Emerson's essay was first published in 1844. Many think that Walt Whitman fulfilled Emerson's call for an American poet in the 1800's, and that Robert Frost fulfilled in the 1900's...
Theologians and poets
Theologians think it a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract, but they prefer to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence; and even the poets are contented with a civil and conformed manner of living and to write poems from the fancy, at a safe distance from their own experience. But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall, I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg and the masters of sculpture, picture and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torchbearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.
Three children in the universe: The knower, the doer and the sayer
For the Universe has three children, born at one time, which reappear under different names in every system of thought, whether they be called cause, operation and effect; or, more poetically, Jove, Pluto, Neptune; or, theologically, the Father, the Spirit and the Son; but which we will call here the Knower, the Doer and the Sayer. These stand respectively for the love of truth, the love of good and the love of beauty. These three are equal. Each is that which he is essentially, so that he cannot be surmounted or analysed, and each of these three has the power of the others latent in him, and his own patent.
The sign and credentials of the poet
The sign and credentials of the poet are that he announces that which no man foretold.He is the true and only doctor; he knows and tells; he is the only teller of news, for he was present and privy to the appearance which he describes. He is a beholder of ideas, and an utterer of the necessary and causal. We do no speak now of men of poetical talents or of industry and skill in metre, but of the true poet. I took part in a conversation the other day concerning a recent writer of lyrics, a man of subtle mind, whose head appeared to be a delicate music box of subtle tunes and rhythms, and whose skill and command of language we could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose whether he were not only a lyrist, but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man.
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 and adorns Nature with a new thing. The thought and the form are equal in the order of time, but in the order of genesis, the thought is prior to the form. The poet has a new thought; he has a whole new experience to unfold; he will tell us how it is with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. The experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.
Trust the divine animal as you would your horse
As the traveler who has lost his way throws his reins on hi horse’s neck and trust to the instincts of the animal to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us through the world. or if in any manner we can stimulate this instinct, new passages are opened for us into Nature, the mind flows into and through things hardest and highest, and the metamorphosis is possible.
This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandal-wood and tobacco, or whatever other species of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers; and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theatres, traveling, war, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication, which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact.
The epic poet must drink water out of a wooden bowl
Milton says that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl. For poetry is not “Devil’s wine,” but God’s wine. It is with this as it is with toys. We fill the hands and nurseries of our children with all manner of dolls, drums and horses, withdrawing their eyes from the plain face and sufficing objects of Nature, the sun, the moon, the animals, the water and stones, which should be their toys. So the poet’s habit of living should be set on a key so low and plain, that the common influences should delight him. His cheerfulness should be the gift of the sunlight; the air should suffice for his inspiration and he should be tipsy with water. That spirit which suffices quiet hearts, which seems to come forth to such from every dry knoll of sere grass, from every pine-stump and half-embedded stone on which the dull March sun shines, comes forth to the poor and hungry, and such as are of simple taste. If thou fill thy brain with Boston and New Yourk, with fashion and covetousness, and wilt stimulate thy jaded senses with wine and French coffee, though shalt find no passage out into free space, and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed. Hence, a great number of such as were professionally expressers of Beauty, as painters, poets, musicians and actors, have been more than others wont to lead a life of pleasure and indulgence; all but the few who received the true nectar; and, as it was a spurious mode of attaining freedom, as it was an emancipation not into the heavens, but into the freedom of baser places, they were punished for that advantage they won, by a dissipation and deterioration.
Swedenborg the eminent translator of Nature
Swedenborg, of all men in the recent ages, stands eminently for the translator of Nature into thought. I do not know the man in history to whom things stood so uniformly for words. Before him the metamorphosis continually plays. Everything on which his eye rests obeys the impulses of moral nature. The figs become grapes whilst he eats them. When some of his angels affirmed a truth, the laurel twig which they held blossomed in their hands. The noise which at a distance appeared like gnashing and thumping, on coming nearer was found to be the voice of disputants.
American themes for poets
I look in vain for the poet whom I describe. We do not, with sufficient plainness, or sufficient profoundness, address ourselves to life, nor dare we chant our own times and social circumstance. If we filled the day with bravery, we should not shrink from celebrating it. Time and Nature yield us many gifts, but not yet the timely man the new religion, the reconciler, whom all things await. Dante’s praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality. 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 it so much admires in Homer; then in the middle age; then in Calvinism. Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi and are as swiftly passing away.
These excerpts taken from Edgar Lee Masters Presents the Living Thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fawcett World Library, 1958.
Three poems by Emerson:
from Essays: Second Series (1844)
by Ralph Waldo Emerson
A moody child and wildly wise
Pursued the game with joyful eyes,
Which chose, like meteors, their way,
And rived the dark with private ray:
They overleapt the horizon's edge,
Searched with Apollo's privilege;
Through man, and woman, and sea, and star,
Saw the dance of nature forward far;
Through worlds, and races, and terms, and times,
Saw musical order, and pairing rhymes.
Olympian bards who sung
Divine ideas below,
Which always find us young,
And always keep us so.
‘A∆AKPKÿN NEMONTAI AIΩNA
“A new commandment,” said the smiling Muse,
“I give my darling son, Though shalt not preach,”—
Luther, Fox, Behmen, Swedenborg, grew pale,
And, on the instant, rosier clouds upbore
Hafiz and Shakespeare with their shining choirs.
"Give all to love;
Obey thy heart;
Friends, kindred, days,
Estate, good fame,
Plans, credit, and the muse;
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