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Ralph Waldo Emerson 1803–1882
American essayist and poet.
Emerson was one of the most influential American writers of the nineteenth century. He was one of the founders of the Transcendental movement which drew together major New England literary figures who shared beliefs in the divinity of nature and of the individual and asserted that each human must make moral determinations individually, regardless of religious dogma. Emerson's poetry reflects the same optimism, mysticism, and love of nature that his essays expressed. Through his essays and poems, Emerson influenced such acclaimed writers as Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Edwin Arlingtion Robinson, and Robert Frost.
Emerson was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. His father died when Emerson was eight, and his mother took in borders to meet expenses and keep the family together. Emerson attended Harvard College from 1817 to 1821 and then taught school sporadically from 1821 to 1826. He also attended Harvard Divinity School intermittently from 1825 to 1827. In 1829, Emerson fulfilled the expectations of family members by being ordained, like his father and grandfather before him, as a Unitarian minister. But Emerson brought with him doubts concerning traditional Christian beliefs including the sanctity of the Eucharist, and he resigned from his position as pastor of Boston's Second Church in 1832. His decision to leave the church may also have been kindled in 1831 by the devastating death of his first wife, Ellen, to whom he had been married only a year and a half. After his resignation, Emerson spent the next year traveling in Europe where he met the influential writers William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, and visited the botanical gardens of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, an experience which inspired his interest in the mystical significance of nature. Returning to America in 1833, Emerson settled in Concord, Massachusetts and began a career of lecturing on the popular lyceum lecture circuit. In 1835, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, with whom he had four children, one of whom, his son Waldo, died at the age of six. He anonymously published his essay Nature in 1836, admitting to its authorship only after hearing reviewers acclaim it. The same year he also helped establish what became known as the Transcendental Club, a group whose noteworthy members included Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Margaret
Fuller. Emerson frequently contributed poetry to the Dial (1840-1843) the group's journal, and briefly served as its editor. He lived an active life, writing essays, poems and journals, delivering lectures, traveling, and establishing himself as a major American intellectual. He continued to write and lecture into his seventies, coming to be regarded as the "Sage of Concord." His later years, however, were characterized by a gradually advancing senility. He died in Concord in 1882.
Emerson's poetry emphasizes nature as a symbol of the divine and focuses on the commonplace and everyday experience. Among his influences are the Romantic British poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, the metaphysical poet George Herbert, and the transcendental Persian poets Hafez and Saadi. The most well known of Emerson's mystical poems influenced by the Persian poets are "The Sphinx," the opening poem of his first volume which establishes Emerson's mysterious, prophetic tone; "Hamatreya," an application of Hindu wisdom to the New England setting; "Bacchus," a celebration of poetic inspiration; "Days," a combination of Puritan values and oriental imagery; and "Brahma," a condensation of Hindu ideas that lead to the association of Nirvana with selflessness. Another of Emerson's major themes was the Romantic tribute to nature. It is represented in such famous poems as "The Snow Storm," a poem in blank verse which depicts a fierce winter storm that transforms the New England landscape, "The Rhodora," a lyrical celebration of the native flower which suggests the presence of a divine force in its creation, along with "The Adirondacs," a blank verse tribute to the mountains and "The Titmouse," a paean to the tiny bird that conquers fear. Another thematic grouping contains poems examining personal issues in Emerson's life, such as "Threnody" about the death of his son, "The Problem" which addresses Emerson's personal dilemma of admiration for church leaders despite his refusal to remain within their ranks and "Terminus," an anticipation of his own death. During his life, Emerson was most noted for his patriotic poems such as the classic, public verses "Concord Hymn: Sung at the Completion of the Battle Monument, July 4, 1837" and "Boston Hymn." His edition Selected Poems is a compilation of poems from his first two volumes, rearranged with minor changes. Posthumous publications include Poems and the recently published The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson which makes easily accessible Emerson's rough drafts and comments regarding the composition of his poetry.
Emerson's poetic skills have always been a matter of debate among critics and approaches to evaluating his poems have been quite varied. The focus on thematic analyses began by questioning Emerson's religious doctrines. The early reviewers of Emerson's first book of poetry challenged Emerson's theological base and judged him lacking in Christian values. As nineteenth-century readers found more liberal statements of faith in the publications of other transcendental poets such as Whitman, critics became less harsh in their judgement of Emerson's poems, shifting their thematic analyses to focus on Emerson's success in writing about nature. By the latter half of the nineteenth century, Emerson's essays had established his reputation as an outstanding American philosopher, and during the remainder of his life, reviewers were generally reluctant to be overly critical of his poems.
Throughout both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, structural analyses of the poems have acknowledged that they are stylistically imperfect and that Emerson subordinated meter and diction to thematic concerns. Those critics who do not like Emerson's work mark these aesthetic weaknesses as overwhelming flaws in the poetry, while those who enjoy the poems defend Emerson's style as examples of his poetic theory in action, the idea that nineteenth-century American verse needed to be liberated from traditional forms. Albert Gelpi, for example, has asserted that Emerson intended his poems to convey the same moral messages he expounded in his essays and lectures and that he used poetic forms that would best convey these messages as experiences of inspiration. Charles Malloy, an American businessman with a penchant for poetry, was the first to closely analyze most of Emerson's major poems. During the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century he wrote articles for literary journals and delivered lectures in and around Boston explicating and praising individual poems, thus popularizing them. Malloy also founded the Boston Emerson Society, and served as its president for many years. In the 1930s and 1940s studies of Emerson's essay "Persian Poetry" and Emerson's translations of Persian poems resulted in examinations of the degree to which Emerson was influenced by the Persian poets. These studies rekindled interest in Emerson's poems based on analyses of their sources. Regardless of the question of its own merits, Emerson's poetry is often cited as having influenced generations of American poets.
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May-Day and Other Pieces 1867
Selected Poems 1876
The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 12 vols. (collection) 1903-4
The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 5 vols, to date (essays, poetry, and other writings) 1971-
The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson 1986
Other Major Works
Nature (essay) 1836
Essays (essay) 1841; also published as Essays: First Series, 1854
Nature; An Essay, and Lectures on the Times (essays) 1844
Orations, Lectures, and Addresses (essays) 1844
Essays: Second Series (essays) 1844
Nature; Addresses, and Lectures (essays) 1849
Representative Men: Seven Lectures (essays) 1850
English Traits (essays) 1856
The Conduct of Life (essays) 1860
Society and Solitude (essays) 1870
Letters and Social Aims (essays) 1876
Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers (essays) 1894
The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 10 vols, (journals) 1909-14
The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson (letters) 1939
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SOURCE: "The Poet," in American Literary Essays, edited by Lewis Leary, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1960, pp. 161-74.
[The following is an excerpt from the noted essay, "The Poet, " which first appeared as the introductory essay in Emerson's 1844 collection Essays: Second Series. In this piece, Emerson describes the poet's intuitive sense and ability to record his perceptions, often with symbols from nature.]
Those who are esteemed umpires of taste are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold. Their knowledge of the fine arts is some study of rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form, which is exercised for amusement or for show. It is a proof of the shallowness of the doctrine of beauty as it lies in the minds of our amateurs, that men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form upon soul. There is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy. We were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan to be carried about; but there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ, much less is the latter the germination of the former. So in regard to other forms, the intellectual men do not believe in any essential dependence of the material world on thought and volition. Theologians think it a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract, but they prefer to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence; and even the poets are contented with a civil and conformed manner of living, and to write poems from the fancy, at a safe distance from their own experience. But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or shall I say the quadruple or the centuple or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact; Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted and at two or three removes, when we know least about it. And this hidden truth, that the fountains whence all this river of Time and its creatures floweth are intrinsically ideal and beautiful, draws us to the consideration of the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty; to the means and materials he uses, and to the general aspect of the art in the present time.
The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth. The young man reverses men of genius, because, to speak truly, they are more himself than he is. They receive of the soul as he also receives, but they more. Nature enhances her beauty, to the eye of loving men, from their belief that the poet is beholding her shows at the same time. He is isolated among his contemporaries by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later. For all men live by truth and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.
Notwithstanding this necessity to be published, adequate expression is rare. I know not how it is that we need an interpreter, but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun and stars, earth and water. These stand and wait to render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction or some excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist that he could report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.
For the Universe has three children, born at one time, which reappear under different names in every system of thought, whether they be called cause, operation and effect; or, more poetically, Jove, Pluto, Neptune; or, theologically, the Father, the Spirit and the Son; but which we will call here the Knower, the Doer and the Sayer. These stand respectively for the love of truth, for the love of good, and for the love of beauty. These three are equal. Each is that which he is, essentially, so that he cannot be surmounted or analyzed, and each of these three has the power of the others latent in him and his own, patent.
The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre. For the world is not painted or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe. Therefore the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own right. Criticism is infested with a cant of materialism, which assumes that manual skill and activity is the first merit of all men, and disparages such as say and do not, overlooking the fact that some men, namely poets, are natural sayers, sent into the world to the end of expression, and confounds them with those whose province is action but who quit it to imitate the sayers. But Homer's words are as costly and admirable to Homer as Agamemnon's victories are to Agamemnon. The poet does not wait for the hero or the sage, but, as they act and think primarily, so he writes primarily what will and must be spoken, reckoning the others, though primaries also, yet, in respect to him, secondaries and servants; as sitters or models in the studio of a painter, or as assistants who bring building-materials to an architect.
For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations. For nature is as truly beautiful as it is good, or as it is reasonable, and must as much appear as it must be done, or be known. Words and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words.
The sign and credentials of the poet are that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas and an utterer of the necessary and causal. For we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill and command of language we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose whether he was not only a lyrist but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man. He does not stand out of our low limitations, like a Chimborazo under the line, running up from a torrid base through all the climates of the globe, with belts of the herbage of every latitude on its high and mottled sides; but this genius is the landscape-garden of a modern house, adorned with fountains and statues, with well-bred men and women standing and sitting in the walks and terraces. We hear, through all the varied music, the ground-tone of conventional life. Our poets are men of talents who sing, and not the children of music. The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary.
For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem—a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form. The poet has a new thought; he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.
[T]hough 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. As the eyes of Lyncæus were said to see through the earth, so the poet turns the world to glass, and shows us all things in their right series and procession. For through that better perception he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that thought is multiform; that within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form; and following with his eyes the life, uses the forms which express that life, and so his speech flows with the flowing of nature. All the facts of the animal economy, sex, nutriment, gestation, birth, growth, are symbols of the passage of the world into the soul of man, to suffer there a change and reappear a new and higher fact. 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 these facts, but employs them as signs. He knows why the plain or meadow of space was strown with these flowers we call suns and moons and stars; why the great deep is adorned with animals, with men, and gods; for in every word he speaks he rides on them as the horses of thought.
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. But the poet names the thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other. This expression or naming is not art, but a second nature, grown out of the first, as a leaf out of a tree.
The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. That is not an inspiration, which we owe to narcotics, but some counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl. For poetry is not 'Devil's wine,' but God's wine. It is with this as it is with toys. We fill the hands and nurseries of our children with all manner of dolls, drums and horses; withdrawing their eyes from the plain face and sufficing objects of nature, the sun and moon, the animals, the water and stones, which should be their toys. So the poet's habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him. His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration, and he should be tipsy with water. That spirit which suffices quiet hearts, which seems to come forth to such from every dry knoll of sere grass, from every pine stump and half-imbedded stone on which the dull March sun shines, comes forth to the poor and hungry, and such as are of simple taste. If thou fill thy brain with Boston and New York, with fashion and covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses with wine and French coffee, thou shalt find no radiance of wisdom in the lonely waste of the pine woods.
If the imagination intoxicates the poet, it is not inactive in other men. The metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy. The use of symbols has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for all men. We seem to be touched by a wand which makes us dance and run about happily, like children. We are like persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air. This is the effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods. Men have really got a new sense, and found within their world another world, or nest of worlds; for, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop.
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SOURCE: "Poetry and Imagination," in Christian Examiner, Vol. 42, March, 1847, pp. 250-701.
[In this excerpt from his review of Emerson's Poems, Bartol offers a theological evaluation determining that Emerson's religious beliefs weaken his poetry.]
… The heart in [Emerson's] poetry is less than the head, and this causes a deficiency for which nothing else can fully atone. Only a transcendent splendor and wealth of intellect could redeem many of his pieces from condemnation and forgetfulness, as being frigid and unfeeling. These are sad flaws in such noble workmanship. Did a fellow-feeling for human nature in all its varieties equal and fill out his other traits, we might think the great poet of America had been born, to bring on our flourishing Augustan age. But, as yet, our hearts acknowledge a more genial and enlivening influence from several of our other native bards. Would that one whom we unfeignedly respect might not only show his power of soaring to the empyrean, but hover with a more wide and loving interest over the lot of his fellow-men! It may be for want of this all-embracing sympathy that his flights are so infrequent, and that he can but seldom continue long on the wing. If he could but kindle his soul with some great conception of human fortunes, and write a generous epic of this our human life, including its great trials and accomplishments, its sublimer aspirations and hopes, we hazard little in predicting that it would be a production to mark the age.
And yet we hardly know how he could have the kind of human sympathy which we most value forthe inspiration of such an undertaking, with his present views of religion. There is no recognition in his pages of the Christian faith, according to any, however catholic, idea of it which we are able to form. He seems to have no preference of Jesus over any other great and good man. He either does not accept the evidences authenticating a divine revelation, or they press with but little interest upon his preoccupied mind. But what we must regard as his religious unsoundness strikes still deeper. He does not even appear to own any distinction between man and Deity. He talks of "the gods" as an old Roman would do. One personal Creator is not present to his thought. He does not go for the signs of such a Being into the broad circumference of his works, but confines himself within the little rim of his own individual consciousness. He puts aside Bible and ritual, and all human speech and outward light, for the "super-solar beam." In religion he fills the whole space of thought with that mystic element, which we must perhaps admit, but should confine in a corner. He does not, with a plain trust, examine the world which God has made, but curiously inspects the inverted image of it upon his own mental retina. He does not pay to the instincts of mankind or of society the respect he would render to the peculiar instincts of the animal, the bee or the beaver. And not taking cordially to his heart the Christian doctrines of a Father and a particular Providence, how can he strongly embrace the dependent doctrine of human brotherhood, or feel the unlimited sympathy which this doctrine inspires? We speak here, of course, of his system. We doubt not the kindness of his actual relations with men. We believe a hearty historical faith in Christianity would add greatly to the power of his genius. The views we have alluded to so underlie and run through his writings, as almost to amount to the proposal of a new religious faith,—a presumption which of course astounds us, simple believers in the New Testament on what we deem irrefragable grounds. His ideas carry him wide of the humility of the Gospel,—though they give rise in his own mind not so much to personal pride as to an immense self-respect and an enormous self-reliance. He is willing to trust to or lean upon nothing but himself;—a wonderful state of feeling, when we consider our real condition of dependence in all our powers,—our bodies resting on the attractions of material nature, every vital organ in us doing its part involuntarily, and only a single silvery thread branching into various filaments of the nerves of motion being held by our own will,—our intelligence but the shadowy reflex of Divine wisdom, like the light from distant worlds in the focus of the astronomer's telescope,—and even our moral nature roused not by an internal force of conscience alone, but quickened and kept alive so greatly by instruction and example. We are made to lean, and are stronger when we lean; and, if we do not lean, we fall. Our poet is dragged by his philosophy to a lower, or at least less commanding, height than, with a better understanding on this point, he might well attain.
We ought, however, to say, that the noblest principles of conduct are often asserted in his pages. We rejoice to find instances of a truly grand morality, and surpassing expressions of a pure and beautiful spirit; but are suddenly perplexed, as we proceed, by an optimism confounding all moral distinctions. He seems, in some places, to know no difference between light and darkness, sweet and bitter. Some revelations, hinted at in one of these poems, respecting a moral indifference in all things, are represented as made by "Uriel," and as causing the older deities, who had been in the secret, to blush. Alphonso of Castile, who is said to have thought he could improve upon the world as described in the Ptolemaic system, makes a bold figure, as the protégé of our author's pen, entering in heaven's court a general and unqualified complaint about all things under the sun.
There is an undertone of sadness running through these rhymes, sometimes harsh and scornful, and sometimes tender and refined, like angelic melancholy. We fancy this, too, may proceed from the peculiarity of the writer's belief. Seldom do we hear from him the truly cheerful strain which an earnest faith in Christianity would prompt. In that marvelously beautiful "Threnody," near the close of the book, the sorrow at the commencement is out of all proportion to the comfort at the end. It is the song of a stricken and struggling stoicism. The note falls irresistibly into the minor key. The very voice of consolation dies away in a wail. Alas! it is a poor application here made to the heart's wounds. They still bleed into the very ointment and balm. Every stroke of genius seems but to sharpen the regret. We remember in all our reading nothing more cheerless. It is a picture we would not hang in our heart's chambers. Every touch of the pencil draws a tear. As a painting of grief it is unrivaled,—but it is of grief alone. His hand proves false to him, when he undertakes to draw the form of the angel of peace. But that the soul of the poet might be deaf to our entreaty, we would implore him to turn his eye to those fountains of comfort which God has opened in the Gospel of his Son. For nothing can be more manly than an humble reliance on the means of revival and support, in our distress, which our Father has provided. Let him in lowliness receive these, and then, for the "Threnody," and the "Dirge" which precedes it, we should hope to receive lines as highly adorned with the lights of a creative fancy, but gilded from above also by the beams of heaven. There would at least be nothing in them of the "grief whose balsam never grew."
But we must pause. The analysis of Emerson's writings is no short or easy task. We would not pretend to oversee his summit, but only to note our impressions as we stand and contemplate it. His works, on account of their peculiarity, if nothing else, will probably be among the most enduring of the present time. There is much in them to admire and be improved by. And while we must think there is much also that is unsound and must be injurious to any mind imbibing it, we intend no personal commendation in expressing our conviction that he is a true-minded and righteous man, raised above every thing unworthy, and living a blameless life according to the monitions of his own conscience. Our calling is not to speak of the man, but of the author. We think the intellectual states and tendencies which we have noted chill and cripple his genius. He would make better poetry under the sway of views and opinions which he rejects or holds slightly. Were we writing with a different design, we might state other reasons for our regret at some of the sentiments which he expresses. We have now only to say, that they have injured his book, and must restrict the width and impair the quality of its influence. Would he fetch an echo from the universal heart, as it beats in the breasts of men from generation to generation, he must add to his style a faith and fervor as signal as its brilliancy and force.
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SOURCE: "Emerson's Poems," in Brownson's Quarterly Review, Vol. 4, April, 1847, pp. 262-76.
[Brownson, an early Transcendentalist who became an ardent Roman Catholic, edited his own magazine from 1844 to 1875 as a vehicle for his religious beliefs and wrote popular books containing the sensationalized religious tone evident in this excerpt. Here Brownson criticizes Emerson's poetry by describing it as the voice of a depressed and delusional poet under the influence of Satan.]
… Mr. Emerson's poems … fail in all the higher requisites of art. They embody a doctrine essentially false, a morality essentially unsound, and at best a beauty which is partial, individual. To be able to regard them as embodying the beautiful, in any worthy sense of the term, one must cease to be what he is, must divest himself of his own individuality, and that not to fall back on our common humanity, but to become Mr. Emerson, and to see only after his peculiar manner of seeing. They are addressed, not to all men, but to a school, a peculiar school, a very small school, composed of individuals who, by nature or education, have similar notions, tastes, and idiosyncrasies. As artistic productions, then, notwithstanding they indicate, on the part of their author, poetical genius of the highest order, they can claim no elevated rank. The author's genius is cramped, confined, and perverted by his false philosophy and morality, and the best thing we can say of his poems is, that they indicate the longing of his spirit for a truth, a morality, a freedom, a peace, a repose, which he feels and laments he has not.
We know Mr. Emerson; we have shared his generous hospitality, and enjoyed the charms of his conversation; as a friend and neighbour, in all the ordinary relations of social and domestic life, he is one it is not easy to help loving and admiring; and we confess we are loath to say aught severe against him or his works; but his volume of poems is the saddest book we ever read. The author tries to cheer up, tries to smile, but the smile is cold and transitory; it plays an instant round the mouth, but does not come from the heart, or lighten the eyes. He talks of music and flowers, and would fain persuade us that he is weaving garlands of joy; but beneath them is always to be seen the ghastly and grinning skeleton of death. There is an appearance of calm, of quiet, of repose, and at first sight one may half fancy his soul is as placid, as peaceful, as the unruffled lake sleeping sweetly beneath the summer moonbeams; but it is the calm, the quiet, the repose of despair. Down below are the troubled waters. The world is no joyous world for him. It is void and without form, and darkness broods over it. True, he bears up against it; but because he is too proud to complain, and because he believes his lot is that of all men and inevitable. Why break thy head against the massive walls of necessity? Call your darkness light, and it will be as light—to you. Look the fiend in the face, and he is your friend,—at least, as much of a friend as you can have. Why complain? Poor brother, thou art nothing, or thou art all. Crouch and whine, and thou art nothing; stand up erect on thy own two feet, and scorn to ask for aught beyond thyself, and thou art all. Yet this stoical pride and resolve require a violent effort, and bring no peace, no consolation, to the soul. In an evil hour, the author overheard what the serpent said to Eve, and believed it; and from that time, it would seem, he became unable to believe aught else. He loves and wooes nature, for he fancies her beauty and loveliness emanate from the divinity of his own being; and he affects to walk the fields and the woods, as a god surveying his own handiwork. It is he that gives the rose its fragrance, the rainbow its tints, the golden sunset its gorgeous hues. But the illusion does not last. He feels, after all, that he is a man, only a man; and the enigma of his own being,
The fate of the man-child,
The meaning of man,
torments him, and from his inmost soul cries out, and in no lullaby tones, for a solution. But, alas! no solution comes; or, if one, it is a solution which solves nothing, which brings no light, no repose, to the spirit wearied with its questionings.
There is something weird and mysterious in the thoughts and feelings which come to us, unbidden, when we leave faith behind, and fix our gaze intently upon ourselves as upon some magic mirror. The circle of our vision seems to be enlarged; darkness is transformed to light; worlds open upon worlds; we send keen, penetrating glances into the infinite abyss of being; the elements grow obedient to us, work with us and for us, and we seem to be strong with their strength, terrible with their might, and to approach and to become identical with the Source of all things. God becomes comprehensible and communicable, and we live an elemental life, and burn with elemental fire. The universe flows into us and from us. We control the winds, the waves, the rivers and the tides, the stars and the seasons. We teach the plant when to germinate, to blossom, or ripen, the reed when to bend before the blast, and the lightning when to rive the hoary oak. Alas! we think not then that this is all delusion, and that we are under the influence of the Fallen Angel, who would persuade us that darkness is light, that weakness is strength, that hell is heaven, and himself God. Under a similar influence and delusion labors the author of these poems. There are passages in them which recall all too vividly what we, in our blindness and unbelief, have dreamed, but rarely ventured to utter. We know these poems; we understand them. They are not sacred chants; they are hymns to the devil. Not God, but Satan, do they praise, and they can be relished only by devil-worshipers.
Yet we do not despair of our poet. He has a large share of religiosity, and his soul needs to prostrate itself before God and adore. There is a low, sad music in these poems, deep and melodious, which escapes the author unbidden, and which discloses a spirit ill at ease, a heart bewailing its bondage, and a secret, intense longing to burst its chains, and to soar aloft to the heaven of divine love and freedom. This music is the echo of the angel voices still pleading with him, and entreating him to return from his wanderings, to open his eyes to the heaven which lies around him, his ears to the sweet voices which everywhere are chanting the praises of God. We must hope that ere long he will, through grace, burst the Satanic cords which now bind him, open his eyes to the sweet vision of beauty that awaits him, and his ears to the harmony which floats on every breeze.
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SOURCE: "Nine New Poets," in The North American Review, Vol. LXIV, No. 135, April, 1847, pp. 402-34.
[In this excerpt, Bowen finds fault with Emerson's meter, rhyme and "obscure" allusions. Bowen's negative response to the poems represents the general reaction of early reviewers to Emerson's first book of poetry.]
… [Mr. Emerson's] mystical effusions have been for some years the delight of a large and increasing circle of young people, and the despair of the critics. He is a chartered libertine, who has long exercised his prerogative of writing enigmas both in prose and verse, sometimes with meaning in them, and sometimes without,—more frequently without. Many of his fragments in verse—if verse it can be called, which puts at defiance all the laws of rhythm, metre, grammar, and common sense—were originally published in The Dial, lucus a non lucendo, a strange periodical work, which is now withdrawn from sunlight into the utter darkness that it always coveted. These fragments, with some new matter, are now first collected in a separate volume, and published, as we believe, with a sly purpose on the part of the author to quiz his own admirers. His prose essays, on their first appearance, were received with about equal admiration and amazement; always enigmatical and frequently absurd in doctrine and sentiment, they also contained flashes of better things. Quaint and pithy apothegms, dry and humorous satire, studied oddities of expression, which made an old thought appear almost as good as a new one, and frequent felicities of poetical and picturesque diction, were the redeeming qualities that compensated the reader for toiling through many pages filled with a mere hubbub and jumble of words. Startling and offensive opinions, drawn mostly from systems of metaphysics that were long ago exploded and forgotten, were either darkly hinted at, or baldly stated without a word of explanation or defence. Poet and mystic, humorist and heretic, the writer seemed, on the one side, to aim at a revival of Heraclitus and Plotinus, and on the other, to be an imitator of Rabelais and Sterne. A few touches of recondite learning, obviously more fantastic than profound, added to the singularity of the compound which he presented to the public. He probably accomplished his first purpose, when his essays simply made people stare,—
While some pronounced him wondrous wise,
And some declared him mad.
But it is only in his prose that Mr. Emerson is a poet; this volume of professed poetry contains the most prosaic and unintelligible stuff that it has ever been our fortune to encounter. The book opens, very appropriately, with a piece called "The Sphinx." We are no Œdipus, and cannot expound one of the riddles contained in it; but some of our readers may be more successful, and a specimen of it shall therefore be placed before them. It matters not what portion is extracted, for the poem may be read backwards quite as intelligibly as forwards, and no mortal can trace the slightest connection between the verses….
We have not The Dial at hand for reference; but if memory serves us aright, in the poem as first published, instead of the lines here printed in Italics, we had the following:—
This original reading seems to be preferable, as it is more simple and graphic; but the poet probably struck it out, lest he should appear indebted to the highly imaginative lines of Mother Goose,—
The Sphinx concludes her oracles with this tempting declaration:
We doubt whether the fulfilment of this promise will ever be claimed by any body; certainly, not by us, for we do not even know what is meant by a "universal" old lady….
Mr. Emerson delights to build a poem on some nearly forgotten anecdote, or myth, or recorded saying of the wise and great, either in ancient times or the Middle Ages. A sort of misty reference to this theme appears here and there in the verses, and if the reader is lucky enough to remember the anecdote, he may flatter himself that he can see a glimpse of meaning in them. But if unlearned or forgetful, no reference, no direct statement, no charitable foot-note, gives him the least hint of the writer's purpose; all is dark as Erebus. Sometimes, an uncouth Sanscrit, Greek, or German compound word stands as the title of a few verses, and answers the poet's object to puzzle his readers quite delightfully. The contrivance is ingenious, and shows how highly obscurity is prized, and that a book of poetry may almost attain the dignity of a child's book of riddles.
Thus, some lines headed "Alphonso of Castile" seem to be founded on the saying recorded of this king, ironically surnamed "The Wise," that if the Almighty had consulted him at the creation, he would have made a much better universe. A few lines may be quoted from this poem, as a specimen of Mr. Emerson's more familiar style. It begins in this original manner:—
I, Alphonso, live and learn,
Seeing Nature go astern.
Things deteriorate in kind;
Lemons run to leaves and rind;
Meagre crop of figs and limes;
Shorter days and harder times.
After enumerating many other evils and imperfections, equally important in character, the king proceeds to give his advice to the gods in the following choice expressions:—
Hear you, then, celestial fellows!
