Emerson, Ralph Waldo

Assigned: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. From The American Scholar (622-25); “The Poet” (625-40). Also read the editors’ introduction (619-22).

From The American Scholar (1837/1849)

1. On 622-23 (“The next great influence into…”), how does Ralph Waldo Emerson describe the ancient idea of scholarship, the “theory of books” (623)? From what source did the original authors of books derive their inspiration and information? At the same time, what limitation inherently applies to the books so produced, with regard to their ability to transmit what is universal, timeless, and true?

2. On 623 (“Yet hence arises a grave mischief…”), once the earliest period of scholarship is past, what “grave mischief” arises in the way people come to regard books? How does Emerson implicate the early educational system in this stultifying, ultimately destructive way of deferring to textual authority and tradition? What contrast between early thinkers and “the bookworm” does Emerson make to drive home his point about the degradation of true scholarship, or the withdrawal of learning from life itself?

3. On 623-24 (“Books are the best of things…”), what is the only genuine utility of a book, in Emerson’s view? What should engagement with a book do for us? What contrast does he make between the productions of genius and the work that goes on in colleges or the way in which “book-learning” presents itself to the modern student? What negative effects flow when one mind determines to “receive from another mind its truth” (624) instead of working that truth out for itself? At base, why is it counterproductive to take another person’s genius (and the creations thereof) as one’s model for imitation or as an oracular source of insight and truth?

4. On 624-25 (“Undoubtedly there is a right way…”), Emerson explores what he considers the proper use of reading, and the true value of books. On the one hand, he writes that “Books are for he scholar’s idle times,” but on the other hand, he extols “the pleasure we derive from the best books” (624). What is the deepest source of this pleasure, according to Emerson—how does he describe the connection readers may feel between their own souls and intellects and that of an author who lived decades or centuries ago? What does he apparently mean by his term “creative reading” (625), a coinage derived, of course, from the phrase “creative writing”?

5. General question: Does what Emerson writes in our excerpt from The American Scholar accord with your own experience as a student thus far? Do you find yourself able to engage with the literature and other texts you read at the level you would like to, or do you feel the weight of the institution and practical life weighing you down? To what extent do you feel disadvantaged or ill-served by the basic, seemingly ineradicable conflict between institutional imperatives and the impulse that leads to genuine learning? Explain.

6. General question: Describe Emerson’s method as a prose stylist in The American Scholar (or in our other Norton Emerson selection, “The Poet”)—how do you characterize his way of setting forth his claims and then backing up or qualifying them? To what extent does his writing remind you of today’s “motivational” rhetoric, writing that tends to take for its mission inspiring people to do their own thinking and their own living, and that often rejects orthodoxy and convention?

“The Poet” (1844)

1. On 625-26 (“Those who are esteemed umpires…”), on what grounds does Ralph Waldo Emerson deride the standards of aesthetic taste in his time, and what vital insight or perception has been lost that could have prevented America’s lapse into what he considers a degraded “doctrine of beauty” (625)? How, according to Emerson, has the American poet’s “civil and conformed manner of living” (626 top) made it all but impossible to pursue the “manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact” (626)? What “hidden truth” does Emerson say drives him to investigate “the nature and functions of the Poet” as well as “the means and materials he uses” along with “the general aspect of the art in the present time” (626)?

2. On 626-28 (“The breadth of the problem is…”), Emerson writes that poets are “representative” (626). Of what are they representative—that is, what is Emerson’s definition of a poet? In what ways are poets like other people, and in what ways are they different? Why, according to Emerson, do poets matter? In responding to this latter question, consider what he writes about the “three children” of the Universe and their place “in every system of thought”—how does the poet fit into Emerson’s tripartite scheme? (627-28)

3. On 628-29 (“For it is not metres, but…”), Emerson writes that we eagerly welcome the arrival of great poets: “the world seems always waiting for its poet” and “All that we call sacred history attests that the birth of a poet is the principal event in chronology” (628). Even so, what errors in judgment does Emerson suggest that he, and indeed everyone else, is prone to making about poetry and the high annunciations of ultimate truth and renovation advanced by poets? Why are the poet’s vanity and the reader’s unrealistic expectations of guidance always potential pitfalls?

4. On 629-31 (“But, leaving the victims of vanity…”), what characteristically “Romantic” claims does the transcendentalist Emerson make about the expressive and spiritual significance of the natural world? How does he address the symbolic properties of language and the special relationship that poets have with symbolic language? How is it, according to Emerson, that “The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics” (631)?

