The Poet

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
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 is representative
of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.
For the Universe has three children, born
at one time, which reappear, under different names, in every system of
thought, whether they be called cause, operation, and effect; or, more
poetically, Jove, Pluto, Neptune; or, theologically, the Father, the Spirit.
and the Son; but which we will call here, the Knower, the Doer, and the
Sayer. These stand respectively for the love of truth, for the love of
good, and for the love of beauty. These three are equal. Each is that which
he is essentially, so that he cannot be surmounted or analyzed, and each
of these three has the power of the others latent in him, and his own patent.
The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents
beauty. He is a sovereign, and stands on the centre. For the world is not
painted, or adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not
made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe.
Therefore the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his
own right. Criticism is infested with a cant of materialism, which assumes
that manual skill and activity is the first merit of all men, and disparages
such as say and do not, overlooking the fact, that some men, namely, poets,
are natural sayers, sent into the world to the end of expression, and confounds
them with those whose province is action, but who quit it to imitate
the sayers. But Homer's words are as costly and admirable to Homer, as
Agamemnon's victories are to Agamemnon. The poet does not wait for the
hero or the sage, but, as they act and think primarily, so he writes primarily
what will and must be spoken, reckoning the others, though primaries also,
yet, in respect to him, secondaries and servants; as sitters or models
in the studio of a painter, or as assistants who bring building materials
to an architect.
For poetry was all written before time
was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into
that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings, and
attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word, or a verse,
and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men
of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these
transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations. For nature
is as truly beautiful as it is good, or as it is reasonable, and must as
much appear, as it must be done, or be known. Words and deeds are quite
indifferent modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions
are a kind of words.
The sign and credentials of the poet are,
that he announces that which no man foretold. He is the true and only doctor;
he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and
privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas,
and utterer of the necessary and casual. For we do not speak now of men
of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true
poet. I took part in a conversation the other day, concerning a recent
writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a music-box
of delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill, and command of language,
we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose, whether
he was not only a Iyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he
is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man. He does not stand out of
our low limitations, like a Chimborazo under the line, running up from
the torrid base through all the climates of the globe, with belts of the
herbage of every latitude on its high and mottled sides; but this genius
is the landscape-garden of a modern house, adorned with fountains and statues,
with well-bred men and women standing and sitting in the walks and terraces.
We hear, through all the varied music, the ground-tone of conventional
life. Our poets are men of talents who sing, and not the children of music.
The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses is primary.
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 architecture of its own,
and adorns nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are
equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis the thought is
prior to the form. The poet has a new thought: he has a whole new experience
to unfold; he will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be the
richer in his fortune. For, the experience of each new age requires a new
confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet. I remember,
when I was young, how much I was moved one morning by tidings that genius
had appeared in a youth who sat near me at table. He had left his work,
and gone rambling none knew whither, and had written hundreds of lines,
but could not tell whether that which was in him was therein told: he could
tell nothing but that all was changed,--man, beast, heaven, earth, and
sea. How gladly we listened! how credulous! Society seemed to be compromised.
We sat in the aurora of a sunrise which was to put out all the stars. Boston
seemed to be at twice the distance it had the night before, or was much
farther than that. Rome,--what was Rome? Plutarch and Shakspeare were in
the yellow leaf, and Homer no more should be heard of. It is much to know
that poetry has been written this very day, under this very roof, by your
side. What! that wonderful spirit has not expired! these stony moments
are still sparkling and animated! I had fancied that the oracles were all
silent, and nature had spent her fires, and behold! all night, from every
pore, these fine auroras have been streaming. Every one has some interest
in the advent of the poet, and no one knows how much it may concern him.
We know that the secret of the world is profound, but who or what shall
be our interpreter, we know not. A mountain ramble, a new style of face,
a new person, may put the key into our hands. Of course, the value of genius
to us is in the veracity of its report. Talent may frolic and juggle; genius
realizes and adds. Mankind, in good earnest, have arrived so far in understanding
themselves and their work, that the foremost watchman on the peak announces
his news. It is the truest word ever spoken and the phrase will be the
fittest, most musical, and the unerring voice of the world for that time.