Fits not to be overzealous;
Steads not to work on the clean jump,
Nor wine nor brains perpetual pump.
Men and gods are too extense;
Could you slacken and condense?
Your rank overgrowths reduce
Till your kinds abound with juice?
The poet probably meant to be satirical, referring to the pragmatical and conceited tone of many foolish busybodies in the affairs of this world. The purpose was well enough; we can only call attention to the neatness and elegance of the machinery contrived for this object, and to the poignancy of his wit.
Another string of rhymes, entitled "Mithridates," seems to be founded on the old myth respecting that monarch, that having discovered a sure antidote, he was able to subsist entirely on the most active poisons. After babbling for a time about dogwood, hemlock, "the prussic juice," and upas boughs, the poet breaks out into the following witty and coherent apostrophe:—
O doleful ghosts, and goblins merry!
O all you virtues, methods,
mights, Means, appliances, delights,
Reputed wrongs and braggart rights,
Smug routine, and things allowed,
Minorities, things under cloud!
Hither! take me, use me, fill me,
Vein and artery, though ye kill me!
God! I will not be an owl,
But sun me in the Capitol.
We commend Mr. Emerson's intention not to be an owl, though when he utters such dismal screeches as these, one may doubt whether the transformation has not already been effected. We never before felt the whole force of Horace's exclamation, aut insanit homo, aut versus facit. Is the man sane who can deliberately commit to print this fantastic nonsense? …
We mean to be fair with the poet. Having read attentively—horresco referens!—the whole book, we affirm that the specimens now laid before our readers fairly represent far the larger portion of it. Here and there, a gleam of light intrudes, and we find brief but striking indications of the talent and feeling which Mr. Emerson unquestionably possesses. But the effect is almost instantly marred by some mystical nonsense, some silly pedantry, an intolerable hitch in rhythm or grammar, or an incredible flatness and meanness of expression. In one of the longer poems, "Monadnoc," one may cull a few single lines, and occasionally a couplet, or a quatrain, of great poetic beauty. But these are like a few costly spices flung into a tub full of dirty and greasy water; they are polluted by the medium in which they float, and one cannot pick them out without soiling his fingers. Here is a couplet containing one of the best, and one of the worst, lines in the piece. The poet, addressing the mountain, exclaims with inimitable bathos,—
The greater part of the poem is made up of such senseless jingle as this:—
For the world was built in order,
And the atoms march in tune;
Rhyme the pipe, and Time the warder,
Cannot forget the sun, the moon.
Orb and atom forth they prance,
When they hear from far the rune;
None so backward in the troop,
When the music and the dance
Reach his place and circumstance,
But knows the sun-creating sound,
And, though a pyramid, will bound.
We can find no nominative to "cannot forget," there is no word to rhyme with "troop," and, in the last four lines, subject and object are mingled in inextricable confusion….
The publication of a volume of such poetry at the present day is a strange phenomenon; but a stranger, still, is the eagerness with which it is received by quite a large circle of neophytes, who look down with pitying contempt on all those who cannot share their admiration of its contents. It is stereotyped, and we hear that one or two thousand copies of it have been sold. How far the taste may be perverted by fashion, prejudice, or the influences of a clique or [the Transcendentalists] school, it is impossible to say; but there must be limits to all corruptions of it which come short of insanity. It is possible to profess admiration which one does not feel; or for the faculties to be so impaired by disease as to become insensible to their appropriate gratifications. The ear may lose its perception of the finest harmonies, the olfactory nerve may no longer be gratified by the most delicious perfumes; these would be mere defects, a loss of the sources of great enjoyment. But we cannot conceive of enjoyments being created of an opposite character. The ear cannot be trained to receive pleasure from discords, nor the sense of smell to enjoy a stench. As with the pleasures of sense, so is it with intellectual gratifications. We may never have acquired a relish for them, or we may lose it by neglect. But one cannot change the nature of things, and derive positive pleasure from that which is distasteful and odious by its original constitution. Incoherency of thought and studied obscurity of expression, an unmeaning jumble of words and a heap of vulgar and incongruous images, cannot, as such, be agreeable objects to contemplate. If praised by a sect, it must be because each one relies on the opinion of his fellows, so that there is not one independent judgment among them. If the hierophant of the sect be a shrewd humorist, it is most likely that he is mocking the weakness of his admirers.
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SOURCE: "Emerson as a Poet," in Harvard Magazine, Volume 1, October, 1855, pp. 422-33.
[In this excerpt from an article appearing in the magazine associated with Emerson's alma mater, Harvard University, the anonymous critic commends Emerson as an intellectual poet whose original verse derives its inspiration from both American nature and Eastern religions. Written eight years after Emerson first published Poems, the critic's positive response reflects the changing attitude toward poetic styles during the 1850s.]
The venerable and historic town of Concord (not Concord, New Hampshire, famous for its small-beer school of politicians) is likely, in addition to its Revolutionary renown as the spot where
to be famous hereafter as the residence of the essayist, poet, popular lecturer, and transcendental philosopher, Emerson, who, whatever may be thought of him by his contemporaries hereabouts, is certainly destined to a permanent and world-wide reputation,—to become a fixed star in that luminous cluster of original thinkers who from their high places exercise a steady and never-waning influence on the intellectual growth of mankind. Concord, Massachusetts, therefore, as the scene of one of the events which inaugurated the American Revolution, and as the home of one of the first intellectual men of the age, is in no particular danger, in the long run, of being eclipsed by its namesake in New Hampshire, though that be the capital of a small State and the home of a small President. However this may be, one thing is certain, that there are few places better adapted to study and the cultivation of letters. Through its meadows and shady intervale lands winds a slow stream, synonymous with the town itself, a stream like the English Ouse or Avon, or the smooth gliding Mincius of classic song, not rapid or turbulent, but with just such a clear and languid current as poets have loved to prose upon from time immemorial….
As a lecturer and prose essayist, Mr. Emerson is even popularly known, that is, to the mass of his countrymen; but as a poet he has found a smaller audience, though a fit one. His verses can never become popular. He cannot therefore cry out with Horace, "profanum vulgus et arceo, " for the mob of people that read with ease (to alter slightly Pope's lines for the sake of adapting it to the times) will never defile his poetry with their vulgar admiration. It will never fly through the mouths of men like Pope's pithy couplets, or Gray's "Elegy," or Longfellow's "Psalm of Life," but it has already secured for itself a select circle of admirers among the highly cultivated and intellectual, and such a circle it will always retain. It is even now frequently quoted by the ablest writers in the leading reviews and periodicals of England and this country. Indeed, we venture to assert that there are few writers of eminence, either in America or Great Britain, who are not perfectly familiar with the products of the Emersonian Muse, with the strange, weird, abstruse notes of the Emersonian lyre. Like the Theban poet Pindar, Emerson, when he wraps his singing robes about him, addresses himself only to the wise. He has many musical shafts in his quiver, but their music is only audible and intelligible "ôoî όοοοΐ. " His poems are as utterly devoid of anything like sentiment or passion as the versified apothegms of the old Greek philosophers and didactic bards. In fact, sentiment and passion, which are ordinarily supposed to be the very soul and essential principle of poetry, he utterly ignores. His best passages have "the sparkle of the spar," but none of the warmth of flesh and blood. They appeal not to the heart, but to pure intellect. He is not of the romantic school of poets. He is entirely free from "dark imaginings" of the Byronic stamp, and from maudlin, lovesick, moon-nursed fantasies. His Muse traffics not in these woes. She haunts "an intellectual bower." Some of his poetical pieces are pearl-like strings of glittering sententiœ, of brilliant and grand thoughts set in a most transparent and crystalline diction. Emerson's poetry, like his prose, is all permeated with emanations from one great central ideal. His peculiar philosophical system, call it by what name you choose, Spinozism, Pantheism, or Transcendentalism, is the master chord of his lyre, as it is the keynote of all his writings, whether in verse or prose. Around this central idea his poetry winds in luxuriant wreaths and festoons, like the leaves and flowers of some gorgeous parasite about a massy trunk. What Emerson's system of philosophy is exactly, it is no easy task to determine…. Whatever it is, Mr. Emerson seems to entertain the most sublime confidence in its entire correctness. He evidently looks upon it as the master-key which unlocks the secrets of the universe and the most hidden recesses and profoundest Domdaniel caverns of Nature. Beyond a doubt, Mr. Emerson has the highest qualifications for a poet. Even his prose itself has in passages the golden rythmus of the most exquisitely modulated versification. He is profoundly learned, not only in printed books, but also in the book of Nature. All the lore of the East and the West is his. He is as familiar with Hafiz and Firdusi, as he is with Homer and Shakespeare; with the sages and philosophers of India, China, Persia, and Arabia, as he is with those of Greece, Rome, Germany, England, and France. He is deeply versed in the lore of plants, stones, and stars. He has looked on Nature with a lover's eye, and pursued her through all her most intricate windings, and learned to interpret her most mysterious symbols. Mr. Emerson is happy in his choice of language, which in his hands is perfectly plastic and flexible. His words are culled and marshalled with the most exquisite taste. Many of his periods are rounded and enamelled to absolute perfection. It used to be fashionable to speak of Emerson as an imitator of the rough, craggy Carlyle. This idea was without doubt engendered by the fact that several of Carlyle's works were published in this country under the supervision of Emerson, and the editor was naturally confounded with his author. Emerson, in fact, is the very opposite of Carlyle both in style of thought and composition. They no more resemble each other as writers than would an Ithuriel and a Caliban in form and feature if matched together.
But there are great inequalities in Emerson's poetry. While he has passages, indeed whole pieces, which are as faultless, flawless, and beautiful as some costly gem, he has others which, to the understanding of the uninitiated reader at least, appear to be mere unmeaning strings of words, vague, hyper-metaphysical formulas, and pure balderdash. They are hard sayings, too hard indeed for the comprehension of any human being except a Dialist. In nearly all Mr. Emerson's poems, it is evident that more is meant than meets the ear and eye. He has an Oriental love of the allegoric and mystical. But above all its other merits his poetry is sui generis, original and his own. It is not the product of any second-hand inspiration, awakened by the works of this or that great poet beyond the water, as is the case with the bulk of American poetry. It is not this or that English or German bard diluted and sophisticated, but genuine, unadulterated Emerson, with an unmistakable smack of the soil of his fatherland about it; for if he has occasion to apostrophize a mountain or river in his verse, he gives a decided preference to Monadnock or the Alleghanies over Olympus and the Alps,—to the beautiful rivers of his native New England, with their wild Indian names, hitherto "unmarried to immortal verse," over the most vaunted streams of the Old World. This is as it should be. But for the most part it is with our poetry as with the wines which we use; both are mere imitations and not natural products, the latter generally consisting of ingenious chemical mixtures, whose rich vinous hue and bouquet and flavor were not imparted by the glowing sun and genial soil of Burgundy, Champagne, and the African Islands, but by artificial perfumes and dye-stuffs. But we have one American vintage, at least, which does not smell of the apothecary-shop, but of the American soil, of the banks of the Ohio. In like manner we have a few poets who do not derive their inspiration from Tennyson or Wordsworth or Browning, or any other European bard, living or dead, but directly from Nature herself. Mr. Emerson's published poems are all included within the limits of a single small volume; but that volume is infinitely suggestive, and contains matter enough, if wire-drawn and reduced, to fill many tomes. In it all the Emersonian prose essays are presented in brief, fused, intensified, and hardened, as it were, into crystals. Virgil himself could not originate a system of philosophy in more honeyed verse. With three or four exceptions, each poem is a chip from a different side of the same block, a variation of the same key-note, a new illustration of one master idea, for there is but one string to Emerson's lyre; but he draws from that solitary chord as many variations as ever did a Paganini. Four, at least, of his poems have become popular, and have been reprinted a thousand times in newspapers, reviews, and specimens of American verse. We allude to the pieces entitled "Good-Bye," "Rhodora," "The Humble-Bee," and "The Problem." These are pure ambrosia. The Good-Bye to the world is worthy of the age of Elizabeth, and might have been penned by a Wotton or Raleigh after they had "sounded all the depths and shoals of honor"; indeed, it reminds one of verses which those great statesmen and scholars actually did write after they had become satiated with the world. The lines to the "Humble-Bee," have been compared to the Allegro and Penseroso of Milton. It seems to breathe the very spirit of the delicious months of May and June. It might have been written upon a bank of violets, fanned by the sweet South, such as the impassioned Duke Orsino speaks of. It is enough in itself to give its author a permanent place in English literature. Anacreon has an ode, and Mr. Leigh Hunt has a sonnet, addressed to the grasshopper, both exquisite in their way, but neither comparable to Emerson's lines on the "yellow-breeched" American insect, the tiny and erratic
Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;
Voyager of light and noon;
Epicurean of June.
When the south wind, in May days,
With a net of shining haze
Silvers the horizon wall,
And, with softness touching all,
Tints the human countenance
With a color of romance,
And, infusing subtle heats,
Turns the sod to violets,
Thou in sunny solitudes,
Rover of the underwoods,
The green silence dost displace,
With thy mellow, breezy bass.
Hot midsummer's petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tone
Tells of countless sunny hours,
Long days, and solid banks of flowers;
Of gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found;
Of Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer, and bird-like pleasure.
The very genius of dreamy May and voluptuous June seems to brood over the above lines. A few such passages would be enough to redeem the character of the American Muse from the charge of barrenness and want of originality. Mr. Emerson looks on nature and the visible universe with the eye of a poet and a man of science both. He is a Wordsworth and Linnaeus combined. New-England scenery is almost as much indebted to him as the lakes and mountain regions of Northern England are to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and De Quincey. Mount Monadnock, since it has been embalmed in Emerson's verse, need not fear to lift its head beside the most vaunted hill visible from Rydal Mount, where not long since lived the great English high-priest of nature. Emerson's "Monadnock" is one of the richest, most suggestive, and picturesque pieces in the language. What Wordsworth called "the power of hills" must have been on him when he wrote it. The tall form of Monadnock towers in his verse with as much majesty as it does in its native heavens, and henceforth is entitled to be ranked with those immemorial mountains of the Old World, renowned in song.
Cheshire's haughty hill
has its poet, too, as well as the giant Swiss mountain, whose shadow glides over the valley of Chamouni. A voice, perhaps of the Genius of Monadnock, summons the poet:
Up!—If thou know'st who calls
To twilight parks of beech and pine,
High over the river intervals,
Above the ploughman's highest line,
Over the owner's farthest walls!
Mr. Emerson's poetry concerns itself but little with human joys or sorrows. His Muse oftenest affects the "heights of abstract contemplation." His religion (for it is on this subject that his Muse chiefly delights to dwell) appears to be borrowed from Plato and the dreamy mystics of the Ganges. The visible universe, with its myriad forms of animal, vegetable, mineral, and impalpable aerial existences, is in his view simply a masquerade of the World-Soul or Godhead, an infinite variation of the eternal unit, a monad which underlies and constitutes everything. God is a vast impersonal, unimpassioned energy merely, a "vivida vis," or creative potency. Man himself, though the highest manifestation of Deity, is, so far as his identity and individual being are concerned, a mere foam-bell, which arises for a moment on the rushing tides of existence, and is quickly reabsorbed into the oceanic essence of Deity….
It seems to us, in our ignorance, not a little singular that Emerson, with his keen intellect, piercing as a Damascus blade, and his upright moral character, could deliberately turn away from what he himself calls
The riches of sweet Mary's son,
Boy-Rabbi, Israel's paragon,
to the altars of a vague, defied abstraction, like the Platonic Zeus or the Oriental Brahma, for such, as near as we can gather, is the God of his idolatry.
But to attempt anything like a careful examination of Emerson's poems within the compass of a short essay would be impossible, for each would furnish matter sufficient for an article. Suffice it to say, that these poems are among the most remarkable contributions to the literature of the present age, and as such they will undoubtedly be regarded by posterity.
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SOURCE: A review of May-Day and Other Pieces, in North American Review, Vol. CCXVI, July, 1867, pp. 325-27.
[Norton, an editor of leading journals during the 1860s and a professor at Harvard University for twenty-five years, wrote internationally reknowned literary and social criticism and historical essays that produced a wide cultural influence. In this excerpt, he praises Emerson's second book of poetry by expressing a willingness to accept Emerson's uneven poetic style as a minor flaw in light of the greater contribution made by Emerson's moral and spiritual themes.]
In the exquisite poem in this volume [May-Day and Other Pieces] called "Terminus" Mr. Emerson speaks of himself as one who
Obeys the voice at eve obeyed at prime.
He has, indeed, unquestioned right thus to speak of himself, for he has been true, as few men ever were, to the voice of his own genius, and his obedience has been to him both inspiration and power. Many years ago he said of the poet: "He is isolated among his contemporaries, by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later." And in his own experience he has had proof of this assertion. He has had the happiness of living long enough to see his contemporaries, those at least of the younger generation, drawing to him, and acknowledging him as one of those
His first volume of poems and his last, with twenty-one years' interval between them, are in the same key of harmony, and are expressions of the same voice. The first has some tones of youth, some fervors of imagination which are not found in the last, but their place is supplied by the clearer accents and composed strength of mature life. They are both alike the sincere utterances of a strongly marked and individual genius, and both in striking contrast to the popular poetry of the day.
The character of Mr. Emerson's genius is such that its expressions are not, and are not likely to become, in a strict sense, popular. He addresses a select audience, composed of those who like himself hold to their ideals, and have faith in the worth and efficacy of ideas. He speaks to the few, but those few are the masters of the world. As a poet he belongs to the small band of moral poets, of those whose power lies not in imagination as applied to the affairs and interests of men, not in fertility of fancy or in range of conception, but in the perception of the moral and spiritual relations of man to the nature which encompasses him, of the moral and spiritual laws which are symbolized by that nature, and of the universal truths which underlie the forms of existence, and co-ordinate the varieties of human experience. There is little passion in his poetry; passion is in its nature selfish; the emotions which his verses express are seldom personal. The events of life are as nothing to the poet as compared to the ideas which possess his soul. Very few of his poems have a lyrical quality; not one of them is truly dramatic. Men are little to him; man and nature, everything.
Idealist as he is, it is not strange that at times he shows himself the mystic. It is by inspiration, and not by reason, that he is guided, and he has no test of the quality of his inspiration. It may be a revelation of light; it may be an apocalypse of darkness. But poetry and mysticism have nothing properly in common. True poetry is neither a riddle, nor an illusion, and true inspiration is always rational. The inconceivable is as much beyond the reach of intuition as of reason. The vein of mysticism in Mr. Emerson's genius is doubtless the more conspicuous from the comparative subordination in his nature of the artistic to the speculative element. The essence of art lies in definiteness of conception. The artist is he who can perfectly exhibit his idea in form; and excellence of form—whether in line, color, rhythm, or harmony—gives universality and permanence to the work of art. Perfect form is abstract, imperishable, archetypal; and he is the greatest artist who clothes ideas in the most nearly perfect form. Mr. Emerson, idealist as he is, too often pays little regard to this ideal form, and puts his thought into inharmonious verse. His poems are for the most part more fitted to invigorate the moral sense, than to delight the artistic. At times, indeed, he is singularly felicitous in expression, and some of his verses both charm and elevate the soul. These rarer verses will live in the memories of men. No poet is surer of immortality than Mr. Emerson, but the greater part of his poetry will be read, not so much for its artistic as for its moral worth.
The poem which gives its title to the new volume, "May-Day," is a poem of spring,—a collection of beautiful praises and descriptions of our New England May, written by a lover of Nature, to whom she has told many of her secrets, and whom she has cheered with her smile. It is full of the new wine of the year; of the gladness, the comfort, and the purity of the gay season of youth and love. The next poem, "The Adirondacks," is of a different sort, save in its familiarity with nature, and reads like an American episode out of the best part of Wordsworth's "Prelude." Among the Occasional and Miscellaneous Poems which make up the rest of the volume are many already known to the lovers of the best poetry, and which, now collected, will be among the choicest flowers of the most select anthology. We need but name "Voluntaries," "Days," "My Garden," "Sea-shore," "Two Rivers," "Terminus," "The Past," to show what rare treasures this little volume holds.
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SOURCE: A review of May-Day and Other Pieces, in Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 20, September, 1867, pp. 376-78.
[Howells, one of the most popular novelists of the late nineteenth century, was an editor of Atlantic Monthly for fifteen years. In this excerpt Howells praises selections from Emerson's second book of poetry and states that Emerson's poetry, while challenging, offers great intellectual rewards.]
We wonder whether those who take up Mr. Emerson's poem now, amid the glories of the fading summer, are not giving the poet a fairer audience than those who hurried to hear his song in the presence of the May he celebrates. As long as spring was here, he had a rival in every reader; for then we all felt ourselves finer poets than ever sang of the season, and did not know that our virtue was but an effect of Spring herself,—an impression, not an expression of her loveliness, which must pass with her. Now, when the early autumn is in every sense, and those days when the year first awoke to consciousness have grown so far away, we must perceive that no one has yet been allowed to speak so well for the spring of our New World as this poet. The very irregularity of Mr. Emerson's poem seems to be part of its verisimilitude, and it appears as if all the pauses and impulses and mysterious caprices of the season—which fill the trees with birds before blossoms, and create the soul of sweetness and beauty in the May-flowers under the dead leaves of the woodlands, while the meadows are still bare and brown—had so entered into this song, that it could not emulate the deliberation and consequence of art. The "May-Day" is to the critical faculty a succession of odes on Spring, celebrating now one aspect and now another, and united only by their title; yet since an entire idea of spring is evolved from them, and they awaken the same emotions that the youth of the year stirs in us, we must accept the result as something undeniably great and good. Of course, we can complain of the way in which it is brought about, just as we can upbraid the New England climate, though its uncertain and desultory April and May give us at last the most beautiful June weather in the world.
The poem is not one that invites analysis, though it would be easy enough to instance striking merits and defects. Mr. Emerson, perhaps, more than any other modern poet, gives the notion of inspiration; so that one doubts, in reading him, how much to praise or blame. The most exquisite effects seem not to have been invited, but to have sought production from his unconsciousness; graces alike of thought and of touch seem the unsolicited gifts of the gods. Even the doubtful quality of occasional lines confirms this impression of unconsciousness. One cannot believe that the poet would wittingly write,
Boils the world in tepid lakes,
for this statement has, for all that the reader can see to the contrary, the same value with him as that preceding verse, telling how the waxing heat
Lends the reed and lily length,
wherein the very spirit of summer seems to sway and droop.
Yet it is probable that no utterance is more considered than this poet's, and that no one is more immediately responsible than he. We must attribute to the most subtile and profound consciousness the power that can trace with such tenderness and beauty the alliance he has shown between earth and humanity in the exultation of spring, and which can make matter of intellectual perception the mute sympathies that seemed to perish with childhood …
Among the other poems in this volume, it appears to us that "The Romany Girl," "Voluntaries," and "The Boston Hymn" are in their widely different ways the best. The last expresses, with a sublime colloquiality in which the commonest words of every-day parlance seem cut anew, and are made to shine with a fresh and novel lustre the idea and destiny of America. In "Voluntaries" our former great peril and delusion—the mortal Union which lived by slavery—is at first the theme, with the strong pulse of prophecy, however, in the mournful music. Few motions of rhyme so win and touch as those opening lines,—
Low and mournful be the strain,
Haughty thought be far from me;
Tones of penitence and pain,
Moanings of the tropic sea,—
in which the poet, with a hardly articulate sorrow, regards the past ….
It is, of course, a somewhat Emersonian Gypsy that speaks in "The Romany Girl," but still she speaks with the passionate, sudden energy of a woman, and flashes upon the mind with intense vividness the conception of a wild nature's gleeful consciousness of freedom, and exultant scorn of restraint and convention. All sense of sylvan health and beauty is uttered when this Gypsy says,—
The wild air bloweth in our lungs,
The keen stars twinkle in our eyes,
The birds gave us our wily tongues,
The panther in our dances flies.
"Terminus" has a wonderful didactic charm, and must be valued as one of the noblest introspective poems in the language. The poet touches his reader by his acceptance of fate and age, and his serene trust of the future, and yet is not moved by his own pathos.
We do not regard the poem "The Adirondacks" as of great absolute or relative value. It is one of the prosiest in the book, and for a professedly out-of-doors poem has too much of the study in it. Let us confess also that we have not yet found pleasure in "The Elements," and that we do not expect to live long enough to enjoy some of them. "Quatrains" have much the same forbidding qualities, and have chiefly interested us in the comparison they suggest with the translations from the Persian: it is curious to find cold Concord and warm Ispahan in the same latitude. Others of the briefer poems have delighted us. "Rubies," for instance, is full of exquisite lights and hues, thoughts and feelings; and "The Test" is from the heart of the severe wisdom without which art is not. Everywhere the poet's felicity of expression appears; a fortunate touch transfuses some dark enigma with color; the riddles are made to shine when most impenetrable; the puzzles are all constructed of gold and ivory and precious stones.
Mr. Emerson's intellectual characteristics and methods are so known that it is scarcely necessary to hint that this is not a book for instant absorption into any reader's mind. It shall happen with many, we fancy, that they find themselves ready for only two or three things in it, and that they must come to it in widely varying moods for all it has to give. No greater wrong could be done to the poet than to go through his book running, and he would be apt to revenge himself upon the impatient reader by leaving him all the labor involved in such a course, and no reward at the end for his pains.
But the case is not a probable one. People either read Mr. Emerson patiently and earnestly, or they do not read him at all. In this earnest nation he enjoys a far greater popularity than criticism would have augured for one so unflattering to the impulses that have heretofore and else-where made readers of poetry; and it is not hard to believe, if we believe in ourselves for the future, that he is destined to an ever-growing regard and fame. He makes appeal, however mystically, only to what is fine and deep and true and noble in men, and no doubt those who have always loved his poetry have reason to be proud of their pleasure in it. Let us of the present be wise enough to accept thankfully what genius gives us in its double character of bard and prophet, saying, when we enjoy the song, "Ah, this is the poet that now sings!" and when the meaning is dark, "Now we have the seer again!"
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2812
SOURCE: "Emerson's Poems," in Ralph Waldo Emerson/John Lothrop Motley: Two Memoirs, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899, pp. 239-64.
[Holmes, a contemporary of Emerson's, was a famous medical doctor and fellow writer. In the following excerpt, Holmes discusses Emerson's poetry by comparing Emerson to the great writers throughout history, ranking Emerson highly for the moral statements he makes in symbolic terms but also criticizing him slightly for the unevenness of his poetic rhythm.]
… The difference between Emerson's poetry and that of the contemporaries with whom he would naturally be compared is that of algebra and arithmetic. He deals largely in general symbols, abstractions, and infinite series. He is always seeing the universal in the particular. The great multitude of mankind care more for two and two, something definite, a fixed quantity, than for a + b's and x2's,—symbols used for undetermined amounts and indefinite possibilities. Emerson is a citizen of the universe who has taken up his residence for a few days and nights in this travelling caravansary between the two inns that hang out the signs of Venus and Mars. This little planet could not provincialize such a man. The multiplication-table is for the every-day use of every-day earth-people, but the symbols he deals with are too vast, sometimes, we must own, too vague, for the unilluminated terrestrial and arithmetical intelligence. One cannot help feeling that he might have dropped in upon us from some remote centre of spiritual life, where, instead of addition and subtraction, children were taught quaternions, and where the fourth dimension of space was as familiarly known to everybody as a foot-measure or a yard-stick is to us. Not that he himself dealt in the higher or the lower mathematics, but he saw the hidden spiritual meaning of things as Professor Cayley or Professor Sylvester see the meaning of their mysterious formulæ. Without using the Rosetta-stone of Swedenborg, Emerson finds in every phenomenon of nature a hieroglyphic. Others measure and describe the monuments,—he reads the sacred inscriptions. How alive he makes Monadnoc! Dinocrates undertook to "hew Mount Athos to the shape of man" in the likeness of Alexander the Great. Without the help of tools or workmen Emerson makes "Cheshire's haughty hill" stand before us an impersonation of kingly humanity, and talk with us as a god from Olympus might have talked. This is the fascination of Emerson's poetry; it moves in a world of universal symbolism. The sense of the infinite fills it with its majestic presence. It shows, also, that he has a keen delight in the every-day aspects of nature. But he looks always with the eye of a poet, never with that of the man of science. The law of association of ideas is wholly different in the two. The scientific man connects objects in sequences and series, and in so doing is guided by their collective resemblances. His aim is to classify and index all that he sees and contemplates so as to show the relations which unite, and learn the laws that govern, the subjects of his study. The poet links the most remote objects together by the slender filament of wit, the flowery chain of fancy, or the living, pulsating cord of imagination, always guided by his instinct for the beautiful. The man of science clings to his object, as the marsupial embryo to its teat, until he has filled himself as full as he can hold; the poet takes a sip of his dew-drop, throws his head up like a chick, rolls his eyes around in contemplation of the heavens above him and the universe in general, and never thinks of asking a Linnaean question as to the flower that furnished him his dew-drop. The poetical and scientific natures rarely coexist; Haller and Goethe are examples which show that such a union may occur, but as a rule the poet is contented with the colors of the rainbow and leaves the study of Fraunhofer's lines to the man of science.
