The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Letters and social aims [Vol. 8]
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882., Emerson, Edward Waldo, 1844-1930.

POETRY AND IMAGINATION

In 1841 Mr. Emerson gave a lecture called "The Poet" in the course on The Times, in Boston, some passages of which occur in this essay. It probably also contains some leaves from Page  358 the lecture "Poetry and Eloquence," given in Boston in 1847, and in England in 1848. To the lecture called "Poetry and English Poetry," given in Philadelphia in 1854, it owes almost all of the "Introductory" matter (except, I think, the remarkable sentence about John Hunter); the passages in "Imagination" about the world being anthropomorphized, and defining Fancy and Imagination, with a few other sentences; the paragraph in "Veracity" beginning "For poetry is faith;" that in "Creation" beginning "The poet is enamoured of thoughts and laws," and the sentence concerning the necessity of the poet's thought, which he did not make, but which "made him, and the sun and the stars;" also several passages in "Melody, Rhyme, Form." In 1861 Mr. Emerson gave a course in Boston on Life and Literature, and one of the lectures, which is not preserved, was called "Poetry and Criticism in England and America." It is probable that many sheets that did duty in the courses on the Natural History of the Intellect, at Cambridge, may have been used in the essay, which seems to have been brought by Mr. Emerson to its present size and form when, under the final title "Poetry and Imagination," he read it, as two lectures, at Chickering Hall in April, 1872.

Page 4, note 1. It is interesting to see Mr. Emerson's appreciation of firm ground under foot before he takes his flight, and his respect for "saving common sense" as a needed foundation for uncommon sense.

Page 5, note 1. The rhyme of the new doctrine of Evolution with the ancient one of "The Flowing," taught by Heracleitus, was much to Mr. Emerson's purpose in this chapter.

Onward and on, the eternal Pan,
Who layeth the world's incessant plan,
Page  359 Halteth never in one shape,
But forever doth escape,
Like wave or flame, into new forms
Of gem, and air, of plants, and worms.

"Woodnotes," II, Poems.

Page 5, note 2. Here follows, in the lecture of 1854, the sentence, "The man finds his own sense written in the drollest variety of disguises all over Nature."

Page 6, note 1. This passage is much fuller in the early lecture:—

"Whilst common sense draws water, bakes bread, builds houses, keeps shop, and always on the assumption that everything else is a blunder,—in the performing these very works, men are compelled by a certain tyranny which springs up on their own thoughts, to believe in something else. For their thoughts have an order and method and beliefs of their own, very different from the order which this common sense uses.

"Common sense says, One thing at a time; stick to your fact; keep your cake from burning!—and, meantime, the cake is burning to cinder, whilst the boy's thoughts, to be sure, are running on war, kingdoms, on poetry, on beauty, and the divine life."

Page 7, note 1. These words are from the song of the White Lady of Avenel,—

"Swim we merrily, the moon shines bright,"—
in Sir Walter Scott's novel The Monastery.

Page 7, note 2. Mr. Moncure D Conway in his very interesting book, Emerson at Home and Abroad, says that Mr. Emerson's "essay on this subject [Poetry], published in 1876, was read to a small company in Divinity College twenty-three years before," in Mr. Conway's room. He then quotes the Page  360 paragraph about "the electric word" of John Hunter, "arrested and progressive development," and also the paragraph which follows it, from the essay, believing them to have been part of it when read in Cambridge in 1853, to show that Mr. Emerson, from hints of Hunter, accepted the Evolution doctrine five years before Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species. Mr. Conway explains Mr. Emerson's reference to Darwin by supposing him to refer to the poem of Erasmus Darwin, the father.

Being much interested in this question, I have carefully examined the remains of the 1854 lecture, and, while the Introductory part is almost identical with that of the essay, the paragraph beginning "The electric word" is not there, while the one preceding it is, as well as that following it, beginning "The hardest chemist." Of course it is possible that the sheet is lost, but I believe that Mr. Emerson inserted the paragraph about Hunter later. In the Biographical Sketch in the first volume of this edition I have dwelt at some length upon Mr. Emerson's early interest and pleasure in the Evolution beliefs of the ancient philosophers, and the daring guesses and demonstrations of the scientific men of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Page 8, note 1. Mr. Emerson had visited the Hunterian Museum of Anatomy in London under the guidance of his friend Richard Owen, its curator. In the early pages of the chapter "Natural History of Intellect," in the volume of that name, is a reference to the strange thoughts and sympathies which the sight of the arrangement of inorganic and organic specimens in advancing series had aroused in him, when he visited the Fardin des Plantes in Paris, in 1833.

