Ralph Waldo Emerson
On Emerson's Poetry
Ellen Moore, VCU
One idea that surfaced again and again in writings about Emerson's poetry is the notion that while he was technically capable of writing a decent, thought-provoking poem, he lacked what many would call the "soul of a poet." It seems that Emerson was incredibly interested in poets, especially the new poets, and the writing of poetry, as evidenced by his essay "The Poet" as well as his encouragement of poets such as Jones Very and Walt Whitman. Yet, according to many critics, he never really mastered the writing of poetry himself.
According to poet Matthew Arnold, "in truth, one of the legitimate poets, Emerson, in my opinion, is not. His poetry is interesting, it makes one think; but it is not the poetry of one of the born poets" (Porter 7). Arnold seems to suggest that one cannot decide to become a poet by taking the necessary classes and training. One must be born with the need, the desire and the talent to write poetry. Many modern critics would disagree with this notion that poets are born with powers that other lack, yet one wonders how the Transcendentalists felt about it. They seem to believe that individuals should seek their own truths and live by them, disregarding conventions and the opinions of the masses. If Emerson knew, and one can only speculate whether or not he did, that he was not truly a great poet, then we must ask question of why he pushed so hard to be a poet. It's a difficult question to answer, because no one can ever know what Emerson honestly believed as his individual truth. We only know the persona that he portrayed in his speeches, essays, and to some extent, even his poems.
While many doubt his poetic abilities, there is little doubt that Emerson was extremely well-read and fascinated by poetry. One poet by whom Emerson was influenced and intrigued was the Persian poet Hafez. Emerson read everything he could by and about Hafez. He even translated some of Hafez's poems into English and was particularly enamored with Hafez's 'rubai' form, which consists of four-line stanzas and an ABAB rhyme scheme (Richardson 423-24).
According to Richardson, "almost everything about Hafez appealed to Emerson: his directness, his fondness for short forms, his wit, his imagery, his lack of preachiness, his sensuousness his ecstatic, joy-filled lyric celebration of life" (423).
Although Emerson admired many elements of Hafez's style, it wasn't easy for him to adopt those characteristics into his own poetry. While his essays and speeches, such as "The Poet," "Circles" and "Fate" are still widely read today, his poems are given less attention. Most think of Emerson first as a Transcendentalist, next as an essayist, then a philosopher, and perhaps at some point he is considered a poet.
Critic Eliza New believes that "the paradox of Emerson's career is that his failure as a poet derives from his brilliance as a theorist" (New 43). So, in other words, perhaps we should appreciate the fact that Emerson's poetry left much to be desired from many readers and critics. Had he been able to write the poetry that he wanted to, it's possible that Emerson would have never written the essays and speeches for which he is most famous. Perhaps he put too much thought into his poetry and not enough feeling.
Although many critics are very harsh toward Emerson's poetry, one critic, Roy Harvey Pearce, seems to be an admirer. He goes into great depth explicating some of Emerson's poems and also has a lot to say about Emerson's contributions to poetry in general.
In the process, the world must yield to what is the poet's excuse for being, his humanity. In his humanity is one source of the world's perfection; in his poetry the means to transcend its anti-poetry. So that the world yields everything and gains more--itself, itself made whole. Also it gains the poet and the vision of man which only he can reveal (Pearce 164).Here, Pearce seems to be suggesting that the poet's role is not only to define his place in the world but also to define the world in a larger sense. He suggests that this is an impetus for Emerson's poetry as well his (Emerson's) interest in other poets and poetry.
According to Pearce, Emerson wants his poetry to be less than perfect. "Emerson, we come to realize, wants his poetry to be slippery, because he is always skeptical about that which is tightly and firmly ordered; it might be too much under control" (273). While I don't see Emerson's desire for his poetry to be less than controlled, I can somewhat understand Pearce's point. Pearce's idea seems to illustrate just how much thought and effort Emerson put into writing poetry. However, it seems that the majority of Emerson's critics felt his poetry was too deliberate and controlled as opposed to free and full of emotion.
The connection to nature characteristic of the Transcendentalists was not lost in Emerson's aesthetics. Many of his poems, including "The Rhodora" and "The Snow-Storm," imply an intimate connection with nature. When meditating on, or immersed in, nature, Emerson's imagination was often intensely engaged. However, it is not the infinity or limitlessness of nature that set his imagination on fire, it was actually the groundedness of a closer connection with earth that he desired (Waggoner 166).
Olaf Hansen, in his book Aesthetic Individualism and Practical Intellect, asserts that symbolism and history are the most important aspects of Emerson's aesthetics. "If every fact, as Emerson points out, is a symbol, we have to choose from an infinite number of possibilities of symbolization in order to achieve some sort of coherent image of one world" (Hansen 91). I suppose that the "we" Hansen refers to is Emerson's readers, but it could also be directed at anyone reading and/or writing poetry. The idea he puts forth relates very closely to Transcendentalism in that it suggests that each individual chooses his or her own interpretation of symbols, thereby leaving everything open-ended and limitless, similar to Emerson's circle metaphor, with no clear beginning and no end.
Perhaps the most revered and well-respected of the Transcendentalists (along with Thoreau), Emerson had a great impact on poetry. Although the quality of his own poetry is often questioned, it is almost impossible to deny Emerson's lasting effects on poetry. He was a great encourager of other poets, including Walt Whitman and Jones Very. Also, some of the Transcendental ideas that Emerson wrote about and contemplated, such as the individual pursuit of truth, the symbolism that can be extracted from nature and the circular, never-ending process of art and truth, are often included in the poetry and prose of our time.
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