Archive for the ‘Emerson’ Category
Is there a list of important works of nineteenth-century American literature that no one reads or talks about? Ralph Waldo Emerson’s anthology, Parnassus (1874), must reside high there — a different sort of airy reach than the one he meant by that title.
After C19 and the poetry seminar organized by Virginia Jackson and Michael Cohen, I began to wonder about the tradition of English poetry as understood in Victorian America. Who did they love, and who did they respect without love, and who did they care about not one little bit? Perhaps someone has already answered those questions.
Lacking time to investigate this issue, I did pull Parnassus off the shelf, to see what poetry Emerson loved, respected, allowed himself to forget. Emerson, of course, was not the only anthologist in this period, was not even the only poet anthologist (Bryant and Whittier also made treasuries of verse, and Longfellow the more peculiar Poems of Places). Nonetheless, Emerson is as close to a central figure as one might find among the anthologists, and his treasury is the one I happened to have on hand. Perusing his contents, however, I found myself drawn from his list of names to the categories under which the names were gathered. A fascinating itinerary, truly, and perhaps a better clue to the nature of his canon than the canon itself.
Man.—Virtue.—Honor.—Time.—Fate.—Sleep.—Dreams.—Life.—Death.—Immortality.—Hymns and Odes.
NARRATIVE POEMS AND BALLADS.
DIRGES AND PATHETIC POEMS.
COMIC AND HUMOROUS.
POETRY OF TERROR.
ORACLES AND COUNSELS.
Good Counsel.—Supreme Hours.
At C19, Emerson was cited as a crucial figure in the replacement of “poetic genres” with “the genre of poetry,” a critical turn that Virginia Jackson influentially analyzed as “lyricization”: “the progressive idealization of what was a much livelier, more explicitly mediated, historically contingent and public context for many varieties of poetry,” such that poetry and lyric become conflated terms — and the lyric of this conflation a particularly attenuated version of the genre. In this respect, it might be useful to think of Emerson’s Parnassian categories as the road not taken on the way to lyricization. Genres are included (hymns, odes, ballads, songs, satires), but intermixed with modes (the contemplative, picturesque, comic), themes and subjects (nature, history, personal life), functions (religion, storytelling, counsel), and affects (pathos, humor, terror). The categories are not quite distinct and not quite coordinated, so that what we have is a messy attempt to sort the objects of an idealization according to their piecemeal pleasures, even as that form of appreciation is discounted as trivial.
In his preface, Emerson writes:
The poet demands all gifts, and not one or two only. Like the electric rod, he must from a point nearer to the sky than all surrounding objects, down to the earth, and into the wet soil, or neither is of use. The poet must not only converse with pure thought, but he must demonstrate it almost to the senses. His words must be pictures: his verses must be spheres and cubes, to be seen and handled. His fable must be a good story, and its meaning must hold as pure truth.
The sphere and cube are ideal forms, pure as the poets of Emerson’s Parnassus. In the end, however, they are not the right categories for the poems.
1 [Back to text] Virginia Jackson, Dickinson’s Misery: A Theory of Lyric Reading (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 9.
In 1859, no longer able to speak from a pulpit (he had TB), Theodore Parker wrote a long letter to his congregation, in effect an autobiography. It was published as Theodore Parker’s Experience as a Minister, a book precious in its succinct eloquence, and surely one of the earliest retrospects on a revolutionary period. A premature retrospect, one might say, except that Parker, 49 years old, knew he was dying.
But the letter is not just a retrospect. Parker is also concerned here to set forth theological and political principles. At one point, he slyly notes that these principles often went disguised in literary drag. Only in this disguise, he implies, could his ideas be shared freely in public. Why? Because literature is a sphere apart, valued for its independence from worldly strife. Or rather, it operates under the illusion of that independence.
For Parker, the illusion is intrinsic to literature’s social function, a function he describes in terms Stuart Hall might embrace. An early member of “the party of resentment” (Harold Bloom’s derisive name for those who would reform the world through culture), Parker believed that literature is not simply an expression of social forces, but one of the ways those forces gain legitimacy. He also believed that literature’s ability to do good — which is to say, its ability to question legitimacy and so reshape society — is kept in check by the powers and authorities that control its dissemination. Read the rest of this entry »
Let me start with Emerson’s best-known aphorism, from “Self-Reliance”: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” What Emerson means here is partly explained by the rest of his sentence: “…adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” A roundabout way of saying that priests are as foolish as politicians, as tedious as logicians. Or else, instead, that little minds are tormented by what great ones adore. Or maybe that little minds like to be tormented. Emerson can be so confusing.