Though far from being a man of science, Emerson was a realist in the best sense of that word. But his realities reached to the highest heavens; like Milton,
He passed the flaming bounds of place and time;
The living throne, the sapphire blaze
Where angels tremble while they gaze,
Everywhere his poetry abounds in celestial imagery. If Galileo had been a poet as well as an astronomer, he would hardly have sowed his verse thicker with stars than we find them in the poems of Emerson.
Not less did Emerson clothe the common aspects of life with the colors of his imagination. He was ready to see beauty everywhere:—
Thou canst not wave thy staff in air,
Or dip thy paddle in the lake,
But it carves the bow of beauty there,
And the ripples in rhyme the oar forsake.
He called upon the poet to
Tell men what they knew before;
Paint the prospect from their door.
And his practice was like his counsel. He saw our plain New England life with as honest New England eyes as ever looked at a huckleberry-bush or into a milking-pail.
This noble quality of his had its dangerous side. In one of his exalted moods he would have us
Give to barrows, trays and pans
Grace and glimmer of romance.
But in his lecture on Poetry and Imagination, he says:—
What we once admired as poetry has long since come to be a sound of tin pans; and many of our later books we have outgrown. Perhaps Homer and Milton will be tin pans yet.
The "grace and glimmer of romance" which were to invest the tin pan are forgotten, and he uses it as a belittling object for comparison. He himself was not often betrayed into the mistake of confounding the prosaic with the poetical, but his followers, so far as the "realists" have taken their hint from him, have done it most thoroughly. Mr. Whitman enumerates all the objects he happens to be looking at as if they were equally suggestive to the poetical mind, furnishing his reader a large assortment on which he may exercise the fullest freedom of selection. It is only giving him the same liberty that Lord Timothy Dexter allowed his readers in the matter of punctuation, by leaving all stops out of his sentences, and printing at the end of his book a page of commas, semicolons, colons, periods, notes of interrogation and exclamation, with which the reader was expected to "pepper" the pages as he might see fit.
French realism does not stop at the tin pan, but must deal with the slop-pail and the wash-tub as if it were literally true that
In the mud and scum of things
There alway, alway something sings.
Happy were it for the world if M. Zola and his tribe would stop even there; but when they cross the borders of science into its infected districts, leaving behind them the reserve and delicacy which the genuine scientific observer never forgets to carry with him, they disgust even those to whom the worst scenes they describe are too wretchedly familiar. The true realist is such a man as Parent du Chatelet; exploring all that most tries the senses and the sentiments, and reporting all truthfully, but soberly, chastely, without needless circumstance, or picturesque embellishment, for a useful end, and not for a mere sensational effect.
What a range of subjects from "The Problem" and "Uriel" and "Forerunners" to "The Humble-Bee" and "The Titmouse"! Nor let the reader who thinks the poet must go far to find a fitting theme fail to read the singularly impressive home-poem, "Hamatreya," beginning with the names of the successive owners of a piece of land in Concord,—probably the same he owned after the last of them,—
Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,
and ending with the austere and solemn 'Earth-Song."
Full of poetical feeling, and with a strong desire for poetical expression, Emerson experienced a difficulty in the mechanical part of metrical composition. His muse picked her way as his speech did in conversation and in lecturing. He made desperate work now and then with rhyme and rhythm, showing that though a born poet he was not a born singer. Think of making "feeble" rhyme with "people," "abroad" with "Lord," and contemplate the following couplet which one cannot make rhyme without actual verbicide:—
Where feeds the moose, and walks the surly bear,
And up the tall mast runs the woodpeck
And how could prose go on all-fours more unmetrically than this?
It was surely not difficult to say—
At morn or, noon bare-headed rows the guide.
And yet while we note these blemishes, many of us will confess that we like his uncombed verse better, oftentimes, than if it were trimmed more neatly and disposed more nicely. When he is at his best, his lines flow with careless ease, as a mountain stream tumbles, sometimes rough and sometimes smooth, but all the more interesting for the rocks it runs against and the grating of the pebbles it rolls over.
There is one trick of verse which Emerson occasionally, not very often, indulges in. This is the crowding of a redundant syllable into a line. It is a liberty which is not to be abiised by the poet. Shakespeare, the supreme artist, and Milton, the "mighty-mouth'd inventor of harmonies," knew how to use it effectively. Shelley employed it freely. Bryant indulged in it occasionally, and wrote an article in an early number of The North American Review in defence of its use. Willis was fond of it. As a relief to monotony it may be now and then allowed,—may even have an agreeable effect in breaking the monotony of too formal verse. But it may easily become a deformity and a cause of aversion. A humpback may add picturesqueness to a procession, but if there are too many humpbacks in line we turn away from the sight of them. Can any ear reconcile itself to the last of these three lines of Emerson's?
Oh, what is Heaven but the fellowship
Of minds that each can stand against the world
By its own meek and incorruptible will?
These lines that lift their backs up in the middle—spanworm lines, we may call them—are not to be commended for common use because some great poets have now and then admitted them. They have invaded some of our recent poetry as the canker-worms gather on our elms in June. Emerson has one or two of them here and there, but they never swarm on his leaves so as to frighten us away from their neighborhood.
As for the violently artificial rhythms and rhymes which have reappeared of late in English and American literature, Emerson would as soon have tried to ride three horses at once in a circus as to shut himself up in triolets, or attempt any cat's-cradle tricks of rhyming sleight of hand….
It would be a pleasant and not a difficult task to trace the resemblances between Emerson's poetry and that of other poets….
In his contemplative study of Nature he reminds us of Wordsworth, at least in certain brief passages, but he has not the staying power of that long-breathed, not to say long-winded, lover of landscapes. Both are on the most intimate terms with Nature, but Emerson contemplates himself as belonging to her, while Wordsworth feels as if she belonged to him.
Good-bye, proud world,
recalls Spenser and Raleigh. "The Humble-Bee" is strongly marked by the manner and thought of Marvell. Marvell's
Annihilating all that's made
To a green thought in a green shade
may well have suggested Emerson's
The green silence dost displace
With thy mellow, breezy bass.
"The Snow-Storm" naturally enough brings to mind the descriptions of Thomson and of Cowper, and fragment as it is, it will not suffer by comparison with either.
"Woodnotes," one of his best poems, has passages that might have been found in Milton's "Comus;" this, for instance:—
All constellations of the sky
Shed their virtue through his eye.
Him Nature giveth for defence
His formidable innocence.
Of course his Persian and Indian models betray themselves in many of his poems, some of which, called translations, sound as if they were original.
So we follow him from page to page and find him passing through many moods, but with one pervading spirit:—
Melting matter into dreams,
Panoramas which I saw,
And whatever glows or seems
Into substance, into Law.
We think in reading his "Poems" of these words of Sainte-Beuve:—
The greatest poet is not he who had done the best; it is he who suggests the most; he, not all of whose meaning is at first obvious, and who leaves you much to desire, to explain, to study; much to complete in your turn.
Just what he shows himself in his prose, Emerson shows himself in his verse. Only when he gets into rhythm and rhyme he lets us see more of his personality, he ventures upon more audacious imagery, his flight is higher and swifter, his brief crystalline sentences have dissolved and pour in continuous streams. Where they came from, or whither they flow to empty themselves, we cannot always say,—it is enough to enjoy them as they flow by us.
Incompleteness—want of beginning, middle, and end—is their too common fault. His pages are too much like those artists' studios all hung round with sketches and "bits" of scenery. "The Snow-Storm" and "Sea-Shore" are "bits" out of a landscape that was never painted, admirable, so far as they go, but forcing us to ask, "Where is the painting for which these scraps are studies?" or "Out of what great picture have these pieces been cut?"
We do not want his fragments to be made wholes,—if we did, what hand could be found equal to the task? We do not want his rhythms and rhymes smoothed and made more melodious. They areas honest as Chaucer's, and we like them as they are, not modernized or manipulated by any versifying drill-sergeant,—if we wanted them reshaped whom could we trust to meddle with them?
His poetry is elemental; it has the rock beneath it in the eternal laws on which it rests; the roll of deep waters in its grander harmonies; its air is full of Æsolian strains that waken and die away as the breeze wanders over them; and through it shines the white starlight, and from time to time flashes a meteor that startles us with its sudden brilliancy.
After all our criticisms, our selections, our analyses, our comparisons, we have to recognize that there is a charm in Emerson's poems which cannot be defined any more than the fragrance of a rose or a hyacinth,—any more than the tone of a voice which we should know from all others if all mankind were to pass before us, and each of its articulating representatives should call us by name.
All our crucibles and alembics leave unaccounted for the great mystery of style. "The style is of [a part of] the man himself," said Buffon, and this saying has passed into the stronger phrase, "The style is the man."
The "personal equation" which differentiates two observers is not confined to the tower of the astronomer. Every human being is individualized by a new arrangement of elements. His mind is a safe with a lock to which only certain letters are the key. His ideas follow in an order of their own. His words group themselves together in special sequences, in peculiar rhythms, in unlooked-for combinations, the total effect of which is to stamp all that he says or writes with his individuality. We may not be able to assign the reason of the fascination the poet we have been considering exercises over us. But this we can say, that he lives in the highest atmosphere of thought; that he is always in the presence of the infinite, and ennobles the accidents of human existence so that they partake of the absolute and eternal while he is looking at them; that he unites a royal dignity of manner with the simplicity of primitive nature; that his words and phrases arrange themselves, as if by an elective affinity of their own, with a curiosa felicitas which captivates and enthrals the reader who comes fully under its influence, and that through all he sings as in all he says for us we recognize the same serene, high, pure intelligence and moral nature, infinitely precious to us, not only in themselves, but as a promise of what the transplanted life, the air and soil and breeding of this western world may yet educe from their potential virtues, shaping themselves, at length, in a literature, as much its own as the Rocky Mountains and the Mississippi.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2590
SOURCE: "Poems," in Emerson: Poet and Thinker, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1904, pp. 205-20.
[In this excerpt Cary, a professional journalist-biographer, praises Emerson's poetry, finding it equal to William Wordsworth's in its "moral purpose." To Cary, Emerson epitomizes America's mid-nineteenth century call for poets to fulfill an organic ideal of verse.]
Emerson delayed until 1847 the first edition of his poems, "uncertain always," he wrote to his brother, whether he had "one true spark of that fire which burns in verse." It is not probable that to-day any critic of importance could be found to share his doubt. Whatever may be said of his prose there is one thing that must be said by all men of his poetry, that it is the expression of a poet. We may search for lines that do not scan, for endings that do not rhyme, for a metre that does not flow or march or sing, for dialect and colloquialism, intricacy of diction, and grammatical inversion. We may find any or all of these and we shall not have disturbed by a hair's breadth our inner knowledge that we have been pecking and quibbling over the loveliest product of our national life. "It is his greatest glory as a poet," Dr. Garnett wrote in his account of Emerson, "to have been the harbinger of distinctively American poetry to America." Possibly: but it is not our least glory as a nation that thus early in our literature one poet could make our wilderness blossom like the rose, and we may hope that somewhere the blessed seed lies waiting for his successor, not yet within the field of vision.
We may well enough doubt, however, if Emerson's poetry is ever to be popular poetry. The American people would have fulfilled a high ideal of democracy indeed were that to come about. Every poem is charged with thought and thinking is not popular. But every poem also is an example of Emerson's own theory that poetry is "the perpetual endeavour to express the spirit of the thing," and it is the presence of the spirit, penetrating and informing the thought, that makes Emerson's poetry permanently buoyant. The intellectual element strong as it is in it is borne upward in the flight of powerful sentiment. At one time his essays, so pellucid in their crystallised illustrations, were considered recondite and abstruse, and at the same time his poetry was said to be filled with unintelligible expressions. The day of "popular science" has since arrived, and the popularisation of subjects formerly reserved for the learned is now so extended that one may go far to encounter readers in difficulty over Emerson's erudite allusions. One of his early public was heard not long ago to complain that the "Threnody," beautiful though it was, contained passages of mysticism too complicated for his understanding. But one rereading discovered the fact that while the noble and tender emotion retained its power to fill the eyes with tears, the darkness had become light and not a line of obscurity interrupted the mood of exalted resignation induced by the poet's acquiescence in the harmony of natural laws.
It is then easily conceivable that to the larger number of educated men and women who read poetry, that of Emerson will be continually satisfying. It is inspired by the conviction that in no other way can truth be spoken, a conviction always potent to move sincere minds. And it is raised infinitely above prose by its delicate sensitiveness to suggestion in place of dogma. "God himself does not speak prose, but communicates with us by hints, omens, inference, and dark resemblances in objects lying all around us." Moreover it is essentially the voice of the age and country to which it belongs in its brevity and concentration. "Poetry teaches the enormous force of a few words, and in proportion to the inspiration checks loquacity." There indeed spoke the American, the man of all men to whom ennui is terrible, and diffuse sentiment ridiculous. If the soul is to be revealed there must be no long preamble to the overwhelming vision, and if we are not stirred beyond the possibility of expansive comment we have not seen. This terseness of description has, of course, its defect. It seldom conveys the sense of sweet leisure and the quiet influence of natural objects. In this stanza from "Saadi" its least fortunate aspect is shown, the abruptness of the images having no special fitness to the subject:
Trees in groves,
Kine in droves,
In ocean sport the scaly herds,
Wedge-like cleave the air the birds,
To northern lakes fly wind-borne ducks,
Browse the mountain sheep in flocks,
Men consort in camp and town,
But the poet dwells alone.
There is, too, a certain harshness of measure in many of his poems to which our generation responds more readily than the previous one, no doubt, but which is too suggestive of conscious revolution against the insipid melody of much of the poetry of his own day.
The kingly bard
Must smite the chords rudely and hard,
As with hammer or with mace,
he announces in "Merlin," and his intention to make "each word a poem," to fill each word with significance, has sometimes given his vocabulary an excess of substance which it takes all the free strong movement of his thought to carry. And it is true that he seldom used any but the simplest pattern in his constructions. Octosyllabic and decasyllabic lines satisfied his idea of "fit quantity of syllables" for the most part, and metrical intricacy had no charm for him. But to consider him therefore monotonous or unskilled in producing the effects of art is to judge him superficially. Many are his devices, when the ear is at the point of missing the prick of novelty, to seize its attention and renew its interest. Note, for example, how delightfully the slightly irregular jog-trot of the first stanza of the "Ode to Beauty" breaks in the second stanza into a pacing measure conveying the very essence of blithe emotion that maketh the heart glad without reason:
I drank at thy fountain
False waters of thirst;
Thou intimate stranger,
Thou latest and first!
Thy dangerous glances
Make women of men
New-born, we are melting
Into nature again.
Lavish, lavish promiser,
Nigh persuading gods to err!
Guest of million painted forms
Which in turn thy glory warms!
The frailest leaf, the mossy bark,
The acorn's cup, the rainbow's arc,
The swinging spider's silver line
The ruby of the drop of wine.
But it would be a difficult matter to analyse Emerson's prosody. He has at least the happy skill to dispose the stress in his lines where it will emphasise the meaning and he does this without regard to arbitrary rules. The result is sometimes rocky syllables that forbid the climbing voice its progress….
Certain mannerisms occur in his poems sometimes as irritating defects, sometimes as quaint ornament suited to the individual style; and grammatical eccentricities are not lacking.
In the lines so often quoted by dismayed critics,—
The fiend that man harries
Is love of the best;
it is certainly open to the reader to place the accusative where he will, but these lines can hardly be called representative. Even where equally forced inversion occurs elsewhere the meaning is seldom obscured by it. Another peculiarity which gives an air of mediaevalism disliked by exacting critics is the division into two syllables of the ending "ion" and similar endings. But there is nothing really fixed or formal in the poems to give the dialectic mind its opportunity. The description in "Merlin" of the true poet takes the precise outline of Emerson's muse:
Great is the art,
Great be the manners of the bard.
He shall not his brain encumber
With the coil of rhythm and number,
But, leaving rule and pale forethought,
He shall aye climb
For his rhyme.
"Pass in, pass in," the angels say,
"In to the upper doors,
Nor count compartments of the floors,
But mount to paradise
By the stairway of surprise."
Surprise is a characteristic element in the larger number of the poems. It piques the imagination and startles the indolent mind, suggesting old truths by fresh figures of speech and furnishing new points of view for poetic thinkers. This perhaps is to be expected in the work of a writer bent upon discarding outworn formulas and the conventions of prosy civilisations. What is remarkable is the extreme beauty of metaphor, paradox, and symbol. It is comparatively easy to be unexpected and nothing is cheaper than the effect when gained merely by the use of unconventional material in language or thought. But beauty, as Emerson knew well, demands an integral idea beneath individual phrases, it demands the curve and balance of interior harmony, a structural expression pervading and accounting for all seeming eccentricity. This first essential was never out of his mind. All his varied rhetoric is chosen to emphasise the unity of man with God and with Nature. Against this noble background his most brilliant colours melt into harmony, his crudest forms appear majestic or at least organic….
Emerson's care to preserve the key-note of joy in being led him frequently to choose epithets with the special aim of suggesting mirth and glee, riotous rejoicing on the part of tree, hill, or planet. The "sportive sun," the World-Soul with cheeks that "mantle with mirth," and Nature "gamesome and good," "merry and manifold," laugh through his poems; "The throbbing sea, the quaking earth, Yield sympathy and signs of mirth," the river is cheerful, the rills are gay, the mystic seasons dance, Love "laughs and on a lion rides," the Spring is merry, the rainbow smiles in showers, and the poet is "Blameless master of the games, King of sport that never shames." Seldom has any such body of verse been so gaily grave, so full at once of dignity and spontaneous joyousness, so eloquent of the spirit which he finds in his forests—
… sober on a fund of joy
The woods at heart are glad.
It is, no doubt, as the outcome of this rich delight in the healthy aspects of nature, that he so often personifies natural objects and brings them into his poetry as living, warm companions, speaking his familiar language, but, instead of sharing his mood, imposing their own mood, a quite different matter from the "pathetic fallacy." Nature herself frequently appears as a beautiful caressing goddess, shedding smiles and friendliness as she walks the earth among her children. What a free charm is in this careless couplet of that chapter in the Poems headed by her name:
But Nature whistled with all her winds,
Did as she pleased and went her way!
… Emerson's lighter poems not seldom reveal a childlike eagerness to learn the pleasant minor lessons of the outdoor world, and he is not his least poetic self when he is apostrophising the "burly dozing humble bee" or the blackberries of his pasture, "Ethiops sweet," but it is when he is making pictures or thinking in music that he rises to heights of poetic style. Nothing that he wrote combines excellent form with high feeling and beautiful imagery more satisfyingly than the austere and vivid lines on "Days" beginning:
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
This stanza of eleven lines is of an exquisite and noble loveliness which has hardly been surpassed in English verse, never in the verse of Emerson's immediate contemporaries and successors. Its mate in pictorial words, delicate reserve, and imaginative power is "The Rhodora" in which the simplicity of Emerson's deepest thought similes frankly in our faces from his blossoming New England solitudes. These two poems are types of his truest inspiration, embodying as they do his fervent sense of moral responsibility and his bright freedom from didactic moralising. It was while he strolled musing near the haunts of his fair Rhodora that he attained the curious spiritual passion or ecstasy to which at certain moments Nature inspired him; the upspringing of these central fires of feeling which he thanks the God Pan for keeping in control:
Haply else we could not live,
Life would be too wild an ode.
At these moments his pure-minded Bacchus pours "the remembering wine" and fulfils his prayer that he
Refresh the faded tints,
Recut the aged prints,
And write my old adventures with the pen
Which on the first day drew
Upon the tablets blue,
The dancing Pleiads and eternal men.
At these moments he is more the poet of energy, to adopt Matthew Arnold's phraseology, than Wordsworth in his most soaring flight, than Arnold himself at any instant. Mr. Brownell, Arnold's most discerning critic, has said of the latter that he is the poet par excellence of feeling that is legitimated by the tribunal of reason, and he finds his poetry "admirably representative of the combined thought and feeling of the era." "But," he adds of his genius, "it is a reflective and philosophic genius, and accordingly its sincerest poetical expression savours a little of statement rather than of song." It is the opposite of this quality in Emerson's most rapturous poems that presses home the conviction of his essentially poetic genius despite flaw and limitation. Reason is not to him a faculty by which imagination is restrained or crippled; it is the ether in which float all consoling and radiant thoughts, flowing into the human mind from the region of perfect bliss….
Arnold found Wordsworth's superiority in the fact that he dealt with more of life than Burns or Keats or Heine, and dealt with life as a whole more powerfully. If this is true of Wordsworth, as indisputably it is, it is true of Emerson who equally with Wordsworth pursued one object, to "attain inward freedom, serenity, happiness, contentment." Those who have found his poetry fragmentary can hardly have felt in it this moral unity. Already he has his expositors, from whom we learn that his "Brahma" for example, sums up the burden of the Bhagavad's philosophy, and that his reference to the wheel "on which all beings ride" has its origin in the Rig Veda of the Hindoos, and that "the starred eternal worm" may be identified with the stupendous serpent-god of the Hindoos, and we are told how much of his philosophy he has drawn from the East and how much his poetry is steeped in Eastern feeling, but all this seems very far aside from his real poetic achievement. His real poetic achievement lies outside of his borrowings from Eastern religions although this borrowing was characteristically the outcome of his truly poetic desire to unite the deep thought of the world. His real poetic achievement has its source in his power to penetrate the shows of things and reveal their essence. We cannot ignore his poetry because like that of Wordsworth it deals with reality, with the most real of all realities, the indestructible soul of man. If "how to live" is indeed, as Arnold has said, the important teaching of the greatest poets, and if no more than this is needed, we may class Emerson among them without fear, for if we do not learn from his poetry so far as may be learned from any exterior teaching, how to maintain within ourselves the strength of hope and serene intelligent trust and indomitable moral purpose, we are incapable of feeling the "balm of thoughtful words."
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SOURCE: "A Puritan Plus Poetry," in Companionable Books, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1922, pp. 335-55.
[In the following excerpt, Van Dyke emphasizes Emerson's ability to describe the beauty of nature and to spark the reader's imagination.]
… [Emerson's] prose is better known and more admired than his verse, for several reasons: first, because he took more pains to make the form of it as perfect as he could; second, because it has a wider range and an easier utterance; third, because it has more touches of wit and of familiarity with the daily doings of men; and finally, because the majority of readers probably prefer prose for silent reading, since the full charm of good verse is revealed only in reading aloud.
But for all that, with Emerson, (as with a writer so different as Matthew Arnold,) I find something in the poems which is not in the essays,—a more pure and subtle essence of what is deepest in the man. Poetry has a power of compression which is beyond prose. It says less and suggests more.
Emerson wrote to the girl whom he afterwards married: "I am born a poet,—of a low class without doubt, but a poet…. 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 them." This is penetrating self-criticism. That he was "of a low class" as poet is more than doubtful,—an error of modesty. But that his singing was often "husky" cannot be denied. He never troubled himself to learn the art of song. The music of verse, in which Longfellow gained such mastery, and Lowell and Whittier had such native gifts, is not often found in Emerson's poetry. His measures rarely flow with freedom and harmony. They are alternately stiff and spasmodic, and the rhymes are sometimes threadbare, sometimes eccentric. Many of his poems are so condensed, so tight-packed with thought and information that they seem to labour along like an overladen boat in a choppy sea. For example, this:
Puny man and scentless rose
Tormenting Pan to double the dose.
But for these defects of form Emerson as poet makes ample amends by the richness and accuracy of his observation of nature, by the vigorous flight of his imagination, by the depth and at times the passionate controlled intensity of his feeling. Of love-poetry he has none, except the philosophical. Of narrative poetry he has practically none, unless you count such brief, vivid touches as,—
But his descriptive pieces are of a rare beauty and charm, truthful in broad outline and delicate detail, every flower and every bird in its right colour and place. Walking with him you see and breathe New England in the light of early morn, with the dew sparkling on the grass and all the cosmic forces working underneath it. His reflective and symbolic poems, like "Each and All," "The Problem," "Forerunners," "Days," "The Sphinx," are full of a searching and daring imaginative power….
His "Threnody," written after the early death of his first-born son, has always seemed to me one of the most moving elegies in the English tongue. His patriotic poems, especially the "Concord Ode," are unsurpassed as brief, lyrical utterances of the spirit of America. In certain moods, when the mind is in vigour and the windows of far vision open at a touch, Emerson's small volume of Poems is a most companionable book.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2673
SOURCE: "The Poetry of Emerson," in Some Aspects of Modern Poetry, Hodder and Stoughton, N.D. pp. 55-68.
[Noyes was a prolific, twentieth-century, British poet and the author of books about Tennyson and Voltaire. In the following excerpt, Noyes compares Emerson to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Edgar Allan Poe with a focus on the poems, "Humble-Bee," "Give All to Love," and "Bacchus. " He also presents Emerson as a creative force in the development of modern poetry linking Emerson to Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling.]
Twelve years ago, during a first visit to America, I was surprised to find that the man whom I had always believed to be the greatest poet of that country, both in the depth of his thought and in the subtlety of his music, was hardly recognized as a poet at all. He was counted among the first of their prose-writers, very much as Matthew Arnold in England was once held to be primarily a critic. But this American poet at that time was hardly ever mentioned among the poets of his country. They spoke of Edgar Allan Poe, Longfellow, Whitman, Lanier, Bryant, Lowell, and Whittier; but seldom of the man who, as I believed, stood head and shoulders above all these—Emerson. Oliver Wendell Holmes, it is true, with the quick insight of a poet, had long ago said of the "Threnody" that it had "the dignity of Lycidas without its refrigerating classicism," and that it had also all the tenderness of Cowper's lines on his mother's picture. But the comparisons that he made were not apt, and the general import of the verdict seemed to have been forgotten. It was the same in England, of course; but there were additional reasons for it here, both in the far greater disproportion of the circulation of Emerson's essays to the almost negligible circulation of his poems, and also in the tone set for criticism by Matthew Arnold, whose essay on Emerson, in many ways, was as mistaken as that on Shelley. Exquisite poet and far-sighted critic as he was, Matthew Arnold did make two or three serious mistakes—one on French poetry, one on Shelley, and one on Emerson.
In his essay on Emerson he seems suddenly to have forgotten some of his own wisest and deepest sayings on the subject of poetry and its world of ideas, and to be asking for a "concreteness," a faith in the fact, that certainly in one example that he gives—"The Bridge" of Longfellow—has failed us. There is, of course, an undiscovered poet in Longfellow, who wrote infinitely better poems than "The Bridge," or indeed any of those verses by which he is usually represented in the anthologies for schools. His "Keramos" is as exquisite as it is unknown. His introductory sonnets to Dante are of a very high order; but "The Bridge," "concrete" as it may be, is neither a good poem nor to be compared for a moment with the best work of Emerson. Moreover, of the right kind of "concreteness" there is more than enough in the poetry of Emerson to refute any suspicion that he too was "an ineffectual angel beating in the void his luminous wings in vain." A poem like "The Humble-Bee" is in itself a full answer to that, and also to the suggestion that he is lacking in warmth and colour.
