Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson The Poet

Emerson

 

I read the other day some verses written by an eminent painter which were original and not conventional. The soul always hears an admonition in such lines, let the subject be what it may. The sentiment they instill is of more value than any thought they may contain. To believe our own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,–and our first thought, is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment. Familiar as the voice of the mind is to each, the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is, that they set at naught books and traditions, and spoke not what men but what they thought. A man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the lustre of the firmament of bards and sages. Yet he dismisses without notice his thought, because it is his. In every work of genius we recognize majesty. Great works of art have no more affecting lesson for us than this. They teach us to abide by our spontaneous impression with good-humored inflexibility then most when the whole cry of voices is on the other side. Else, to-morrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame our own opinion from another.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Self-Reliance,” Essays, First Series (1841)

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 time.

— Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet,” Essays: Second Series (1844)

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Emerson

he “throws his thoughts out”

pell-mell, into the air

they are interesting and provocative

But you, the reader, have to figure out what he is saying

This is a violation of what I consider to be fundamental principles of good writing

one of which is that an accomplished writer does the work for the reader … makes his meaning and the thrust of the piece clear … makes clear, through organization and coherence, whatever are the key points and which ones are ancillary

An essayist such as Samuel Johnson does this, while writing dense prose with long sentences

On the surface, one would be inclined to think Emerson’s prose is clear

It is not

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What the writer is saying should be apparent

The reader should not have to extract “buried” meaning from oracular, gnomic prose

Clarity is not inimical to depth or profundity of thought

Emerson’s writing is (on the surface) simple: too simple

He does not take the pains to make his meaning clear

He is saying something

in a roundabout, allusive way that frustrates the reader

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An often neglected feature – a desideratum – of good writing is what my high school English teacher specified as emphasis

the weight of a piece has to fall somewhere: key points at the beginning, In certain places

a skillful writer can do this subtly …one does not need to hit the reader over the head with sledgehammer (I begin my essay: “Capital punishment is wrong!”) .. the key, salient points can emerge

But …

What are Emerson’s key points? … he does make them, implicitly, and some would say, strongly and effectively … but, I would say that the reader has to extract them … the writing is a mishmash of thoughts

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Is spontaneity a virtue in writing?

Yes

Samuel Johnson urged would be writers to get their thoughts down fast. This he himself did. Many of his essays were written within a very tight time frame.

I find that some of my best and original. writing is done this way. Something occurs to me; and I think, get it down on paper (or, in my case, it is often in the form of an email written to myself on my cell phone … I do a fair amount of writing on park benches and in subway cars and taverns).

But, even in this case, as an experienced writer, I have a sixth sense about where I am going with a piece. I am very focused on maintaining a logical, coherent flow.

I have been praised by no less a critic than my wife for my readability and (as she puts it) the fact that it is always eminently clear what I am saying.

 

— Roger W. Smith

  December 2022