Be all that as it may, I do value consistency, and have often wondered about my own lack of it vis-à-vis nineteenth- and twentieth-century poets. For instance, the fact that I’m happy ignoring whole areas of activity in the later period, whereas, in the earlier, I’d like someday to have an understanding of the whole. In the later period, I’m even willing to ignore major figures (so-called), whereas, in the earlier, importance, however defined, serves perfectly well as a basis for paying attention. The reason, I’ve often told myself, is that I have the luxury of dispassion when it comes to the nineteenth century. I can be a scholar in my reading, setting aside the necessity for making choices, the need a practitioner feels to insist on his or her own commitments. For when it comes to the twentieth century (and the twenty-first too, of course), I’m a poet first. I find myself — or rather my work — implicated in the projects I consider. To grant certain poets, even historically unavoidable ones, their credence would be to bestow on them the benefit of my interest and so qualify the interest — and credence — of the work I do myself, or at least of the work that makes possible what I do.
Anyway, that’s what I’ve told myself, now and again, trying to understand my lack of patience with the present-day equivalents to antebellum versifiers whose writings I do manage to approach with sympathy. It’s a good solution, I think, this distinction I make between reading as a scholar and reading as a poet. … Too bad it’s probably bunk. In both centuries, I let my curiosity guide me, and often become quite taken with poets out of proportion to their actual importance as anyone else might see it. In my nineteenth century, for example, Bayard Taylor is much more important than Jones Very, and Fitz-Greene Halleck is much more lasting than E. A. Robinson. Which may sound reasonable to you, but that’s only because Whitman and Dickinson have so skewed our perceptions. Basically, this is like saying that Randall Jarrell is more important than T. S. Eliot, Joanne Kyger more lasting than Robert Frost. Which I do believe, by the way.
But please don’t mistake this as a “post-avant” vs. “school of quietude” argument (the Jarrell reference ought to clarify that). I’m talking about taking one’s own interests seriously, which is precisely a redrawing of such existing lines. For me, Marianne Moore is the center of modernism, not Eliot, or Pound, or Williams, and that means I can read Merrill and Ashbery with equal pleasure, while finding Lowell and Duncan — who drank too deeply of the Four Quartets — almost unbearable.
And therein lies for me the big difference between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: I find so much more of the latter century’s poetry unbearable. And not because it’s worse, mind you, but because it touches me more deeply, more directly. I may be put to sleep by James Russell Lowell, but he doesn’t irritate me like Robert. That irritation, I would add, says much less about Lowell — or me — than it does about the nature of proximity.
Putting this all together, I’d say that as a scholar, I read like a poet who has gone numb. Or rather: as a poet, I read like a scholar with bad allergies. Except that the difference is not between scholarship and poetry, but centuries. As I move further into the past, I find it easier to withhold judgment. In the present and near past, judgment withholds me.
So yes, I’m inconsistent, but no longer tortured about it. And not because I’m now “self-reliant.” It’s immersion in the social I accept, my vantage on the past, and future, I’ve acknowledged. Which leads, I hope, to the ultimate inconsistency: revision. After all, what good is history if it can’t be rewritten, reconsidered, redeployed?
An addendum to my previous note …
Looking this morning at Lydia Sigourney’s The Voice of Flowers (my copy a sweet miniature with tinted engravings), I found a parallel to these lines from Emerson’s “Blight”:
But these young scholars, who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes.
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.
The parallel is right there at the start of Signourney’s book. Here are the title and first stanza of the first poem:
Sweet playmates of life’s earliest hours!
They ne’er upbraid the child,
Who, in the wantonness of mirth,
Uproots them on the wild;
And when the botanist, his shaft,
With cruel skill, doth ply,
Reproachless ’neath the fatal wound,
Martyrs to science die.
I will have to do some research to figure out if the parallel is coincidence or trace of influence. Emerson’s “Blight” appeared in his 1847 Poems. The Voice of Flowers bears a copyright date of 1845 (my copy is the fourth edition from two years after). But it may be that Emerson’s poem was written long before, or appeared long before in a journal; and it may be that Sigourney’s poem also appeared or was written long before. So who knows?
But I’m leaning away from coincidence, as I hear yet another echo of Sigourney (I assume it’s Sigourney who came first) in these later lines from Emerson’s poem:
… to our sick eyes,
The stunted trees look sick,…
And life, …
… in its highest noon and wantonness,
Is early frugal, like a beggar’s child
This too could be coincidence — it probably is — but the conjunction of “wantonness” and “child” in consecutive lines strikes me as a meaningful parallel.
Anyway, if casual research turns up anything relevant I’ll add it as a footnote to this post.
The new issue of Ecopoetics includes two interviews with Gary Snyder, one conducted by the editor, Jonathan Skinner, the other by Kyhl Lyndgaard. One portion in particular caught my eye from the former:
JS — You said at one point — in one of those interviews in The Real Work — that you never write of an animal or a plant that you haven’t seen.
GS — Not usually, no. Unless I dreamed it.
JS — Could you say a bit about the importance of that experience?
GS — I take animals seriously. They’re real beings. It’s exploitative to just try to play with them like counters. They don’t like it.