If it be compared with "L' Allegro," as its measure suggests, it will be seen to be richer in colour, more sensuous, and even in music to be a worthy rival of its great forerunner. It is a poem in which you can see and touch and smell the summer meadows, and there is a deliciously fantastic moralizing vein in it which should surely be enough to answer Arnold's demand, even in this subject, for "a criticism of life."
Thou, in sunny solitudes,
Rover of the underwoods,
The green silence dost displace
With thy mellow breezy bass….
Hot midsummer's petted crone,
Sweet to me thy drowsy tone,
Tells of countless sunny hours,
Long days and solid banks of flowers;
Gulfs of sweetness without bound
In Indian wildernesses found;
Syrian peace, immortal leisure,
Firmest cheer, and bird-like pleasure….
Wiser far than human seer,
Some of the phrases in those lines have the real magic. "Crone," in the fifth line quoted, is an extraordinary example of the apt use of a word that at first sight would seem to be quite remote from the subject; an extraordinary example of the secondary meanings and associations that can be awakened in such a word by its use at exactly the right moment. In some mysterious way it suggests, by its likeness to another word, the crooning sound of the bee. It suggests, partly by its own meaning perhaps, and partly by the associations of the two opening consonants, the crooked legs and somewhat decrepit appearance of a tipsy bee blundering into a flower. But nothing is forced upon the reader. It merely suggests vividly, by being the right word in the right context.
[James Russell] Lowell said that Emerson had no "ear," and he tells in his letters that Emerson confessed to him that he did not understand "accent" in verse. There is one line in his "Humble-Bee" where the accent is misplaced, but it was not misplaced through the lack of an ear for the subtler harmonies of verse. It was misplaced because Emerson pronounced it so. His confession to Lowell has its ironical side, for no comparison is possible between the extreme delicacy of the music that appealed to the ear of Emerson and the carefully measured verses that Lowell wrote. There is a music in the freely moving lines of Emerson's "Give all to Love" for which his own generation was not prepared. In fact, many of his readers missed it altogether, and really imagined—some of them imagine still—that those apparently irregular lines were left in that poem because Emerson could not improve them into the slack and regular stanzas of "The Bridge." Yet, if ears had been attuned to hear them, what could be more firm, more precise, more finely balanced, in the right way of the Muses than this:
Though thou loved her as thyself,
As a self of purer clay,
Though her parting dims the day,
Stealing grace from all alive;
When half-gods go,
The gods arrive.
["Give all to Love"]
We know at once, by the way in which the words, when rightly heard, strike into the mind and endure in the memory, that here the poet is among the immortals and saying immortal things to us….
In Emerson's "Bacchus" there is a subtler music yet. It is a marvellous poem, composed surely when the poet had fed on that honey-dew and drunk that milk of Paradise of which Coleridge wrote in "Kubla Khan." This is not the conventional view; but, before the conventional unconventionalist dismisses it, he may be asked to read Emerson's Bacchus" again with care. It is a poem for philosophers; it is one of the very finest of such poems, brimming over with intellectual ecstasy….
There is an intellectual ecstasy in this poem which is hardly to be paralleled elsewhere. The beauty of the best work of Poe is undeniable; but it is the beauty of a cloud catching from a distance the light of a supernal region in which this less familiar poet seems to be carousing with the gods themselves, on the other side of the processes of nature. It is surely necessary, moreover, that one of the accepted verdicts of the past should be revised with regard to the comparative merits of Emerson and Edgar Allan Poe. Emerson may have "confessed" to Lowell that he had "no ear"; but he also confessed to the world that he thought Poe a "jingle-man"; and with the music of his "Bacchus" in our own ears, a new and free and subtle music that could hardly be appreciated rightly in his own generation, his thought seems almost to be justifiable. There are occasions when it is right to be a "jingle-man." It was right in "The Bells." Poe had his own great merits; but it is only a very insensitive ear that could think the ethereal cadences of Emerson's "Bacchus" inferior to the tawdry rhyming and meretricious mysticism of "Ulalume" [by Poe]….
Emerson was the first writer in American literature to begin that great work of the future—the finding and maintaining of that central position which has been temporarily lost in an age of specialists, that central position from which we shall again see "all things in one," as Thomas à Kempis could see them.
In his essay on The Poet he gives one of the most beautiful and profound expositions of the art of poetry that have ever been written. In the fragments of verse that preface it he opens two windows in his central turret, from one of which he sees the rhythmic aspect of the universe, and its relation to the poet's craft, while from the other he surveys once more those divine ideas which are the substance of all poetry.
He shows, too, how the most "concrete" forms of modern life and activity may find their way into art. He was among the first to suggest the method, the only true method, by which the steamship and the railroad may be touched with the light of poetry. He shows how they can be related to central and permanent ideas; revealing, for instance, the poetry of the great Atlantic liner arriving at her destination with the "punctuality of a planet." With that last phrase alone he founded something like a school—and its influence is to be traced in the work of Stevenson, and even in the Rhythm of Life of Alice Meynell.
In fact, the influence of Emerson upon some of the most distinctively modern writers of our day is as remarkable as it is unrecognized. He has undoubtedly, for instance, influenced Kipling—not only in such obvious instances as the poem on the American Spirit (which is of course based on Emerson's "Brahma"), but also in what may be called the jungle-poetry. If the four following lines are quoted to the average reader of both authors, he would be uncertain for a moment which of the two had written them:
It is pure Mowgli; but the lines were written by Emerson. Another interesting trace of Emerson's influence on the same writer may be observed by any one who compares the opening lines of "The World-Soul" with the later "Native-born."
But Emerson's great value to our own day and to the future is that from his central position he maintained that hope which—oddly enough—even the most negative of his critics, Matthew Arnold, declared to be essential to the greatest art. Arnold declared that Emerson was not among the great writers; yet he quoted as an example of his deepest insight these words: "We judge of a man's wisdom by his hope, knowing that the perception of the inexhaustibleness of Nature is an immortal youth."
Such hope as this has nothing in common with the easy optimism that averts its face from reality. It is at the opposite pole from that superficial kind, though the superficial pessimist will always confuse them. It means simply that neither life nor death may be permitted to utter the last word of denial in this infinite universe. Matthew Arnold contradicted himself curiously on this matter, for he does at last say of Emerson, "Never had man such a sense of the inexhaustibleness of Nature and such hope." If this be true, and if we judge of a man's wisdom by his hope (as Arnold agreed), it is difficult to see how he could avoid the logical conclusion that Emerson must at least have been among the wisest of men.
His abiding word for us, the word by which he still speaks to us, a word that seems to be the inspiration, both in style and thought, of all that was best in the prose of Stevenson, and of at least one of the finest poems of Browning, is this:
"That which befits us, embosomed in beauty and wonder as we are, is cheerfulness and courage, and the endeavour to realize our aspirations. Shall not the heart, which has received so much, trust the Power by which it lives?"
Matthew Arnold's personal withdrawal from this unconquerable hope, in his essay on Emerson, seems to be a contradiction of what he says elsewhere, and of what he expresses (though faintly) in the finest of his own poems:
Whence was it? For it was not mine!
He withdrew from it, hesitatingly, in those moments when he was waiting for the spark from heaven; but when the spark had fallen and kindled the spirit within him his vision was at one with that of Emerson:
The hope of Emerson was founded on the only element of which, in the last analysis, we know anything at all, that personality, that soul (it matters very little what we call it), that individuality through which alone we can approach the universal soul: for it is not true to say that we, who are part of reality, can only know fleeting appearances of the world. We have our own private wicket-gate in ourselves, through which we can pass at will into the eternal world.
We cannot transcend our limited spheres of action in the flesh. We are like travellers on a ship who have freedom to walk east, west, north, or south on its deck, while the ship pursues her own course, bearing us to an end of which we know nothing, except that the ship is being steered by great laws. Occasionally we overhear the orders that are being made around us, even if we do not understand them. We hear commands given in the night. And this we do know—that if the meaning goes out of everything, if the good, the true, the beautiful become a mockery by our abandonment of our belief in their eternal significance, or by the assumption that the voyage has no aim and the ship no steersman, then it is the duty of our own souls, and the part of our human reason, to make the opposite assumption (act of faith though it may be) and to say to our fellow-travellers: Hope. For a meaning is the one thing needful, the one thing that even our limited reason cannot forgo. We cannot ac cept—the reason revolts from accepting—the suggestion that the universe is a gigantic game of bubbles blown by an imbecile and unweeting Power. It is the failure of our own vision of the universe that makes such a suggestion possible—though again and again in modern literature, a literature moving along narrow lines of specialized thought, this suggestion is logically implied. Even in the depths of our agnosticism, and God knows they are deep enough, there are certain things that we ourselves do know. We know a little of human love. We know that it is a better thing than the dust, and that, by every law of thought, the greater can never be originated from the less or subjected to it.
The value of Emerson to the present day is that he was able to keep open the gates of that knowledge within the soul. In the "Threnody," perhaps the most beautiful and profound poem in American literature, a poem whose music is wrought to the heights of prophetic inspiration, he utters his own hope over the grave of his own child. It is a poem that lends the wings of a Shelley to the weight and thought of a Browning; and if he had written nothing else, it would eventually confirm his right to a place among the master-singers. It is cosmic in its range, and it contains all philosophies. It is human in its grief, and divine in its hope.
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SOURCE: "Poetry, England, and the War," in Emerson: A Study of the Poet as Seer, Doubleday, Doran and Company, 1928, pp. 192-228.
[Gay edited a collection of verse for college students. In the following excerpt, he criticizes Emerson's poetry for its lack of "smoothness" and links this poetic flaw to what he perceives as Emerson's theory of poetry with its emphasis on the poem as a philosophical statement rather than an aesthetically stylized work of art.]
In September, 1844, Emerson purchased, on the shore of Walden Pond, a plot of eleven acres, to which, on the advice of friends, he added three or four more of pine woods adjoining. No purchase of his life gave him more pleasure than this. He nicknamed the plot his Garden, visited it almost daily, and composed many of his poems there. In the preceding year he first procured a copy of Saadi's Gulistan and was pleased to find that it agreed with the conception of the poem "Saadi" written the year before. The attraction of the Persian poets grew with the years, and his references to them or quotations from them in his later books are numerous. His general reading became more and more abstract: the Chinese classics, the Vishnu Sarna, Plotinus, Iamblichus, Proclus, Calvin, Behmen, Spinoza, Berkeley, are most often quoted during the years 1843-45, and the references to poetry are much less numerous than formerly. Science still interests him, and a growing interest in history and public affairs is evident. In 1846 he collected his poems.
It is a commonplace of criticism that his poetry lacks art. His chief failing in composition in general, prose and verse, was a lack of sustention, of coherence, of architecture. His verse, like much of his prose, is spasmodic, and it contains, moreover, elementary faults of technique that Macaulay's boy of fourteen could have patched and mended—forced rhymes, arbitrary inversions, lapses of taste; at its worst a certain fuzziness of thought. It is, to use a candy-maker's term, cooked only to the granulated stage, and seldom reaches the smoothness of either the "soft ball" or the "hard ball." It is gritty.
When we seek the cause for these generally recognized defects, we are forced to conclude that they were the result partly of a habit of mind and partly of a theory of poetry. We have seen that his boyhood verse was all too facile, but as he grew older he came less and less to value smoothness and correctness in himself, though he did not cease to admire them in others. He criticized Channing's verses because of their carelessness and of the presence in them of inept lines, and yet we early find Thoreau pleading with him to be more careful of his own, marred as they were by the same faults. In his Journal he records his conviction that logic, coherence, and architectonics in a long poem are evidences of the master and, though a little grudgingly, he praises the beauty and music of Tennyson's earlier poetry. In the same passage, relating to Tennyson, however, we find the clue to his theory, for he condemns much of the English poet's work on the ground that in it the manner is superior to the matter.
There can be no doubt that a theory—many will think an unlucky theory—of poetry reinforced his tendency to think in isolated phrases, and it is possible that his habit of jotting down ideas as they occurred, without carrying on their suggestions or development at the time, was responsible in its turn for the tendency. Of course, thinking in granules, so to speak, has its strength as well as its weakness. It makes the granules memorable and penetrating, even though it sacrifices the virtues of continuity. It is easy, also, to exaggerate the discontinuity of his verse, for often it is more apparent than real. It is a discontinuity of phrasing, rather than of thought.
It is still true, nevertheless, that his theory of poetry tended to encourage and condone his technical faults. He held the same view of art as Ruskin, that the subject of a work is of the first importance and its expression always a secondary consideration. He was not, however, so careful as Ruskin to explain what he meant by subject, with the result that one cannot be sure. Nowadays we are told that not the subject, but the poet, makes a poem. I think Emerson, when he speaks of "subject," means matter or ideas, rather than the topic or pretext. At any rate, he had little tolerance for what is sometimes called pure poetry. The poet as maker moved him much less than the poet as seer.
With his insistence upon the intellectual content of poetry, it is small wonder if his own verse lacks both passion and music. Its affinities are more with the "metaphysical school" of the Seventeenth Century than with the romantic schools of the Nineteenth. One constantly comes upon snatches that might well have been written by Jonson, Donne, Herbert, or Marvell, and we know that these were favourites of his, as is shown by his quotation from them in the Journal and by his inclusion of their poems in his anthology, Parnassus. He was also greatly drawn to the cryptic verse of the old Celtic bards, and, from the date of "Woodnotes" onward, liked to write in a "sort of runic rhyme," which reads more like the Elder Edda than like any poetry of a less barbaric age. Occasionally he strings couplets together after the manner of Blake in "Auguries of Innocence," and again loads and cramps his verse with all the tortuous obscurity of Meredith in "The Woods of Westermain."
Perhaps the worst that can be said of his poetry is that it begins with an idea instead of an emotion. But to deny that it is poetry at all, as some have done, would be possible only by limiting our definition of poetry so as to exclude a great deal of verse besides his. He is no more abstract than Shelley and no more intellectual than Donne. Critics have brought against him Milton's remark that "poetry is simple, sensuous, and passionate," forgetting that a good deal of Milton's own poetry will hardly bear the test. When all is said, it remains true, I think, that his faults are very largely faults of art or technique. He has hardly a poem that is perfect. But he also has hardly a poem that is uninteresting.
Perhaps the very impulse that militates against his success as a singer is the chief source of his success as a seer. He seems incessantly to have aimed at originality. The great lyric poems have usually been the perfect embodiment of ultimate truisms, rather than statements of a new revelation. There is little else in the most-quoted passages of Shakespeare. It is not really the man who says a thing first, but he who says it best who wins the bays. And yet there is a kind of poet, of whom Blake, Herbert, and Meredith may be considered widely differing examples, who are stimulating to thought, rather than to emotion, and whose work is always fresh and fascinating because of the originality or, possibly, the oddity, of the mind that conceived it. Emerson's verse is largely of this kind, and is therefore for most readers a cultivated taste….
Along with the oracular, he possessed so true a lyric note that one deeply regrets that he did not more often achieve it. In "Give All to Love," "Earth Song," the Ellen poems, passages of " Woodnotes," and "May-Day," and here and there in "My Garden," "Waldeinsamkeit," the "Concord Ode," "Two Rivers," his verse reaches the kindling point; and in the stately reflective lyric, like "The SnowStorm," "Days," "The Day's Ration," "Musketaquid," he attains a classic calm and quiet.
Certain of his longer poems have considerable autobiographical interest. "Uriel" was inspired by the Divinity School incident; the "Ode to Channing," by the abolition movement; "Voluntaries," in part by the death of Robert Gould Shaw; "My Garden," by the tract of ground on Walden Pond. Eminently characteristic, also, and among his best are such riddle poems as "Uriel," "The Sphinx," "Brahma," and "The Song of Nature." A group, of which "Merlin" and "Saadi" and the fragments of "The Poet" are representative, have value as expressing his conceptions of poetry. And in almost all of his poems, but especially in the longest, "May-Day," are fresh and lively images drawn from a landscape indubitably New England. Perhaps his most earthy will always have the widest appeal.
He can hardly by any definition be called a great poet, but he will always have his lovers. His future reputation is likely to be that of his admired Seventeenth Century men—to be read by a discriminating few, who like what Rossetti called "fundamental gray-matter" in their poetry. His influence upon American poetry, though not clearly traceable, has probably been strong in persuading poets to turn from English larks and daisies to American chickadees and sumach. Emily Dickinson would have gladly called him Master. Robert Frost is Emersonian in philosophy and diction, but shows little of his influence in his subjects or his verse.
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SOURCE: "Emerson's Theory of Poetry," in Poetry, Vol. XXII, July-August, 1931, pp. 263-73.
[In the following excerpt, Gorely explores Emerson's method of poetic composition by referring to his journals and his essay, "The Poet. " She discusses the value that Emerson places on inspiration and truth as forces that guide the poet in rhythmical expression.]
In the first essay of the series of 1844, [The Poet] Emerson considers the nature and function of the true poet. He begins his discussion with these words: "The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth." The significance of this thought can only be understood after a study of Emerson's theory of man. That is fundamental. Therefore, very briefly, the main lines of the doctrine must be indicated, especially man's relation to the rest of the world, his nature, and his problem.
Emerson believes in the oneness of the world. God, or the Oversoul, is the life or essence in all things "swallowing up all relations, parts, and times within itself." This life is transcendent. It is the source of thought, the starting point of action. Emerson writes that "the sovereignty of this nature whereof we speak, is made known by its independency of those limitations which circumscribe us on every hand." Moreover, it is immanent, pervasive. "God is, and all things are but shadows of him." The closing lines of "Woodnotes" say:
Thou metest him by centuries,
And lo! he passes like the breeze;
Thou seek'st in globe and galaxy,
He hides in pure transparency;
Thou askest in fountains and in fires,
He is the essence that inquires.
He is the axis of the star;
He is the sparkle of the spar;
He is the heart of every creature;
He is the meaning of each feature;
And his mind is the sky,
Than all it holds more deep, more high.
Thus man, with nature, is a part of this great whole. Both are revelations or manifestations of the Oversoul with the distinction that nature is its expression in the unconscious and man in the conscious.
There is a certain infinitude in man. Over and above his own life or spirit he has this greater life, within which he is contained, to draw upon.
It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy, … by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible.
Man is also unique. Each is different from every other. Each is given a particular work to do in the world and each must carry it out alone. Upon its realization, the success of the world depends.
Man has a means of communication with the Oversoul. He is aware of his relation by intuition or inspiration. What this experience is is not explained. All we know is that "this sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceedeth obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceedeth." It is miraculous only in so far as all life is miraculous. It is a positive universal fact. All tools, inventions, books, and laws came out of the invisible world through the brains of men. When this state, Emerson says, is attributed to one or two persons and denied to all the rest, the doctrine of inspiration is lost.
"God is the all-fair." "Truth, goodness and beauty are but different faces of the same all." Man, then, by virtue of intuition has access to truth, goodness, and beauty. But it is not sufficient to know these. Man must give them expression. This is the problem of man, namely, to listen, to hear and to report. Truth comes
to the end that it may be uttered and acted. The more profound the thought, the more burdensome. Always in proportion to the depth of its sense does it knock importunely at the gates of the soul, to be spoken, to be done.
These powers, however, are seldom found in perfect equipoise. Rarely is the expression adequate to the thought. "I know not how it is," Emerson says, "that we need an interpreter, but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature."
It is the poet who solves the problem. For this reason, he is the representative man. Because of deep insight and a corresponding power of expression "he stands among partial men for the complete man." He is nearest to the centre of the Universe and sees all things in their relation to the Infinite and to each other. "The factory-village and railway fall within the great Order not less than the beehive, or the spider's geometrical web." He
perceives that thought is multiform; that within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form; and, following with his eyes the life, uses the forms which express that life, and so his speech flows with the flowing of nature.
The life may be likened to a light with its rays shining in all men. Ordinarily, it is not tended and burns but dimly. Then men must resort to reason. But the poet frees it from all obstruction. It has a brighter flame and things appear in their true relations. His report or expression is poetry. According to Emerson, it is oracular, the report of one who retires into himself to listen, one who is passive, who trusts to instinct and demands no authority but instinct.
For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations.
Fundamentally, Emerson's theory of poetry can be divided into two parts. The first of these is concerned with genesis; the second, with the finished work. In the order of genesis, thought precedes form. Therefore, we shall consider first, the getting of the idea, and, second, the execution or elaboration.
The œsthetic critic, like Pater, analyzes a poem, finding and noting the virtue or virtues by which it produces its effect. But, given all these virtues, he could not create or recreate the poem any more than the scientist can put together the parts of a flower and have a flower. The power comes from without oneself.
It was Emerson's belief that thought comes from the "inner mind," the "mind of the mind," and brings with it the power of expression. At the time of its reception the poet is inspired. In this, as we have seen, he is not different from ordinary men. It is a universal experience and has certain more or less definite characteristics. Inspiration is inconsecutive. There is a flash, a "point of view," a "glimpse," a "mood" and no more. Nor can it be controlled in any way. It comes spontaneously. "When we discern truth, we do nothing of ourselves, but allow a passage to its beams." The poet can neither incite nor prolong it, but he can clear away obstruction.
Moreover, it is unconscious. The worker is often as much surprised at his work as we. Emerson, for example, could never recall having written the poem "Days." He says in the Journal of 1852:
I find one state of mind does not remember or conceive of another state. Thus I have written within a twelvemonth verses ('Days") which I do not remember the composition or correction of, and could not write the like to-day, and have only, for proof of their being mine, various external evidences, as the MS. in which I find them, and the circumstance that I have sent copies of them to friends, etc., etc.
But the unconsciousness is merely in relation to us.
We speak, we act, from we know not what higher principle, and we describe its circumambient quality by confessing the subjection of our perception to it, we cannot overtop it, … nor see at all its channel into us. But in saying this we predicate nothing of its consciousness or unconsciousness in relation to itself. We see at once we have no language subtle enough for distinctions in that inaccessible region.
Finally, inspiration is advancing in its nature. The inspired man sees something new, something that nobody else has seen. He does not revert to the past or look to the future, but "lives now and absorbs past and future into the present hour." "Inspiration will have advance," Emerson writes, "affirmation, the forward foot, the ascending state; it will be an opener of doors; it will invent its own methods." Enthusiasm usually accompanies the state in varying degrees. It may exhibit itself in frenzy or ecstasy, but more often in a warm glow, a thrill of awe and delight.
Although inspiration cannot be brought about at will, there are certain favouring, conditions. We all have heard of the ways in which great composers and artists have worked. How Haydn had to be very carefully dressed. How Mozart did best while riding in a comfortable carriage, or lying awake in the silence of the night. In Emerson's Journal of 1852 there are these lines:
Poppy leaves are strewn when a generalization is made, for I can never remember the circumstances to which I owe it, so as to repeat the experiment, or put myself in the conditions.
Emerson does, however, give a list of conditions drawn partly from literary biography and partly from his own experience.
Health, first of all, is indispensable for good work and it can only be maintained by sleep and exercise and a simple life. Wine, narcotics, opium, and sandlewood fumes are not for the poet. They are procurers of animal exhilaration. "The poet's habit of living should be set on a key so low that the common influences should delight him. His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration." Besides daily rest, rest after years of service renews the faculties.
Human intercourse with its letter-writing, its travel, its conversation, and its reading is of value. Emerson found letter-writing a good companion, or a book very helpful.
A third condition, in contrast to the last named, is retirement into self or "solitude of habit." The poet should go to some place remote from the sounds and work of the house, where he can sit alone and think. Emerson put up at a country inn in summer, or a city hotel in winter when he had a difficult piece of work to do. There, no cares of the farm could disturb him. This need of solitude is organic.
To the culture of the world an Archimedes, a Newton, is indispensable. If these had been good fellows fond of dancing, port and clubs, we should have had no 'Theory of the Spheres' and no 'Principia.' They had that necessity of isolation which genius feels.
Allied to this solitude of habit, is solitary converse with nature. As nature is the "projection of God in the unconscious," it is a revelation to the poet of the life of which he is a part. In it there is perfect order, for all things are regulated by the laws of the Infinite. Thus, if the poet comes close to nature, he can see truth everywhere. This thought is crystallized in "The Poet":
The idea of the work, then, comes in inspiration. The poet submits himself to the Universal Mind and is shown things in their right relations. The cares and fears of the day, income tax returns and wireless, sunshine and shadow, have each their place in the order of the world. To us they appear as parts out of place, detached from the whole.
The carrying out of the final work does not receive a very full treatment in Emerson. The poet does not so much create as report. The words he seems to speak are but spoken through him. So the idea takes its own form. The words come naturally and the intensity of the thought makes the language rhythmical. This is the difference between true poetry and the work of a versifier. In the one, sense dictates the rhythm; in the other, sense is adapted to the rhythm. As we have seen, there was no memory of the execution of the poem called "Days." In most cases, however, Emerson revised his work. Here is the record of the effect of the sea as it is found in the Journal of 1856:
'Tis a noble, friendly power, and seemed to say to me, why so late and slow to come to me? Am I not here always, thy proper summer home? Is not my voice thy needful music; my breath thy healthful climate in the heats; my touch thy cure?
Was ever building like my terraces? Was ever couch so magnificent as mine? Lie down on my warm ledges and learn that a very little hut is all you need. I have made this architecture superfluous, and it is paltry beside mine. Here are twenty Romes and Ninevehs and Karnacs in ruins together, obelisk and pyramid and Giant's Causeway; here they all are prostrate or half-piled.
And behold the sea, the opaline, the plentiful and strong, yet beautiful as the rose or the rainbow, full of food, nourisher of men, purger of the world, creating a sweet climate and in its unchangeable ebb and flow, and in its beauty at a few furlongs, giving a hint of that which changes not and is perfect.
It reads like blank verse. With very few changes it forms the first twenty-seven lines of the "Seashore." How closely they compare:
I heard or seemed to hear the chiding sea
Say, Pilgrim, why so late and slow to come?
Am I not always here, thy summer home?
Is not my voice thy music, morn and eve?
My breath thy healthful climate in the heats,
My touch thy antidote, my bay thy bath?
The history of "Two Rivers" was very similar. I give it as he wrote it sitting by the river one April day in 1856 and as it appeared when published:
Thy voice is sweet Musketaquid, and repeats the music of the rain, but sweeter is the silent stream which flows even through thee, as thou through the land.
Thou art pent in thy banks, but the stream I love flows in thy water, and flows through rocks and through the air and through rays of light as well, and through darkness, and through men and women.
I hear and see the inundation and the eternal spending of the stream in winter and in summer, and in men and animals, in passions and thought. Happy are they who hear it.
Here are the first three stanzas of the poem:
These examples suffice to show how the thought finds its proper wording, rhythm, and melody. There was careful revision. An adjective or a superlative was omitted. Words were changed. Yet there is no loss in the spontaneity. These first expressions, like the blocked-out sketches of an artist, are in complete analogy with the finished work.
And the finished work is organically beautiful. The materials that went into its making—the thought, the melody, the phrasing, the imagery—were all only means to an end. This end in Emerson's doctrine is called Beauty. Although there is no definition of beauty, its conception is deep. It involves not only qualities of sound and colour and excellence of structure, but something deeper. Only through knowledge of the true, can one attain the beautiful.
Wherever snow falls, or water flows, or birds fly, wherever day and night meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds, or sown with stars, wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger and awe and love, there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou should'st walk the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.
Poetry shows nature and humanity not fancifully, not fictitiously, but more truly as they are by reason of the poet's central position. Truth to the true requires that it have its proper melody and phrasing though often the odds are immense against finding it. Then, each word, and image, and rhyme answer their ends exactly, just as in Amiens Cathedral the covering of enclosed spaces, the forms of the supports, the arches, the tracery and decorative detail have each a constructive reason. Intangible, evanescent, beauty is something to which the whole of man's nature responds. It brings about harmony between all his powers. Reason acting upon the work finds it true in the proportions and the relations of its parts. The melodious language, the imagery appeal to the senses and the feelings, while the spirit finds radiating from it something "immeasurable and divine."
