“The fate of the poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an emblem of the state of man. On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying. The inaccessibleness of every thought but that we are in, is wonderful. What if you come near to it, — you are as remote, when you are nearest, as when you are farthest. Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison” (302).
––Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Poet
In his essay “Circles,” Emerson makes a comment about what he considers the cultural work of literature. He writes, “Literature is a point outside of our hodiernal circle, through which a new one may be described. The use of literature is to afford us a platform whence we may command a view of our present life, a purchase by which we may move it.”
In the book I passed around on Tuesday this week, Approaches to Teaching the Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, we included an essay by Saundra Morris, who open her essay this way:
Emerson’s poetry remains underemphasized in classrooms. Yet during his New York lecture tour of March 1842, Emerson wrote to his wife Lidian, “I am in all my theory, ethics, & politics a poet” (L 3:18). By “poet,” Emerson didn’t mean exclusively a writer of verse, but instead a person whose energy was fundamentally both iconoclastic and, as he emphasizes in his lecture and essay “The Poet,” affirmative, creative, and imaginative. For Emerson, the best preachers, the best scholars, and even the best social activists are all poets. In the Divinity School “Address,” he calls for the minister to be “a newborn bard of the Holy Ghost” (CW 1:90); in “Literary Ethics,” he speaks of “immortal bards of philosophy” (CW 1:03). In “The Method of Nature,” whoever seeks to realize her “best insight” becomes one of the “higher poets” (CW 1:136); in “Heroism,” the life of the great person is “natural and poetic” (CW 2:151); and the “Representative Man” Plato, although not literally a poet, is “clothed with the powers of a poet; stands upon the highest place of the poet” (CW 4.25). This inclusive terminology shows how important Emerson felt poetry to be, and how closely he identified himself with it.(36)
Her argument in the essay, too, is that we should take Emerson on his own terms. He viewed writers of verse as bringing light into the lives of readers, of lifting us from self-doubt and cynicism about the world around us, reminding us of the fundamental beauty both within and around us. At the same time, she writes, “few of Emerson’s poems have direct political content, I also attend to their underlying concerns with personal and political justice in terms of democracy, human rights, progressive politics, and anticapitalism that I find throughout his verse and his aesthetic.”
On Thursday this week we will consider a few of Emerson’s poems following our reading of his essays “Circles” and “The Poet” earlier this week. Including the following:
The Rhodora: On Being Asked, whence is the Flower?
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask, I never knew:
But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.
Come see the north wind’s masonry.
Out of an unseen quarry evermore
Furnished with tile, the fierce artificer
Curves his white bastions with projected roof
Round every windward stake, or tree, or door.
Speeding, the myriad-handed, his wild work
So fanciful, so savage, nought cares he
For number or proportion. Mockingly,
On coop or kennel he hangs Pariah wreaths;
A swan-like form invests the hidden thorn;
Fills up the farmer’s lane from wall to wall,
Maugre the farmer’s sighs; and at the gate
A tapering turret overtops the work.
And when his hours are numbered, and the world
Is all his own, retiring, as he were not,
Leaves, when the sun appears, astonished Art
To mimic in slow structures, stone by stone,
Built in an age, the mad wind’s night-work,
The frolic architecture of the snow.
For further study of Emerson’s poetry, see The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Ralph H Orth, Albert J. Von Frank, Linda Allardy, and David W. Hill (Columbia: U of Missouri P, 1986); and the recent Volume 9 of Emerson’s Collected Works, Poems: A Variorum Edition, especially the Historical Introduction, Textual Introduction, and Poem Headnotes by Albert J. Von Frank.