Poets and poetry were always of central importance to Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), as evidenced not only by the large quantity of his published and unpublished verse but also by the way in which he defined his vocation. As he wrote to his wife in 1842, "I am in all my theory, ethics, & politics a poet" (Letters 3:18). Even this remark suggests, however, that what he meant by "poet" exceeds what the term ordinarily denotes. This surplus defines his essay "The Poet," driving its discussion well beyond the bounds of poetry itself, which signifies to Emerson less a set of literary practices than a particular way of being in the world. One of Emerson's best-known, most-reprinted essays, "The Poet" (1844) is often invoked as a key statement of that loose American Romantic movement known as transcendentalism, as a landmark document for American poetry and criticism, and as a useful window on Emerson's own ideas and style. He worked on this essay slowly and repeatedly, even into the month it first appeared in Essays: Second Series (1844). By this time, the forty-one-year-old author had already solidified his place as one of the young nation's leading cultural voices. "The Poet" is well known for its grand declarations but like most of Emerson's writing is not reducible to easy formulas, for it includes an element of rhetorical extravagance that makes his work both a delight and a stumbling block for readers.
The essay begins with a literary focus, as Emerson tries to position the reader against "esteemed umpires of taste" who shrink poetry to little more than an effete, leisure pursuit comparable to a garden party. While he suggests that such poetry is good merely "for amusement or for show," perhaps worst of all it is so "civil and conformed" as to keep both writers and their readers "at a safe distance from their experience" (Collected Works 3:3, 6). In contrast to this inauthentic poetry, and to the malaise of which it is a symptom, Emerson points to a "true poetry" that is an essential philosophical, quasi-religious pursuit in which all of humanity has an urgent and fundamental stake. The rest of the essay is an exposition of this true poetry and its importance, a discussion that ripples outward in widening circles. Emerson's exposition is relatively clear and voices what may be familiar Romantic preoccupations, but readers in the twenty-first century may find it excessive or even strange.
THE POET OF THE SOUL
Emerson's underlying claim is that experience has a spiritual dimension that poetry can reveal. "Spiritual," however, is an elusive term in Emerson because his thinking combines eclectic elements of a deep Protestant inwardness with versions of Platonic and Neoplatonic idealism and post-Kantian epistemology, among other things. In his 1836 book Nature, which made Emerson the unofficial spokesperson for transcendentalism, he had asserted that only an "unrenewed understanding" could believe the materialist idea that "things are ultimates"; on the contrary, "natural facts" are really "symbols of . . . spiritual facts," and "the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind" (Collected Works 1:30, 17, 21).
His discussion of spirituality in "The Poet" similarly refers to the "essential dependence of the material world on thought and volition," an imbroglio of mind and matter that makes nature a mirror in which people glimpse their own power (Collected Works 3:3). The poet is specially equipped as the "interpreter" of this metaphysical and moral lesson, expressing what is most central to people as persons, not only their share in the beauty reflected in nature but also their share in the creative power that made it. In one of the essay's more memorable passages, he says that "we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters" who carry around a portion of the divine "fire"; instead, the "hidden truth" is that people are "children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes" (Collected Works 3:3–4). It is the ultimate empowering message: the world should not be seen as a set of binding facts but as a malleable, ongoing creation in which all can potentially play a part.
This aspect of "The Poet" exemplifies the American transcendentalism that it helped to create. As described, for example, in O. B. Frothingham's classic early analysis of the movement, its hallmarks include both a theoretical assertion of "the immanence of divinity in instinct," which transfers "supernatural attributes to human nature," and a practical assertion of the "inalienable worth of man" and a keen sense of "the unmet capacities" of humankind (pp. 136, 143, 153). The poet, says Emerson, helps people outgrow the status of "minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own" (Collected Works 3:4). Emerson tries to reveal to a world of exiled princes their unsuspected transcendental heritage. In addition to aligning human creativity with universal creative power, he extends this birthright to everyone—the poet is "representative" (Collected Works 3:4).
