How Ralph Waldo Emerson Changed American Poetry

The listlessness of Emerson’s poetry is surprising, given the veneration he expressed for the art. Some of his best prose is devoted to lobbying for the special advantages of poetry. These works are thrilling because they are written in thrilling sentences. This does not necessarily imply that Emerson’s poetry will be thrilling, though he must have intended his large claims for poetry to be tested on his own work. Like many of his essays, “The Poet” was printed with an original short lyric as its epigraph. The mediocrity of these poem-epigraphs is often emphasized by the essays’ attempts to honor them as superior forms of expression. It makes for a strangely rigged contest between turbocharged prose and the rickshaw verse it ostensibly reveres. Emerson’s “poet”—a “complete man,” a “man without impediment,” a “sayer” and “namer,” like Adam—would not have printed the lacklustre verses appended to “The Poet,” which venerate “Olympian bards” and “divine ideas” with rhymes as bouncy as a Super Ball.

In “Merlin I,” written, like “The Poet,” in the eighteen-forties, Emerson plays the unwinnable game of arguing in metre against metre and in rhyme against rhyme:

Emerson kept an Aeolian harp in a window of his house. He intended to build in verse its equivalent, an instrument that nature could play. But the instrument itself was old-fashioned, gaudy, and domestic.

Emerson’s ideas were obviously badly served by the rickety verse structures he built for them. Seeing them strain and buckle under the weight of his mind and ambition led him, in “The Poet,” to call not only for a new kind of poem, which, at least in theory, he could have written, but for a wholly new kind of person, a person he wasn’t and didn’t want to become. His best poems—“Each and All,” “Brahma,” “The Rhodora,” “The Snow-Storm”—are refinements of oratory to the special rhetorical technologies of poetry. But his quicksilver prose was poetry, its sentences like signal flares launched one after another into the ether. What he says about the poet is truer of those astonishing prose performances:

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