"Threnody," "Musketaquid," "The Seashore"—any of these might illustrate this. "Days" is short and more suited to quotation:
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdom, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
Finally, the measure of greatness in poetry is the "cosmical quality, or power to suggest relation to the whole world."
One unfamiliar with Emerson, who reads his work only cursorily says that he lacks method; that his idea of poetry is too vague, too much of a theory. Emerson, himself, acknowledged that he lacked method. "I need hardly say to anyone acquainted with my thoughts that I have no system," and again, "my method is purely expectant…. I confine my ambition to true reporting, though I only get one new fact in a year." The theory, however, is a noble one, one that could only be conceived by a man of great intuitive and speculative power. It deals with poetry at its highest. Theorists in this field generally belong to one of two schools. Either they believe that poetry should have no contact with ethics or science but be the expression of emotion in beautiful phrase, image, and melody; or that it should be concerned with truth and human values in life alone. Emerson's theory includes both of these views. Poetry is not poetry if it cloys with the lusciousness of its melody and imagery. Poetry is based on truth and truth requires a consideration of Uie meanings of things. Moreover, the true isbeautiful and its expression will be beautiful in its symbols, its rhythm, and its form. The stress on inspiration and the intimate relation with the life of the spirit makes the theory something almost religious.
Besides stimulating to thought about poetry and the life of the spirit, Emerson's theory gives a standard for criticism or comparison. It is an aid in distinguishing the good from the bad in what we read. Our personal standards are changeable. Now one type of poetry seems to satisfy them, now another. If we measure by such a standard as this of Emerson's, however, we can have results which are more lasting than our own hastily formed impressions. How this works out in English poetry can be shown almost diagramatically by a series of circles concentric with the ideal of the theory. Very near the centre would be Shakespeare. On the next circle, might come Chaucer and Spenser; farther out, Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Keats, Byron, and Wordsworth. With these the expression is usually outweighed by some deficiency in the thought. Wordsworth is peculiarly a poet of nature. There is too much of the personal element in Byron. "What has Lord Byron at the bottom of his poetry," says Emerson in his Journal of 1839, "but I am Byron, the noble poet, who am very clever, but not popular in London?'" Next to these would be writers who, in rare moments of greatness, are able to seize the inner meaning of a scene or a life and body it forth. Then would come most of us. "Deep in the heart of man a poet sings." We are capable of poetic thought, but we lack the power of expression. Last of all, on the outer circles, would be the versifiers who care only for form and effect.
Emerson, then, believed that poetry is mystical; that it comes into being as the result of inspiration. In that moment the poet sees the very essence of things. But vision is beyond his will. It comes to him unawares. Moreover, it is sudden and inconsecutive. It is advancing. Health, rest, human intercourse, solitude of habit, and a life in the open are all favouring circumstances. The poet makes the unseen visible by means of language. But he is not here the conscious creator. Vision, also, shows him the symbols and the thought takes its own form in language that is rhythmical. Because of this, there is a certain indwelling beauty in poetry and we measure its greatness by its cosmical quality. In such a theory, poetry is spiritual and forms a link between the visible and invisible worlds.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4966
SOURCE: "Emerson and Poetry," in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. LIV, No. 1, January, 1955, pp. 82-94.
[Gross is an American-Literature scholar whose area of specialization is Nathaniel Hawthorne with an additional focus on African-American Literature and Emerson criticism. In the following excerpt, Gross examines contradictory aspects of Emerson's theories of poetry and rates Emerson's poetry unfavorably. The critic points out specific flaws in the poems "Each and All" and "The Rhodora" but presents "Days" as Emerson's finest poem.]
In view of the multitude of learned articles and books on the subject of Emerson's theory and practice of poetry, there is perhaps some need of justifying another treatment of the subject. For the most part scholars and critics have been content to describe Emerson's theory by ample quotation from his writings and have then gone on to cite various poems by way of illustration. On the whole, far too little attention has been paid to the theory's aesthetic validity: that is, whether such a theory as Emerson subscribed to, or at least theoretically advocated, is capable of producing successful poetry, or even poetry at all.
Two extremely opposite positions on Emerson's theory can be seen in the treatments of it by F. O. Matthiessen and Miss Jean Gorely. After carefully but uncritically delineating Emerson's theory, Miss Gorely concludes her article ["Emerson's Theory of Poetry," Poetry Review, July-August, 1931] with this assertion: "In such a theory, poetry is spiritual and forms a link between the visible and invisibh worlds." The italics, which are Miss Gorely's, and the romantic cast of the statement, indicate an implicit belief in the validity of Emerson's theory. Matthiessen, on the other hand, in his discussion of Emerson's theory of art, says in part, "We can hardly assess Emerson's work in the light of his theory of language and art, since there is such disproportion between his theory and any practise of it." Somewhat later he goes on to say, "Indeed, the wonder of such views is that any art at all resulted from them" [F. O. Matthiessen, "In the Optative Mood: The Flowing," American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, 1941].
But neither of the above views seems to be wholly correct. First of all, Emerson's theory, which has been termed "organic," if taken without important qualifications, is aesthetically impossible; and, secondly, Emerson in his poetry does seem to be conscious of his theoretic dicta, which, paradoxically enough, cause his poetry to be "inorganic." Emerson's theory of art, like almost everything he wrote, was conditioned by a passionate desire to affirm order in the universe. Once he was metaphysically certain of the basic unity of all experience, each aspect of it with which he dealt had in order to be "true" to be related to the basic nature of the world as he understood it. But unfortunately this compulsion was all too often sheer emotionalism: his feelings rather than his rational faculties determined his statements. But since "feelings" are almost by definition vacillating, it follows that the statements which stem from these feelings can have no more stability than that which motivates them: hence the multitude of contradictions that one finds in Emerson's works. Furthermore, there is the ambivalence of the man himself. He constantly struggled to lift himself from the thrilling apperception of the thing itself (which he did not trust) to a mystical awareness of its spirit. The English metaphysical poets managed to achieve this movement repeatedly, but Emerson could not. Herbert and Donne, unlike Emerson, are rationalists in their poetry and give the semblance of inductive discovery within the poem; Emerson begins with the discovery and is heedless of the process by which discovery is reached. Thus Donne and Herbert give us the density of real experience, while Emerson gives us only the conclusions.
Emerson's ambivalence shows itself in the many statements he makes about art. He seemed to be torn between a belief that art was illusion and that art was the highest possible human activity. In the opening section of Nature he relegates art to an almost oriental nothingness. In speaking of the artist he says, "But his operations taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result." This belittlement of the artist is the perverted result of Emerson's belief that the world is better and more wonderful than anything that can be done with it. To concede that the artist could "vary the result" would have been for Emerson a tacit admission that the world was not the perfect creation he so zealously but naively believed it to be.
But in "The American Scholar" of the following year Emerson shifts his ground. He seems to realize that experience is, at least in its superficial aspect, formless; that it is the artist who must find and impart the meaning of life, which for most other men has been obfuscated by the egocentric business of living. "The theory of books is noble. The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereupon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him life; it went out from him truth…. It came to him business; it went from him poetry." Here, then, the artist is placed in a new perspective: experience is an endless mass of variety, which, when passed through the alembic of the artist, emerges as truth.
But how precisely was this to be accomplished? Once again Emerson wavers. Selection, the technical foundation of art, recommends itself to Emerson, but when he does accept it, it is with decided misgivings. In his essay Art he writes: "The virtue of art lies in detachment, in sequestering one object from the embarrassing variety. Until one thing comes out from the connection of things, there can be enjoyment, contemplation, but no thought." But several pages later Emerson seems to be wondering whether this detachment is not after all a violation of the "Whole." "All works of art should not be detached, but extempore performances." If one may guess at the thought process which caused these two contradictory statements, it might go something like this: The artist in order to convert life into truth must wrench an object out of its experiential context; but the very act of wrenching is apparently artificial, unreal, and consequently a lie. This paradox Emerson solved for himself by means of the symbol. "Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact. Every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of mind, and that state of mind can only be described by presenting that natural appearance as its picture."
Although Emerson quite correctly realizes that abstractions can be expressed only in terms of concrete images, he makes the crucial mistake of assuming that these natural facts have this power intrinsically: "This power is in the image because this power is in Nature." But this is obviously begging an important question. It is the poet who, after comprehending the experience with which he deals, makes the symbol serve as the vehicle of description and definition. It is, for example, Donne's technical mastery and, of course, his unified sensibility, not the symbol's inherent power, that enables him to use a pair of dividers in "A Valediction Forbidding Mourning" as the means of defining a man's love for a woman. To believe that the compass "so effects, because it so is," is to avoid the fact, as Emerson so often does, that technical mastery is necessary before the symbol is able to achieve the desired effect. The symbols in Emerson's poems "The Sphinx" and "The Humble-Bee," because of this theory, are casually relied on to carry their own burden of meaning without any effort at control; consequently these poems are irrevocably damaged: "The Sphinx" by obscurity, "The Humble-Bee" by waywardness.
But for Emerson the organic roots of the symbol go deeper than the fact that natural objects symbolize spiritual truths. "Parts of speech are metaphors, because the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind." But, for all his faith in the power of the symbol to express the fact and its spiritual counterpart concurrently, he was constantly leaving the symbol behind for the superficial solidity of direct statement. In a real sense he did not trust the symbol, and his distrust arose from his technical inability to manipulate a basically unified metaphor. It is one thing to say that there is no fact in nature which does not carry the whole sense of nature, but it is something quite different to make it work in a poem. This technical inadequacy, which his theory sanctions, causes him to introduce a symbol into his verse, drop it, and go darting after another with irritating abandon. Matthiessen is very much to the point when he says, "though he talked about the unexampled resources of metaphor and symbol, his staple device was analogy." Certainly, Emerson's belief in the symbol's innate power to convey the "whole sense of nature" points more to the use of analogy than symbol. In reading Emerson's poetry one receives the feeling of momentary illustration more than that of the permanent awareness of a symbol fully conceived and exploited. Further, as the poems of Donne and Crashaw abundantly show, the symbol is capable of defining states of feeling, while analogy, with its brief dazzle, is too feeble to catch the density of attitude. To be convinced one need only compare Emerson's "Initial Love" with Donne's "Lover's Infiniteness."
The relationship between beauty and art Emerson discusses many times, but perhaps nowhere so poignantly as in Nature.
Nature is a sea of forms radically alike and even unique…. What is common to them all,—that perfectness and harmony, is beauty…. 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 poet … seek[s] to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point…. Thus in art does Nature work through the will of man filled with the beauty of her first works.
In short, the artist is filled with the beauty of nature, which fullness causes him to express its beauty in microcosm, which in turn suggests its beauty in macrocosm.
But this beauty signified to Emerson the moral as well as the aesthetic, or rather the single identity of both. He says in the same essay, "Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue," and again, "Truth, and goodness, and beauty are but different faces of the same All." Emerson wanted desperately to believe this naïve, romantic concept, but even on the very same page he says, "No reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty." This, of course, poses a problem. For if it is incomprehensible why the soul seeks beauty, and beauty is truth, then it is equally incomprehensible why the soul seeks truth; thus man becomes a subrational creature unable to understand why he strives to attain that which will presumably make him free. Certainly Emerson would be aghast at the implications of his own statements. That Emerson could not quite accept (as indeed could no man who has looked around at life) this single identity of truth and beauty is seen in his criticism of Swedenborg's language in Representative Men. "In his profuse and accurate imagery is no pleasure, for there is no beauty." In other words, Swedenborg's true imagery is not ipso facto beautiful. Emerson, whether he would or not, was sensitive to the beauty of things irrespective of their "spiritual suggestion"; but once having placed his philosophic faith in the romantic creed, he is tossed ambivalently from the sturdy wall of what he felt to the nebulous wall of what he wished to feel. This ambivalence damages the structure of "Each and All" and "The Rhodora," as will be seen when we come to an analysis of these two poems.
The perfectness of nature also led Emerson to the criterion by which poetic excellence is to be judged. "For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is all music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem." Nature, then, is to be the eternal standard by which art isto be judged. But how is nature to be ascertained? Emerson's prescription is as terrifying as is any prescription which raises man's instincts above his rational capacities: "The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even unto the era of manhood." This Wordsworthian faith Emerson carries to even more grotesque extremes in his essay History: "The idiot, the Indian, the child and unschooled farmer's boy stand nearer to the light by which nature is to be read, than the dissecter or the antiquary." This is faith in the self-reliance of the dog, not the man. How or why the idiot and the ignorant boy are able to pierce the density of experience, when the rational dissecter cannot, is beyond comprehension; in fact it is demonstrably false. This is not to say that the dissecter can solve the riddle of nature, but rather that if that part of us which distinguishes us from beasts cannot arrive at truth, certainly that part of us which we have in common with them cannot.
Emerson's doctrine of inspiration is but the other side of his belief that the simple mind can best read nature. The poet has just such a simple mind in the Emerson scheme. The poet in some way which is undiscoverable becomes intoxicated with inspiration, and "That is the best part of each writer which has nothing private in it; that which he does not know." That is, the poet is presumably able to describe and delineate an experience which he himself does not understand. Strange as it may seem, this is precisely what Emerson believes: "The universal nature, too strong for the petty nature of the bard, sits on his neck and writes through his hand; so that when he seems to vent a mere caprice and wild romance, the issue is an exact allegory." The poet, then, is a mystified middleman, who, through God's gift, is able to pass on the truths of nature to those less gifted. Not only is poetry not a rational process, as we understand the term, it is the product of a divine madness. "The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly…. not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service…. with the intellect inebriated by nectar." How such emotionalism is able to reshape experience into coherent, communicable form is difficult to conceive.
Perhaps Emerson's reaction to his intellectual heritage with its Puritanical and, to a lesser extent, Unitarian rigidity of thought drove him to the outrageous belief that "our spontaneous action is always best." This idea is carried over to his literary theory. "The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of facts and is inflamed with passion or exalted thought, it clothes itself in images…. This imagery is spontaneous." The poetic process is thus further removed from the realm of the rational: not only is the source of the creative process outside the poet's understanding, but so is the very process itself. It is difficult to imagine how Emerson found "spontaneity" in the wrenched, exciting imagery of the metaphysical poets whom he so admired. Indeed, the use of radical imagery in such a poem of his as "Spiritual Laws" betokens more a self-conscious, though unsuccessful, drawing together of incongruous elements and a balancing of antithetical images than any spontaneous emission.
Although Emerson was drawn to the image because he felt that only it could hold language at once to the senses and the intellect, he was decidedly uncomfortable with only the ontological reality: "The details, the prose of nature he [the poet] should omit and give us only the spirit and the splendor." Since for Emerson the primary use of the fact is low, he recklessly leaves it behind in his attempts to grasp the nebulae of spirit; consequently the movement of his verse is fuzzy and unmotivated. His leaps for "the constant fact of life" often rip up the realistic foundations of his image, and we are left in a blurry transcendental haze without knowing how or why we got there.
Perhaps nowhere in Emerson's theory of poetry does his compulsion to relate everything to an organic whole manifest itself so ludicrously as in his theory of meters. He did not see that meter is essentially a tool with which the poet shapes and controls his material, that its superficial artificiality serves the higher function of form. But, since Emerson's philosophical edifice had no readily available niche into which such artificiality could be made to fit, he invented one. "Meter begins with the pulse beat, and the length of lines in poems and songs is determined by the inhalation and exhalation of the lungs."
On first glance, it seems one of the most perplexing of paradoxes that such an enthusiastic devotee of the organic principle in art could so seldom write a poem that holds together. But when we consider the chaotic implications of his theory, we are surprised that one or two of his poems are successful. One Emersonian scholar has excused Emerson by saying that while serving the high cause of spiritual truth he is willing to sacrifice without a qualm the infirm reader's desire for form and transition. But form makes communication possible. If the reader's desire to apprehend logical relationships is "infirm" and unreasonable, poetry is as useless as the average person will have us believe. Perhaps Emerson, sensing this fault in his verse, rationalized it when he said, "The adventitious beauty of poetry may be felt in the greater delight a verse gives in happy quotation than in the poem."
"Each and All," a much admired poem among Emersonians, suffers from such lack of form and transition. The poem opens with a number of particularized examples of the usually unperceived interlocking nature of experience: a scarecrow in the field does not know that you are looking at it; a heifer lows, uncaring and unknowing that its lowing charms a human ear; a sexton does not know that the music of his bells has made Napoleon stop to listen; nor does man know how the example of his life has helped his neighbor's creed. But suddenly there is inserted in lines eleven and twelve the abrupt generalized statement; "All are needed by each one; / Nothing is fair or good alone." These lines, coming without any transition from the particularized suggestiveness of the previous lines, startle us. The symbolic construct of the specific examples is swept away in the clipped meter of the expositional aphorism. The pattern of the first ten lines, that of ascending movement from inanimate to animal to man to spirit, is forced into the direct statement, and the poignancy of concrete awareness is thoroughly effaced.
We are then introduced to the poet, who, as direct participant, is to carry forward the theme that all are needed by each one. But, at this point, the poem, really begins anew. We are able to carry to it only the abstract, generalized statement, which acts with no more force than a sort of thesis sentence.
I thought the sparrow's note from heaven,
Singing at dawn on the alder bough.
I brought him home, in his nest, at even;
He sings the song, but it cheers not now,
For I did not bring home the river and the sky;—
He sang to my ear,—they sang to my eye.
The meaning is clear. The poet found beauty in the sparrow's note only when the bird was part of its natural surroundings; when brought to the poet's home it still sings, but it no longer pleases: it has lost its relationship to totality. Beauty, then, is in the thing connected, not in the thing isolated. Symbols are seemingly set up for this dichotomy: the ear or sound for isolation, the eye or sight for connection. But in the next section of the poem these symbols are jumbled.
The delicate shells lay on the shore;
The bubbles of the latest wave
Fresh pearls to their enamel gave,
And the bellowing of the savage sea
Greeted their safe escape to me.
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly, noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore
With the sun and the sand and the wild uproar.
In this section sound is represented as part of the totality: "the sun and the sand and the wild uproar" sing both to the eye and the ear. This hasty dropping of the symbols indicates a certain confusion in the poet's mind, even more clearly seen in the next section.
To this point we are to see that beauty is real only in its natural totality. In the following lines the poet deals with something quite different, unintentionally changing the emphasis:
The lover watched his graceful maid,
As 'mid the virgin train she strayed,
Nor knew her beauty's best attire
Was woven still by the snow-white choir.
At last she came to his hermitage,
Like the birds from the woodlands to the cage;—
The gay enchantment was undone,
A gentle wife but fairy none.
This is almost ridiculous. The young woman's natural totality is arbitrary, lacking the "necessity" that the river and the sky have for the sparrow or the sun, sand, and ocean for the seashell. The virgin train is proper to her only while she is a snow-white virgin. To feel cheated that she is no fairy, but only a gentle wife, is to equate peevishly the fluctuating contexts of human beings with the fixed contexts of natural objects; the maid is not isolated, as were the shell and sparrow; for she has exchanged one perfectly natural state for another, virginity for marriage. Therefore, the disillusionment of this section is motivated by an unreasonably romantic turn of mind, the previous two by moral awareness. What is significant is that all three are presented as if identically motivated.
To this point the poem has dealt unsuccessfully with the necessity of totality to beauty. But Emerson's belief that poetry must ascend to the most spiritual of heights, no matter how, causes his poem to carom off into a direction completely unprepared for.
Then I said, 'I covet truth;
Beauty is unripe childhood's cheat;
I leave it behind with the games of youth:'—
As I spoke, beneath my feet
The ground-pine curled its pretty wreath,
Running over the club-moss burrs;
I inhaled the violet's breath;
Around me stood the oaks and firs;
Pine-cones and acorns lay on the ground;
Over me soared the eternal sky,
Full of light and of deity;
Again I say, again I heard,
The rolling river, the morning bird;—
Beauty through my senses stole;
I yielded myself to the perfect whole.
The poet now rejects beauty and chooses truth. But this is not clear. The "truth" of the poem the poet has already apprehended: nothing is beautiful alone. What truth is he then choosing? Unfortunately, this remains an obscure, abstract choice, meaningless and undefined. But the rejection is but momentary: the poet becomes reaware of the beauty of nature, further realizes that this beauty is truth as well ("full of light and of deity"), and succumbs to the total perfection. The poem has ill prepared us for this "discovery." Until this last section it has been solely concerned with the nature of beauty as beauty; therefore, the ideational leap to this "spiritual truth" is effected without logic, force, or conviction.
"The Rhodora" illustrates another aspect of Emerson's difficulty in achieving form. "Each and All" suffers from a lack of ideational continuity; this poem lacks what may be termed an emotional continuity. Mark Van Doren, a perceptive critic, has singled out this poem as among the few by Emerson that are even in their excellence, but it seems to have a serious flaw.
The poem breaks sharply into two parts. The first eight lines are a description of the flower itself; the concluding eight are a philosophical generalization, presumably incited by the description.
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.
Although the description in the first eight lines comes dangerously close to being stilted, there is, nevertheless, a quiet charm in them. The rhythm delicately accentuates a gentleness in the descriptive images. We are made to feel the calm emotional undertow of peace and contentment which the poet has found in the wood in contradistinction to the "sea winds which pierced our solitudes." Suddenly, we are torn away from the scene, and the emotion erupts into the frantic "Rhodora!" Nothing in the preceding lines implies this outburst; in fact, they imply quite the contrary. It may be said that the poet has changed his attitude for reasons outside the poem or that he has license to change his attitude as he pleases. If this is so, if the poet does not have to prepare us for the change in attitude, if he does not have to ground his emotional switch in a recognizable conflict, he is not claiming the license of sanity, but of insanity.
The general fault of this poem, aside from such particular faults as awkward grammatical constructions and the almost unbearable stickiness of "dear" in line eleven, is that no consistent motivation informs both halves of the poem. In his desire "to pass the brute body and search the life and reason which causes it to exist," Emerson has neglected to show us how or why he passed from the "body" to the "reason." In fact, he has given us less than the human situation: effect without cause. For this reason the poem remains irrevocably severed; the leap from the warm, concrete quietude of the first half to the bald, abstract assertions of the second is unreal in the truest sense of the word.
"Days" is probably Emerson's finest poetic achievement. If a successful poem is an indication of moral awareness, he must have understood the terrifying paradox of human choice: that in choosing one thing over another we lose forever the good in what we have rejected.
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
The Days bring gifts which range from brilliant glory (diadems) to those of humble utility (fagots); but the Days can give no indication of relative worth; they are muffled and dumb. Man's free will chooses from amongst the ascending hierarchy of bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky. The poet's morning wishes for stars and sky are forgotten as he watches the pomp, and he innocently chooses the modest growth of his garden. But he has not really forgotten, for his were wishes, not resolutions. This is significant. A resolution presupposes a vice, but a wish presupposes a yearning. The herbs and apples which the poet chooses are not intrinsically evil symbols, but the measure of excellence of a pleached garden. The poet realizes that he has not chosen evil over good, but rather one good over another, though of a lower order. He yearns for the capacity of higher choice while recognizing his fallible humanity. He has but two hands: to clutch for the stars and sky is to drop the herbs and apples. Yet he realizes that in an absolute sense he has chosen wrong, and the perplexity of his innocent guilt, subtly pointed up by the halting rhythm of, "I, too late, / Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn," touches the pain of the paradox. True, the Days do scorn the poet's choice, but it is the scorn that must come to most human beings for being human.
This poem, unlike almost everything else Emerson wrote, is firmly rooted in what he was able to understand. It does not vaporize into a vague, transcendental ether of intuitive feeling. It is above all intensely human. When Emerson left behind him the frantic leaps for superhuman truth and dealt rationally with experience, he managed to achieve such poetic excellence as "Days." But only then.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7948
SOURCE: "Toward the 'Titmouse Dimension': The Development of Emerson's Poetic Style," in PMLA, Vol. 87, No. 2, March, 1972, pp. 255-70.
[In this excerpt, Yoder presents a chronological study of Emerson's poems to reveal the development of Emerson's poetic style. Yoder finds that Emerson's use of poetic techniques, his themes, and his poetic structures follow a progression that coincides with his changing concept of the "poet's identity."]
… The task of defining Emerson's poetry is difficult because, unlike Whitman and Emily Dickinson, the acknowledged giants of nineteenth-century American poetry, Emerson has no distinctive, original, easily defined style. It has been customary to borrow Emerson's own favorite organic metaphor and condemn him on just this ground, that his poetry never ripened and blossomed into unique, distinctive expression; in other words, that he never found himself as a poet. The charge carries some truth; Emerson was, after all, a diffident, often dissatisfied experimenter, as he himself wrote:
Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression, to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world; but yesterday I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which I now see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages…. But lest I should mislead any when I have my own head and obey my whims, let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker with no Past at my back. ["Circles"]
And this is perhaps most evident in his poetry.
Given an avowed experimenter, one would plausibly approach his work chronologically, charting the course of successive experiments and thus elucidating at least the pattern, if not an end product, called "Emerson's style." Such an approach neatly parallels the current view of Emerson that looks to the "man thinking" rather than to "Emerson's philosophy," and the emphasis placed, since the study by Stephen Whicher, on the inner process of Emerson's life. Unfortunately for this method relatively few of Emerson's poems can be dated with certainty, and many were composed over a period of years, sometimes ten or more. Nevertheless, I think, some sense can be made of the larger pattern of Emerson's poetic development, based on the approximate dates that we have. Ultimately it is not the exact chronological order that matters so much—there are, in the whole body of his poetry, numerous instances that bear out the passages from "Circles" just quoted, that show us what he writes today may not suit yesterday or tomorrow. And yet, I shall argue, in the whole context these particular inconsistencies will be "rounded by the law of his being, as the inequalities of Andes and Himmaleh are insignificant in the curve of the sphere" ["Emerson, Self-Reliance"]. Thus, from a roughly chronological viewpoint, we can see a pattern in Emerson's poetry that takes its shape from the essential changes in his thought and especially from the fundamental shift in emphasis that must have occurred about 1840, a change that has come to mark the distinction between the "early" and the "later" Emerson.
An exhaustive study would show how Emerson moved from an undergraduate's imitation of Augustan couplets to a variety of less polished and less constraining verse forms—ballads, epigrammatic quatrains, Wordsworthian blank verse in 1827, and the extraordinary if ungainly "Gnothi Seauton" of 1831, lines that are as unorthodox in form as they are in doctrine, and that prefigure Emerson's settled practices of a decade later. Emerson was not, however, consciously preparing himself for a poetic career. The role of his journal poetry is unquestionably self-expression, dialogue with oneself—moving away from the style of performance toward a means of formulating one's private convictions, or, as Leslie Fiedler has suggested [in Waiting for the End, 1964], toward "the speech of a man urging himself on, rather than appealing to a crowd." To summarize these early experiments we may say that Emerson sought a mode of expression appropriate to the essentially meditative aim of this writing. Not surprisingly, he turned finally to Wordsworth, whose star was just rising on this side of the Atlantic in the late 1820s, and to the Metaphysical tradition of meditative verse, especially to the poetry of George Herbert.
"The River," dated June 1827 in the Centenary Edition [of The Complete Works of RWE, 1903-04], and the following lines from Emerson's journal are unmistakably Wordsworthian in setting and cadence:
Associated with Wordsworth's rural solitary is a language sincere and unpretentious, that comes spontaneously from the heart. Emerson's admiration for Herbert over a period of at least seven years culminates in the 1835 lectures, where Herbert is placed foremost among English poets: "I should cite Herbert as a striking example of the power of exalted thought to melt and bend language to its fit expression." Undoubtedly in Herbert—in the "Jordan" poems, for example—Emerson also found an ideal of simple, heartfelt poetry. Herbert's contribution is larger, however, for Herbert provided a model, not merely for simplicity of speech and imagery, but for combining that simplicity with architectonic skill, with the concentrated and integrated organization that distinguishes the seventeenth-century meditative style, just as it distinguishes Emerson's poetry of 1834 from the prosaic, discursive blank verse and free verse that dots his journals between 1827 and 1832. "Each and All," "The Rhodora," and "The Snow-Storm" are among the most admired of Emerson's poems. What they owe to Herbert is not explicit, but the debt is clear enough in another poem probably written about this time and later taken for Herbert's own work.