This premise of unclaimed power leads Emerson to provide two seemingly conflicting descriptions of poets and poetry in the essay. One portrait is consistently ecstatic and relies on idealist and mythical associations to elevate the poet to extravagant heights. The poet is cast as a "sovereign," an "emperor," even a "liberating god" (Collected Works 3:5). Yet in other descriptions, Emerson presents an oppositional figure without public power, an outcast who "is isolated among his contemporaries, by truth and by his art" (Collected Works 3:4), and he ends the essay by exhorting the American poet to turn his or her back on the world and its affairs. This alienation was a recurrent Emersonian theme, versified, for example, in his poem "Woodnotes I": "hard / Is the fortune of the bard"; "With none has he to do, / And none seek him"; a "Planter of celestial plants, / What he knows nobody wants" (Collected Poems, p. 35). The two contrasting descriptions are complementary, however. Insisting on the poet's higher truth and status comes in response to the lessening importance of poetry in an increasingly industrial age, and it is part polemic and part compensation. The alienated poet stands aside from the marketplace of commodities and defends alternative, humanizing values.
EMERSON'S ROMANTIC HERITAGE
Emerson's rendition of the poet's powers and vocation lie squarely in the Romantic mainstream. He echoes Percy Bysshe Shelley's assertion in "A Defence of Poetry" (1821) that because the true poet is "the hierophant of an unapprehended inspiration," poets are the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" (pp. 35–36). He follows Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth in distinguishing between the metaphysically potent "Imagination" and the mundane "fancy." There are also Blakean moments in which he defines one's inability to grasp his or her own profound power as a spiritual blindness that threatens to confine one in a blank Ulro: "If any phenomenon remains brute and dark," Emerson says, "it is because the corresponding faculty in the observer is not yet active" (Collected Works 3:9). The poet's task is to awaken the sleepers who do not see that all of creation, down to the most quotidian, participates in beauty and divinity.
"The Poet" is most indebted to Wordsworth, however. Emerson's philosophical version of spirituality, the foundation for what he calls poetry's "metre-making argument," is a close cousin to the "high argument" that Wordsworth had offered in his 1814 preface to "The Excursion":
how exquisitely the individual Mind
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . to the external World
Is fitted:—and how exquisitely, too—
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The external world is fitted to the Mind
And the creation . . .
. . . which they when blended might
Accomplish:—this is our high argument.
Wordsworth also considered nature the touchstone and clearly saw the poet and society as estranged. The opening of Emerson's "The Poet" echoes closely Wordsworth's impatience in his famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads with those "who talk of Poetry as of a matter of amusement and idle pleasure; who will converse with us gravely about a taste for poetry" the way they would "a taste for rope-dancing, or Frontiniac or Sherry" (p. 737). Emerson, though in some ways disappointed by Wordsworth, often expressed the highest praise for him, especially his clear allegiance to a poetic vocation that was at odds with dominant cultural values.
CREATIVE POWER AND "ORGANIC FORM"
Emerson's emphasis on organic form entailed a freedom for poets to resist the normative constraints of received literary form in order for the poem to take the shape of the unique intuition that occasions it, and it is through intuition that consciousness taps the universal creative power. He often uses nature as a model for human creativity.
Come see the north wind's masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number of proportion.
Emerson, "The Snow-Storm," lines 10–17, in Collected Poems, p. 34.
The social and political implications of such ideas about poetry were clear to Emerson, and in this, too, he shows his Romantic pedigree. Wordsworth, William Blake, and their contemporaries had assumed that the American and French Revolutions had initiated a march toward universal justice and happiness. Like his transatlantic predecessors, Emerson saw the poet's oppositional function as part of a wider social critique and saw poetry as a potential aid to renovating both the individual consciousness and an American nation steeped in the "cant of materialism" (Collected Works 3:17). Frothingham recognized that the transcendentalist is "by nature a reformer," a fact underestimated by many subsequent critics (p. 153). Emerson turns the bookish idea that poets are divine messengers into the electric statement that everyone, however latently, shares in world-shaping insight and power. This is a democratizing idea that he advances in several ways in the essay: through his opening analogy between effete classes and inauthenticity in poetry and in life; with the idea of the poet as representative human; and in his promotion, later on, of the nobility of the common classes and their experience. His essay "The American Scholar" (1837) is more direct on this last point, invoking Goethe, Wordsworth, and others as the vanguard of a new day in which
the same movement which effected the elevation of what was called the lowest class in the state, assumed in literature a very marked and as benign an aspect. Instead of the sublime and beautiful; the near, the low, the common, was explored and poetized. . . . The literature of the poor, the feelings of the child, the philosophy of the street, the meaning of household life, are the topics of the time. It is a great stride. (Collected Works 1:67–68)
Raymond Williams notes that modern readers, schooled in what he calls the "dissociation" of literature and politics, may fail to appreciate the continuous or "interlocking" nature of Romantic aesthetic and social concerns (p. 30). In "The Poet," Emerson declares: "Words and deeds are quite indifferent modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words" (Collected Works 3:6). Emerson's poetic and social commitments, including his eventually impassioned involvement in abolition, were of a piece with his Romantic sense of renovation and democratization.
