Ralph Waldo Emerson The Poet Essay Definition


“The Poet” was first published in 1844 in the collection Essays: Second Series. In this essay, Emerson describes the function of the poet and nature of poetry. Scholars consider the essay a major statement of international romantic expressionism (i.e., the idea that the expression of thought and feelings is not simply a drive of, but rather one of the main purposes of, human life), and one of the most significant explanations of literature as process.

The Role of the Poet and Nature of Poetry

Emerson distinguishes his perspective on poetry from those of elitist critics – those “esteemed umpires of taste” – whose knowledge of the fine arts derives from the study of rules or form based on admired artwork, but whom lack beauty in their souls or actions. For Emerson, poetry is not about an aesthetic based upon specialized knowledge, but rather one based upon the soul, and thus accessible to all. In turn, “the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth.” The poet fulfills the need of all humanity for truth and expression.

The poet does so as a ‘sayer’ and a ‘namer’, rather than a maker or creator of novel material.

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.

The poet hears such “picture-language” - symbols whose meaning fluctuates with time – and sets it down into words. (In contrast, he remarked, “Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for a universal one.”) And thus creates a new layer of thought and words in the sediment of language, as all poets have done.

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 first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer… Language is fossil poetry.

Unsurprisingly, Emerson dismisses concerns over rules or form, his antiformalist theory of poetic process captured in the sentence, “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 an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” A poem with such an argument opens our eyes to the zeitgeist of the present age and the way the world works. “This day shall be better than my birthday; then I became an animal; now I am invited into the science of the real.” Poetry offers liberation.

Unfortunately, Emerson laments, no great American poet has yet arisen. “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.” Walt Whitman heard, and would eventually answer, his call.

Rather than end his essay with a call for national poetry, Emerson emphasizes poetry as process. He writes, “Art is the path of the creator to his work.”



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.


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