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Ralph Waldo Emersons The Poet Essay


1. Introduction

2. The poet and poetry: a closer look
2.1 Emerson’s understanding of poetry
2.2 Emerson’s understanding of the poet

3. The poets functions
3.1 The poet as representative
3.2 The poet as Seer
3.3 The poet as Prophet
3.4 The poet as Namer or Language-maker

4. The Importance of the poet
4.1 The importance of the poet to society
4.2 The poet and America

5. Emerson’s “perfect poet”

6. Conclusion

7. Works Cited
7.1 Primary Sources
7.2 Secondary Sources

1. Introduction

Ralph Waldo Emerson today is known as one of the leading figures of the American transcendentalist movement. After his studies at Harvard Divinity School he became minister at Second Church in Boston. In 1832, he decided to give up his original profession as a Unitarian Minister, when he realized that he did not agree anymore with the views of the Christian Church which proclaimed that Jesus was the only real prophet, and that revelation is something which is already over (cf. Woodlief). Emerson especially made his opinion clear concerning these views in his provocative lecture and essay “Divinity School Address”. Instead of his religious profession as a minister, he then pursued a career as an orator, a writer, and a poet, but still then religion played an important role in his life, and religious influence can be seen throughout his writings.

Emerson regarded the person of the poet as one of the most important and greatest figures among men. He refers to the poet, his abilities and his importance in many of his works like “Nature”, Representative Men and “The American Scholar”. He even dedicated a whole essay, which is called “The Poet”, to this topic. In this essay he reflects upon the person and the importance of the poet as well as his poetry which he also considered as highly significant for men.

This essay will show that Emerson’s concept of the poet plays a central role in his idea of how men can gain insight into the secrets and the truths of the world and how they can regain access to the Oversoul. It will do so, by especially focusing on the works mentioned above. At first, it will look at Emerson’s understanding of the terms “poet” and “poetry” which serves as a basis for the following exploration of the poet’s functions as representative, Seer, Prophet and Namer or Language-maker. Afterwards, the poet’s role in society in general and especially his importance for America, on the basis of his functions, is analyzed. In the last part, Emerson’s idea of the “perfect” poet and his value for society is described before the essay finishes with a concluding statement.

2. The poet and poetry: a closer look

Emerson’s understanding of poetry and the poet differs from our current understanding of these terms. In this section his concepts of poetry and the poet are explored.

2.1 Emerson’s understanding of poetry

According to the statements in Emerson’s essay “The Poet” almost any text can be seen as a poem: words, language in general and even nature if it can be deciphered as a ‘book of God’. In his opinion “a poem does not have to be long, or written in verse” (“The Poet” 18) to be recognized as a poem. He even describes America as a poem (cf. “The Poet 38, 42-43). Unfortunately, Emerson does not clearly define the term “poetry” in his essay, but he gives some hints about the nature of poetry with which the reader is enabled to understand, or at least guess, what poetry could mean for him.

First, Emerson states that poetry is based on nature. He traces this connection back to the direct relationship between words and natural facts (cf. “Nature” 42). “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance” (“Nature” 43). As examples he uses the word “heart” which expresses emotions or “head” which is a symbol for thought (cf. “Nature” 43). This means that there exists an “immediate dependence of language upon nature” (Mott 84). Additionally, Emerson holds the opinion that the “finest poetry was first experience”
(Representative Men 215) which explains further the close connection between natural facts and words. The poet creates poetry out of his own experiences with nature which shows as well that poetry is based on nature and therefore nature is mirrored in poetry at the same time
(cf. Representative Men 213).

Furthermore, Emerson states in “Nature” that “Every natural fact is a symbol of a spiritual fact” (“Nature” 43), a statement that implies that spirituality is contained within nature. But if spirituality lies within nature and poetry is based on nature then poetry itself has a divine nature (cf. Buell 15). Hallengren even goes so far as to say that “the language of God is poetry” (Hallengren 303) and that “poetry came out as the sacred, the highest truth” (Hallengren 300) when man became an intellectual (cf. Hallengren 300). With that he awards a very a high status to poetry, namely that poetry is created by God himself and that it serves as the tool with which truth should be brought to the people.

Additionally, according to Emerson “Every word was once poem” (The Poet 18) and “language is fossil poetry” (“The Poet 22). These statements show that the essence of language and even words can be seen as poetry because they reflect the image which lies at their bottom (cf. Mann 473) and therefore every word which is a symbol of nature at the same time fulfills his expectations of a poem. In his view, poetry also can be seen as the first language which existed. For Emerson even a single word, when it is created on the basis of nature, can be already identified as poetry. So, poetry is something which – in his view – is produced out of human experience on the basis of nature and thus has a symbolic characteristic.

