Ralph Waldo Emerson’s American poetry.
BY DAN CHIASSON
In January of 1842, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s firstborn child, Waldo, contracted scarlet fever and died within a week. He was five. He had been his father’s exuberant companion, who had, Emerson wrote, “touched with his lively curiosity every trivial fact & circumstance in the household.” Henry David Thoreau, who had lodged with the Emersons, “charmed Waldo by the variety of toys whistles boats popguns & all kinds of instruments which he could make & mend.” The death was a shock to the entire village of Concord, Massachusetts. When the nine-year-old Louisa May Alcott came to the Emersons’ door to ask about Waldo, she was greeted, she wrote, by an Emerson “worn with watching and changed by sorrow.” All he said was “Child, he is dead.” Alcott called it her “first glimpse of a great grief.”
But the grief did not feel real, or real enough, to Emerson. “I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve,” he wrote in a letter the following week. The loss of Waldo spurred an essay, “Experience,” that contains one of the most startling passages in American literature:
The only thing grief has taught me, is to know how shallow it is. That, like all the rest, plays about the surface, and never introduces me into the reality, for contact with which, we would even pay the costly price of sons and lovers. Was it Boscovich who found out that bodies never come in contact? Well, souls never touch their objects. An innavigable sea washes with silent waves between us and the things we aim at and converse with. Grief too will make us idealists. In the death of my son, now more than two years ago, I seem to have lost a beautiful estate,—no more. I cannot get it nearer to me. If tomorrow I should be informed of the bankruptcy of my principal debtors, the loss of my property would be a great inconvenience to me, perhaps, for many years; but it would leave me as it found me,—neither better nor worse. So is it with this calamity: it does not touch me: some thing which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar. It was caducous. I grieve that grief can teach me nothing, nor carry me one step into real nature.
This seems nearly callous, but that’s the point. Emerson had suffered tragic deaths before, and, partly as a result, had developed a theory of spiritual profit and loss: surely the greatest costs led to the richest benefits? When “a great man,” he wrote in “Compensation,” an earlier essay, is “pushed, tormented, defeated, he has a chance to learn something; he has been put on his wits, on his manhood; he has gained facts; learns his ignorance; is cured of the insanity of conceit; has got moderation and real skill.” But Waldo’s death was so profound that it went uncompensated, even by grief. It taught Emerson “nothing”; it was almost as though his son had never existed. Unluckily, swiftly, even happily, life goes on, only mildly “inconvenienced” by the most devastating loss imaginable.
“Experience” has a knife’s-edge, emergency intensity that is nowhere to be found in Emerson’s poems, collected in “Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Poetry” (Harvard), edited by Albert J. von Frank. Prose was a zone of fruitful conflict for Emerson, who began his public life writing sermons. He entered Harvard Divinity School in 1825, at the age of twenty-one, to prepare for a career in the Unitarian ministry. Soon he was struck by a painful eye disease, likely caused by tuberculosis, and submitted to two cataract operations. According to Robert D. Richardson’s “Emerson: The Mind on Fire,” Emerson’s reading in Hume, and his knowledge of the “brilliantly clever arguments of Cicero,” began to erode his faith. His days were “slipping past him, one by one, in an irrevocable procession,” Richardson writes. He knew that the “proper emotion” wasn’t humility or even skepticism but “wonder.”
Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks: they tell you where to find it, how to use it, what to do when it fails you. “Nature,” “The Poet,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “Experience”: you can use these essays to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning. They are modular: you can remember bits of one, bits of another, mess up the order, mix and match. Their authority comes not from the Church or the ministry but from the power of their prose. Emerson must have realized that half of the people in church were there to hear language electrified by the preacher; his essays are, as Harold Bloom put it, “interior oratory,” free-range sermons that make their own occasions.
Emerson also wrote a poem about Waldo, “Threnody.” It is often quite beautiful, but it is dressed almost entirely in period costume. The period was the eighteen-forties, and the costume was woodsy, “native,” and politely anti-European. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who returned from Europe to teach modern languages at Harvard, was considered a boldly American poet: he wrote epics about Miles Standish and the expulsion of the Acadians from Nova Scotia. To Emerson’s contemporaries, experimentation in poetry meant writing about “the bobolink and the humble-bee” rather than the English nightingale and the skylark, which, as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Emily Dickinson’s correspondent and early advocate, wrote, Americans “might never have seen or heard anywhere.”
By these standards, “Threnody,” with its tableaux of American village life, is a masterpiece. Instead of nymphs and dryads, here are the rudiments of New England hill, garden, and scrub forest:
On that shaded day,
Dark with more clouds than tempests are,
When thou didst yield thy innocent breath
In birdlike heavings unto death,
Night came, and Nature had not thee;
I said, ‘We are mates in misery.’
The morrow dawned with needless glow;
Each snowbird chirped, each fowl must crow;
Each tramper started; but the feet
Of the most beautiful and sweet
Of human youth had left the hill
And garden,—they were bound and still.
This is one of the first inventories in verse of a distinctly New England winter, its “needless glow” awakening the tinny chirps of native snowbirds. Those unforgettable “birdlike heavings” of the child’s final breaths puncture a frigid silence known to anybody from Emerson’s neck of the woods. The image is borrowed from his journals, roused to this new formal occasion yet maintaining its fringe of untransformed anguish. But the poem quickly stifles its desperation in the prescribed comforts of noble sentiment and regular music.
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:
Thy trivial harp will never please
Or fill my craving ear;
Its chords should ring as blows the breeze,
Free, peremptory, clear.
No jingling serenader’s art,
Nor tinkle of piano strings,
Can make the wild blood start
In its mystic springs.
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 prosewas 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. ♦