How much, preventing God, how much I owe
To the defences thou hast round me set;
Example, custom, fear, occasion slow,—
These scorned bondmen were my parapet.
I dare not peep over this parapet
To gauge with glance the roaring gulf below,
The depths of sin to which I had descended,
Had not these me against myself defended.
Here, as John Broderick has shown, is a direct parallel with the first line of Herbert's "Sinne," "Lord! with what care hast thou begirt us round." Moreover, the retard effected by the naming or cataloging device in the third line is characteristic of Herbert and may also have been taken over from the catalog somewhat more extended in "Sinne" (though cataloging is a common enough technique among seventeenth-century poets, and Emerson may have found precedents in Milton, Herrick, or even the American William Bradford). [As discussed by Louis Martz in The Poetry of Meditation, 1962] personification of the defenses as "scorned bondmen" calls to mind Herbert's specific recommendation [in his work Country Parson] that "things of ordinary use" ought to illustrate "Heavenly Truths." This advice Emerson never forgot; the bondmen of "Grace" reappear constantly in his poetry, importing truths well above their station. The "drudge in dusty frock" who appears in "Art" has been compared to Herbert's servant in "The Elixir," a poem that Emerson especially admired, and the stooped crones who sweep and scour the poet's cottage in "Saadi" are suddenly transformed into gods. Thus there is no doubt about Herbert's influence. More generally—and here I think we can include the poems of 1834 as having the same qualities—Emerson learned from Herbert, and perhaps from some of his contemporaries, the art of "neatness": the way to structure a poem on a single metaphor or situation, the way "Grace" is based on the figure of a fortress; the smoothness of tone and rhythm, conversational but always melodic, never jagged but sufficiently pointed and varied to gain the quality of speech, as in the catalog or in the stressed pronouns ("these me") which give the last line of "Grace" a peak before it falls off to the diminished feminine ending.
"The Rhodora," one of the 1834 poems, displays the same neat structure and rhythm as "Grace," again modulated by a feminine rhyme that sets off the gnomic couplet, and by the deliberateness of the last line with its hyphenated adjective, monosyllabic parallelism, and pointed pronouns. "The Rhodora" conveys, too, the humility and intense dedication that Emerson and Herbert shared. One might go further to argue that Emerson's poem deploys the formal structure of seventeenth-century meditation, beginning with the composition or focusing upon a concrete situation and proposing of the spiritual problem therein dramatized; following with an analysis of the problem; and ending in the colloquy, an intimate conversation and union between the poet and the object of his spiritual exercise. But here I think the essential difference between Emerson and the Metaphysicals is evident: whereas the meditative formula is triadic, the structure of "The Rhodora" is clearly binary, two sets of eight lines each. In the first, the situation is posed and the question implied (actually stated already in the subtitle of the poem); in the second, an answer is given immediately, without any deliberation, and the answer itself eschews analysis:
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.
The rhodora needs no reasoned argument, no "excuse" for its existence. In terms of the meditative formula, we have only "composition" and "colloquy," two parts subtly intertwined. The first part of the poem portrays the rhodora as a humble, self-sacrificing flower which, though equal to the celebrated rose, prefers obscure service to worldy fame. Sacrifice and service are implied, almost to the point of martyrdom, in the fallen petals. In the last eight lines the poet identifies himself with the same Christian virtues: his "simple ignorance" is faith, if not in Providence, certainly in a wise and sensitive Creator; the worshipful humility which the poet and the flower share explains their intimate rapport. The philosophical sages, on the other hand, are shut out; as the flower leans toward Christian sacrifice, the sages are associated with self-seeking, utilitarian interests, perhaps even cavalier interests, who see the flower's charm as "wasted." Thus a dramatic undercurrent—the subtle alliance of poet and flower against the sages—helps to create a mood of religious dedication that excludes the inquiring, analytical mind, and at the same time militates against a narrowly esthetic, "beauty for beauty's sake" interpretation of the poem.
In a number of ways "The Rhodora" is consonant with Emerson's achievement in Nature (1836). Both works illustrate the attention to structure, the eye for neatness and symmetry, that Emerson cultivated during these years. Herbert, probably Emerson's chief model for the poetry of 1834, is also one of the inspiring spirits of Nature, where a large portion of "Man" is quoted. There is a well-known passage concluding the section of Nature on "Beauty" that bears out the message of "The Rhodora": "This element [Beauty] I call an ultimate end. No reason can be asked or given why the soul seeks beauty. Beauty, in its largest and profoundest sense, is one expression for the universe. God is the all-fair." Finally, the binary structure of the poem reflects, in its omission of any extended analysis, Emerson's attack on the Understanding in Nature….
In the years between 1836 and 1839 Emerson attempted to work out his theory of nature, mainly in lectures that formed the basis for his later published essays. As far as we know, he wrote little poetry (of his major poems, only "The Humble-Bee" is traditionally assigned to 1837) and did not publish what he had already written. Suddenly in 1839 he decided to publish some of his early poems, including "The Rhodora" and "Each and All," which he sent to James Freeman Clarke's Western Messenger; and for the first time Emerson thought of himself as a poet, not merely as a writer of private, meditative verses. Why he had to become a poet, in the broadest sense, is explained in a significant journal passage from 1839:
As the musician avails himself of the concert, so the philosopher avails himself of the drama, the epic, the novel, and becomes a poet; for these complex forms allow of the utterance of his knowledge of life by indirections as well as in the didactic way, and can therefore express the fluxional quantities and values which the thesis or dissertation could never give. [Journals of RWE, 1909-14]
By 1840 the Heraclitean notion of flux, the fluidity of all real substance which is eternally becoming, had washed away a considerable portion of correspondence, and Emerson had entered upon his skeptical mood. In Nature the settled "order of things" had been grounded in the belief that "every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind" and "there is nothing lucky or capricious in these analogies." In contrast to this rather fixed Swedenborgian correspondence, the flux of words as well as things is paramount in Emerson's journal of 1841:
The metamorphosis of Nature shows itself in nothing more than this, that there is no word in our language that cannot become typical to us of Nature by giving it emphasis. The world is a Dancer; it is a Rosary; it is a Torrent; it is a Boat; a Mist; a Spider's Snare; it is what you will; and the metaphor will hold, and it will give the imagination keen pleasure. Swifter than light the world converts itself into that thing you name, and all things find their right place under this new and capricious classification. There is nothing small or mean to the soul. It derives as grand a joy from symbolizing the Godhead or his universe under the form of a moth or a gnat as of a Lord of Hosts. Must I call the heaven and the earth a maypole and country fair with booths, or an anthill, or an old coat, in order to give you the shock of pleasure which the imagination loves and the sense of spiritual greatness? Call it a blossom, a rod, a wreath of parsley, a tamarisk-crown, a cock, a sparrow, the ear instantly hears and the spirit leaps to the trope. [Journals of RWE, 1909-14]
The analogy that was in 1836 neither "lucky or capricious" is now exactly that; the symbol held up earlier as knowledge of a discrete world is now offered for its "shock of pleasure," the surprising kaleidoscopic insights it gives. Symbolic language is still a kind of knowledge—indeed, perhaps the only kind of knowledge—but valuable now because things are free rather than fixed, and because no one set of correspondences is adequate to express Nature—"the slippery Proteus is not so easily caught" "[Emerson, "Swedenborg; or the Mystic"].
The doctrine of flux, with its corollary that all inquiry is essentially poetic or metaphorical, liberated Emerson even further from traditional analogies and accepted forms. His most rhapsodic language, in prose or verse, belongs to this moment of enthusiasm and newly sensed freedom. "Poets are thus liberating gods," he repeats in his dithyrambic essay "The Poet," and the kind of verse he expected to issue from this concept of poetry is implied in the well-known journal passage of 1839 calling for "grand Pindaric strokes, as firm as the tread of a horse" or "the stroke of a cannon ball"—"I wish to write such rhymes as shall not suggest a restraint, but contrariwise the wildest freedom." This is the poetic program Emerson attempted to carry out in such poems as "Woodnotes" (especially the second part), "Merlin," and "Bacchus," and it is the essential link between Emerson and Whitman.
What becomes apparent, in the full context of Emerson's poetic development, is how brief this enthusiastic moment was, and that alone it cannot serve as the basis for a definition of Emerson's poetic style. The exhilaration of the moment was undermined by Emerson's growing skepticism, that other side of the doctrine of flux that implies an endless, wandering circularity; and his buoyant mood was abruptly cut off by the death of his son Waldo in 1842. The poetic program of 1839-41 clearly displaced Herbert, or even Wordsworth, as a model. Emerson looked then to other sources that corroborated his ideas about poetic freedom, mainly to older traditions, the poetry of Saadi and Hafiz, the Vedas, and the ancient British bards. The last, in particular, offer an important source for explicit ideas about poetic technique. In Sharon Turner's History of the Anglo-Saxons Emerson learned that abrupt transitions, clipped syntax, periphrasis, and repeated epithets were all characteristic of the ancient bards, and that they used no rules for meter, "consulting only the natural love of melody." Very likely he also read Longfellow's anthology The Poets and Poetry of Europe, published in 1845. In an essay introducing his own translations of Anglo-Saxon lyrics, Longfellow noted especially
the short exclamatory lines, whose rhythm depends on alliteration in the emphatic syllables, and to which the general omission of particles gives great energy and vivacity. Though alliteration predominates in all Anglo-Saxon poetry, rhyme is not wholly wanting…. [Rhyme and alliteration] brought so near together in the short, emphatic lines, produce a singular effect upon the ear. They ring like blows of hammers on an anvil.
Much that Turner and Longfellow describe appears frequently in Emerson's published poems, yet the best evidence that he imitated the metrical half-line, periphrasis, and alliteration of the Anglo-Saxons is in a manuscript trial beginning "Poet of poets / Is Time, the distiller, / Chemist, refiner"
All through the countryside
Posing in newspapers
Over their shopfires
Settle the State.
But, for the Poet,—
Seldom in centuries
Comes the well-tempered
Free of the city,
Free of the [field] [meadow] forest
Knight of each order,
Sworn of each guild
Fellow of monarchs,
And, what is better
[Fellow] Mate of all men.
[Brackets indicate words crossed out.]
The corrections show that Emerson consciously sought alliteration, and the general mood and descriptive effects of this passage are reminiscent of the Old English lyric. It is a heroic style to fit Emerson's heroic program—and if the passage were written as full four-stress lines (instead of half-lines) and given rhyme, which Emerson thought an essential and primitive quality of poetry, the result would be similar to the staccato tetrameters that are so common in the Poems of 1846….
Here, then, is the full movement of Emerson's thinking about what a poem should be: it crystallizes, somewhere between 1834 and 1836, in the idea of a precisely organized, meditative poem modeled after Herbert; it shifts, just before 1840, to an enthusiastic vision of wild, bardic freedom; and it subsides quickly in the 1840's toward a concept of poetry more restrained in tone though not necessarily in form, more serene and detached, and more oblique in its announcements of universal truth.
Inevitably, given the man he was, Emerson's aeolian verses obeyed the winds of thought, so that any discussion of his poetry during its major phase (roughly from 1839 to 1847) must consider the development of his ideas that I have just traced. Generally, the function of his poetry can still be described as meditative, and for a great many of these poems the binary question-and-answer form remains the structural framework on which he built. But there are important differences: appropriately, for expression that is free and spontaneous, Emerson moves toward a much looser form of meditation than that of the 1834 poems. He favors shorter, compressed units of thought, reflected in the choice of meters and the often cryptic or elliptical syntax; his rhythms and language are easy and informal; and the arguments are less explicit, often depending more on imagery than on direct and logical statement. Sometimes it seems, in fact, that Emerson is trying to bring his poetry closer to the actual processes of thought, to create what we today might see as a rudimentary "stream of consciousness" technique.
Such a change can be illustrated by comparing two well-known poems, "Each and All," one of the poems of 1834, and "The Problem," probably written in 1839. Few of Emerson's works are as highly structured as "Each and All," which is carefully divided into parts and then subdivided into instances or images. One can, with some justice, claim that the poem exemplifies the characteristic binary form of the poet's encounter with nature, given over first to his doubts or problem (here the need for proof of Nature's wise aphorism "All are needed by each one; / Nothing is fair or good alone") and then to nature's answer (the last ten lines in which the poet sees the truth without having it proved in any discursive way); and so conceived it shows, as "The Rhodora" did, the fundamental distinction between Emerson and the Metaphysicals: for Emerson, analysis is not a means to revelation. The long middle of the poem, which might be taken as an "analysis" of the type appropriate to the seventeenth-century meditative structure, does not lead to the resolution, but curiously to a point where the poet would have discarded beauty in favor of truth. Only in the end, when the poet is taken by surprise, does he realize that truth, beauty, and goodness are not isolated elements but aspects of a "perfect whole." Though rare, this experience is not unknown, for the poet exclaims, "Again I saw, again I heard," recalling lines from another visionary poet whose moments of insight counteract the light of common day. Like Wordsworth's in the "Immortality Ode," Emerson's vision in "Each and All" counteracts the common experiences enumerated in the middle of the poem from which the poet infers that beauty is a cheat. The poet's inference is wrong, of course, but it is a legitimate inference given the facts at hand, and his making it dramatizes the weakness and dangers inherent in the analytic method: inference or induction, that is, generalizing from a series of instances, is the way of the Understanding; only direct and intuitive experience "through my senses" brings the positive truth home.
In the style of 1834 and like the poems of Herbert, "Each and All" is precisely worked out, an arrangement of discrete parts in a deliberate pattern. Admirable as it is, this formal coherence does have its price—a felt loss in vitality, perhaps, and the friction of such deliberateness in method rubbing against the spontaneity finally endorsed by the poem. As obviously as "Each and All" is composed, "The Problem" is a casual arrangement, its parts more like beads loosely connected on a string than pieces neatly fitted together. It is a poem of meditation on a matter of great personal concern to Emerson, contrasting again with "Each and All" where the theme is more philosophical and objective. From its beginning "The Problem" strikes a note of sincerity and simplicity, of the direct rendering of personal feeling:
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 cowled churchman be.
So brief and straightforward a statement is underlined by the simple, balanced tetrameter and the easy rhymes, and the impression of unreserved candor is always enhanced when one admits liking what one cannot approve. Set beside these the first lines of "Each and All," the relative contrivance of the latter is evident: "Little thinks, in the field, yon red-cloaked clown / Of thee from the hill-top looking down"—despite the rhyme the movement here is of studied blank verse, complicated by inversions and enjambment. Development in "The Problem" strengthens the impression that the poem is working out an explanation, not dramatizing one already made. Questions help to break up the pattern of assertion, the arguments are cumulative rather than logical, and the conclusion falls off instead of rising, an abrupt repetition of the opening lines that seems to say, "Even if the explanation has been incomplete or logically unsatisfactory, my conviction remains unchanged." Again, by comparison, the conclusion of "Each and All" is staged, more theatrical than dramatic.
Both poems touch upon the relation of beauty to truth. "Each and All" reflects Emerson's early faith in a "perfect whole" that unites beauty with truth and goodness; it suggests the same predilection for abstract or philosophical symmetry that we observed in the doctrine of correspondence and in Nature. "The Problem," like the 1839 journal passage in which the philosopher becomes a poet shifts from philosophical to esthetic, from transcendent to natural standards. Revelation, according to the argument summarized in the couplet "One accent of the Holy Ghost / The heedless world hath never lost," is available at all times and to all creeds; it is in this sense natural rather than sectarian, identified with passionate acts of creation rather than with statements of belief or dogma. The point of accumulating examples in the body of the poem is to grant "an equal date," that is, equal authority, to both pagan and Christian forms in every era. The assertion that revelation is equally available throws new light on the question Emerson asks himself: why must he insist, in the poem, upon his difference from the bishop, or why, in actual life, did he resign from the church if the way of the priest and the way of the seer are just different paths to the same truth? The answer is that Emerson's touchstone here is beauty, not truth; religion is appealing because it creates beauty—he likes the rhythm of church aisles and Taylor's words "are music in my ear." The revelation available to Phidias, the Delphic oracle, and Michelangelo, as well as to divines, is really artistic inspiration drawn from natural forms. Emerson might still have squared with the bishop if he had introduced the analogy between man's art and God's divine artistry in creating the natural world. But in Emerson's view, art does not create nature, rather nature creates works of art:
These temples grew as grows the grass;
Art might obey, but not surpass.
The passive Master lent his hand
To the vast soul that o'er him planned;
And the same power that reared the shrine
Bestrode the tribes that knelt within.
The "passive Master" fills the role of Emerson's artist, not the orthodox theologian's conception of Jesus or God the Creator. Art and the artist must find their place within the order of nature, and that order, illustrated on all levels in the poem, is development from inside outward and from below upward. "Up from the burning core below" all things are "outbuilt." The individualist and evolutionary implications of such an order are difficult to reconcile with episcopal office, and this imagery of direction or thrust justifies Emerson's making his churchman specifically a bishop.
The structural and conceptual changes illustrated by "The Problem" reflect, in part, Emerson's enthusiastic poetic program of 1839, and although one would hardly call the protagonist of that poem "bardic," many of the same principles are applied in the poems that best represent the bardic program. A second important development in Emerson's major phase is the way he modifies the situation and tone in his central encounter between the poet and nature. This, I think, reflects not only his enthusiasm of 1839, but more significantly the doctrine of flux and Emerson's growing skepticism in the years after 1841.
The personality of the poet was a matter of long and serious concern which Emerson tried to resolve in poems, essays, and even in bits of fiction scattered through the journals. Much of the character of the emerging poetfigure is clearly autobiographical and an attempt to state his own concept of the poet's role. But gradually Emerson loosened the identification between himself and the character he created, so that in his later essays, as Whicher pointed out, there are a number of dramatic characters or alter egos who speak for different, often opposite, sets of ideas. And often Emerson was able to heighten the dramatic situation instead of the philosophical resolution in his poems, such as in "Hamatreya" and "Days."
In the earlier poems the poet-figure is an active and relentless seeker of truth. Whatever frustrations he encounters, there is nevertheless an air of certainty that he is on the right track in verse like the "Dull uncertain brain, / But gifted yet to know" fragment. In "The Poet" he is the bard who will pierce through to central truth, and like the poet-figure of the Ion and Coleridge's "Kubla Khan" is set apart from other men…. Plagued by having heard only a "random word" and not the whole truth, this poet suffers prolonged periods of despair (the poem's original title was "The Discontented Poet, A Masque"). He complains, in effect, that the law of the spirit is not kept as faithfully as the law that regulates nature. The Chorus of Spirits answer, first, that they and he are brothers by nature and no one can violate his own nature; second, that no one serves the spirit out of physical compulsion or simply to be rewarded, but out of penury and love:
Serve thou it not for daily bread,—
Serve it for pain and fear and need.
Love it, though it hide its light;
By love behold the sun at night.
If the Law should thee forget,
More enamoured serve it yet …
Emerson took great pains with this poem and worked on it for some ten years, but he could never finish it. The reason may well be that the poem moves insistently toward a final resolution, but Emerson was never satisfied by any of the answers he could write for the Chorus of Spirits. The second answer given above is already tinged with the doubts of 1842. Emerson stressed the message, in earlier poems with a binary framework, by putting straightforward answers into Nature's mouth. In the "Dirge" for his brothers Edward and Charles, which Emerson completed in 1838, the resolution is a "tale divine" told in the song of a bird, more consolatory than philosophical, but explaining why the poet cannot tell others of his deep grief. The same can be said of "Threnody," Emerson's elegy for his son Waldo. A poem written during the later skeptical years (between 1842 and 1845), "Threnody" nevertheless posed questions so painful that only a full resolution in the manner of 1834-36 could console the grieving father. Thus "Threnody" is a perfect example of the binary form illustrated in "The Rhodora": the first part is the poet's lament, the second—possibly modeled after God's answer to Job—rebukes analysis and offers the consolation of unquestioning faith. "To Rhea" and "Woodnotes," whose second part concludes with the most explicit statement Nature gives in any of the poems, belong to the same classification.
Most frequently after 1840, however, Nature is anything but explicit. The poem "Nature" (not published until 1867) reveals the relationship between art and nature that is implicit in "The Problem." In it Nature is witty and baffling; her chief tools are "Casualty and Surprise," and she is "all things to all men," deceiving them with the illusion of freedom while they inevitably do her bidding. She takes on a secretive and moody aspect, and deliberately taunts men for their ignorance of her mysteries….
… In most of the later poems it is no longer so easy for Emerson to identify with the bard piercing through to truth; rather, he is like a spectator who knows where to look but waits for someone more heroic than himself to do the job. "Monadnoc," completed sometime between 1845 and its publication in the volume of 1846, should be compared with an earlier poem of similar design, "Woodnotes," published in two parts in The Dial, 1840-41. Both are essentially of the question-and-answer type, encounters between a poet-figure and Nature represented by the mountain or the pine tree. The long monologue of the pine in the second part of "Woodnotes" directly answers the foresterhero, and while the concept of nature as flux is invoked, the poem resolves on the theme of unity ordained by "conscious Law," a law personified as "God" the creator and the "eternal Pan." There is no hint of an observer apart from the forester, who is Emerson's primitive poet, "philosopher," "minstrel," "forest seer"; and nothing is equivocal or complex about the pine tree's role as Nature's spokesman. In "Monadnoc," however, as in "The Sphinx," the "I" of the poem (with whom Emerson identifies) is separate: the protagonist of Monadnoc stands as an observer midway between the "spruce clerk" type of the urban tourists who daily climb the mountain in summer and the heroic "bard and sage" whom the mountain awaits. The claims of the mountain are significantly more cautious than those of the pine: the order it hints of is the flux behind solid-seeming things, which is only the first stage of reality in "Woodnotes II." Monadnoc itself belongs to this order; it obeys the law expressed by the gnomic paradox "Adamant is soft to wit," and therefore it will dissolve when the apocalyptic hero comes to solve the riddle of its being:
And when the greater comes again
With my secret in his brain,
I shall pass as glides my shadow
Daily over hill and meadow.
The secret of the mountain is essentially a scientific account of its nature and origin. Common sense and simple observation see only a solid pyramid, but the mind probes deeper into this mass and "in large thoughts, like fair pearl-seed, / Shall string Monadnoc like a bead." Emerson's repeated image for the ordering of matter is a string of beads:
… these gray crags
Not on crags are hung,
But beads are of a rosary
On prayer and music strung.
The basis for this image is explicated in "Poetry and Imagination"—
Thin or solid, everything is in flight. I believe this conviction makes the charm of chemistry,—that we have the same avoirdupois matter in an alembic, without a vestige of the old form; and in animal transformation not less, as in grub and fly, in egg and bird, in embryo and man; everything undressing and stealing away from its old into new form, and nothing fast but those invisible cords which we call laws, on which all is strung.
The beads represent bits of matter, impermanent cohesions and not things-in-themselves; the material world is not built stone upon stone, it is hung upon a string, an organizing principle that corresponds to the divine Idea or Law and gives to the whole image the religious efficacy of a rosary. The string is also a fitting emblem for the concept of rhyme that Emerson defined in the wider sense of any rhythmic pattern. The material universe is really an intellectual dance for which "Rhyme [is] the pipe, and Time the warder." All things begin and end in motion, the mountain itself having begun as "chemic eddies," finally rising "with inward fires and pain" like "a bubble from the plain," all according to the geological theory of upheavals that Emerson had set forth in his early lectures. At its end, the mountain "shall throb," and metaphorically it becomes a monster slain not by the sword but by the song of a "troubadour" who will "string" up the carcass on his rhyme. Then, Monadnoc prophesies, like a whale or volcano,
… I shall shed
From this wellspring in my head,
Fountain-drop of spicier worth
Than all vintage of the earth.
Then the sacramental liquid, what in "Bacchus" is called the true wine of remembering, will be reclaimed by man.
The curious thing about "Monadnoc" is that the poetobserver who concludes the poem disregards what the mountain has prophesied. This may be because he is not the heroic bard of the future and has been, from the start, concerned with the practical and immediate effect of Monadnoc upon the people who live there, hoping that the mountain would be "their life's ornament, / And mix itself with each event." For him the mountain already dislimns by "Pouring many a cheerful river," which in turn offer practical gifts to the inhabitants. In the final apostrophe to Monadnoc the protagonist is still concerned with the immediately practical, what he calls "pure use." The epithet, surely paradoxical to the Romantic mind, is appropriate because what the poet is trying to define is the fruit or harvest of the "barren cone," the mountain's top above the timberline. The passage then floods in paradoxes—stones that flower, the "sumptuous indigence" of man, the "plenties" of the "barren mound," and the mountain described as an "opaker star" and finally as a "Mute orator." The point made by the poet-observer is that, notwithstanding the mountain's own prediction that it will someday disintegrate, Monadnoc's rocky summit is for men a "type of permanence." It is, too, a religious temple to comfort men's "insect miseries," and no less a "complement" of the erect human form with mind at its summit. Indeed, the triangular shape leading to an apex is a symbol of all progress toward unity, hence of the One or the Good which is now introduced in terms similar to those of "Woodnotes II":
Thou … imagest the stable good
For which we all our lifetime grope,
In shifting form the formless mind,
And though the substance us elude,
We in thee the shadow find.
This statement is, however, much more limited: the substance or reality of the Good, which is formless, we can never know; but it is shadowed forth in all the changing forms of nature, most clearly in the large, stable objects which seem to us to change least. The use of the mountain, then, is purely symbolical, but in a world where motion is ever faster and more frivolous this symbolic role, recalling us in wayside moments and making us sane, is actually more practical than all its physical bounties. This is the thematic paradox at the center of a number of paradoxes evoked in the last section of the poem.
Thus "Monadnoc" is a more complicated poem than "Woodnotes," and more suited to Emerson's later thought. It is resolved by the poet-observer distinct from the heroic bard and as concerned about everyday life as about apocalyptic revelation. While the pine tree, a surrogate for Nature, was merely a spokesman for the doctrine of the poem, the mountain wholly displaces doctrine as a center of interest, and the poet-observer recognizes it as a complex symbol of something that cannot be expressed by any other means. Again, to use Emerson's own formula, philosophy becomes poetry, the fluid symbolism of art replaces the more rigid symbolism of correspondence, in the transition from the earlier to the later poem.
As the poet-hero matures into the poet-observer, the ecstatic joy that Emerson expected poetry to release subsides into the tamer qualities of cheerfulness and serenity. The poet's quest and assault, which would have explained all of nature in 1836, turns into a strategy of wit, oblique counterpunching, and finally into appreciative acceptance. Uriel is a truth-seeker, to be sure, but heis a young, mischievous rebel, whereas the protagonist of "The Poet" is ageless and solemn. Uriel's sentiments are gnomic hints whose purpose in the poem is to shatter old decrees and formulas, not to create new ones, and thus Emerson is not pressed for the kind of ultimate answer that he felt obliged to provide in "Woodnotes" or "Threnody." The same qualities are found in the main speaker of Emerson's short "Fable," a poem based on the question-and-answer form but almost entirely given over to the squirrel's retort to the bullying mountain. The squirrel is spry in word and deed, and he turns the tables on the mountain with Emerson's doctrine of compensation disguised as New England wisecracking:
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut.