All that we call sacred history attests
that the birth of a poet is the principal even in chronology. Man, never
so often deceived, still watches for the arrival of a brother who can hold
him steady to a truth, until he has made it his own. With what joy I begin
to read a poem, which I confide in as an inspiration! And now my chains
are to be broken; I shall mount about these clouds and opaque airs in which
I live,--opaque, though they seem transparent,--and from the heaven of
truth I shall see and comprehend my relations. That will reconcile me to
life, and renovate nature, to see trifles animated by a tendency, and to
know what I am doing. Life will no more be a noise; now I shall see men
and women, and know the signs by which they may be discerned from fools
and satans. This day shall be better than my birthday; then I became an
animal: now I am invited into the science of the real. Such is the hope,
but the fruition is postponed. Oftener it falls, that this winged man,
who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into mists, then leaps and
frisks about with me as it were from cloud to cloud, still affirming that
he is bound heavenward; and I being myself a novice, am slow in perceiving
that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that
I should admire his skill to rise, like a fowl or a flying fish, a little
way from the ground or the water; but the all-piercing, all-feeding, and
ocular air of heaven, that man shall never inhabit. I tumble down again
soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before, and
have lost some faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither
where I would be.
But leaving these victims of vanity, let
us, with new hope, observe how nature, by worthier impulses, has ensured
the poet's fidelity to his office of announcement and affirming, namely,
by the beauty of things, which becomes a new, and higher beauty, when expressed.
Nature offers all her creatures to him as a picture- language. Being used
as a type, a second wonderful value appears in the object, far better than
its old value, as the carpenter' s stretched cord, if you hold your ear
close enough, is musical in the breeze. "Things more excellent than every
image," says Jamblichus, "are expressed through images." Things admit of
being used as symbols, because nature is a symbol, in the whole, and in
every part. Every line we can draw in the sand, has expression; and there
is no body without its spirit or genius. All form is an effect of character;
all condition, of the quality of the life; all harmony, of health; (and,
for this reason, a perception of beauty should be sympathetic, or proper
only to the good.) The beautiful rests on the foundations of the
necessary. The soul makes the body, as the wise Spenser teaches:--

"So every spirit, as it is most pure,
And hath in it the more of heavenly light,
So it the fairer body doth procure
To habit in, and it more fairly dight,
With cheerful grace and amiable sight
For, of the soul, the body form doth take.
For soul is form, and doth the body make."

Here we find ourselves, suddenly, not in
a critical speculation, but in a holy place, and should go very warily
and reverently. We stand before the secret of the world, there where Being
passes into Appearance, and Unity into Variety.
The Universe is the externization of the
soul. Wherever the life is, that bursts into appearance around it. Our
science is sensual, and therefore superficial. The earth, and the heavenly
bodies, physics, and chemistry, we sensually treat, as if they were self-existent;
but these are the retinue of that Being we have. "The mighty heaven," said
Proclus,"exhibits, in its transfigurations, clear images of the splendor
of intellectual perceptions; being moved in conjunction with the un- apparent
periods of intellectual natures." Therefore, science always goes abreast
with the just elevation of the man, keeping step with religion and metaphysics;
or, the state of science is an index of our self-knowledge. Since everything
in nature answers to a moral power, if any phenomenon remains brute and
dark, it is because the corresponding faculty in the observer is not yet
No wonder, then, if these waters be so
deep, that we hover over them with a religious regard. The beauty of the
fable proves the importance of the sense; to the poet, and to all others;
or, if you please, every man is so far a poet as to be susceptible of these
enchantments of nature; for all men have the thoughts whereof the universe
is the celebration. I find that the fascination resides in the symbol.
Who loves nature? Who does not? Is it only poets, and men of leisure and
cultivation, who live with her? No; but also hunters, farmers, grooms,
and butchers, though they express their affection in their choice of life,
and not in their choice of words. The writer wonders what the coachman
or the hunter values in riding, in horses, and dogs. It is not superficial
qualities. When you talk with him, he holds these at as slight a rate as
you. His worship is sympathetic; he has no definitions, but he is commanded
in nature, by the living power which he feels to be there present. No imitation,
or playing of these things, would content him; he loves the earnest of
the north wind, of rain, of stone, and wood, and iron. A beauty not explicable,
is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the end of. It is nature the
symbol, nature certifying the supernatural, body overflowed by life, which
he worships, with coarse, but sincere rites.