"THE POET" AND AMERICAN LITERARY INDEPENDENCE
Emerson gives this Romantic sense of liberation an American twist and literary focus in "The Poet" that helped to charter a distinctively American poetry. He exhorts writers to focus on the common realities of the American experience, which he catalogs as "our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon, and Texas" (Collected Works 3:22). These are elements of American life that his audience would not have expected, or necessarily wanted, to see as a literary subject, but he elevates their dignity by putting them in a literary frame, asserting that they appear "flat and dull" only to "dull people." For Emerson, history begins with what one takes hold of in the present, and American life, he says, rests "on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy, and the temple of Delphos, and are as swiftly passing away" (Collected Works 3:21–22). Yet he also despairs of the current state of American letters, famously lamenting, "We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials" (Collected Works 3:21–22).
This nativism was meant to break American writers and readers from their ingrained habit of deferring to English and European culture as their yardstick; it was also meant to encourage them to make and appreciate art derived from their own unprecedented circumstances. In the 1840s, despite a decades-old promotion of literary nationalism, cultural deference to England was still the rule, and a relative lack of interest in American writers remained. As Emerson complained to Thomas Carlyle, almost every English book ends up reproduced cheaply in some fashion in America and sold by the hundreds in American streets. Even American writers, who had trouble making a living as literary professionals, focused largely on English or European settings and themes as their proper subjects. His words were a strong tonic for a nascent American literature and helped the country take another decisive step forward in its postcolonial cultural independence from England.
DEFINING THE POET
Emerson defined the poet as one who understands the symbolic nature of reality but always extended this gift to humanity as a whole as its essential, defining characteristic.
The schools of poets, and philosophers, are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace with theirs. . . . Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle. . . . The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!
Emerson, "The Poet," in Collected Works 3:10.
Emerson's essay helped break American poetry away from its transatlantic inheritance in matters of form and style as well as setting and content. Wordsworth's famous Preface had opposed the strictures of neoclassical aesthetics by insisting that poetry should use something like "the real language of men" instead of highly stylized diction and severely fixed forms (like heroic couplets), and like other Romantics he favored organic metaphors to describe the creative process (p. 739). Emerson, however, pushes these renovations a step further. Just as he thought the material world should be reenvisioned as the malleable, changeable form taken by the creative imagination, he thought the form of a given poem should conform to the particular intuition it embodied. In "The Poet" he turns a cold shoulder to those mired in the "study of rules and particulars," preferring the true poet whose "expression is organic" (Collected Works 3:3, 14). Emerson called for a poetry that springs from "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" (Collected Works 3:6). This idea is typically referred to as Emerson's poetics of organic form, so named after a similar distinction made by Coleridge. Emerson elaborates this organicism vividly in his own poems, for example "The Problem," "The Snow-Storm," "Merlin," and "Uriel." As a stylistic corollary, he dismisses the "trivial harp" of conventional poetry and asks the poet to
smite the chords rudely and hard,
As with hammer or with mace:
That they may render back
Artful thunder, which conveys
Secrets of the solar track.
