Essay on Poetic Theory

from “The Poet” (1844)

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Introduction

Lecturer, poet, essayist, and lapsed Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson lived during a time of intellectual blossoming in America and was associated with the transcendentalist movement. Emerson was born in 1803, the son of a Unitarian minister, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard’s Unitarian Divinity School and was a minster from 1829-1832 at Boston’s Second Church. He left the church after the death of his first wife to tuberculosis, when he coincidentally experienced a crisis of faith in which he questioned the ceremonies of the church service. A reader of poetry and philosophy, Emerson toured Europe after his wife’s death; in Europe he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle.

After Emerson returned to New England in 1833, he gave public lectures on cultural topics, bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, and married Lydia Jackson. The couple had four children, the first of whom died of scarlet fever in 1842. Concord became the center for the transcendentalist movement in America. Emerson was a member of the Transcendentalist Club, and a contributor to The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion. He lectured at lyceums in the Boston area, gave the 1838 address to the senior class at Harvard Divinity School—where he created a stir for advocating a closer connection to nature—and wrote essays and poetry. He was acquainted with many of the leading intellectuals of the time, including Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

“The Poet” was published in Emerson’s collection Essays: Second Series (1844) and was based on a lecture (heard in New York by Walt Whitman) Emerson gave in 1842. The essay is exuberant, original, and at times rhapsodic. In it, Emerson describes how the poet is “representative,” standing “among partial men for the complete man.” The only one capable of articulating the transcendent nature of things, the poet is the one who can identify “symbols” and “emblems” of the world: “The world is a temple, whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures, and commandments of the Deity . . . there is no fact in nature which does not carry the whole sense of nature.” The poet “re-attaches things to nature and the Whole” by “saying” or naming. Emerson writes that the poet has better perceptions than the rest of humanity, “he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing of metamorphosis . . . his speech flows with the flowing of nature.” 

In “The Poet,” Emerson also states that good poetry is not solely a matter of technical prowess: “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 poet speaks most “adequately…when he speaks somewhat wildly . . . not with the intellect.” Emerson observes that a lifestyle “on a key so low and plain” is stimulant enough for poets, our “liberating gods.” At the end of the essay, Emerson laments the lack of poets writing about America: “America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.”

A moody child and wildly wise
Pursued the game with joyful eyes,
Which chose, like meteors, their way,
And rived the dark with private ray:
They overleapt the horizon’s edge,
Searched with Apollo’s privilege;
Through man, and woman, and sea, and star,
Saw the dance of nature forward far;
Through worlds, and races, and terms, and times,
Saw musical order, and pairing rhymes.

Olympian bards who sung

Divine ideas below,
Which always find us young,
And always keep us so.

Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons who have acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the rest remaining cold. Their knowledge of the fine arts is some study of rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form, which is exercised for amusement or for show. It is a proof of the shallowness of the doctrine of beauty, as it lies in the minds of our amateurs, that men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form upon soul. There is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy. We were put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan, to be carried about; but there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ, much less is the latter the germination of the former. So in regard to other forms, the intellectual men do not believe in any essential dependence of the material world on thought and volition. Theologians think it a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract, but they prefer to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence; and even the poets are contented with a civil and conformed manner of living, and to write poems from the fancy, at a safe distance from their own experience. But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it. And this hidden truth, that the fountains whence all this river of Time, and its creatures, floweth, are intrinsically ideal and beautiful, draws us to the consideration of the nature and functions of the Poet, or the man of Beauty, to the means and materials he uses, and to the general aspect of the art in the present time.

The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the commonwealth. The young man reveres men of genius, because, to speak truly, they are more himself than he is. They receive of the soul as he also receives, but they more. Nature enhances her beauty, to the eye of loving men, from their belief that the poet is beholding her shows at the same time. He is isolated among his contemporaries, by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later. For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice, in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret. The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

Notwithstanding this necessity to be published, adequate expression is rare. I know not how it is that we need an interpreter: but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun, and stars, earth, and water. These stand and wait to render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction, or some excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist, that he could report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick, and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and its representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.

Originally Published: October 13, 2009
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 Ralph  Waldo Emerson

Biography

Ralph Waldo Emerson—a New England preacher, essayist, lecturer, poet, and philosopher—was one of the most influential writers and thinkers of the nineteenth century in the United States. Emerson was also the first major American literary and intellectual figure to widely explore, write seriously about, and seek to broaden the domestic audience for classical Asian and Middle Eastern works. He not only gave countless readers their . . .

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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