JS — Plants too?
GS — Yeah. You have to take into account …
JS — What about rocks?
GS — Anything. The world is solid. And spiritual. It’s just not something that you move around ny way you like. You have to give respect to it. Just like what Dick Nelson says about Koyukon, Athapaskan Indians in Alaska, in the Yukon area. He says they are so sensitive … to the etiquette of nature, that a mother will say, “Don’t point at the mountain, it’s rude.”
JS — I think there is a baseline rule for “ecopoetics,” in some respects, that it has to go beyond book-learning, beyond poems put together with the dictionary or encyclopedia.
GS — Koyukon are really something about that. Nelson talks about a guy trying to get his outboard started on the river there, and he’s getting kind of pissed off at it. And his friend says, “Don’t get mad at the outboard, it’s got feelings you know.”
The language philosophy underlying this exchange is a charming mixture of pragmatism and magical thinking. Pragmatism, because the emphasis falls on how words influence human action. For Snyder, the self-imposed discipline of writing about animals he has seen (or dreamt about!) and no others is a means of fostering respect — respect for animals and also for nature as a whole. It’s a constraint, but unlike the constraints of Oulipo and its progeny, Snyder’s constraint treats writing as part of the moral life of the writer. The magical aspect of Snyder’s practice lies in his further belief that words have an effect on the world, not just because they influence human action, but directly, as directly as any other tool. Even as guns, axes, traps, and engines alter the shape and character of the solid world, so too do words alter the shape and character of the spiritual. The exploitation of animals begins in the indiscriminate use of their names. Read the rest of this entry »
Still is the haughty pile erect / Of the old building Intellect
Since allowing two months ago that Emerson’s poetry didn’t speak to me, it’s begun to speak to me.
This happens all the time: opinions I thought written in stone become rewritten by wind when the stone turns to sand. In Emerson’s case, the stone turned to sand a few years ago, when I read his poetry notebooks and saw that the work’s more annoying qualities (greeting-card rhyme, Polonius-like advice) were softened in effect when I read the writing as improvisation.
In this state the sand lay still for a good long time. Only this summer did the wind rise, when I found myself restless at my father’s nursing home and Emerson was the only poet who caught my eye at the nearby bookstore. This was fortuitous: if you’re ever going to appreciate an awkward fit between process and product, a nursing home is the place. There too an imperfect project confronts you, and there too “process” can be rewarding even though the “product” tends toward failure.
The nursing home analogy could be drawn out at great length, with CNAs as textual editors (and some, oh yes, some much better than others), but it’s not the place I’m thinking of here, only the appreciation of everyday life it teaches. With my father, for example, after his stroke, even swallowing requires conscious effort; the effort makes me appreciate the complexity of the task, and this in turn makes me appreciate the result, even when the result is poor. Not that Emerson’s poems are efforts in that sense; their defining quality is probably ease, hence the greeting-card rhyme. But the notebooks show us that poetry was an everyday activity for Emerson, and that’s how I came to appreciate it this summer. A compositional mundanity with irregular moments of grace and insight, reminding me why I persevere. Read the rest of this entry »
Although it is not an anthologized poem today, “The Romany Girl” by Ralph Waldo Emerson was highly regarded in the nineteenth century, and often included in short lists of Emerson’s best work. It appeared in the first issue of Atlantic Monthly (1857), alongside “The Chartist’s Complaint,” “Days,” and “Brahma.” All four of these poems later appeared in May Day and Other Pieces (1867), Emerson’s second collection. In the 1870s, George Fuller took the poem’s title for a painting, and this too was highly regarded in the nineteenth century. The idea for the title came from William Dean Howells, who later produced a Gypsy image of his own for his last novel, The Vacation of the Kelwyns (1920).
Emerson’s poem was written in the first person, with Emerson-as-Gypsy defending the outdoors life of a social outcast, and doing so with a grand self-possession. The impersonation stands out from his other work in verse, which pays little heed to social types and rarely takes shape in dramatic monologues. The approach may have been more common among his contemporaries — this was, after all, the age of the minstrel show — but comparable poems by John Greenleaf Whittier focus on facts and actions, not self-understanding; their interest does not lie in characterization.  Nor is characterization a strength of William Blake’s “The Little Black Boy,” though here at least self-understanding was at issue. This may be why one nineteenth-century critic (W. S. Kennedy) invoked Blake when citing “The Romany Girl.”
A comparison of the Blake and Emerson poems is revealing. Blake’s speaker, born in the “southern wild,” looks forward to a day when his racial difference will disappear — when he and the “little English boy” can embrace in heaven. Emerson’s speaker insists on her difference. She finds nothing worth embracing in the “Pale Northern girls” who scorn her. She sports with their men, but has no intention of leaving her own kind. That would mean accepting captivity in a city and she has nothing but disdain for that prospect, an attitude that Emerson clearly finds attractive: Read the rest of this entry »