But poetry also serves a purpose. “In Emerson’s view, poetry is essentially an approach to truth, a decoding of the enigma of nature and man” (Hallengren 281). By naming things of the world in poetry people are enabled to understand the secrets of the world and to gain insight into its truths. This works because people are inspired when they read a poem which touches them and therefore they are “set free of our [their] chains” (“The Poet” 12), see the meaning behind things and begin to interpret them. In this case, things become clear to them and they are enabled to gain insight into the higher truths of the world which are reflected in poetry (cf. “The Poet” 12).

2.2 Emerson’s understanding of the poet

Emerson states in his essay Representative Men that “The world is upheld by the veracity of good men: they make the earth wholesome” (Representative Men 3). The poet belongs to this class of men through whose lenses “we read our own minds” (Representative Men 5) and who were “entitled to the position of leaders or law-givers” (Representative Men 20) because of some extraordinary quality.

A prerequisite for being a genius is self-reliance. A true genius, which a true poet is, has to believe in his own thoughts and he has to trust in himself (“Self-Reliance” 210). The poet needs this quality because if he cannot trust himself other people, namely the readers, are also not able to believe in his statements. In this case he would loose his representative function and his position as leader.


read this poet's poems

American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was born on May 25, 1803, in Boston, Massachusetts. After studying at Harvard and teaching for a brief time, Emerson entered the ministry. He was appointed to the Old Second Church in his native city, but soon became an unwilling preacher. Unable in conscience to administer the sacrament of the Lord's Supper after the death of his nineteen-year-old wife of tuberculosis, Emerson resigned his pastorate in 1831.

The following year, he sailed for Europe, visiting Thomas Carlyle and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Carlyle, the Scottish-born English writer, was famous for his explosive attacks on hypocrisy and materialism, his distrust of democracy, and his highly romantic belief in the power of the individual. Emerson's friendship with Carlyle was both lasting and significant; the insights of the British thinker helped Emerson formulate his own philosophy.

On his return to New England, Emerson became known for challenging traditional thought. In 1835, he married his second wife, Lydia Jackson, and settled in Concord, Massachusetts. Known in the local literary circle as "The Sage of Concord," Emerson became the chief spokesman for Transcendentalism, the American philosophic and literary movement. Centered in New England during the 19th century, Transcendentalism was a reaction against scientific rationalism.

Emerson's first book, Nature (1836), is perhaps the best expression of his Transcendentalism, the belief that everything in our world—even a drop of dew—is a microcosm of the universe. His concept of the Over-Soul—a Supreme Mind that every man and woman share—allowed Transcendentalists to disregard external authority and to rely instead on direct experience. "Trust thyself," Emerson's motto, became the code of Margaret Fuller, Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and W. E. Channing. From 1842 to 1844, Emerson edited the Transcendentalist journal, The Dial.

Emerson wrote a poetic prose, ordering his essays by recurring themes and images. His poetry, on the other hand, is often called harsh and didactic. Among Emerson's most well known works are Essays, First and Second Series (1841, 1844). The First Series includes Emerson's famous essay, "Self-Reliance," in which the writer instructs his listener to examine his relationship with Nature and God, and to trust his own judgment above all others.

Emerson's other volumes include Poems (1847), Representative Men (1850), The Conduct of Life (1860), and English Traits (1865). His best-known addresses are The American Scholar (1837) and The Divinity School Address, which he delivered before the graduates of the Harvard Divinity School, shocking Boston's conservative clergymen with his descriptions of the divinity of man and the humanity of Jesus.

Emerson's philosophy is characterized by its reliance on intuition as the only way to comprehend reality, and his concepts owe much to the works of Plotinus, Swedenborg, and Böhme. A believer in the "divine sufficiency of the individual," Emerson was a steady optimist. His refusal to grant the existence of evil caused Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry James, Sr., among others, to doubt his judgment. In spite of their skepticism, Emerson's beliefs are of central importance in the history of American culture.

Ralph Waldo Emerson died of pneumonia on April 27, 1882.

Selected Bibliography


Essays: First Series (1841)
Essays: Second Series (1844)
Addresses, and Lectures (1849)
Representative Men (1850)
The Conduct of Life (1860)
English Traits (1865)
Society and Solitude (1870)

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