The inwardness, and mystery, of this attachment,
drive men of every class to the use of emblems. The schools of poets, and
philosophers, are not more intoxicated with their symbols, than the populace
with theirs. In our political parties, compute the power of badges and
emblems. See the huge wooden ball rolled by successive ardent crowds from
Baltimore to Bunker hill! In the political processions, Lowell goes in
a loom, and Lynn in a shoe, and Salem in a ship.' Witness the cider-barrel,
the log-cabin, the hickory-stick, the palmetto, and all the cognizances
of party. See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards,
a crescent, a lion, an eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God
knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at
the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or
the most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and
they are all poets and mystics!
Beyond this universality of the symbolic
language, we are apprised of the divineness of this superior use of things,
whereby the world is a temple, whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures,
and commandments of the Deity, in this, that there is no fact in nature
which does not carry the whole sense of nature; and the distinctions which
we make in events, and in affairs, of low and high, honest and base,
disappear when nature is used as a symbol. Thought makes everything fit
for use. The vocabulary of an omniscient man would embrace words and images
excluded from polite conversation. What would be base, or even obscene,
to the obscene, becomes illustrious, spoken in a new connexion of thought.
The piety of the Hebrew prophets purges their grossness. The circumcision
is an example of the power of poetry to raise the low and offensive. Small
and mean things serve as well as great symbols. The meaner the type by
which a law is expressed, the more pungent it is, and the more lasting
in the memories of men: just as we choose the smallest box, or case, in
which any needful utensil can be carried. Bare lists of words are found
suggestive, to an imaginative and excited mind; as it is related of Lord
Chatham, that he was accustomed to read in Bailey's Dictionary, when he
was preparing to speak in Parliament. The poorest experience is rich enough
for all the purposes of expressing thought. Why covet knowledge of new
facts? Day and night, house and garden, a few books, a few actions, serve
us as well as would all trades and all spectacles. We are far from having
exhausted the significance of the few symbols we use. We can come to use
them yet with a terrible simplicity. It does not need that a poem should
be long. Every word was once a poem. Every new relation is a new word.
Also, we use defects and deformities to a sacred purpose, so expressing
our sense that the evils of the world are such only to the evil eye. In
the old mythology, mythologists observe, defects are ascribed to divine
natures, as lameness to Vulcan, blindness to Cupid, and the like, to signify
For, as it is dislocation and detachment
from the life of God, that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches
things to nature and the Whole,--and re-attaching even artificial things,
and violations of nature, to nature, by a deeper insight,--disposes very
easily of the most disagreeable facts. Readers of poetry see the factory-village,
and the railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up
by these. for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading;
but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the bee-hive,
or the spider's geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast into her
vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like her own. Besides,
in a centred mind, it signifies nothing how many mechanical inventions
you exhibit. Though you add millions, and never so surprising, the fact
of mechanics has not gained a grain's weight. The spiritual fact remains
unalterable, by many or by few particulars; as no mountain is of any appreciable
height to break the curve of the sphere. A shrewd country-boy goes
to the city for the first time, and the complacent citizen is not satisfied
with his little wonder. It is not that he does not see all the fine houses,
and know that he never saw such before, but he disposes of them as easily
as the poet finds place for the railway. The chief value of the new fact,
is to enhance the great and constant fact of Life, which can dwarf any
and every circumstance, and to which the belt of wampum, and the commerce
of America, are alike.
The world being thus put under the mind
for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it. For, though life
is great, and fascinates, and absorbs,--and though all men are intelligent
of the symbols through which it is named,--yet they cannot originally use
them. We are symbols, and inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words
and things, birth and death, all are emblems, but we sympathize with the
symbols, and, being infatuated with the economical uses of things, we do
not know that they are thoughts. The poet, by an ulterior intellectual
perception, gives them power which makes their old use forgotten, and puts
eyes, and a tongue, into every dumb and inanimate object. He perceives
the thought's independence of the symbol, the stability of the thought,
the accidency and fugacity of the symbol. As the eyes of Lyncaeus were
said to see through the earth, so the poet turns the world to glass, and
shows us all things in their right series and procession. For, through
that better perception, he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the
flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that thought is multiform- 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 forms which express
that life, and so his speech flows with the flowing of nature. All the
facts of the animal economy,--sex, nutriment, gestation, birth, growth--are
symbols of the passage of the world into the soul of man, to suffer there
a change, and reappear a new and higher fact. He uses forms according to
the life, and not according to the form. This is true science. The poet
alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation, and animation, for he does
not stop at these facts, but employs them as signs. He knows why the plain,
or meadow of space, was strown with these flowers we call suns, and moons,
and stars; why the great deep is adorned with animals, with men, and gods;
for, in every word he speaks he rides on them as the horses of thought.