Page 8, note 2. Mr. Conway, in searching Hunter's works for the "electric word" mentioned by Mr. Emerson, found Page  361 this note, to the same purpose as the sentence in this paragraph:—

"If we were capable of following the increase of number of the parts of the most perfect animal as they were first formed in succession, from the very first to its state of full perfection, we should probably be able to compare it to some one of the incomplete animals, of every order of animals of the creation, being at no stage different from some of those inferior orders; or, in other words, if we were to take a series of animals, from the more imperfect to the perfect, we should probably find an imperfect animal corresponding with some stage of the most perfect."

Page 9, note 1.

Ever the Rock of Ages melts
Into the mineral air,
To be the quarry whence to build
Thought and its mansions fair

"Fragments on Life," Poems.

The chapter on Language in "Nature" (Nature, Addresses and Lectures) treats of its symbolism.

Page 9, note 2.

"The privetes of mannes herte
Thei speke and sounen in his Ere
As thogh thei lowde wyndes were."

Gower, "Confessio Amantis."

Page 10, note 1. Dr Holmes said of Mr. Emerson:—

"His gift was insight: he saw the germ through its envelop; the particular in the light of the universal; the fact in connection with the principle; the phenomenon as related to the law; all this not by the slow and sure process of science, but by the sudden and searching flashes of imaginative double vision. He Page  362 had neither the patience nor the method of the inductive reasoner; he passed from one thought to another not by logical steps but by airy flights, which left no footprints. This mode of intellectual action when found united with natural sagacity becomes poetry, philosophy, wisdom, or prophecy in its various forms of manifestation. Without that gift of natural sagacity (odoratio quaedam venatica),—a good scent for truth and beauty,—it appears as extravagance, whimsicality, eccentricity, or insanity, according to its degree of aberration. Emerson was eminently sane for an idealist. He carried the same sagacity into the ideal world that Franklin showed in the affairs of common life."

Page 12, note 1. Journal. "In good society, say among the angels in heaven, is not everything spoken by indirection and nothing quite straight as it befel?"

Delicate omens traced in air
To the lone bard their witness bear,
The birds brought auguries on their wings
And carolled undeceiving things.

See also "Demonology" in Lectures and Biographical Sketches.

Page 15, note 1. The pine-tree sings in the "Woodnotes" the parable of "the rushing metamorphosis" in the verses beginning,—

Hearken! Hearken!
If thou wouldst know the mystic song
Chanted when the sphere was young.

Page 17, note 1. This paragraph is from the lecture on The Poet in the course on The Times given in 1841.

Page 18, note 1. In one of the Arthurian legends, perhaps in Caxton's version of the Morte d' Arthur, which Mr. Page  363 Emerson valued highly, he was pleased with the symbol that each Knight at the Round Table when the Sangreal was near, found before him "whatsoever kind of meat liked him best."

Page 19, note 1.

Giddy with motion Nature reels,
Sun, moon, man, undulate and stream,
The mountains flow, the solids seem.

"The Poet," Poems, Appendix.
.

In Mr. Emerson's autobiographic notes he says, "The Ideal world I might have learned to treat as cloud-land, had I not known Alcott, who is a native of that country, and makes it as solid as Massachusetts to me."

Page 24, note 1. This alchemy of the mind on the "brute reports" of the senses is celebrated in the verses in the Appendix to the Poems, beginning,—

Let me go where'er I will
I hear a sky-born music still.

Page 24, note 2. "One class live to the utility of the symbol, esteeming health and wealth a final good. Another class live above this mark to the beauty of the symbol, as the poet and artist and the naturalist and man of science. A third class live above the beauty of the symbol to the beauty of the thing signified; these are wise men"—"Prudence," Essays, First Series.

Journal, 1866. "Learn from the great artist whose blood beats in our veins, whose taste is upspringing in our own perception of beauty, the laws by which our hands should work, that we may build Vaticans, or paint prophets, or sing Iliads, in fit continuation of the architecture of the Andes, the colors of the sky, and the poem of life."

Page  364

Page 25, note 1. Mr. Emerson always heard with impatience the praise of the poems of Shelley, with the exception of a very few which he included in his collection, Parnassus.

