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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:

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.

This passage, like so many in his great essays, describes itself, its own idiosyncratic “architecture.” This is what Emerson meant when he called for a literature of “insight and not of tradition.” Each sentence is an innovation, “a new thing.” Emerson didn’t want to write poems about the New World. He wanted poems to make the world new. It is fascinating, therefore, to see how he arranged for his own swift obsolescence. His poems sometimes feel intentionally slight, as though making way for the accelerating future, still at his back but quickly gaining on him. His prose was poetry by other means, calling for its own mirror image, a poetry whose “argument” trumped its forms.

Emerson was not the poet he had in mind in “The Poet.” In 1840, Alexis de Tocqueville had prophesied an American poetry free of “legendary lays,” “old traditions,” “supernatural beings,” masks, and personifications. Americans led “petty” and “insipid” lives, “crowded with paltry interests”: their lives were “anti-poetic.” The only subject possible for an American poet was humankind; luckily, as Tocqueville wrote, “the poet needs no more.” Emerson, who spent most of his life cultivating the aura of an elder, called for “a brood of Titans” who would “run up the mountains of the West with the errand of genius and love.”

In July of 1855, Emerson got the poet he’d been calling for. He picked up a parcel from the Concord post office which contained the first edition of “Leaves of Grass,” sent anonymously from Brooklyn by its author. The book was unsigned, though there was a frontispiece portrait, the name “Walter Whitman” on the copyright page, and, inside, the jubilant line “Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos. ” After a little hunting, Emerson found Whitman’s name and the address of his distributor in a newspaper advertisement. He then wrote his famous letter to Whitman, welcoming him to immortality: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere for such a start.”

In response, Whitman published the letter in the book’s next edition, along with twenty new poems and his own open letter to Emerson of several thousand words celebrating “that vast basis of the supremacy of Individuality—that new moral American continent” whose “shores you found”:

I say you have led The States there—have led Me there. I say that none has ever done, or ever can do, a greater deed for The States, than your deed. Others may line out the lines, build cities, work mines, break up farms; it is yours to have been the original true Captain who put to sea, intuitive, positive, rendering the first report, to be told less by any report, and more by the mariners of a thousand bays, in each tack of their arriving and departing, many years after you.

Whitman was a fact of American life from that moment forward. It took a little longer for an equally important disciple to surface: Emily Dickinson, who treasured an edition of Emerson’s poems given to her by an admirer, and whose brother and sister-in-law, Austin and Susan Dickinson, had hosted Emerson many times at their handsome house, the Evergreens, just across the field from her home. Of course, Dickinson’s poems sound nothing like Emerson’s. He provided, for the wild synaptic activity of his protégés, the framework. He was their server. If Emerson’s poems had been just a little better than they were, we might not have American literature as we know it. Our greatest writers, seeing their own visions usurped, might have been content to remain his readers. ♦

3 Comments

  1. Adam on January 15, 2018 at 5:54 pm

    Hi there, I was reading this with interest but it ends abruptly with a colon. Did the copy-pasting go wrong or is there something I didn’t get…?

    • admin on January 19, 2018 at 12:13 pm

      Adam, thank you for alerting us. We are in the process of restoring the site with a new cleaner design and it is quite the daunting task. We will get this corrected as soon as we can.

  2. pengfei li on May 17, 2018 at 3:57 am

    if a man has a heart of justice, to certain degree and scales he is god., primitive truthfulness rather than ritual and ceremony

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