By virtue of this science the poet is the
Namer, or Language-maker, naming things sometimes after their appearance,
sometimes after their essence, and giving to every one its own name and
not another's, thereby rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachment
or boundary. The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the
archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses
For, though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was
at a stroke of genius, and obtained currency, because for the moment it
symbolizes the world to the first speaker and to the hearer. The etymologist
finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant picture. Language
is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent consists of infinite
masses of the shells of animalcules, so language is made up of images,
or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have long ceased to remind
us of their poetic origin. But the poet names the thing because he
sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other. This expression,
or naming, is not art, but a second nature, grown out of the first, as
a leaf out of a tree. What we call nature, is a certain self-regulated
motion, or change; and nature does all things by her own hands, and does
not leave another to baptise her, but baptises herself; and this through
the metamorphosis again. I remember that a certain poet described
it to me thus:
Genius is the activity which repairs
the decays of things, whether wholly or partly of a material and finite
kind. Nature, through all her kingdoms, insures herself. Nobody
cares for planting the poor fungus: so she shakes down from the gills of
one agaric countless spores, any one of which, being preserved, transmits
new billions of spores to-morrow or next day. The new agaric of this
hour has a chance which the old one had not. This atom of seed is
thrown into a new place, not subject to the accidents which destroyed its
parent two rods off. She makes a man; and having brought him to ripe
age, she will no longer run the risk of losing this wonder at a blow, but
she detaches from him a new self, that the kind may be safe from accidents
to which the individual is exposed. So when the soul of the poet
has come to ripeness of thought, she detaches and sends away from it its
poems or songs,--a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny, which is not
exposed to the accidents of the weary kingdom of time: a fearless, vivacious
offspring, clad with wings (such was the virtue of the soul out of which
they came), which carry them fast and far, and infix them irrecoverably
into the hearts of men. These wings are the beauty of the poet's
soul. The songs, thus flying immortal from their mortal parent, are
pursued by clamorous flights of censures, which swarm in far greater numbers,
and threaten to devour them; but these last are not winged. At the
end of a very short leap they fall plump down, and rot, having received
from the souls out of which they came no beautiful wings. But the
melodies of the poet ascend, and leap, and pierce into the deeps of infinite
So far the bard taught me, using his freer
speech. But nature has a higher end, in the production of new individuals,
than security, namely, ascension, or, the passage of the soul into higher
forms. I knew, in my younger days, the sculptor who made the statue
of the youth which stands in the public garden. He was, as I remember,
unable to tell directly, what made him happy, or unhappy, but by wonderful
indirections he could tell. He rose one day, according to his habit,
before the dawn, and saw the morning break, grand as the eternity out of
which it came, and, for many days after, he strove to express this tranquillity,
and, lo! his chisel had fashioned out of marble the form of a beautiful
youth, Phosphorus, whose aspect is such, that, it is said, all persons
who look on it become silent. The poet also resigns himself to his
mood, and that thought which agitated him is expressed, but alter idem,
in a manner totally new. The expression is organic, or, the new type
which things themselves take when liberated. As, in the sun, objects
paint their images on the retina of the eye, so they, sharing the aspiration
of the whole universe, tend to paint a far more delicate copy of their
essence in his mind. Like the metamorphosis of things into higher
organic forms, is their change into melodies. Over everything stands
its daemon, or soul, and, as the form of the thing is reflected by the
eye, so the soul of the thing is reflected by a melody. The sea,
the mountain-ridge, Niagara, and every flower-bed, pre-exist, or super-exist,
in pre-cantations, which sail like odors in the air, and when any man goes
by with an ear sufficiently fine, he overhears them, and endeavors to write
down the notes, without diluting or depraving them. And herein is
the legitimation of criticism, in the mind's faith, that the poems are
a corrupt version of some text in nature, with which they ought to be made
to tally. A rhyme in one of our sonnets should not be less pleasing
than the iterated nodes of a sea-shell, or the resembling difference of
a group of flowers. The pairing of the birds is an idyl, not tedious
as our idyls are; a tempest is a rough ode, without falsehood or rant:
a summer, with its harvest sown, reaped, and stored, is an epic song, subordinating
how many admirably executed parts. Why should not the symmetry and
truth that modulate these, glide into our spirits, and we participate the
invention of nature?