Page 25, note 2. This sentence was followed in the lecture by the words, "They like yet better the stars themselves, they like the landscape, the wells of water, the mountain, the plain, sunshine and night, for in these they obscurely feel the flowings also of their thought."

Page 26, note 1. "There are no days in life so memorable as those which vibrated to some stroke of the imagination"—"Beauty," Conduct of Life.

"The day of days, the great day of the feast of life, is that in which the inward eye opens to the Unity in things, to the omnipresence of law… This beatitude dips from on high down on us and we see It is not in us so much as we are in it"—"Fate," Conduct of Life.

Page 26, note 2. These lines are from a hymn, by the English authoress Helen Maria Williams (1762-1827), beginning,—

"My God, all Nature owns thy sway."

Page 26, note 3. Here follow in the lecture the words, "Who sees things after a true scale, sees them as God sees them in order and beauty."

Page 27, note 1. In the lecture this passage followed:—

"All becomes poetry when we look from within and are using all as if the mind made it. All becomes prosaic when seen from the point of common sense as if the world existed for material good, or as if matter were a finality…

"All this, because poetry is science, is the breath of the same spirit by which nature lives, and the poet is a better logician than the anatomist. His sayings are wise, and to the purpose, Page  365 and not those of unpoetic men. He sees each fact as an inevitable step in the path of the creator. He is the right classifier, seeing things grouped, and following the grand way of nature. And never did any science originate, but by a poetic perception. 'A great natural philosopher without this gift is impossible.' The schoolmen think they are logical, and the poet to be whimsical, illogical.Do they think there is any chance or choice in what he sees and says? He knows that he did not make his thought; no, his thought made him and made the sun and stars also. And it is because his memory is too strong for him, does not hold him to routine and lists of words, that he is still capable of seeing. For a wise surrender to the current of nature, a noble passion which will not let us halt, but hurries us into the stream of things, makes us truly know. [Passion is logical, and I note that the vine, symbol of Bacchus, which intoxicates the world, is the most geometrical of all plants.] And was not this the meaning of Socrates, who preferred artists because they truly knew?."

Page 28, note 1.

"We are led to believe a lie
When we see with, not through, the eye,
Which was born in a night to perish in a night,
When the soul slept in beams of light."

William Blake, Songs of Innocence.

Page 29, note 1. Here Mr. Emerson's preference for sculpture over painting appears.

Page 29, note 2. Among some fragmentary verses printed in the Appendix to the Poems, under the title of "May Morning," are these:—

When the purple flame shoots up,
And Love ascends his throne,
Page  366 I cannot hear your songs, O birds,
For the witchery of my own.
And every human heart
Still keeps that golden day
And rings the bells of jubilee
On its own First of May.

Page 30, note 1. Compare in "The Poet," in the Appendix to the Poems, the verses beginning,—

The gods talk in the breath of the woods,
They talk in the shaken pine.

Page 31, note 1. He elsewhere quotes Plato as saying, "The man who is master of himself knocks in vain at the door of Poetry."

Page 31, note 2. In the lecture the following passage belonged here, an earlier version:—

"The Poet adopts in every action the method of Nature, the most direct; believing, that, in the nature of everything, its own check will appear, and save the absurdity of artificial checks…

"The Poet, thus beholding laws, is believer and lover. The world to him is virgin soil. (And the men mean well: it is never too late to do right.) He affirms the applicability of the ideal law to this moment, and to the present knot of affairs. But [parties, lawyers, and] men of the world invariably dispute such an application, as romantic and dangerous. They admit the general truth, but they and their affairs always constitute an exception."

Page 32, note 1. The latter pages of "The Conservative," in Nature, Addresses and Lectures, treat of the attitude towards the problems of his day of the man who follows his ideals.

Page  367 In Lowell's "Fable for Critics" a gentleman taking issue with Phoebus on the subject of American Slavery, begins,—

"'At slavery in the abstract my whole soul rebels,
I am as strongly opposed to 't as any one else'
'Ay, no doubt, but whenever I've happened to meet
With a wrong or a crime, it is always concrete,'
Answered Phoebus severely."

Page 33, note 1.

 [ gap:  ] 

Iliad XII., 243.

Page 33, note 2.

 [ gap:  ] 

Iliad XIII, 115.

