By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
In his vast Guide to Modern World Literature, Martin Seymour-Smith calls Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman the only true poetic innovators in nineteenth-century American poetry. But in fact, Dickinson’s eccentric use of slant rhyme and Whitman’s development of free verse are both anticipated in the work of an earlier nineteenth-century American poet: Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Emerson (1803-82) is best-known for his prose writings: his 1836 pamphlet ‘Nature’ became a kind of unofficial manifesto for the Transcendentalist movement in New England. This was, in many ways, America’s development of European Romanticism, in that it argued for the kinship between the natural world and the human imagination.
Emerson’s prose essays often eclipse his poetic achievement. His poetry, which appeared in Poems (1847) and May-Day and Other Pieces (1867), is uneven in quality, but at its best it is lively, arresting, and genuinely innovative. Let’s take a look at ten of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s best poems.
1. ‘Boston Hymn’.
The word of the Lord by night
To the watching Pilgrims came,
As they sat by the seaside,
And filled their hearts with flame.
God said, I am tired of kings,
I suffer them no more;
Up to my ear the morning brings
The outrage of the poor.
One of two very famous public hymns Emerson is principally known for (even by people who don’t usually read his poetry), ‘Boston Hymn’ was composed in 1862 and read publicly in Boston Music Hall on 1 January 1863.
The poem commemorates the Emancipation Proclamation issued by the US President Abraham Lincoln. Emerson lived in Boston, and the city was known for its support for the abolitionist movement; this hymn celebrates the freeing of the slaves which the proclamation brought into being.
2. ‘The Snow-Storm’.
Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
Transcendentalists, like the Romantics whom they followed and learnt so much from, often write about nature in all its power and beauty; and this is one of Emerson’s finest nature poems.
Indeed, the poem might be regarded as an example of the Sublime: that philosophy which views nature as both beautiful and terrifying, and far greater, more long-lasting, and more powerful than mankind. In lines of blank verse – the unrhymed structure perhaps suggesting the wild unpredictability of the snow falling – Emerson vividly captures the ‘frolic architecture of the snow’.
Though loath to grieve
The evil time’s sole patriot,
I cannot leave
My honied thought
For the priest’s cant,
Or statesman’s rant.
As the full title of this poem makes clear, it was dedicated to William Henry Channing (1810-84), a minister and reformer for the abolition of slavery. The poem is one of Emerson’s most deeply allusive, and one needs a fairly good knowledge of American history to make sense of its various references; but the lively short lines show Emerson’s distinctive and original approach to form.
4. ‘The Rhodora’.
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
This 1834 poem is another one of Emerson’s nature poems, describing the flowering shrub, the rhodora, in the woods. Emerson praises this shrub as a ‘rival of the rose’ for its beauty. The last line is Romantic Transcendentalism through and through, uniting the poet’s fate with that of the flower.
Pass in, pass in, the angels say,
In to the upper doors;
Nor count compartments of the floors,
But mount to Paradise
By the stairway of surprise.
In this longer poem of 1847, Emerson tried to find a new direction for American poetry, much as he had tried to do in his 1843 essay ‘The Poet’. To do this, Emerson rejects the traditional forms and models which earlier American poets had inherited from England and Europe.
The Merlin of Emerson’s poem is a seer, a prophetic figure: exactly the kind of person Emerson thought the poet should be. The image of the ‘stairway of surprise’, quoted above, has often been praised by critics.
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
This poem, written in 1856, was first published in The Atlantic the following year. The poem is named after Brahman, the universal principle of the Vedas in Hinduism. It’s a dramatic work (of sorts), spoken by Brahma himself, and reveals Emerson’s interest in Eastern scriptures and spiritual thought.
7. ‘The Bell’.
I love thy music, mellow bell,
I love thine iron chime,
To life or death, to heaven or hell,
Which calls the sons of Time.
Written in more traditional quatrains using alternate abab rhyme, ‘The Bell’ shows that Emerson was capable of more conventional formal lyrics as well as his freer, looser poems.
8. ‘Ode to Beauty’.
Who gave thee, O Beauty,
The keys of this breast,—
Too credulous lover
Of blest and unblest?
Say, when in lapsed ages
Thee knew I of old;
Or what was the service
For which I was sold?
Here’s another of Emerson’s odes, this time in praise of ‘Beauty’, whom Emerson personifies and addresses directly. For Emerson, Beauty is ‘Queen of things’ whom he entreats to give herself to him, or else let him die – for a life lived without beauty is not worth living.
It is time to be old,
To take in sail:—
The god of bounds,
Who sets to seas a shore,
Came to me in his fatal rounds,
And said: ‘No more!
No farther shoot
Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root …
The Latin word ‘terminus’ means ‘end’, and this later poem, published when Emerson was in his sixties, shows him reflecting on old age and what Philip Larkin called ‘the only end of age’, death. Terminus, in Emerson’s poem, is personified, as a figure not unlike Old Father Time, reminding us that Terminus was a Roman god of boundaries and endings.
10. ‘Concord Hymn’.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Let’s conclude this pick of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s best poems with his best-known of all. ‘Concord Hymn’ is a ‘poem of occasion’, written in 1837 in order to be sung at the unveiling of a monument commemorating the battles of Lexington and Concord. Emerson was unable to attend the unveiling himself, but Henry David Thoreau was there to sing the hymn along with others in attendance.
One line from this public poem (and a very formally regular poem, by Emerson’s standards) has become universally known: ‘the shot heard around the world.’ Emerson’s poem commemorates those Americans who resisted British rule, starting with the War of Independence in the previous century and moving up to date.