This insight, which expresses itself by
what is called Imagination, is 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, and so making them translucid
to others. The path of things is silent. Will they suffer a
speaker to go with them? A spy they will not suffer; a lover, a poet,
is the transcendency of their own nature, --him they will suffer.
The condition of true naming, on the poet's part, is his resigning himself
to the divine aura which breathes through forms, and accompanying that.
It is a secret which every intellectual
man quickly learns, that, beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious
intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on
itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, beside his privacy
of power as an individual man, there is a great public power, on which
he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering
the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him: then he is caught
up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is
law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals.
The poet knows that he speaks adequately, then, only when he speaks somewhat
wildly, or, "with the flower of the mind;" not with the intellect, used
as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service, and suffered
to take its direction from its celestial life; or, as the ancients were
wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone, but with the intellect
inebriated by nectar. As the traveller who has lost his way, throws
his reins on his horse's neck, and trusts to the instinct of the animal
to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through
this world. For if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct,
new passages are opened for us into nature, the mind flows into and through
things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible.
This is the reason why bards love wine,
mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandal-wood and tobacco,
or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves
of such means as they can, to add this extraordinary power to their normal
powers; and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture,
dancing, theatres, travelling, war, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love,
or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer
quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment
of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact. These are auxiliaries
to the centrifugal tendency of a man, to his passage out into free space,
and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent
up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed.
Hence a great number of such as were professionally expressors of Beauty,
as painters, poets, musicians, and actors, have been more than others wont
to lead a life of pleasure and indulgence; all but the few who received
the true nectar; and, as it was a spurious mode of attaining freedom, as
it was an emancipation not into the heavens, but into the freedom of baser
places, they were punished for that advantage they won, by a dissipation
and deterioration. But never can any advantage be taken of nature
by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the
creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The
sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste
body. That is not an inspiration which we owe to narcotics, but some
counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says, that the lyric poet
may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing
of the gods, and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden
bowl. For poetry is not `Devil's wine,' but God's wine. It
is with this as it is with toys. We fill the hands and nurseries
of our children with all manner of dolls, drums, and horses, withdrawing
their eyes from the plain face and sufficing objects of nature, the sun,
and moon, the animals, the water, and stones, which should be their toys.
So the poet's habit of living should be set on a key so low and plain,
that the common influences should delight him. His cheerfulness should
be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration,
and he should be tipsy with water. That spirit which suffices quiet
hearts, which seems to come forth to such from every dry knoll of sere
grass, from every pine-stump, and half-imbedded stone, on which the dull
March sun shines, comes forth to the poor and hungry, and such as are of
simple taste. If thou fill thy brain with Boston and New York, with
fashion and covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses with wine
and French coffee, thou shalt find no radiance of wisdom in the lonely
waste of the pinewoods.
If the imagination intoxicates the poet,
it is not inactive in other men. The metamorphosis excites in the
beholder an emotion of joy. The use of symbols has a certain power
of emancipation and exhilaration for all men. We seem to be touched
by a wand, which makes us dance and run about happily, like children.
We are like persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air.
This is the effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles, and all poetic forms.
Poets are thus liberating gods. Men have really got a new sense,
and found within their world, another world, or nest of worlds; for, the
metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it does not stop. I will
not now consider how much this makes the charm of algebra and the mathematics,
which also have their tropes, but it is felt in every definition; as, when
Aristotle defines space to be an immovable vessel, in which things are
contained; --or, when Plato defines a line to be a flowing point; or,
figure to be a bound of solid; and many the like. What a joyful sense
of freedom we have, when Vitruvius announces the old opinion of artists,
that no architect can build any house well, who does not know something
of anatomy. When Socrates, in Charmides, tells us that the soul is
cured of its maladies by certain incantations, and that these incantations
are beautiful reasons, from which temperance is generated in souls; when
Plato calls the world an animal; and Timaeus affirms that the plants also
are animals; or affirms a man to be a heavenly tree, growing with his root,
which is his head, upward; and, as George Chapman, following him, writes,

"So in our tree of man, whose nervie root
Springs in his top;"

when Orpheus speaks of hoariness as "that
white flower which marks extreme old age;" when Proclus calls the universe
the statue of the intellect; when Chaucer, in his praise of `Gentilesse,'
compares good blood in mean condition to fire, which, though carried to
the darkest house betwixt this and the mount of Caucasus, will yet hold
its natural office, and burn as bright as if twenty thousand men did it
behold; when John saw, in the apocalypse, the ruin of the world through
evil, and the stars fall from heaven, as the figtree casteth her untimely
fruit; when Aesop reports the whole catalogue of common daily relations
through the masquerade of birds and beasts; --we take the cheerful hint
of the immortality of our essence, and its versatile habit and escapes,
as when the gypsies say, "it is in vain to hang them, they cannot die."
