation of opposites, this time in the proposed relativity of good and evil. Borrowing the theme of the primal revolt against God by the rebellious archangels, Emerson uses the figure of the angel Uriel as the prototype of the advanced thinker misunderstood or rejected by others. Uriel represents the artist as the rebel or prophet bearing unwelcome words, roles that Emerson no doubt identified with himself and the hostile reception given An Address Delivered Before the Senior Class in Divinity College, Cambridge . . . (1838; better known as The Divinity School Address) by the Harvard theological faculty. Uriel’s words, “Line in nature is not found;/ Unit and universe are round; In vain produced, all rays return;/ Evil will bless, and ice will burn,” speak with particular force to the modern age, in which discoveries in theoretical physics and astronomy seem to have confirmed Emerson’s intuitions about the relativity of matter and energy and the nature of the physical universe.
“Each and All”
Emerson’s monistic philosophy also appears in “Each and All,” in which the poem suggests that beauty cannot be divorced from its context or setting without losing part of its original appeal. The peasant, sparrow, seashell, and maid must each be appreciated in the proper aesthetic context, as part of a greater unity. Beauty cannot be possessed, Emerson argues, without destroying it. The theme of “Each and All” perhaps echoes section 3 on beauty of his essay Nature, in which Emerson observes that “the standard of beauty is the entire circuit of natural forms—the totality of nature. . . . Nothing is quite beautiful alone; nothing but is beautiful in the whole. A single object is only so far beautiful as it suggests this universal grace.” The poem “Each and All” gives a more concentrated and lyrical expression to this apprehension of aesthetic unity. The poetic images lend grace and specificity to the philosophical concept of the beauty inherent in unity.
“Give All to Love”
Emerson’s fondness for paradoxical logic and the union of apparent opposites appears in yet another poem, “Give All to Love,” which initially appears to falter on the contradiction between yielding to love and retaining one’s individuality. The first three stanzas counsel a wholehearted surrender to the impulse of love, while the fourth stanza cautions the lover to remain “free as an Arab.” The final two stanzas resolve this dilemma by affirming that the lovers may cherish joys apart without compromising their love for each other, since the purest love is that which is free from jealousy or possessiveness. Emerson reconciles the demands of love and those of self-reliance by idealizing the love relationship. Some commentators have even suggested that Emerson envisions a Neoplatonic ladder or hierarchy of love, from the Physical, to the Romantic, to the Ideal or Platonic—a relationship that in fact Emerson described in another poem titled “Initial, Daemonic, and Celestial Love”—but the theme of “Give All to Love” seems to be simply to love fully without surrendering one’s ego or identity. The last two lines of the poem, “When half-gods go,/ The Gods arrive,” are often quoted out of context because of their aphoristic quality.
A poem that has led some readers to charge Emerson with coldheartedness or lack of feeling is “Threnody,” his lament for the loss of his beloved son Waldo, who died of scarlet fever at the age of six. Waldo, the first child of his second marriage, died suddenly in January, 1842. Emerson was devastated by grief, yet he seems in the poem to berate himself for his inability to sustain his grief. In his journals, Emerson freely expressed his bitterness and grief, and he gradually transcribed these feelings into the moving pastoral elegy for his son. “Threnody,” literally a death-song or lamentation, contains a mixture of commonplace and idealized pastoral images that demonstrate Emerson’s ability to work within classical conventions and to ameliorate his grief through his doctrine of compensation. Some of the most moving lines in the poem describe the speaker’s recollection of the child’s “daily haunts” and unused toys, although these realistic details are later muted by the pathetic fallacy of external nature joining the poet in mourning the loss of his son.
Emerson’s muse most often turned to nature for inspiration, so it is no accident that his nature poems contain some of his best work. “The Rhodora” is an early poem in which Emerson’s attention to sharp and precise details of his New England landscape stands out against his otherwise generalized and formal poetic style. The first eight lines of the poem, in which Emerson describes finding the rhodora, a northern azalea-like flower, blooming in the woods early in May of the New England spring, before other plants have put out their foliage, seem incomparably the best. Unfortunately, the second half of the poem shifts from specific nature imagery to a generalized homily on the beauty of the rhodora, cast in formal poetic diction. Here Emerson’s impulse to draw moralistic lessons from nature reminds us of another famous early nineteenth century American poem, William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.” This division within “The Rhodora” illustrates some of Emerson’s difficulties in breaking away from the outmoded style and conventions of eighteenth century English landscape poetry to find an appropriate vernacular style for American nature poetry. Here the subject matter is distinctly American, but the style— the poem’s manner of seeing and feeling—is still partially derivative.