(Collected Poems, p. 91)
EMERSON'S POETIC LEGACY
Despite such radical pronouncements, Emerson's own verse form was usually fairly conventional, though not always, especially in his unpublished manuscript verse. His poetics was in many ways the opposite of that espoused by his American contemporary Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849), whose 1846 "The Philosophy of Composition" presented a more mechanical approach to creativity, based less on intuition than on self-consciously methodical contrivance. Poe thought the "so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists" to be flat and prosaic (p. 32); Emerson thought Poe's approach yielded poetry that earned him the name "the jingle-man" (Howells, p. 58). Many later American poets, unlike Poe, took Emerson as their guide, and the demands made in "The Poet"—a poetry of local materials and organic form—are his primary legacy to American poetry. They simultaneously defied much of the poetry produced in both England and America up to that point; declared, in an era of expanding material wealth and national power, that the poetic imagination should be considered central to human activity; and gave future American poets a new starting point for thinking about their vocation and craft. Most often mentioned as the poet who answered Emerson's call for a peculiarly American genius is Walt Whitman (1819–1892), who seemed self-consciously to enact the Emersonian script, especially in his poetry's democratic cataloging of Americana contained in his poetry and its free-verse forms and colloquial style. His organically titled 1855 Leaves of Grass, especially its preface, often reads like a translation of "The Poet" and "The American Scholar," and Whitman termed Emerson his "dear Master" and "original true Captain" (p. 1336). An Emersonian sensibility surfaces also in Emily Dickinson's verse experiments and in a variety of later poets like Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, Hart Crane, Robinson Jeffers, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and John Ashbery.
EMERSON'S CALL FOR AN AMERICAN BARD
In an era in which America chronically looked to Britain and Europe as the proper sources for literary culture, Emerson's essay threw down the gauntlet to American writers and readers, challenging them recognize the American scene as a unique and rich source of poetic material. His call for an American bard fired the imagination especially of Walt Whitman.
I look in vain for the poet whom I describe. We do not, with sufficient plainness, or sufficient profoundness, address ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance. . . . America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.
Emerson, "The Poet," in Collected Works 3:21–22.
While his insistence on organic form and local materials was crucial to American poetic history, a subtler and less-remarked claim that Emerson makes in "The Poet" was equally important, and it also helps counterbalance the idealist and mystical extremes for which the essay is typically remembered. Emerson's poetics has often been described, because of this essay and others like it, as a form of divination, a theory of creativity based upon "the fusion of the human soul with the Divine," as one influential study put it in 1951 (Hopkins, p. 17). Yet while he seems to promote the dream of a perfect language and to gesture beyond human experience to a transcendental realm that the true poet unlocks, ultimately Emerson places the power and liberating function of poetry on a much less Platonic foundation. Later poets also imbibed from him the notion that the strength of poetic language rests not simply upon its symbolic and metaphoric function but also on what he called the "accidency and fugacity of the symbol" (Collected Works 3:12), which entails a restless imperfection that is built into language itself. This issue is perhaps best approached through another of Emerson's apparently contradictory descriptions of poets and poetry in this essay.
On one hand, Emerson paradoxically links the creativity and authority of the poet to passive inspiration. He describes the true poet's task as overhearing in nature a divine conversation that can then be reported to everyone else, and he uses the phrase "abandonment to the nature of things" to describe a receptive self-surrender that is needed. The poet, in this view, is no artisan who succeeds by virtue of "industry and skill in metre" but a seer who lets the "ethereal tides . . . roll and circulate through him" (Collected Works 3:6, 16). He compares the poet's dependence on his unwilled intuitions to a lost traveler on horseback who must throw the reins on the neck of his horse and trust it to find the right path (Collected Works 3:6, 15–16, 3). This kind of description is one reason why "The Poet" is often cited as evidence of Emerson's mystical or Platonic definition of the poet and poetry.
Yet alongside this emphasis on passive inspiration is the more skeptical idea that the poet and language always fail as messengers of divinity. Emerson acknowledges that poems are always "a corrupt version." "We lose," he says, "ever and anon a word, or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus mis-write the poem." People's "transcripts" of divine truth are always "imperfect" (Collected Works 3:15, 6). Words, he says in Nature, are only "finite organs" that "break, chop, and impoverish" truth (Collected Works 1:28). This second, more skeptical emphasis lies at the heart of the essay, for it links Emerson's insistence on the malleable nature of the world to his ideas about language. In "The Poet" Emerson takes great pains to portray the world as a "flowing or metamorphosis" and the poet as the person adept in the "manifold meaning of every sensuous fact" and in the symbolic resources of language. Poetry is a better guide to life than mysticism or religious doctrine, which attempt to "nail" language to a single transcendent truth that words can supposedly reveal. But for Emerson, all truths eventually become a "prison"; symbols are necessarily "fluxional," partial, and temporary. Literature, therefore, is most useful for "stimulating us through its tropes," not for offering final revelations (Collected Works 3:4–5, 18–20). Poetry helps people skate more successfully on the surfaces of experience, an ability he calls (in the essay "Experience" ) "the true art of life" (Collected Works 3:35). This is a side of Emerson that appeals to neo-pragmatist readers.
