It is to Emerson I have turned now,
damp February, for he has written
of the moral harmony of nature.
The key to every man is his thought.
But Emerson, half angel, suffers his
dear Ellen’s dying only half-consoled
that her lungs shall no more be torn nor her

head scalded by her blood, nor her whole life
suffer from the warfare between the force
& delicacy of her soul & the
weakness of her frame . . . March the 29th,
1832, of an evening strange
with dreaming, he scribbles, I visited
Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin.

—Emerson looking in, clutching his key.
Months of hard freeze have ruptured the wild
fields of Ohio, and burdock is standing
as if stunned by persistent cold wind
or leaning over, as from rough breath.
I have brought my little one, bundled and
gloved, to the lonely place to let her run,

hoary whiskers, wild fescue, cracks widened
along the ground hard from a winter drought.
I have come out for the first time in weeks
still full of fever, insomnia-fogged,
to track her flags of breath where she’s dying
to vanish on the hillsides of bramble
and burr. The seasonal birds—scruff cardinal,

one or two sparrows, something with yellow—
scatter in small explosions of ice.
Emerson, gentle mourner, would be pleased
by the physical crunch of the ground, damp
from the melt, shaped by the shape of his boot,
that half of him who loved the Dunscore heath
too rocky to cultivate, covered thick

with heather, gnarled hawthorn, the yellow furze
not far from Carlyle’s homestead where they strolled,
—that half of him for whom nature was thought.
Kate has found things to deepen her horror
for evenings to come, a deer carcass tunneled
by slugs, drilled, and abandoned, a bundle
of bone shards, hoof and hide, hidden by thick

bramble, or the bramble itself enough
to collapse her dreams, braided like rope, blood-
colored, blood-barbed, tangled as Medusa.
What does she see when she looks at such things?
I do not know what is so wrong with me
that my body has erupted, system
by system, sick unto itself. I do

not know what I have done, nor what she thinks
when she turns toward her ill father. How did
Emerson behold of his Ellen, un-
embalmed face fallen in, of her white hands?
Dreams & beasts are two keys by which we are
to find out the secrets of our own natures.
Half angel, Emerson wrestles all night

with his journal, the awful natural
fact of Ellen’s death, which must have been
deeper sacrifice than a sacrament.
Where has she gone now, whose laughter comes down
like light snow on the beautiful hills?
Perhaps it is the world that is the matter . . .
—His other half worried by the wording.


Emerson’s account of his first wife Ellen’s illness is taken from a letter on the day of her death, February 9, 1832, to his Aunt Mary. His brother Charles wrote, in a letter to another brother, William, that Waldo was “as one over whom the waters have gone.” On March 29, Emerson entered this solitary sentence in his journal: “I visited Ellen’s tomb & opened the coffin.” The comments about dreams, beasts, and keys are also from his journals.

David Baker, “Romanticism” from Changeable Thunder. Copyright © 2001 by David Baker. Reprinted with the permission of the University of Arkansas Press,
Source: Changeable Thunder (University of Arkansas Press, 2001)
More Poems by David Baker