Page 33, note 3. When Mr. Emerson read Aytoun's lines in "The Burial-March of Dundee,"—

"See, above his glorious body
Lies the royal banner's fold:
See, his valiant blood is mingled
With its crimson and its gold,"—
he smiled and said, "The upholsterer!"
What parts, what gems, what colors shine,—
Ah, but I miss the grand design.

"Fragments on The Poet," Poems, Appendix.

Page 35, note 1. Mr. Emerson once spoke of the tariff as a good subject to test an American poet on.

Page 37, note 1. Pons Capdueil, a baron of Provence in the twelfth century, excelled in all the accomplishments of a knight and especially as a troubadour. His romantic love for Azalais, Countess of Auvergne, gives the principal interest to Page  368 his story. After her death he joined Philip Augustus of France and Richard of England in the Third Crusade, in which he perished.

Page 39, note 1. "But if I should count the English poets who have contributed to the Bible of existing England and America, sentences of guidance or consolation, which are still glowing and effective,—how few! Milton, Shakspeare, Spenser, Herbert, Jonson, Donne, Dryden, Pope, Young, Cowper, Burns, Wordsworth: what disparity in the names! but these are the authors.

"But how shall I find my daily bread in the reigning poets? Where is great design in modern English poetry? Where with the exception of Wordsworth? Tennyson is richly endowed precisely in points where Wordsworth wanted. Since Milton there was no finer ear, nor more command of the keys of language. But he wants a subject. he has climbed no mount of vision and brought its secrets down."

Page 39, note 2.

Whatsoever hap befalls
In his vision's narrow walls
He is here to testify.

"Fragments on Life," Poems, Appendix.
See thou bring not to field or stone
The fancies found in books;
Leave authors' eyes, and fetch your own,
To brave the landscape's looks.

"Waldeinsamkeit," Poems.

Page 42, note 1. This is the second axiom of Fourier, the French socialist whose writings were at the root of the attempts in America to establish Brook Farm and some other communities. The first axiom was, The series distributes the Page  369 harmonies of the world (i.e. all the harmonies of the universe grow out of a regular and uniform order), and the third was, Analogy is Universal.

Page 42, note 2. In the lecture this quotation from the Oriental scriptures ends, "thou mayest obtain by propitiating Vishnu;" then Mr. Emerson erased this and substituted "by keeping the law of thy members and the law of thy mind." Whether he originated this interpretation of what would propitiate Vishnu, or found it in another translation, or a note, does not appear.

Page 43, note 1. The editor would be grateful if any reader could give the source whence these lines came.

Page 44, note 1. Niebuhr, Letters, etc, vol. Iii.

Page 45, note 1. Mr. Emerson seems to have found dreams very interesting. Much is said of them in the essay on Demonology in Lectures and Biographical Sketches.

Page 46, note 1. This paragraph recalls several lines of his poem "Each and All."

Page 46, note 2. Dr. Holmes has written a chapter on the Physiology of Versification.

Page 47, note 1. This thought of the rhyming harmonies everywhere in man and Nature Mr. Emerson made the theme of his second poem "Merlin".

Page 49, note 1. The Poet, in Mr. Emerson's early poem of that name, which appears in the Appendix to the Poems,

Through man and woman and sea and star
Saw the dance of Nature forward and far,
Through worlds and races and terms and times
Saw musical order and pairing rhymes.

Page 50, note 1. Journal. "Spenser seems to delight in nis art for his own skill's sake. In the Muiopotmos, see the Page  370 security and ostentation with which he draws out and refines his description of a butterfly's back and wings, of a spider's thread and spinning, of the butterfly's cruise among the flowers,—'bathing his tender feet in the dew which yet on them does lie,'—it is all like the working of an exquisite loom which unweariedly yields fine webs for exhibition and defiance of all spinners."

Page 50, note 2. Mr. Emerson found Thomas Taylor's renderings of Plato and the Neo-platonists, and his comments, stimulating reading in small doses. This was a case where he "read for lustres," for grandeur of imagery and scope rather than for argument. In English Traits he says he told Wordsworth that it was not creditable that no one in all the country knew anything of this remarkable man, while in every American library his translations were found.

Page 51, note 1. It would seem as if this passage must have inspired the striking picture by Elihu Vedder of the ancient Arab listening at the mouth of the Sphinx.

Page 52, note 1. This paragraph was part of the lecture on The Poet given in 1841. On an early visit to the White Mountains he had heard a horn blown with such charming echo among the silent hills that it was remembered always as one of the most romantic experiences of his life, and is referred to in several of the essays.