This smaller voice, full of Yankee cadences and concealing its power in understatement and shafts of oblique wit, is heard frequently in the later quatrains and in poems like "Berrying," "Hamatreya," and "The Titmouse." Merlin is a heroic bard drawn from the legendary past, and the Merlin poems are perhaps the best verse explanations of Emerson's theory of "wildest freedom" in poetry; yet Merlin is not preoccupied with the search for truth or for any answers Nature might give to his questions. His business is primarily social rather than intellectual, a "blameless master of the games" and "king of sport" who dispenses joy and peace to men. Apparently he is not bothered, as the Poet was, by "unhappy times" when inspiration is lax. Hence truth seeks him ("the God's will sallies free") and in the moment of revelation at the end of "Merlin I" finds him effortless and "unawares." "Saadi," although an earlier poem than "Merlin," goes even further in making its protagonist a passive figure, so that Saadi may well stand as the exemplary version of Emerson's later poetic personality. Saadi is the bard and sage mellowed by experience. He sits alone, self-reliant in his complete inactivity—
Many may come,
But one shall sing;
Two touch the string,
The harp is dumb.
Though there come a million,
Wise Saadi dwells alone.
But, like Merlin, he is socially concerned, ever gentle and cheerful to his fellowmen, especially to the "simple maids and noble youth" who need him most. The doctrine of the "sad-eyed Fakirs," a melange of sin and gloom echoing Marvell, the graveyard school, and Byron, is quickly countered by Saadi's effortless optimism: "For Saadi sat in the sun, / And thanks was his contrition." Like Emerson's other poems, "Saadi" rises to a peak of intense, momentary vision. But characteristic of the later Emerson, Saadi's truth lies within, not beyond his natural world, in the rule of moderation and the common proverbs of the marketplace: "Nor scour the seas, nor sift mankind," his Thoreauvian Muse advises him. As in "Merlin I" the opening of doors symbolizes a revelation of heavenly truth. But the Muse bluntly tells Saadi, "Those doors are men," and suddenly, for the poet who has not lifted a finger, men are transformed into gods—
While thou sittest at thy door
On the desert's yellow floor,
Listening to the gray-haired crones,
Foolish gossips, ancient drones,
Saadi, see! they rise in stature
To the height of mighty Nature,
And the secret stands revealed
Fraudulent Time in vain concealed,—
That blessed gods in servile masks
Plied for thee thy household tasks.
Not stars or a Chorus of Spirits, not the eternal ideas or sublime objects of nature, but ordinary life redeems the poet….
… In a less touted achievement of these years, "The Titmouse" (written and published in 1862), Nature gives no explicit philosophy or lesson except the bird's example of cheerful stoicism in the face of great odds. The little titmouse echoes Saadi and the squirrel of "Fable," and in keeping with the symbolist view of the world as flux, the "antidote of fear" is a matter of playing on words—of leaping to the great conceit that ends the poem, where the bird's song "Chic-a-dee-dee" is recast as Caesar's "Veni, vidi, vici." The essential transformation or metamorphosis in life is poetic, and we can make it if only we heed the moral of the poem:
I think no virtue goes with size;
The reason of all cowardice
Is, that men are overgrown,
And, to be valiant, must come down
To the titmouse dimension.
Reduce! Simplify! Concentrate one's awareness—Thoreau was on Emerson's mind in the early spring of 1862—and thus accommodate the eye to the ordinary world. Were we to judge by "The Titmouse" alone, we might conclude that Emerson in later years had solved the problem of the "double consciousness" by trading in his "flash-of-lighting faith" on the continuous, if less spectacular, light of common day. For the great spiritual analogies of Correspondence, bequeathed by Nature in flashes of insight, have no place in this brief tale of wintry courage.
If the poems treated in this essay do represent his poetry as a whole, then clearly the pattern of Emerson's poetry corresponds to the more general development of his thought, moving away from a neat, formal organization toward a loosely connected, casual arrangement. Moreover, his major phase as a poet coincides with a period of growing doubt and detachment, so that these poems, in form as well as substance, show increasing signs of man's limitations, his perplexity in the face of incomprehensible nature, and, at best, his serenity despite his inability to comprehend. This is perhaps why Emerson's poetry appealed so much to Robert Frost—indeed, much of "Hamatreya" and a poem like "The Titmouse" are the essence of Frost—and why it is increasingly meaningful to the young and the nonspecialists who are often put off by his prose. Often the rhetoric of Emerson's essays is too assured, too conscious of the audience it manipulates, and Emerson seems to look down at us from his podium, himself a genteel Sphinx. His poetry was not this kind of performance, and here he is more commonly on our side, a less pretentious yet representative man, trying with us to sort out the terrible mysteries of this world.
If a single epithet can capture the special quality of Emerson's style, or the direction in which he moved, that one adjective might be "compressed": his tendency was toward compression in both form and consciousness, to concentrate on the small and common experience and relax the grander claims of the formulating intellect—in Emerson's phrase, to "come down to the titmouse dimension." It seems to me therefore that, granting the importance of an apocalyptic imagination and motif for some of Emerson's poems and most of his essays, nevertheless the poetry as a whole points away from that high Romantic vision. I suggest, too, that despite the established link between their ideas, Emerson and Whitman are very dissimilar poets, Whitman's cosmic consciousness and expansive verse standing almost at the extreme from Emerson's. Thus, Emerson's place in our tradition is not, with Whitman, at the head of the "Dionysian strain of American poetry" [Albert Gelpi, Emily Dickinson: The Mind of the Poet, 1965] for, as both [H. H.] Waggoner and [Leslie] Fiedler have observed, his poetry must register a very different influence from Whitman's, and in fact did, upon poets like Emily Dickinson, Stephen Crane, Robinson, and Frost, who are his direct descendants [Waggoner, American Poets from the Puritans to the Present, 1968, and Fielder, Waiting for the End, 1964]. Much as he contributed to Whitman's bardism, Emerson's more important legacy is his compressed style and the dramatic encounter between his small protagonist and unknowable Nature.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8648
SOURCE: "Artful Thunder," in Ralph Waldo Emerson, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 69-96.
[Donald Yannella is an American educator and a scholar of nineteenth-century American Literature. In this excerpt he shows that while "not all are great" Emerson's poems are "technically accomplished works" worthy of a distinguished rank in American poetry. Yannella begins by interpreting Emerson's poetic theory as stated in "The Poet," and proceeds to explicate a selection of Emerson's poems grouped together thematically.]
Emerson was forty-three years old when the first of his three volumes of poetry was issued on Christmas Day 1846. (It bears the publication date 1847.) Before any reader addresses himself to the verse, however, it is helpful to have some understanding of Emerson's theory of poetry and his views about the poet's purposes and functions. Properly understood, the poet and his art are central in the Transcendental fabric Emerson wove.
His interest in the subject began early—when he was a schoolboy, in fact—and grew with the years. He read widely and analytically, and was sensitive, discriminating, and articulate on the subject, as is evident from the great amount of space he devoted to aesthetic theory, poets, and poetry in his journals, letters, and lectures. In addition to these numerous references during the 1830s and early 1840s, as well as later, he offered one entire presentation, "The Poet," in the lecture series on "The Times" which he gave in 1841-42. But he made his most comprehensive and lasting utterance on the matter in the opening piece in Essays: Second Series (1844), also titled "The Poet." Here he presented the major portion of his mature thought on the role of the poet, as well as his theory of poetry.
In the essay Emerson states that the poet shares the Universe with two other children, the "Knower" and the "Doer," lovers of truth and goodness, respectively. The triumvirate is completed by the poet, the lover of beauty, the "Sayer," or "Namer." Emerson repeats the essential proposition of the Transcendental movement, that nature is symbolic, the universe emblematic; at the same time he reiterates the limitations of the Understanding, the path followed by the sensual man such as the scientist. And he concludes that although "The people fancy they hate poetry," they are, in fact, "all poets and mystics!"
This true poet, this arch-Transcendentalist, however, is discovered only infrequently. Not a mere "thinker," a "man of talent," he is "Man Thinking." His is the genius which will eradicate the ugly as he reintegrates those things which are dislocated and detached from God by perceiving their essential unity with nature and the Whole; the poet grasps the spiritual significance even of the factory-village, the railroad, and, of course, what is ordinarily comprehended as the natural world. By means of his superior insight the poet can induce a sort of transcendence, leading his reader to a vision similar to that described in the transparent eye-ball passage in Nature, among other places. Emerson confides that he himself experiences this kind of soaring when he reads a poem which he trusts as an inspiration: "And now my chains are to be broken; I shall mount above these clouds and opaque airs in which I live … and from the heaven of truth I shall see and comprehend my relations…. This day shall be better than my birthday: then I became an animal; now I am invited into the science of the real." In guiding us through nature, through experience, the poet "unlocks our chains and admits us to a new scene," leads us across the chasm to life and truth, and rescues us from the ironic fate of the "poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door." The ultimate, successful Transcendentalism "the poet turns the world to glass, and shows us all things in their right series and procession." Poets are "liberating gods." Capable of that which all would rightly desire, they stand "among partial men for the complete man…. the man without impediment, who … traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart." Representing beauty, the poet "is a sovereign, and stands on the centre." He is not merely an arranger, a compiler or composer of meters but a "diviner," a "prophetic speaker," whether in verse or prose, in the vatic tradition. For his conception Emerson was actually reaching back to the ancient notion of the bard, echoing conventional Romantic notions of the poet.
Emerson's poetic theory is intimately related to this conception of the poet. Perhaps the clearest and most widely known public statement he made on the theory of poetry was in the eighth paragraph of the essay "The Poet" where he announced that "it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive that … it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is prior to the form." This precept that form is secondary probably helped inspire Whitman, for example, to be hospitable to the freedoms and new disciplines of vers libre. But the reader of Emerson's own poetry must be taken aback by his generally close adherence to his period's formal requirements, its conventions of verse. With few exceptions his poems scan easily and offer discernible rhyme schemes and regular line lengths.
His views on the technical requirements of verse are germane. In "Poetry and Imagination"—published in 1875, though portions were composed as early as the 1840s—for example, where he considers matters such as rhyme and meter, it is evident that he was in command of his materials and willing to insist on the conventions of English prosody because he understood their value, not because he accepted them blindly. He defends "the charm of rhyme to the ear" for the relief it offers from monotony and for the symmetry its very repetition provides. He also argues that the poet should allow poetry to "pass … into music and rhyme…. [which] is the transparent frame that allows almost the pure architecture of thought to become visible to the mental eye. Substance is much, but so are mode and form much." In a similar fashion he insists on the naturalness of meter by suggesting that "Metre begins with pulse-beat, and the length of lines in songs and poems is determined by the inhalation and exhalation of the lungs. If you hum or whistle the rhythm of the common English metres … you can easily believe these metres to be organic, derived from the human pulse, and to be therefore not proper to one nation, but to mankind." Since Emerson understood the conventions he observed in his own verse to be "organic," it seems unfair to criticize him for not realizing in his own poetry the innovations Whitman achieved.
My purpose in this [essay] is to discuss most of those poems which seem likely in my judgment to endure in the canon of American poetry. Certainly, not all are great. Many are of middling quality, some are uneven, and a few merely possess eminently quotable lines. What they do collectively, however, is demonstrate a more than respectable achievement in poetry by one of America's principal literary men.
To facilitate matters, particularly for those who are coming to Emerson's poetry for the first time, the poems are discussed within thematic groupings, the most important of which are the role of the poet, Man's relationship to nature, the public issues such as slavery which led to the Civil War, and personal subjects such as love and death. Although this arrangement seems preferable to a discussion of the development of Emerson's poetry in chronological order, my attempt to offer a coherent framework for sensible discussion should not—indeed, must not—preclude a reader's approaching any poem by a different avenue. My framework is a matter of convenience, not an attempt to fix Emerson's rich work in a set of categories.
"Merlin," one of the finest poems in the first collection, reveals Emerson's conception of the poet and his role, and also illustrates his reliance on the "renaissance tradition of paradoxy" [so called by Rosalie L. Colie in Paradoxical Epidemica: The Renaissance Tradition of Paradox, 1966]. The speaker opens "Merlin I" with a tight assertion of what is and is not the "artful thunder" of bardic poetry: "Its chords should ring as blows the breeze, / Free, peremptory, clear" in order to "make the wild blood start / In its mystic springs." Having told us in no uncertain terms in the first eight lines that form and style, however pleasing, do not constitute the poem, he proceeds to describe the poet and his verse. Not merely a skilled and pleasing musician—a man of talent—this speaker's "kingly bard," Merlin, "Must smite the chords rudely and hard" in order to render organic poetry, the
Artful thunder, which conveys
Secrets of the solar track,
Sparks of the supersolar blaze.
This bard, unencumbered "With the coil of rhythm and number," shall in his transcendence '"mount to paradise / By the stairway of surprise / /.'" Anticipating the theme of opposites to be explored at the start of "Merlin II," Emerson further defines the centrality of paradox to the workings of the bard. Beguiled by Sybarites—the wild dancers of the rituals of classical mythology—Merlin with his "mighty line / Extremes of nature reconciled."
The second poem commences by amplifying this pairing, the balancing and compensating Emerson dwells upon in both series of Essays: "Balance-loving Nature / Made all things in pairs." It is little wonder that Emerson should dismiss the verse of those he judged to be merely talented, jingle-men such as Poe. What he sought, as he stated it succinctly in "Poetry and Imagination," was "The original force, the direct smell of the earth or the sea" as he found them in ancient poetry: the Sagas, English and Scottish balladry, bardic poetry, and, to the point, "Gawain's parley with Merlin" in Morte d'Arthur, which he quotes at length.
He concludes "Merlin II" with an oblique yet incisive description of the price, the "ruin rife," the poet must pay for the genuine bardic experience—the paradox of Merlin, "music-drunken," surrendering his liberty and control to the Fates in order to achieve a more organic relationship with the universe and, therefore, the insight to prophecy. When we consider this paradox, we should recognize the happy balance Emerson strikes in the form of "Merlin." He comes quite close to his own ideal of "metre-making argument" by achieving a successful mixture of the accepted conventions of nineteenth-century verse: the Common Meter of the initial four lines of "Merlin I" and the traditional rhyme schemes and regular line lengths of most of both poems are set off opposite the skillful "irregularly rhymed 'free verse'" of the second stanza of "Merlin I."
Another of his most successful efforts to explore the poet and his art is "Bacchus" (1847). The speaker here seeks the same "wildest freedom" and ecstatic abandon suggested in the "Merlin" poems. Indeed, striving to cast off the restraints of the Understanding, mere common-sense perceptions of experience, the poet courts transcendence, a merging of his Self with creation "Which on the first day drew … The dancing Pleiads and eternal men." The importance of this god to Emerson's thinking is perhaps suggested by his reference more than a quarter-century later when he discussed transcendence near the end of "Poetry and Imagination": "O celestial Bacchus! drive them mad, this multitude of vagabonds, hungry for eloquence, hungry for poetry, starving for symbols, perishing for want of electricity." In the transcendent experience described in "Bacchus" and elsewhere there is a suggestion of what has been termed [by James E. Miller, Jr. in A Critical Guide to Leaves of Grass as] the "inverted mysticism" of Whitman's poetry: the achievement of merger and vision not through asceticism but by means of bathing in sensual experience. This aspect of Emerson is beautifully articulated in the colloquial and pithy "Berrying" (1847), one of his better short poems, in which he uses Calvinist theology to assert the hedonism of the speaker. The irony of the speaker's discovering "dreams thus beautiful" and "wisdom" in the "Ethiops sweet" drives home with singular force his rejection of his Puritan forebears' conception of earth as "a howling wilderness" [as noted by Carl F. Strauch in "Emerson and the Doctrine of sympathy," Studies in Romanticism 6 (1967): 158].
But the exhilaration, or even ecstasy, enjoyed by the genuine poet requires that he suffer detachment from other men. "Saadi" (1842), Emerson's tribute to the Persian author he so admired, is one of his clearest poetic expressions of the loneliness and promise of the poet. Writing for the most part in octosyllabic couplets, Emerson commences the poem in rather breathless, short lines and immediately justifies the bard's aloofness by tracing it back to God's charge that the poet '"Sit aloof.'" Saadi, who "dwells alone," nevertheless loves Mankind. With the integrity of the scholar Emerson had described in his Phi Beta Kappa address, the poet ignores the din of life, reads his runes rightly, minds only his rhyme and listens solely to the whisper of the Muse: "Heed not what the brawlers say, / Heed thou only Saadi's lay." Detachment and commitment are, of course, prerequisites for the conventional Romantic sort of insight and inspiration, but they assure that the poet's words will reveal "Terror and beauty" as well as "Nature veritable." The upshot, the Muse promises, will be the opening of "innumerable doors" from which truth and goodness will flow, and so the poet will be admitted to the "perfect Mind." The promise and the poem conclude with a suggestion that the ultimates sought by the poet reside in the commonplace, the "crones," "gossips," "drones" who "rise in stature / To the height of mighty Nature" to reveal the secret "Fraudulent Time in vain concealed": "That blessed gods in servile masks / Plied for thee thy household tasks." If "Saadi" is not one of Emerson's more memorable poetic statements, it is one of his more forthright expressions on the subject, purpose, and means available to the poet….
It is clear that the Transcendental experience in its widest definition is the subject of most of Emerson's poetry. Some of his best recounts the substance of the poet's nonrational encounter with the "Not-Me," as he phrased the world beyond Self in Nature, and others explore the dangers and pain of the role itself. Many more, also successful and enduring, focus on nature, including Man's connections to it. Some celebrate Man's right relation to nature while others criticize the materialism of modern culture which distorts life by precluding our having healthy links to the natural world. Two of the more enduring among the earlier nature poems are "Each and All" (1839) and "The Snow-Storm" (1841).
Judged [by Carl F. Strauch in "The Year of Emerson's Poetic Maturity: 1834," Philological Quarterly, No. 34, 1955] to be Emerson's "first unquestionably great poem," "The Snow-Storm" was written during the winter of 1834-35. The first of its two stanzas of blank verse offers a general description of the arriving snow as it "veils the farm-house at the garden's end"; notes a foundered sled and the traveler it carries; and, finally, locates the speaker and the reader in the cozy warmth of a classic country homestead inhabited by people seated about "the radiant fireplace, enclosed / In a tumultuous privacy of storm." What Emerson presents here is the conventional setting for the traditional event celebrated in so much New England poetry, the snow-storm. The nineteen lines which comprise the second stanza are among the most vivid and artistically wrought performances in poetic imagery in Emerson's canon. The artist of the passage, the north wind, "Curves his white bastions with projected roof / Round every windward stake, or tree, or door." Then "Mockingly, / On coop or kennel he hangs Parian wreaths; / A swanlike form invests the hidden thorn." The familiar world is enhanced and mystified not randomly or by chance but consciously by art; with dazzling simplicity Emerson conjures up the classic and gleaming white statuary of ancient Greece by referring to the famed marbles of the island of Paros, which is similar to the snowed-in farm not only in its statues but in its pristine artifacts. The stormy, wild, creative period finished, the northwind
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind's night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
As the poem challenges materialism it celebrates the nourishment provided Man by sympathetic communion with nature.
"Each and All," another of the poems composed in 1834—the year which probably was a turning-point in Emerson's poetic development—is another of the finest products of his early career. Composed of only fifty-one lines, it signals a major advance in his perception of Man's relation to nature; by using Reason rather than Understanding the poet perceives unity amid the diversity of the world. Emerson has moved beyond the awe which the natural world inspired among contemporaries who merely observed and classified, and has come to sense a profound if unspoken resonance in nature.
The poem is traditional and conventional in its meters, its logical tripartite structure, and its virtually unrelieved rhymed, occasionally closed, couplets; only three lines are without mates and only the eight lines which commence the final section slip into an ababcded pattern. Emerson wisely balances the formality of the technique, however, with the commonplace and simple—but nevertheless evocative—inhabitants of nature. Following his observation that "All are needed by each one; / Nothing is fair or good alone"—a principle which emerges from his observation that nature's creatures, including Man, indeed affect each other—he proceeds to test the proposition by nothing the discordance, even the ugliness, of the sparrow, the seashell, and the bride when they are wrenched from their natural settings. This is one facet of the truth he covets in line 37, the beginning of the third and final part of the poem; penetrating the wood more deeply—encountering on a sensual level the ground-pine, club-moss burrs, violets, oaks, and acorns, as well as the sky, the river, and the morning bird—he reports that "Beauty through my senses stole; / I yielded myself to the perfect whole." In this celebratory and rising couplet we hear a suggestion of the same sort of Transcendental sympathy, even merging, he was to detail so often. If the psychological and spiritual significances and nuances are not uttered here, as they so frequently are in his later writings, it is probably because the experience is novel. But, of course, Emerson was never able or even desirous to reduce the Transcendental experience to the terms of the Understanding; such an attempt, even if conceivable, would necessarily have been frustrated. This reluctance is central in his poetry and should be borne in mind. Emerson frequently prefers to suggest rather than state….
One issue which every serious reader must at some time confront is the degree to which Emerson's pastoralism turned him against the developments of urban industrialism in nineteenth-century America. Of course, his dilemma has been shared by intellectuals and artists, including serious writers, since the advent of the industrial revolution. Emerson, as we have seen, has generally been viewed as a figure in the agrarian tradition. His Romantic bias, with its implicit rejection of materialism, has been interpreted as an attempt by him and his fellow Transcendentalists to recapture a sense of awe in the face of nature, a sense of wonder which materialistic urban industrialism had stolen from them. The question can also be explored from a different stance that questions this judgment that Emerson was categorically hostile to the city, an archsymbol of life in the nineteenth century. The suggestion is that Emerson's observation of the dichotomy between the city and nature was not a conclusion but a point of departure for his hope that the city would become more organically related to nature. His hero was neither bumpkin nor slicker, but the reconciler of the pastoral and urban, the cosmopolitan who by carrying the lesson of nature to the cities would alter the patterns of life they were developing. In short, Emerson was no Huck Finn turning his back on the facts of modern life and lighting out for the territory. He was a realist who confronted the facts of nineteenth-century life but whose vision sprang from the high expectations of an optimistic Romantic. He was as open to the possibilities of the proper development of the city as he was to the potentials of machine power and even the factory system. In neither case, though, would Emerson tolerate the materialism which resulted in the absurdity of the machine riding humanity, or the city defining life. Which brings us to a few other pieces in which Emerson celebrates Man's right relations with nature….
"Woodnotes" (1840-41) has been judged [by Joseph Warren Beach in The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry, 1936] to be Emerson's "great comprehensive nature-poem." It is a work of some 460 lines in two parts and relies almost exclusively on octosyllabic couplets. Perfectly traditional in its prosody, it is essentially—at least in the form which Emerson arrived at by the 1876 edition—a celebration of Man's proper relation to Nature. His affirmations are enhanced by the contrasts supplied by several passages in which Man's being out of tune with the cosmos is described. For example, the fifth stanza of "Woodnotes II" commences with an invitation in the voice of the poet to learn with him "the fatal song / Which knits the world in music strong." He sustains the appropriate music metaphor—which he repeatedly sounds when handling Man's relations with the rest of creation—to the point that "Nature beats in perfect tune." This is the reality. But at the same time Man is admonished—"The wood is wiser far than thou." Man, the "poor child! unbound, unrhymed," has somehow in the evolutionary process been "divorced, deceived and left"; he remains undernourished, sickly,
An exile from the wilderness,—
The hills where health with health agrees,
And the wise soul expels disease.
In a word—the one Emerson employs in the first line of the sixth stanza—Man suffers from "bankruptcy" moral, spiritual, emotional, and intellectual. The condition is clearly due to ills such as the "city's poisoning spleen" which had been cited near the beginning of stanza 2 of this second section.
But "Woodnotes," both parts, is largely a celebration of Man's right relation to nature, an exploration of the processes—the surrenders—necessary for him to establish communion and a description of the rewards he will enjoy if he does. Slow-paced and, frankly, prolix and belabored at times, the poem is a Transcendentalist's celebration. Like the titmouse, the pine tree which serves as the subject of the first line of "Woodnotes I" and predominates in "Woodnotes II" serves as a unifying symbol and is key in the illumination which takes place. In short, the lesson offered by the small, commonplace pine—by its very existence and through its hints and bold statements—is crucial to the enlightenment of the consciousness which engages it. In "Woodnotes" as in other poems the poet is not a shaper of nature but rather a seer looking into her.
There is no equivocation in Emerson's establishing the poet at home in the forest. His engagement is simple, physical, and, indeed, Romantic; a "Lover of all things alive," he is a "Wonderer at all he meets, / Wonderer chiefly at himself." At this point the communing poet is cast in the image of Rousseau's awe-struck child during his first encounter with the natural world. Section 2 of "Woodnotes I" further describes the vital connections enjoyed by this "forest seer." Sensitive to and knowledgeable about virtually all facets of nature, he is privy to its secrets as well as its revelations, its common and too frequently overlooked phenomena and occurences. Further, the enchanted, even magical, dimensions of this primal engagement are suggested. It is, "As if by secret sight he knew / Where, in far fields, the orchis grew." The phallic suggestion implicit in "orchis" reinforces the vital, vigorous, nonrational dimensions of the experience. This man is no mere naturalist seeking to classify, no slave to the Understanding. He is the "pilgrim wise," the "philosopher" who receives the secrets of the partridge, woodcock, thrush, and hawk—creatures who are only dimly perceived at a distance by ordinary people.
Prosodically, section 3 of the first part stands unique in the poem. Setting aside the octosyllabic couplets he relies on for virtually the entire poem, Emerson moves into chanting pentameters. In tracing the steps of the forest seer he presents the range and poignancy of his experience in the direct fashion of the catalogue: the Maine wilderness, the forest inhabited by the moose, bear, woodpecker, pine. The seer witnesses the lumberman's felling the noble tree, but unlike the exploiters of the wood (plunderers such as the rapacious tribe of Aaron Thousandacres in Cooper's Chainbearer and the lumber interests which laid bare the land Faulkner's Isaac McCaslin had known) Emerson's "wise man is at home, / His hearth the earth." In nature he is as much in tune and as reverent as Thoreau, Natty Bumppo, and most of Romanticism's heroes, especially the Americans. His "clear spirit" is "By God's own light illumined and foreshadowed."
Section 4, in which Emerson returns to his ballad measure, climaxes the celebration of Man's harmony in nature. The simple, "musing peasant" who is at the "heart of all the scene" testifies to his utter surrender to the forest and to the spirit which inhabits it. Even in death Mother Nature will embrace, enfold this child as he returns to her arms.
Crucial to the entire poem is the quatrain which introduces "Woodnotes II":
As sunbeams stream through liberal space
And nothing jostle or displace,
So waved the pine-tree through my thought
And fanned the dreams it never brought.
The illumination of the receptive consciousness by this humble and commonplace representative of nature, the pine tree, is strikingly captured by means of the sunbeam reference. The pine beckons and enlightens the man, nourishes and sustains him as the sun's rays warm the world. This earth-rooted creature announces the democracy so central to Emerson's thought: "The rough and bearded forester / Is better than the lord." Further, in the evolution of humanity and spirit—creation in general—"The lord is the peasant that was, / The peasant the lord that shall be." But vitality, youth, vigor are, at least for the time being, the peasant's. In the second stanza the tree announces the services it offers to him who will exist in harmony with it. More important, of course, is the moral and spiritual sustenance it promises the person who eschews the distorting and corrupting influences of the civilized world which his race has created, and embraces the pristine and virtuous natural world: "Into that forester shall pass … power and grace." The Mother will protect the "formidable innocence" of her child.
The ecstasy of the wood-god's song intensifies in the third stanza as it offers the "mystic song / Chanted when the sphere was young." Time and space are suspended as the "paean," the song of thanksgiving, rises, "swells." And we are brought back to the "genesis," "The rushing metamorphosis" when fixed nature dissolves and "Melts things that be to things that seem, / And solid nature to a dream." The "chorus of the ancient Causes," however, may not be heard by ordinary mortals whose ears are of stone. Only the pure—die surrendering, transcending seers—may hear it.
The song nears its crescendo as we are invited to compose with the pine a "nobler rhyme." Despite the nationalistic note Emerson injects near the beginning of stanza 4—"Only thy Americans / Can read thy line, can meet thy glance"—the condition the pine has celebrated knows no national boundaries.