The poets are thus liberating gods.
The ancient British bards had for the title of their order, "Those who
are free throughout the world." They are free, and they make free.
An imaginative book renders us much more service at first, by stimulating
us through its tropes, than afterward, when we arrive at the precise sense
of the author. I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting
the transcendental and extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried
away by his thought, to that degree that he forgets the authors and the
public, and heeds only this one dream, which holds him like an insanity,
let me read his paper, and you may have all the arguments and histories
and criticism. All the value which attaches to Pythagoras, Paracelsus,
Cornelius Agrippa, Cardan, Kepler, Swedenborg, Schelling, Oken, or any
other who introduces questionable facts into his cosmogony, as angels,
devils, magic, astrology, palmistry, mesmerism, and so on, is the certificate
we have of departure from routine, and that here is a new witness.
That also is the best success in conversation, the magic of liberty, which
puts the world, like a ball, in our hands. How cheap even the liberty
then seems; how mean to study, when an emotion communicates to the intellect
the power to sap and upheave nature: how great the perspective! nations,
times, systems, enter and disappear, like threads in tapestry of large
figure and many colors; dream delivers us to dream, and, while the drunkenness
lasts, we will sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in our opulence.

There is good reason why we should prize this liberation. 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. Therefore we love the poet, the
inventor, who in any form, whether in an ode, or in an action, or in looks
and behavior, has yielded us a new thought. He unlocks our chains,
and admits us to a new scene.
This emancipation is dear to all men, and
the power to impart it, as it must come from greater depth and scope of
thought, is a measure of intellect. Therefore all books of the imagination
endure, all which ascend to that truth, that the writer sees nature beneath
him, and uses it as his exponent. Every verse or sentence, possessing
this virtue, will take care of its own immortality. The religions
of the world are the ejaculations of a few imaginative men.
But the quality of the imagination is to
flow, and not to freeze. The poet did not stop at the color, or the
form, but read their meaning; neither may he rest in this meaning, but
he makes the same objects exponents of his new thought. Here is the
difference betwixt the poet and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol
to one sense, which was a true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old
and false. For 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. Mysticism consists in
the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one.
The morning-redness happens to be the favorite meteor to the eyes of Jacob
Behmen, and comes to stand to him for truth and faith; and he believes
should stand for the same realities to every reader. But the first reader
prefers as naturally the symbol of a mother and child, or a gardener and
his bulb, or a jeweller polishing a gem. Either of these, or of a myriad
more, are equally good to the person to whom they are significant.
Only they must be held lightly, and be very willingly translated into the
equivalent terms which others use. And the mystic must be steadily told,
--All that you say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol
as with it. Let us have a little algebra, instead of this trite rhetoric,
--universal signs, instead of these village symbols, --and we shall both
be gainers. The history of hierarchies seems to show, that all religious
error consisted in making the symbol too stark and solid, and, at last,
nothing but an excess of the organ of language.
Swedenborg, of all men in the recent ages,
stands eminently for the translator of nature into thought. I do
not know the man in history to whom things stood so uniformly for words.
Before him the metamorphosis continually plays. Everything on which
his eye rests, obeys the impulses of moral nature. The figs become
grapes whilst he eats them. When some of his angels affirmed a truth,
the laurel twig which they held blossomed in their hands. The noise
which, at a distance, appeared like gnashing and thumping, on coming nearer
was found to be the voice of disputants. The men, in one of his visions,
seen in heavenly light, appeared like dragons, and seemed in darkness:
but, to each other, they appeared as men, and, when the light from heaven
shone into their cabin, they complained of the darkness, and were compelled
to shut the window that they might see.