Failure to be the perfect Platonic poet, whose word encompasses the ideal, turns out not to be a failure at all. Emerson ultimately anchors the poet's power in the ability to ride upon the "fugacity of the symbol" toward successive redescriptions of experience that disclose new angles of vision. This is another important Emersonian legacy to American poetry, echoed for example in Frost's "Education by Poetry" and Stevens's The Necessary Angel. The poet's ability to free people from their received and habitual ways of seeing is perhaps the best context for understanding Emerson's description of poets as "liberating gods" and agents of "liberation" and "emancipation." This claim need not be taken solely in aesthetic terms because dislodging received truths is also the essence of reform. A malleable world is a reformable world.
THE EMERSONIAN INFLUENCE
Emerson insisted on the "transitive" and symbolic nature of language as the source of poetry's ability to liberate its readers; this idea also liberated American poetry and, along with his corollary emphasis on "organic form," was a potent influence on twentieth-century poets.
For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one.
Emerson, "The Poet," in Collected Works 3:20.
EXTRAVAGANCE: EMERSON'S RHETORIC AND STYLE
The contradiction between the passive, divinely inspired seer and the maker who shapes a contingent, protean language is not resolved in this essay, nor elsewhere in Emerson for that matter. The issue of passivity is especially interesting because in other texts, and even in his own habits of composition, he makes clear that writing requires strenuous effort and a "multitude of trials and a thousand rejections" (Early Lectures 1:317–318). It is important to consider why such discrepancies would be allowed to stand. In fact the polarities often found in Emerson's essays are rhetorically strategic, and the extravagant transcendental claims he makes in "The Poet" should be understood in this light.
One limited context to keep in mind is how the essay functions within the book that contains it. "The Poet" is a companion piece to the essay immediately following in Essays: Second Series, "Experience," another key Emerson text. Published (like "The Poet") shortly after the tragic death of his seven-year-old son Waldo, "Experience" is considered Emerson's great ode to dejection, a reference to Romantic writing that expresses spiritual exhaustion in the face of a world grown hostile, empty, and flat. In that essay readers glimpse a darker Emerson who asks, "Where do we find ourselves?" and who gives the discouraging answer that "we glide through nature" feeling homeless, "ghost-like," and enslaved to "the lords of life" (Collected Works 3:27, 25, 23). The underlying theme of "The Poet," on the other hand, is liberation and power, and its controlling tone is one of exhortation. It offers a contrasting declaration of human power and transcendence that one critic aptly refers to as an "almost manic optimism" (Rossi, p. 132). These two essays should be seen as halves of a single temperament and single purpose, each an exaggerated Emersonian mood that attempts to highlight a side of the human situation.
But perhaps the larger and more important context for readers is that exhortation and exaggeration are stylistic and rhetorical elements common in Emerson's writing overall. Readers who are tone deaf to Emerson's extravagance are likely to turn some of his statements against him as evidence of philosophical or ideological naïveté, or worse. The history of Emerson criticism is marked by what Michael Lopez calls an "anti-Emerson" tradition that has been fueled in part by such misunderstandings. Emerson states in "The Poet" that the poet's goal is "announcement and affirming," and his essay "Art" (1841) says the artist's is to "exhilarate, . . . awakening in the beholder the . . . sense of universal relation and power" (Collected Works 3:8; 2:215). These are Emerson's goals in "The Poet." He does not rely on naturalistic descriptions of poets and poetry to achieve them, however. Instead, he uses provocative overstatement, presenting idealized poets, poetry, and poetic authority to awaken in his audience a sense of their dormant powers. Emerson says that any "strong performance" requires "a little fanaticism," and certainly his essays are performances (Emerson in Concord, p. 95). "The Poet" provides a good example of an essay in which Emerson uses his stylistic and rhetorical tools to follow the counsel he gave in "The American Scholar": "The office of the scholar is to cheer, to raise, and to guide" (Collected Works 1:62).
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Joseph M. Thomas