Page 53, note 1. Dr Holmes in his Life of Emerson, apropos of his poetry, discusses in a charming manner the relation of poetry to prose.

Page 53, note 2. The following passage seems to have formed a part of "The Poet" given in 1841:—

"Cowley, and Donne's poems afford, as life does, the chance of wisdom (richest instruction) amid (frivolous and) familiar objects; the loose and the grand, religion and mirth, Page  371 stand in surprising neighborhood, and, like the words of great men, without cant."

Page 55, note 1. From Beaumont and Fletcher's play The Nice Valour, Act III, Scene 3.

Page 57, note 1. The "Invocation" comes from D. W. Nash's "Taliesin, or the Bards and Druids of Britain, a Translation of the Remains of the Earliest Welsh Bards and an Examination of the Bardic Mysteries" London: John Russell Smith, 1858.

Page 59, note 1. Heimskringla, vol i.

Page 63, note 1. Before this paragraph the following passages occurred in the lecture, on the question of poetry at home:—

"The question is often asked, Why no poet appears in America? Other nations in their early expanding periods, in their war for existence, have shot forth the flowers of verse, and created a mythology which continued to charm the imagination of after-men. But we have all manner of ability, except this: we are brave, victorious, we legislate, trade, plant, build, sail, and combine as well as many others, but we have no imagination, no constructive mind, no affirmative books; we have plenty of criticism, elegant history; all the forms of respectable imitation; but no poet, no affirmer, no grand guiding mind, who intoxicates his countrymen with happy hopes,—makes them self-respecting, with faith that rests in their own minds, and is not imported from abroad;—and, first of all, our lives are impoverished and unpoeted, that is, inhuman. The answer is, for the time, to be found in the preoccupation of all men. The work of half the world to be done: and it is the hard condition of Nature, that, where one faculty is excessive, it lames all the rest. We are the men of practice, the men of our hand, and, for the time, our brain Page  372 loses in range what it gains in special skill. The genius of civilization, except while it is new, is antagonistic to sentiment, utilitarian, expensive…

"Taught by England, nay, begotten by England, the American mind has learned to call great small, and small things great; tasteless expense, arts of comfort and the putting as many impediments as we can between the man and his objects, we have learned; and our arts and our books and our characters betray the taming of the imagination.

"Yet there is an elasticity in the American mind which may redeem us, and the effect of popular institutions in continually sending back the enervated families into the realities of Nature and of toil may serve the highest medical benefit."

After this, in the lecture, the paragraph here headed "Morals" began thus:—

"But if we deal truly, and with a frankness suitable to a great nation, we should say that we are sometimes apprised that there is," etc.

Page 63, note 2. This passage is more strikingly expressed in the journal for 1851:—

"There is something,—our brothers over the sea do not know it or own it; Scott, Southey, Hallam and Dickens could all deny and blaspheme it,—which is setting them all aside, and the world also, and planting itself for ever and ever."

Page 64, note 1. These lines are from Ben Jonson's "Forest," XII., towards the end of the "Epistle to the Countess of Rutland."

Page 65, note 1. Towards the middle of the address "Literary Ethics," in Nature, Addresses and Lectures, is a passage, which the present one suggests, as to the freshness and newness of Nature still undescribed in spite of Homer, Shakspeare, Milton or Chaucer.

Page  373

Page 66, note 1. From Counterparts, by Elizabeth S. Sheppard, one of the few novels that interested Mr. Emerson.

Page 69, note 1. Journal, 1851. "One listens to the magnifying of Goethe's poem by his critic, and replies, 'Yes, it is good if you all agree to come in and be pleased;' and you fall into another company and mood, and like it not. It is so with Wordsworth. But to Shakspeare alone God granted the power to dispense with the humours of his company. They must needs all take his. He is always good; and Goethe knew it and said, 'It is as idle to compare Tieck to me as me to Shakspeare.' I looked through the first part of Faust to-day and find it a little too modern," etc.

Page 69, note 2. Wordsworth, Poems dedicated to National Independence, part I., sonnet xvi.

Page 73, note 1. "Only that is poetry which cleanses and mans me."—From the manuscript lecture.

Page 74, note 1.

The gallant child where'er he came
Threw to each fact a tuneful name.
The things whereon he cast his eyes
Could not the nations rebaptize,
Nor Time's snows hide the names he set,
Nor last posterity forget.

"The Poet," Poems, Appendix.