There was this perception in him, which
makes the poet or seer, an object of awe and terror, namely, that the same
man, or society of men, may wear one aspect to themselves and their companions,
and a different aspect to higher intelligences. Certain priests,
whom he describes as conversing very learnedly together, appeared to the
children, who were at some distance, like dead horses: and many the like
misappearances. And instantly the mind inquires, whether these fishes
under the bridge, yonder oxen in the pasture, those dogs in the yard, are
immutably fishes, oxen, and dogs, or only so appear to me, and perchance
to themselves appear upright men; and whether I appear as a man to all
eyes. The Bramins and Pythagoras propounded the same question, and
if any poet has witnessed the transformation, he doubtless found it in
harmony with various experiences. We have all seen changes as considerable
in wheat and caterpillars. He is the poet, and shall draw us with
love and terror, who sees, through the flowing vest, the firm nature, and
can declare it.
I look in vain for the poet whom I describe.
We do not, with sufficient plainness, or sufficient profoundness, address
ourselves to life, nor dare we chaunt our own times and social circumstance.
If we filled the day with bravery, we should not shrink from celebrating
it. Time and nature yield us many gifts, but not yet the timely man,
the new religion, the reconciler, whom all things await. Dante's praise
is, that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into
universality. We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous
eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the
barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods
whose picture he so much admires in Homer; then in the middle age; then
in Calvinism. Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, methodism
and unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same
foundations of wonder as the town of Troy, and the temple of Delphos, and
are as swiftly passing away. Our logrolling, our stumps and their
politics, our fisheries, our Negroes, and Indians, our boasts, and our
repudiations, the wrath of rogues, and the pusillanimity of honest men,
the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon,
and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its
ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for
metres. If I have not found that excellent combination of gifts in
my countrymen which I seek, neither could I aid myself to fix the idea
of the poet by reading now and then in Chalmers's collection of five centuries
of English poets. These are wits, more than poets, though there have
been poets among them. But when we adhere to the ideal of the poet,
we have our difficulties even with Milton and Homer. Milton is too
literary, and Homer too literal and historical.
But I am not wise enough for a national
criticism, and must use the old largeness a little longer, to discharge
my errand from the muse to the poet concerning his art.
Art is the path of the creator to his work.
The paths, or methods, are ideal and eternal, though few men ever see them,
not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into
the conditions. The painter, the sculptor, the composer, the epic
rhapsodist, the orator, all partake one desire, namely, to express themselves
symmetrically and abundantly, not dwarfishly and fragmentarily. They
found or put themselves in certain conditions, as, the painter and sculptor
before some impressive human figures; the orator, into the assembly of
the people; and the others, in such scenes as each has found exciting to
his intellect; and each presently feels the new desire. He hears
a voice, he sees a beckoning. Then he is apprised, with wonder, what
herds of daemons hem him in. He can no more rest; he says, with the
old painter, "By God, it is in me, and must go forth of me." He pursues
a beauty, half seen, which flies before him. The poet pours out verses
in every solitude. Most of the things he says are conventional, no
doubt; but by and by he says something which is original and beautiful.
That charms him. He would say nothing else but such things.
In our way of talking, we say, `That is yours, this is mine;' but the poet
knows well that it is not his; that it is as strange and beautiful to him
as to you; he would fain hear the like eloquence at length. Once
having tasted this immortal ichor, he cannot have enough of it, and, as
an admirable creative power exists in these intellections, it is of the
last importance that these things get spoken. What a little of all
we know is said! What drops of all the sea of our science are baled
up! and by what accident it is that these are exposed, when so many secrets
sleep in nature! Hence the necessity of speech and song; hence these
throbs and heart-beatings in the orator, at the door of the assembly, to
the end, namely, that thought may be ejaculated as Logos, or Word.
Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say,
'It is in me, and shall out.' Stand there, baulked and dumb, stuttering
and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand and strive, until, at last, rage
draw out of thee that dream-power which every night shows thee is thine
own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and by virtue of which
a man is the conductor of the whole river of electricity. Nothing
walks, or creeps, or grows, or exists, which must not in turn arise and
walk before him as exponent of his meaning. Comes he to that power,
his genius is no longer exhaustible. All the creatures, by pairs
and by tribes, pour into his mind as into a Noah's ark, to come forth again
to people a new world. This is like the stock of air for our respiration,
or for the combustion of our fireplace, not a measure of gallons, but the
entire atmosphere if wanted. And therefore the rich poets, as Homer,
Chaucer, Shakspeare, and Raphael, have obviously no limits to their works,
except the limits of their lifetime, and resemble a mirror carried through
the street, ready to render an image of every created thing.
