“The Poet”



In the “Divinity School Address” [given at Harvard Divinity School in 1838, Ralph Waldo] Emerson at times made it sound as though his understanding of Christ had transformed that figure into a type of the artist, a man who … had seen “further” than others with more limited vision–An example is Emerson’s statement of how Christ recognized “that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his World.” … in his later essay “The Poet,” … [Emerson] lambasted contemporary theologians for thinking it “a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract.” Such men prefer, he noted sardonically, “to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence,” not realizing “the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or shall I say the quadruple or centuple or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact.” If his friends were to be faulted for any religious shortcomings, then, it was because they … did not perceive the literal presence of the miraculous in nature’s commonplace facts.

One of Emerson’s most revealing paragraphs in this essay deals specifically with his sense of the poet as a universal Christ-figure. … In “The Poet” Emerson thought it important to suggest how much his contemporaries needed another redeemer, one whose grasp of language and symbol, as well as of divine truth, was comparable to Christ’s, or at least to others among the world’s great prophets. …

Throughout the essay Emerson elaborates the intended equation between Christ and the poet. Like Christ, who stood as ransom before his Father for the entire human race, so, too, the poet is “representative” and “stands among partial men for the complete man.” Further, like the Christ who freed mankind again to the possibility of entering heaven, so the poet is a liberator who “unlocks our chains and admits us to a new thought.” When men are exposed to the truths the poet expresses, they recognize how “the use of his symbols has a certain power of emancipation for all men.” And like the Savior who called all unto him as children, when the poet speaks men “seem to be touched by a wand which makes [them] dance and run about happily, like children.” “Poets,” Emerson brazenly declares, “are thus liberating gods.”

Indeed, throughout the essay Emerson intends to make his readers aware that he means no deception when he equates the work of the Sayer with a process of salvation, for the poet provides a feeling akin to what those of an earlier generation (and, indeed, what some evangelicals of Emerson’s own day) would have called a conversion experience. As he continues in this vein, Emerson sounds as though he were making a narration of the influence of saving grace upon his soul. “With what joy,” he exclaims, “I begin to read a poem which I confide in as an inspiration! And now my chains are to be broken; I shall mount above these clouds and opaque airs in which I live . . . and from the heaven of truth I shall see and comprehend my relations.” The “new birth” is complete, for at such moments, Emerson announces confidently, he becomes “reconcile[d]” to live, while all nature becomes “renovate[d].” “Life will no more be a noise” to him who has experienced the effects of the poet’s vision; and, as self-righteously as any of his seventeenth-century New England ancestors, Emerson claims that then is he able to “see men and women and know the signs by which they may be discerned fools and satans.” The rebirth of his soul is complete, for “this day [when the poet’s message is heard] shall be better than my birthday: then I became an animal; now I am invited into the science of the real.”

This remarkable reworking of the morphology of conversion into an aesthetic experience takes on more significance when the reader is aware of how closely the older forms of religious vocabulary have been melded with terms from the idealistic philosophy to which Emerson had been exposed: He details this dream-vision of transcendence with reference to an explicitly Coleridgean term. “This insight,” Emerson declares, “expresses itself by what is called Imagination” and is best understood not by reference to any religious terminology but as “a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the intellect being where and what it sees . . . by sharing the path or circuit of things through forms … ” In the presence of the poet wielding his liberating symbols, man stands, Emerson mystically suggests, “before the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and Unity into Variety.”

But it is imperative that the poet also become the “Sayer or Namer” and openly declare what has been hidden from his contemporaries because of their imperfect nature and limited vision. “The world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it.” The secret of the universe, to paraphrase Robert Frost, literally sits in the middle of men, and the poet must do all in his power to make the secret apparent.

For through that better perception he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that … within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend into a higher form; and following with his eyes the life, uses the form which expresses that life, and so his speech flows with the flowings of nature.

For the poet the world becomes “a temple whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures and commandments of the Deity,” and it becomes his job to convey the meaning behind those emblems as evocatively as he can. … Emerson indeed believed that “Nothing walks, or creeps, or grows, or exists, which must not in tum arise and walk before him [the poet] as an exponent of his meaning.” Thus, the lessons from men like [the American Swedenborgian Sampson] Reed and {Guillaume] Oegger were assimilated, but along with the important corollary that man must not, like the self-centered mystic, “nail a symbol to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false.” The poet is he who knows that “all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.” When man reads the true poet’s works, Emerson believes, he finds himself on a version of Jacob’s ladder, the rungs of which are assembled from the world’s natural facts and by which he is to climb to view the world of spirit.

— Philip F. Gura, The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the American Renaissance



I have been reading a fascinating and enlightening monograph: The Wisdom of Words: Language, Theology, and Literature in the American Renaissance by Philip F. Gura (Wesleyan University Press, 1981), from which the above passages are quoted.

Who is the poet whom Emerson foresaw and spoke of? Walt Whitman, as has often been noted.

— Roger W. Smith

   July 2018

About Roger W. Smith

Roger W. Smith is a writer and independent scholar based in New York City. His experience includes freelance writing and editing, business writing, book reviewing, and the teaching of writing and literature as an adjunct professor. Mr. Smith's interests include personal essays and opinion pieces; American and world literature; culture, especially books and reading; classical music; current issues that involve social, moral, and philosophical views; and experiences of daily living from a ground level perspective. Besides (1) rogersgleanings.com, a personal site, he also hosts websites devoted to (2) the author Theodore Dreiser and (3) to the sociologist and social philosopher Pitirim A. Sorokin.
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One Response to “The Poet”

  1. Pete Smith says:

    Or maybe Ogden Nash?

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