In stanza 5, after describing in scorning terms the plight, the tragedy of most people, who are out of tune with the cosmos, Emerson chants the virtues and advantages of the person who will fall into harmony with it and "outsee seers, and outwit sages." The external truth is that "A divine improvisation, / From the heart of God proceeds." Forever evolving, the "eternal Pan" reincarnates itself in "new forms." In describing the Deity in this last and longest stanza of the poem, Emerson reaches for a variety of metaphors: He is the pourer of the precious, nourishing beverage; He is the life-bearing bee, the wide-ranging sheep. Finally, at the end of the pine's increasingly mystical chant, Emerson slips into the abstractions, metaphors, and paradoxes traditional to the explanations of mystics, theologians, and poets:
Thou metest him by centuries,
And lo! he passes like the breeze;
Thou seek'st in globe and galaxy,
He hides in pure transparency;
Thou askest in fountains and in fires,
He is the essence that inquires.
He is the axis of the star;
He is the sparkle of the spar;
He is the heart of every creature;
He is the meaning of each feature;
And his mind is the sky.
Than all it holds more deep, more high.
The nonrational dimension which Emerson has delved into here is impossible to reduce to rational terms. The Transcendental experience he attempts to verbalize plummets to earth the moment it is penetrated and collapsed to ordinary, comprehensible terms. Riddling is evident from the questions posed throughout the poem. How often does wisdom reside in the poignant and penetrating, if unanswerable, question? How frequently is the wise answer in fact a puzzle? Which brings us to the riddle of "The Sphinx."
Emerson's regard for "The Sphinx" (1841) was probably best expressed by his using it as the lead poem in his first collection. Certainly one of his most enduring poems, and probably one of his greatest, "The Sphinx" should be viewed as an expression of the poet's conception of himself as riddler—a revealer of whatever truth he perceives and reports by means of paradox—and as an exploration of the "disjunction between man and nature."
First published in 1841, the poem is more mystical and baffling than most of Emerson's more difficult verse. The sense of eternity and timelessness which emerges near the end of "WoodnotesII" is apparent from the first stanza of "The Sphinx." From time immemorial, while the ages have "slumbered and slept," the drowsy Sphinx has awaited the seer who will reveal her secret to her. The eternal questions are posed: "'The fate of the man-child, / The meaning of man.'" Man is the culminating and most apparent creature, the fruit or upshot of the "unknown"—the force, spirit, motive—at the center of the cosmos. And the scheme or plan which has produced him is Daedalian, one of cunning artifice. The life cycle is called forth in the second quatrain of the stanza: "Out of sleeping a waking"—nonentity and being are not appropriate substitutes for these metaphors, from the Transcendental point of view—and then back to sleep; death, at least physical death, overtakes life, which is itself another layer of mystery, or "deep," beneath the first.
Beginning with stanza 3, Emerson rehearses the harmony of creation. The palm, elephant, thrush, waves, breezes, atoms exist in mutual and perfect unity, inspirited by the universal being "By one music enchanted, / One deity stirred." The human dimension emerges in stanza 6. The babe appears; the Rousseauistic child of conventional Romanticism, even of Platonism, is "bathèd in joy" and "Without cloud, in its eyes." Naturally, it functions and flourishes on a harmonious, integrated, and nonrational level, basking in an essential and all-too-often ignored sustainer of life itself, such as the sun.
But in the next stanza Man out of tune with the cosmos appears; he "crouches and blushes, / Absconds and conceals"—"An oaf, an accomplice, / He poisons the ground." In stanza 8 the sphinx asks who is responsible for Man's fallen state, the "sadness and madness" from which her boy suffers. The analysis—if it might be called such—of the poet commences in stanza 9. First he blames the "Lethe of Nature": While Man's soul might see or sense perfection and long for a harmonious sharing with the universal spirit which inhabits the rest of creation, animate and inanimate, he nevertheless cannot effect his natural desire: "his eyes seek in vain." Perhaps, the poet suggests, the perfection he instinctively seeks is out of reach; life is in fact a series of plateaus, spires, ever-evolving circles, the attainment of one inevitably leading him to desire the next "vision profounder" which once found he will spurn in his desire for "new heavens." In his attempt to explain, or at least understand, this poet admits that he himself suffers from the condition and wishes, for example, that his lover were more noble than to settle on him as the object of affection, attraction, aspiration. The flux, the flow, the unceasing evolution of the cosmos are expressed succinctly with "Eterne alternation." The reassurance of Transcendental faith, however, is offered: "Love works at the centre, / Heart-heaving alway."
The ultimate meaning of the poem does not lie in the all-too-facile explanations of this poet. Rather, it resides in the concluding four stanzas in which the poet—who is not to be identified with Emerson—concludes his answer to the sphinx; she in turn responds; and the narrator-poet—who is close to Emerson if not him—forms what conclusion he can from what he reports as having transpired.
There is clearly an underlying superciliousness and an almost comic self-confidence in the reductive simplicity in the answer of the poet—who is not to be confused with the narrator-poet. It is captured tersely in his conclusion, where he addresses her as "Dull Sphinx" and observes that her "sight is growing blear"—recall the babe's clarity of vision, noted above. He even presumes to prescribe the remedy "Her muddy eyes to clear!" The sphinx, the eternal symbol of silent wisdom, rebukes the insolent, even arrogant fellow who would reduce mystery to logical explanation. The point is that what she reveals is not at all clear. Her statement does not unequivocally answer or attempt to correct the poet's explanation. What insight revealed by Reason can ever be so expressed? Rather the sphinx turns the question on him: You yourself, poet, are the "unanswered question" and if you are capable of seeing that, keep asking it, even though you will know beforehand that each successive answer will in fact be a lie. The signs of wisdom are awe in the face of the mystery, appropriate humility and respect.
If the merry poet is not capable of recognizing the justice of the sphinx's good-humored assault on his explanation, the narrator—presumably Emerson—is more than able. For him the sphinx soars into symbol; she and her message inspirit, illuminate, and in fact merge with the representatives of physical actuality—some startling, some commonplace, but all finally wondrous by virtue of her: stone, cloud, moon, flame, blossom, wave, and mountain. She herself becomes the poet and offers hope to Mankind: '"Who telleth one of my meanings / Is master of all I am'" and the telling simply cannot be on the commonsense level of the Understanding. Rationalism, the curse of modern Man, is the cause of his being out of harmony with the cosmos. Reason, the nonrational, is the way to wisdom. This is the secret shared by the sphinx and the genuine poet—the poet as distinct from the verse-maker. As Dichter, vates, the inspired and wise speaker of riddles, the poet offers truth—reality—and also secures to the degree possible a right relation to the baffling mysteries of the universe and existence.
The variety of Emerson's response to the natural world would not be appreciated were the reader to ignore the joyful lightness of the colloquial, homespun narrative of "The Adirondacs" (1867), a work which reflects his later mellowness and stands in contrast to his Transcendental madness. On its most elementary level the poem records the pleasure experienced by Emerson and his fellows in the Adirondack Club during the 1850s. In recounting the holiday of 1858, he celebrates in a fashion almost cliche the beauty and serenity of the wilderness and the group's shared sense of relief from everyday, insubstantial cares. This is the voice of homespun, laced with a keen sense of the comic:
Hard fare, hard bed and comic misery,—
The midge, the blue-fly and the mosquito
Painted our necks, hands, ankles, with red bands.
Reading even on this level, however, one has to wince at the incongruity, even fatuousness of the joy with which the Transcendentalist reports the vacationers' response to the news that the transatlantic cable has finally been laid. The importance of whether the Princess Adelaide has the whooping cough, the poignant and pointed question raised by Thoreau earlier in the decade, seems of no concern to our speaker in stanzas 17 and 18. Rather, there is a certain resignation—one has to strain too hard to capture an ironic tone—as he accepts his own and his fellows' limited horizons, their apparent inability or lack of desire to engage nature with other than the Understanding. The crowd included the naturalist Louis Agassiz and the comparative anatomist Jeffries Wyman. Stanza 19 commences:
We flee away from cities, but we bring
The best of cities with us, these learned classifiers,
Men knowing what they seek, armed eyes of experts.
The holidays end and civilization intrudes as it simply could not upon the genuine Transcendental experiences he had recorded a decade or two earlier:
And Nature, the inscrutable and mute,
Permitted on her infinite repose
Almost a smile to steal to cheer her sons,
As if one riddle of the Sphinx were guessed.
It is not unfair to suggest that the sense of mystery held forth by the Sphinx of the earlier poem is at best tolerantly alluded to here; it seems no longer to be really desired. As in poems such as "Monadnoc" (1847), "Musketaquid" (1847), "Waldeinsamkeit" (1858), and "May-Day" (1867), the sense of mystery and awe is absent, the bardic chants have been abandoned. In this poem a mellower, warmer Emerson, now fifty-five, offers us a Romantic tenderfoot's sensual experience; absent is the burning need for Reason to command and transcendence to occur. The lesson of the guides, the wilderness men of stanzas 7 and 8, is less a model of engagement with nature and of pristine virtue than a homespun alternative to the perfectly acceptable ways of life of the "polished gentlemen," the "Ten scholars" in whose company Emerson enjoys his recreation. In short, the civilized and the wilderness seem to have been reconciled in the glow of late middle age.
Not all of Emerson's poetry concerns Man's relations with nature or the art of the poet. Among what promise to be the more enduring works, there are several which contemplate and speak to the issues which gave rise to the Civil War, and several others which articulate deeply felt personal experiences, notably the death of his son Waldo. In addition there is a small gathering of poems for public occasions, the best of which is the "Concord Hymn."
The work Emerson placed last in his first collection, "Concord Hymn" was first sung at the celebration marking the completion of the Revolutionary War battle monument on which it is carved. A public, patriotic utterance, first delivered on July 4, 1837, the poem stands—and rightly so—as one of the most memorable of its genre. Composed of four quatrains in octosyllabics, it begins with an inspiring tribute to the "embattled farmers" who "fired the shot heard round the world"—one of Emerson's better remembered lines. The second stanza notes the passage of time and the attending change which has been wrought; the third focuses on the events of the commemoration; and the final quatrain sings the message which is the principal purpose of the poem: "Bid Time and Nature gently spare / The shaft we raise." The most remarkable quality of this dignified public poem is its restraint, its controlled emotion and skillful avoidance of mawkish patriotism.
Slavery is one of the thematic groupings in which we find some excellent poems as well as some of moderate success. The "Ode: Inscribed to W. H. Channing" (1847) has as its primary concern the materialism which informed the political arena inhabited by Daniel Webster. The poem employs tight, emotionally charged dimeters and trimeters and what is best described as erratic rhyming, both of which communicate the intensity of Emerson's feelings on the subject. The first two stanzas in effect apologize for or justify the distance Emerson chose to keep from the political fray. Neither the "priest's cant" nor the "statesman's rant" will force him to abandon his "honied thought." Indeed, if he leaves his study "The angry Muse / Puts confusion in [his] brain." Emerson will simply not raise the specter of compromise, which would open the possibility of his wavering from a position of principle.
Following this self-justification, the voice launches into an angry, actually sneering, attack on Webster. It commences with a rhetorical question regarding the master politician's empty and foolish lip service to "the culture of mankind, / Of better arts and life?" This is unconscionable prating at a time the expansionist government in its hunger for territory is "Harrying Mexico." More malign than the shortsighted and foolish men of "Guy" and "Hamatreya," these materialists are cut from the same cloth as the "jackals" who hold slaves, "little men" before whom "Virtue palters; Right is hence; / Freedom praised, but hid." Reptilian imagery, carrying reference to the betrayal in the Eden myth, winds throughout the poem: "blindworm," "snake," even "stolen fruit." But the climax of Emerson's moral censure and contempt comes in stanzas 6 and 7, which conclude with two of his most memorable lines: "Things are in the saddle, / And ride mankind." The upshot of this gross and callous materialism is that man is unkinged, the "law for thing[s] … runs wild." Expansion, commerce, development, and exploitation have become ends in and of themselves. The tone of the last two stanzas is more restrained, prophetic. Emerson is not calling upon the "wrinkled shopman" to commune with nature, nor is he asking the powerful senator to "Ask votes of thrushes in the solitudes." Rather, with the calm assurance of the reflecting and principled Transcendentalist, he is predicting that Freedom will carry the war if not the battle. Flux, change, balance, compensation will right the wrongs. Ultimately, the affairs of the nation will be in the hands of leaders and followers who will be better than the "little men" with whom "The God who made New Hampshire [has] / Taunted the lofty land…."
A few poems which should continue to stand the test of time are autobiographical and reveal the deep stress to which Emerson was subjected during his great creative period in the 1830s and 1840s.
"Threnody" (1847), one of his most personal utterances, is an elegy which bares the emotional pain he suffered when his five-year-old son, Waldo, died early in 1842; it is also a remarkable illustration of the fervor and depth of the poet's Transcendentalism. A fine example of the binary form he favored, the first part sounds the poet's lament and the second expresses what reconciliation, if not consolation, the "deep Heart" offers to assuage the singer's wound. Neither the poem nor the philosophical acceptance of the child's death which it chants was hastily or easily won, as is evident from the slow and difficult development of its sentiments in the journals and letters of the period.
The poem, which is for the most part composed in Emerson's favorite octosyllabic couplets, begins by announcing without irony that, in effect, April is indeed the cruellest month. There is literally no distinction between Emerson and a persona as he reports that the South-wind cannot alter the passing of Waldo, "The darling who shall not return." The poet's anguish is expressed in the commonplace realities—the "empty house"—and vital recollections—Waldo's "silver warble wild"—with which he is left. Most effective in the second stage, and pertinent to the entire poem, is the language of the pulsing, dazzling life which he uses to describe the "wondrous child," the "hyacinthine boy." Stanza 3 asks, among other questions, where the boy is and recalls the enchanting effect he had on the lives he touched, and the next two stanzas are even more specific as Emerson recollects the lad's activities and confronts the emblems of him which remain: the "painted sled," "gathered sticks," "The ominous hole he dug in the sand." And then he offers what becomes an intense and bewildered account of the uninterrupted natural process, which leads him into the transitional passage in which he questions whether there might have been a "watcher," an "angel," in the universe which "Could stoop to heal that only child, / Nature's sweet marvel undefiled." There follows a long section of introspection and a search for philosophical and psychological distinction in which the mourner wonders if, indeed, "Perchance not he but Nature ailed, / The world and not the infant failed." Perhaps the world "was not ripe yet to sustain / A genius of so fine a strain." The eighth stanza, which concludes the first part of the poem, reveals a despairing, confused, and bitter speaker, a man "too much bereft" who can only chant:
O truth's and nature's costly lie!
O trusted broken prophecy!
O richest fortune sourly crossed!
The next two stanzas present the answer of the "deep Heart" which begins with a stern though not scolding response to the anguish of the grieving parent. There is no reason to question Emerson's sincerity in describing the wisdom which sustains him during this period of terrible loss, although readers who seem more emotional than philosophical might wonder at the toughness of the reconciliation. It was a reconciliation, however, won after great difficulty and should even be viewed as an ultimate test of the bereaved father's Transcendental faith. (He addressed the problem in the essay "Experience," which explains some of the thinking necessary to understand the poem.) Beneath his stoicism lies the foundation of compensation and the many other supports of the philosophical system—if it may be labeled such—Emerson had constructed. The wisdom born of speculation and experience was not only hard won but genuine. In a moment of severest test, the death of a loved one—one of the several losses he had endured—the underpinnings he had placed served him well. He did not collapse.
The statement of the "Heart" in "Threnody" is conventionally Emersonian. It asks, "But thou, my votary, weepest thou? / I gave thee sight—where is it now?" There is a reason, although it is beyond Man's ability to grasp it. The tone of the Heart softens, however, in the final stanza as it calls the mourner's attention to the larger process, the inevitable flux, of nature and then asks two poignant, rhetorical questions, positive answers to which would be absurd:
Wilt thou freeze love's tidal flow,
Whose streams through Nature circling go?
Nail the wild star to its track
On the half-climbed zodiac?
Change is at the center of the evolving universe, change from which nothing can escape. Emerson relies on a group of organic metaphors to define this evolution born of flux: "bending reeds, / Flowering grass and scented weeds." If this cannot be reduced to rational terms, to the context of Understanding, so much the better. It is in fact a matter of Reason, of faith; the poet is admonished to "Revere the Maker," who rushes silently "Through ruined systems still restored." Appropriately enough, the paradox of the last line—"Lost in God, in Godhead found"—is introduced by the images of death and larger vision which are joined in the two preceding lines of the poem: "Apples of Eden ripe to-morrow. / House and tenant go to ground"
The stoicism and organicism of "Threnody" offer one avenue to the appreciation of "Give All to Love" (1847). One senses the same depth of feeling here as in the lament for the dead Waldo. After describing in rather abstract terms the intensity of the emotion and the Tightness of surrender, Emerson cautions, "Yet, hear me, yet." Anticipate, prepare for her fleeing by accepting it and recognizing that despite the immediate and apparent pain which the beloved's departure causes, her leaving is natural, even inevitable. Rightly understood, it is even an occasion for rejoicing for new insight: "When half-gods go"—that is, earthly love departs—"The gods arrive" with then wisdom born of Reason. Stoic perhaps even to the point of coldness, the sentiment is from the same Transcendental fabric as that of "Threnody."
There is no more fitting work than "Terminus" with which to end this discussion of Emerson's poetry. Although it was collected in May-Day and Other Pieces in 1867, it probably was composed in the 1850s, shortly after the burst of poetic activity which preceded the publication of the first collection of poems. "Terminus" is a weary and gentle poem, movingly honest and, it seems, overly modest in its assessment of Emerson's own gifts and accomplishments. The fires which had ignited his imagination are at least banked. The poem commences with a lamentation that "It is time to be old, / To take in sail," and he announces that what power has inspired him, "The god of bounds," has ordered him
The organic metaphor is appropriate; the sense of limit and failing potential is scarcely redeemed by the suggestion that the poet will "Mature the unfallen fruit," perhaps such poems as "The Adirondacs" and "The Titmouse." More touching and disturbing is the sense of failure which concludes the first stanza. Of course, Emerson is referring to his lineage here, but more important he is describing his own ambivalence, his suspension, which caused his lack of success "Amid the gladiators" of the world of action as well as "Amid the Muses" who left him "deaf and dumb." This is not merely false modesty, a clever if transparent bid for contradiction by the reader, but it might betray a disturbing lack of comprehension of his achievement, or it might even suggest that the piece was composed during a period of deep depression. The bleakness of the poem is scarcely redeemed by the resignation one hears in the last stanza—"I trim myself to the storm of time"—or by the stoic fortitude recommended by the words of the god which conclude the poem:
Lowly faithful, banish fear,
Right onward drive unharmed;
The port, well worth the cruise, is near,
And every wave is charmed.
The number of Emerson's poems which have endured, and those which might continue to, may be modest. But then, aside from the giants of English poetry who reign as strongly today as they have in the past centuries—Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton certainly—is Emerson's achievement significantly less than that of others in the second and third tiers of the English poetic tradition? Probably not. Although one early critic [W.T. Harris] undoubtedly overstated the case when he suggested that Emerson's poetry would probably outlast his prose, among American poets Emerson does deserve, by virtue of those remarkably intense and technically accomplished works discussed in this chapter, to hold a place equal to that of our dozen most important poets. At least, to cite a cliché among students of American Romanticism, if Emerson is "not our greatest writer," he is "our only inescapable one…. Denied or scorned, he turns up again in every opponent, however orthodox, classical, conservative or even just Southern" [Harold Bloom in The Ringers in the Tower, 1971]. True as this less than faint praise may be—and it is perhaps a strategy of defense which the reader should hear with irony—the fact remains that Emerson at his best gave us some of our finest poems.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1287
Burkholder, Robert E. and Myerson, Joel. Emerson: An Annotated Bibliography. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1994, 234 p.
Annotated bibliography of writings on Emerson, arranged chronologically between 1980 and 1991.
Burkholder, Robert E. and Myerson, Joel. Emerson: An Annotated Secondary Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985, 842 p.
Annotated bibliography of writings on Emerson, arranged chronologically between 1816 and 1979.
Myerson, Joel. Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Descriptive Bibliography. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1982, 802 p.
Lists and describes works written or edited by Emerson, arranged chronologically.
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981, 751 p.
Critically acclaimed biography focusing on Emerson's intellectual sources.
Cabot, Eliot. A Memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889, 809 p.
Written by Emerson's friend, literary executor and authorized biographer, it contains material from Emerson's private papers, journals and correspondence providing the standard source for biographical information through the midtwentieth century.
Conway, Daniel Moncure. Emerson at Home and Abroad. 1882; rpt. Boston: James R. Osgood, 1968, 383 p.
An entertaining collection of incidents in Emerson's life set forth from private reminiscences and literary sources.
McAleer, John. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Days of Encounter. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1984, 748 p.
Focuses on Emerson's interaction with family and friends.
Miles, Josephine. Ralph Waldo Emerson. University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers, edited by William Van O'Connor, Allen Tate, Leonard Ungar, and Robert Penn Warren, No. 41. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1964, 48 p.
A cogent biographical and critical introduction to Emerson.
Pommer, Henry F. Emerson's First Marriage. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, 126 p.
Provides a sensitive portrait of Ellen Tucker and Emerson's relationship with her.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr. Emerson, The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 671 p.
A definitive biography, presenting an intellectual, personal and social portrait.
Rusk, Ralph L. The Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Scribners, 1949, 592 p.
A seminal biography, it provides an abundance of facts gleaned from Emerson's original manuscripts as well as prior critical and biographical sources.
Anderson, John Q. The Liberating Gods, Emerson on Poets and Poetry. Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1971, 128 p.
Discusses Emerson's views on poetry and other poets through a study of his essays, journals, letters and poems.
Arnold, Matthew. "Emerson." In Discourses in America, pp. 138-208. 1884; rpt. New York: Macmillan Company, 1924.
Faults Emerson's poetry stating that it lacks concrete imagery, energy, passion, and grace.
Biasing, Mutlu Konuk. "Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essaying the Poet." In American Poetry: The Rhetoric of Its Forms, pp. 67-83. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987.
Provides an overview of Emerson's poetry and essays "in terms of their different yet complementary intentions."
Brittin, Norman A. "Emerson and the Metaphysical Poets." American Literature 8 (March 1936): 1-21.
Reviews Emerson's poetry as exemplifying the metaphysical style of poets such as George Herbert.
Cameron, Kenneth. Transcendentalists in Tradition: Popularization of Emerson, Thoreau and the Concord School of Philosophy. Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1980, 263 P.
Reveals the roles of Charles Malloy and Franklin Benjamin Sanborn in popularizing Emerson's poems.
Carpenter, Frederic Ives. 'The Wisdom of the Brahmins." In Emerson and Asia, pp. 103-60. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.
Applies Hindu philosophy to the poems "Hamatreya" and "Brahma."
Eberhart, Richard. "Emerson and Wallace Stevens." In Of Poetry and Poets, pp. 153-71. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1979.
Compares the characteristics of Emerson's and Stevens's poetry.
Francis, Richard L. "Archangel in the Pleached Garden: Emerson's Poetry." Journal of English Literary History 33 (December 1966): 461-72.
Reviews Emerson's mythological and ontological poems that express the "Order" of the universe.
Garrod, H. W. "Emerson." In Poetry and the Criticism of Life: The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures for 1929-1930, pp. 85-107. 1931; rpt. New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.
Considers Emerson's poetry to be epigrammatic but, nonetheless, deserving of more praise than it had formerly received.
Gelpi, Albert. "Emerson: The Paradox of Organic Form." In Emerson: Prophecy, Metamorphosis, and Influence, edited by David Levin, pp. 149-70. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.
Examines Emerson's theory of poetics, focusing on the relationship between inspiration and poetic form.
Gilman, Owen W., Jr. "Merlin: E. A. Robinson's Debt to Emerson." Colby Library Quarterly 21 (September 1985): 134-41.
Reveals similarities between Robinson's poem and Emerson's two "Merlin" poems.
Hakutani, Yohinobu. "Emerson, Whitman and Zen Buddhism." Midwest Quarterly XXXI, No.4 (Summer 1990): 433-48.
Discusses Zen concepts evident in Emerson's poems.
Hubbell, George S. A Concordance to the Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: H.W. Wilson, 1932, 303 p.
Provides a useful concordance as a means to tracing imagery and interpreting symbolism in Emerson's poetry.
Kennedy, William Sloane. "Clews to Emerson's Mystic Verse." American Transcendental Quarterly, No. 29 (Winter 1976): 2-20.
Reprints an essay originally published in 1903 explicating mythological, mystical, and occult elements in Emerson's poetry.
Kreymborg, Alfred. "The Intoxicated Emerson." In Our Singing Strength: An Outline of American poetry (1620-1939), pp. 67-83. New York: Coward-McCann, 1929.
Discusses Emerson's poetry emphasizing his occasionally robust tone.
Malloy, Charles. A Study of Emerson's Major Poems, edited by Kenneth Walter Cameron, Hartford: Transcendental Books, 1973, 123 p.
Reprints Malloy's explications originally published in literary magazines during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries.
Masters, Edgar Lee. "Presenting Emerson." In The Living Thoughts of Emerson, pp. 1-41. New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., 1940.
A laudatory presentation of Emerson's philosophy as found in his essays and poetry.
McEuen, Kathryn A. "Emerson's Rhymes." American Literature 20 (March 1948): 31-42.
Defends Emerson's often imperfect rhymes as evidence of his breaking from tradition rather than examples of stylistic incompetence.
Myerson, Joel, ed. Emerson and Thoreau, The Contemporary Reviews. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 450 p.
Reprints criticism that appeared within a year of the publication of Emerson's works.
Orth, Ralph H.; von Frank, Albert J.; Allardt, Linda; and Hill, David W.; ed. The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986, 990 p.
Provides Emerson's poetry journals containing previously unpublished verse and details on the composition and publication histories of the poems.
Santayana, George. "Emerson." In Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, pp. 131-40. 1900; rpt. Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 1989.
Praises the beauty and originality of Emerson's poetic style.
Strauch, Carl. "The Year of Emerson's Poetic Maturity: 1834." Philological Quarterly 34 (1955): 353-77.
Discusses "Xenophanes," "Each and All," 'The Rhodora," and "The Snow Storm" and the influence on Emerson of works by Coleridge, Goethe, and Wordsworth.
——. 'The Mind's Voice: Emerson's Poetic Styles." Emerson Society Quarterly 60 (1970): 43-59.
Discusses Romantic, Old English, Bardic and Neo-Platonic influences on Emerson's poetic style and defends the poetry as experimental in meter and rhyme, arguing for its effectiveness.
Sudol, Ronald A. '"The Adirondacs' and Technology." In Emerson Centenary Essays, edited by Joel Myerson, pp. 173-9. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1982.
Provides background and analysis of Emerson's 342-line poem, 'The Adirondacs."
Thompson, Frank T. "Emerson's Theory and Practice of Poetry." PMLA XLIII, No. 4 (December 1928): 1170-84.
Traces the influence of Wordsworth and Coleridge on Emerson's poetry.
Winters, Yvor. "Jones Very and R.W. Emerson: Aspects of New England Mysticism." In Maule's Curse: Seven Studies in the History of American Obscurantism, pp. 125-46. Norfolk, Conn.: New Directions Press, 1938.
Condemns Emerson's poetry as expressing immoral, "pernicious" views.
Yoder, R. A. Emerson and the Orphic Poet in America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978, 240 p.
Regards Emerson's views on poetry and the role of the poet as adapting and redirecting the convictions of European Romanticism.
Yohannan, J. D. "Emerson's Translations of Persian Poetry From German Sources." American Literature 14 (January 1943): 407-20.
Examines and lists the translations of and essays about Persian poetry read by Emerson written by German literary historians.
——. "The influence of Persian Poetry on Emerson's Work." American Literature 15 (March 1943): 25-41.
Examines Emerson's references to Persian poetry.
Additional coverage of Emerson's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 1, 38; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Most-Studied Authors Module; DISCovering Authors: Poets Module; World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography 1640-1865; and Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 1, 59, 73.
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