“The Humble Bee”
“The Humble Bee” is a more interesting poem in some respects, in that Emerson uses a form adequate to his expression—a tight octosyllabic line and rhymed couplets—to evoke through both sound and sense the meandering flight of the bumble bee. As the poem unfolds, the bee gradually becomes a figure for the poet intoxicated by nature. Some of the poem’s conceits may seem quaint to modern taste, but “The Humble Bee” is innovative in its use of terse expression and symbolic form. Its style anticipates the elliptical language and abbreviated form of Dickinson’s poetry.
“Woodnotes” is a long and somewhat prosy two-part narrative poem that appears to be extracted from Emerson’s journals. Part 1 introduces the transcendental nature lover (“A Forest Seer”) in terms perhaps reminiscent of Thoreau, and part 2 describes the reciprocal harmony between humans and nature, in which each is fully realized through the other. The vagueness of part 2 perhaps illustrates Emerson’s difficulty in capturing transcendental rapture in specific poetic language.
“Ode” (“Inscribed to W. H. Channing”) and “Concord Hymn” are both occasional poems that otherwise differ markedly in style and technique. “Concord Hymn” is a traditional patriotic poem in four ballad stanzas that Emerson composed to be sung at the placing of a stone obelisk on July 4, 1837, to commemorate the Battle of Concord, fought on April 19, 1775, on land later belonging to the Reverend Ezra Ripley. The lines of the first stanza, now so well known that they are part of American national folklore, demonstrate that Emerson could easily master traditional verse forms when he chose to do so:
By the rude bridge that arched the flood, Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, Here once the embattled farmers stood, And fired the shot heard round the world.
The images of the “bridge” and the “flood” in the first stanza ripen imperceptibly into metaphor in the poem’s implied theme that the Battle of Concord provided the impetus for the American Revolutionary War.
Emerson’s “Ode” is a much more unconventional piece, written in terse, variable lines, usually of two or three stresses, and touching on the dominant social and political issues of the day—the Mexican War, the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the threat of secession in the South, and radical abolitionism in the North. This open form was perhaps best suited to Emerson’s oracular style that aimed to leave a few memorable lines with the reader. His angry muse berates Daniel Webster for having compromised his principles by voting for the Fugitive Slave Law, and it denounces those materialistic interests, in both the North and the South, that would profit from wage or bond slavery. Emerson’s lines “Things are in the saddle,/ And ride mankind” aptly express his misgivings about the drift of American affairs that seemed to be leading toward a civil war. His taut lines seem to chant their warning like a Greek chorus, foreseeing the inevitable but being helpless to intervene. By the 1850’s Emerson had become an increasingly outspoken opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law, and on occasion risked his personal safety in speaking before hostile crowds.
Despite his commitment to a new American poetry based on common diction and ordinary speech, Emerson’s poetry never quite fulfilled the promise of his call, in The American Scholar and “The Poet,” for a new poetics. Emerson wanted to do for American poetry what Wordsworth had accomplished for English lyrical poetry, to free it from the constraints of an artificial and dead tradition of sensibility and feeling. However, he was not as consistent or as thoroughgoing a poetic innovator as the Wordsworth of the “Preface” to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), who both announced and carried out his proposed revision of the existing neoclassical poetic diction, nor did he apply his theory to his poetic composition as skillfully as Wordsworth did. Emerson could envision a new poetics but he could not sustain in his poetry a genuine American vernacular tradition. That had to wait for Whitman and Dickinson. Perhaps Emerson was too much the philosopher ever to realize fully the poetic innovations that he sought, but even with their flaws, his poems retain a freshness and vitality lacking in contemporaries such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and James Russell Lowell, who were probably more accomplished versifiers. Emerson’s greatness resides in the originality of his vision of a future American poetry, free and distinct from European models. It can be found in the grace of his essays and the insights of his journals, and it appears in those select poems in which he was able to match vision and purpose, innovation and accomplishment. His “Saadi” was no less a poet for the restraint of his harp.
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