Saturday, July 28, 2007

Reading Emerson

It's funny that his lectures and essays are more poetic than his poems. It's as if he had a formal standard to write to in poetry that didn't at all suit his mentality. He seems stiff and self-conscious in the poems, relaxed and exuberantly expressive in the essays. Too bad free verse didn't come along earlier so he could take advantage of its expressive vehicle.

"Commodity" is the essay I'm on now, and I find it surprising that in a few paragraphs he can encompass the sweep and point of human history. I never thought of Emerson as ecstatic, but this passage from the essay leaped out at me in that tone:

The misery of man appears like childish petulance,
when we explore the steady and prodigal provision
that has been made for his support and delight
on this green ball which floats him through the heavens.
What angels invented these splendid ornaments,
these rich conveniences, this ocean of air above,
this ocean of water beneath,
this firmament of earth between?
this zodiac of lights, this tent of dropping clouds,
this striped coat of climates, this fourfold year?

The line-breaks, of course, are mine. But isn't this a better poem than the formal one he wrote on a similar subject:

Lo! I uncover the land
Which I hid of old time in the West
As the sculptor uncovers the statue
When he has wrought his best;
I show Columbia, of the rocks
Which dip their foot in the seas
And soar to the air-borne flocks
Of clouds and the boreal fleece.

I will divide my goods;
Call in the wretch and slave:
None shall rule but the humble,
And none but Toil shall have.

I will have never a noble,
No lineage counted great;
Fishers and choppers and ploughmen
Shall consititute a state.

Go, cut down trees in the forest
And trim the straightest boughs;
Cut down trees in the forest
And build me a wooden house.

Call the people together,
The young men and the sires,
The digger in the harvest-field,
Hireling and him that hires;

And here in a pine state-house
They shall choose men to rule
In every needful faculty,
In church and state and school.

The verse, over-tidy and preachy (it was given as a sermon), lacks the soar and scope of the essay. Interesting that the poetry Emerson looked to -- including translations of Sufi poets Hafiz, Rumi and Saadi -- was of a past age, while his prose looks entirely and surprisingly forward. Because he wasn't bound by poetic convention in the prose, it breathes.


  1. The prose is more like Whitman, whom Emerson praised, but, it seems, was unable to emulate. Not and call it poetry, anyway.

  2. This resembles a similar puzzlement I've always had with Ray Bradbury. For me, he often soared on Icarus-wings in his prose, but donned a leaden straitjacket when writing his poetry. And in Bradbury's case there's less "excuse" than in Emerson's for not turning to free verse. In Emerson's case, traditional poetic structure was all he could comfortably resort to when writing poetry: it was really the only option in his day for a poet following a conventional career; while in Bradbury's case (living, let's say, post-Whitman, with a Sandburg as an example) it was a reaction to, as he saw it, the license and unmusicality of free verse. I have no problem with poets who want to work in a formalist manner, but it's a shame when some (but not all--I don't go along with a Bukowski: "as the spirit wanes the form appears"--nonsense) who do so and seem to hobble their true voice as a result.

    Emerson was full of delicious, thrilling sententiousness. I liked "Circles": the passages that begin with "Every ultimate fact is only the first of a new series" are ones I go back to and read aloud when I want the taste of his eloquence on my tongue and the arrows of his ideas crossing my mind. But that eloquence which Emerson spends so freely in his essays or speeches just shows how vital the art of oratory was in the 19th century and earlier, when a Robert Ingersoll could command a general audience for three hours on a topic like agnosticism or Whitman or Shakespeare. Now, Ingersoll was a discovery for me; again, here was a poet soaring in speech. I don't doubt that Twain was right, that Ingersoll's speeches are but weak echoes of their actual power (thanks in no small part to Ingersoll's delivery). But what echoes! Strange indeed are the paths of genius!

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. This is just to expand on the post I deleted:

    I said: "who do so and seem to"


    Drop the "and."

    I said: "poet soaring in speech"

    Oops again.

    Should have said: "poet soaring in prose."

  5. It's funny that an author should have such a different prose style than poetic style. But perhaps that's only unusual in today's free verse world, as you point out.

    Poet soaring in prose - perfect description of Emerson. I adore the prose written in the age of oratory. When I was younger, I drenched myself in the prose of Dickens and Henry James, in sentences that covered an entire page, in modifiers and clauses within clauses.

    Annie Dillard has said if you love words, you're a poet. If you love sentences, you're a writer of prose. Perhaps Emerson loved the sentence more than the word.

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