5. On 631-32 (“For as it is dislocation and detachment…”), how, according to Emerson, does the poet’s imagination reconcile nature to human mechanical incursions into nature? How does even a country boy coming to the great city attest to the abiding power of the “spiritual fact” rather than the materiality of what he sees? What power does Emerson ascribe to the poet’s “better perception” (632) and superior ability to articulate his or her intuitions? How can poets, that is, bring home to us the true goings-on, the true dynamism, of nature itself?

6. On 632-33 (“By virtue of this science the poet…”), in continuation of his reflections on the poet’s superior perceptual and linguistic gifts, Emerson seems to bestow upon poets the almost Adamic gift of naming the things of the universe in a way that truly bespeaks those things. What accounts for this great gift? In addition, how is it, according to Emerson, that “language is fossil poetry” (632)? Finally, in what sense does he describe “genius” as a power working in harmony with the processes and aims of nature itself? (633)

7. On 633-35 (“So far the bard taught me…”), Emerson refers to what he calls nature’s “higher aim, in the production of new individuals, than security, namely ascension” (633). What is his apparent meaning by this term “ascension,” and what does poetic expression have to do with the goal to which he alludes? What reference to the doctrine of the “Over-Soul” (a spiritual dimension of human beings that transcends the ordinary, isolated ego) does Emerson make at the bottom of page 633, and thereafter, how does he connect the activities of the best kind of criticism to an appreciation of this dimension of human existence, one that embraces both nature and the realm of the spirit? What does it take for a poet to create in the most genuinely individual way? (634) What will not work in this regard? Why, according to Emerson, can’t poets simply substitute narcotics and other “highs” for the true conditions in which artistic creativity flourishes? (634-35)

8. On 635-36 (“If the imagination intoxicates the poet…”), Emerson speaks to the effect of imagination upon even those who cannot be called poets in any conventional sense. How does he describe the power of symbolic language on ordinary people, then? In his sentence, “We are like persons who come out of a cave or cellar into the open air” (635), is there a hint of Plato’s “allegory of the cave” from The Republic, Book VII (Leitch 75-77)? If so, what is the implication for the power of poetry to transform human life? Why, according to Emerson, does the spirit rejoice in the poets’ and philosophers’ many allusions to natural images and processes in their treatments of human life—what hope do those allusions speak to?

9. On 636-38 (“The poets are thus liberating gods…”), Emerson continues to exalt poets and emphasizes the anti-systemic quality of his thinking. What is the implication of his point that “Every thought is also a prison; every heaven is also a prison” (637)? In what sense is “mysticism” the product of an error? How, according to Emerson, can this error be corrected—how should symbols be regarded to keep them from becoming traps for the imagination, rather than as vehicles for the imagination? In keeping with this way of treating symbolism, what praise does Emerson have for the Swedish mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)? Overall, what relationship between the natural environment and symbolic language does Emerson maintain? (638)

10. On 638-39 (“I look in vain for the poet whom…”), Emerson writes that “America is a poem in our eyes” (638 bottom). What tasks does he set for the first genuinely American poet? What must that poet encompass in his or her work, and how—in what conditions and grounded in what faith and passion—will this be accomplished? To what extent do you think Walt Whitman would fit Emerson’s prescription for the qualities needed in a truly American poet?

11. On 639-40 (“Doubt not, O poet, but persist…”), what advice does Emerson offer to whomever will become the genuine poet he has been searching for? How must that poet come to regard the ordinary goings-on of American life—“the Capitol or the Exchange” (640), meaning politics and commerce, respectively? Where should the things that truly inspire be sought out, and why? Emerson was of course a key member of the American Transcendentalist movement, but in what sense might it be suggested that here in “The Poet” he is offering a Romantic doctrine of the value of the natural world to artists and all others? Explain.

12. General question: In his lecture “The Poet” (1844), Ralph Waldo Emerson appears to counsel American poets to follow nature: “Thou shalt not know any longer the times, customs, graces, politics, or opinions of men, but shalt take all from the muse” (640). If you are familiar with American literary history during and since Emerson’s time, how well do you find that American poets have followed the advice in this author’s famous lecture? Against his view, we might, for example, remind ourselves that T. S. Eliot became a British citizen and worked for a time at Lloyds Bank in London; that Archibald MacLeish was America’s Librarian of Congress from 1939-1944; that Wallace Stevens was first a lawyer and then an executive with the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Co.; and that even Henry David Thoreau’s retreat, Walden Pond, wasn’t far from the comforts of civilization. Still, is that an altogether fair way to look at the matter? Was there, and is there still, a special relationship between American poets and nature—an Emersonian and Whitmanesque strain in our tradition that deserves special recognition? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

Copyright © 2021 Alfred J. Drake