O poet! a new nobility is conferred in
groves and pastures, and not in castles, or by the sword-blade, any longer.
The conditions are hard, but equal. Thou shalt leave the world, and
know the muse only. Thou shalt not know any longer the times, customs,
graces, politics, or opinions of men, but shalt take all from the muse.
For the time of towns is tolled from the world by funereal chimes, but
in nature the universal hours are counted by succeeding tribes of animals
and plants, and by growth of joy on joy. God wills also that thou
abdicate a manifold and duplex life, and that thou be content that others
speak for thee. Others shall be thy gentlemen, and shall represent
all courtesy and worldly life for thee; others shall do the great and resounding
actions also. Thou shalt lie close hid with nature, and canst not
be afforded to the Capitol or the Exchange. The world is full of renunciations
and apprenticeships, and this is thine: thou must pass for a fool and a
churl for a long season. This is the screen and sheath in which Pan
has protected his well-beloved flower, and thou shalt be known only to
thine own, and they shall console thee with tenderest love. And thou
shalt not be able to rehearse the names of thy friends in thy verse, for
an old shame before the holy ideal. And this is the reward: that
the ideal shall be real to thee, and the impressions of the actual world
shall fall like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome, to thy invulnerable
essence. Thou shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the
sea for thy bath and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods
and the rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others
are only tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! sea-lord! air-lord!
Wherever snow falls, or water flows, or birds fly, wherever day and night
meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds, or sown with
stars, wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets
into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love, there is Beauty,
plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldest walk the world
over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.

Selected Criticism on "The Poet"

  • Blair, Walter, and Clarence Faust. "Emerson's Literary Method." Modern Philology 42 (Nov 1944): 79-95. Reprinted in Rountree.
  • Hopkins, Vivian C. Spires of Form: A Study of Emerson's Aesthetic Theory. Ccambridge: Harvard UP, 1951.
  • Gross, Seymour L. "Emerson and Poetry." South Atlantic Quarterly 54 (Jan 1955): 82-94. Partially reprinted in Rountree, pp. 104-11.
  • Murray, Donald M. "Emerson's 'Language as Fossil Poetry': An Analogy from Chinese." New England Quarterly 29 (June 1956): 204-15.
  • Illuminata, Sister Mary. "Emerson's Poetics." Emerson Society Quarterly, no. 14 (I Quarter 1959): 13-16.
  • Pearce, Roy Harvey.
  • Buell, Lawrence. "Unitarian Aesthetics and Emerson's Poet-priest." American Quarterly 20 (Spring 1968): 3-20. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1961. Pp. 153-64.
    Mulqueen, James E. "The Poetics of Emerson and Poe." Emerson Society Quarterly, no. 55 (II Quarter 1969): 5-18.
  • Strauch, Carl F. "Emerson's Use of the Organic Method." Emerson Society Quarterly, nol 55 (II Quarter 1969): 18-24.
  • Anderson, John Q. The Liberating Gods: Emerson on Poets and Poetry. Coral Gables: UMiami P, 1971.
  • Dennis. Carl. "Emerson's Poetics of Inspiration." American Transcendental Quarterly, no. 25 (Winter 1975): 22-28.
  • Gelpi, Albert. "Ralph Waldo Emerson : The Eye of the Seer." In Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975. pp. 57-111. Partially reprinted in Levin, pp. 149-70.
  • Fenstermaker, John J. "Emerson's Lexicon in 'The Poet.'" American Transcendental Quarterly, 31 (Summer 1976): supplement, 42-5.
  • Mann, John S. "Emily Dickinson, Emerson, and the Poet as Namer." New England Quarterly 51 (Dec. 1978): 467-88.
  • Bickman, Martin. The Unsounded Center: Jungian Studies in American Romanticism." Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1980.
  • Francis, Richard Lee. "The Poet and Experience: Essays: Second Series." In Myerson, pp. 93-106.
  • Ellison, Julie. Emerson's Romantic Style. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.
  • Buell, Lawrence. "Emersonian Poetics." Emerson. Cambridge: Belknap, 2003. Pp. 107-157.