Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The Poet” (1844)

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Title: Essays, Second Series

Author: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Posting Date: December 1, 2008 [EBook #2945]
Release Date: December, 2001

Language: English


Produced by Tony Adam


By Ralph Waldo Emerson

     THE POET.

     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.


Those who are esteemed umpires of taste are often persons who have
acquired some knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an
inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are
beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you
learn that they are selfish and sensual. Their cultivation is local, as
if you should rub a log of dry wood in one spot to produce fire, all the
rest remaining cold. Their knowledge of the fine arts is some study of
rules and particulars, or some limited judgment of color or form, which
is exercised for amusement or for show. It is a proof of the shallowness
of the doctrine of beauty as it lies in the minds of our amateurs, that
men seem to have lost the perception of the instant dependence of form
upon soul. There is no doctrine of forms in our philosophy. We were
put into our bodies, as fire is put into a pan to be carried about; but
there is no accurate adjustment between the spirit and the organ, much
less is the latter the germination of the former. So in regard to other
forms, the intellectual men do not believe in any essential dependence
of the material world on thought and volition. 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
torch-bearers, 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. And this hidden truth, that the fountains whence all this
river of Time and its creatures floweth are intrinsically ideal and
beautiful, draws us to the consideration of the nature and functions of
the Poet, or the man of Beauty; to the means and materials he uses, and
to the general aspect of the art in the present time.

The breadth of the problem is great, for 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 young man reveres men of
genius, because, to speak truly, they are more himself than he is. They
receive of the soul as he also receives, but they more. Nature enhances
her beauty, to the eye of loving men, from their belief that the poet
is beholding her shows at the same time. He is isolated among his
contemporaries by truth and by his art, but with this consolation in his
pursuits, that they will draw all men sooner or later. For all men live
by truth and stand in need of expression. In love, in art, in avarice,
in politics, in labor, in games, we study to utter our painful secret.
The man is only half himself, the other half is his expression.

Notwithstanding this necessity to be published, adequate expression is
rare. I know not how it is that we need an interpreter, but the great
majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession
of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have
had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual
utility in the sun and stars, earth and water. These stand and wait to
render him a peculiar service. But there is some obstruction or some
excess of phlegm in our constitution, which does not suffer them to
yield the due effect. Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to
make us artists. Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much
an artist that he could report in conversation what had befallen him.
Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to
arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick and compel the
reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom
these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees
and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of
experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest
power to receive and to impart.

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, for the love of good, and for
the love of beauty. These three are equal. Each is that which he is
essentially, so that he cannot be surmounted or analyzed, and each of
these three has the power of the others latent in him, and his own,

The poet is the sayer, the namer, and represents beauty. He is a
sovereign, and stands on the centre. For the world is not painted or
adorned, but is from the beginning beautiful; and God has not made some
beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe. Therefore
the poet is not any permissive potentate, but is emperor in his own
right. Criticism is infested with a cant of materialism, which assumes
that manual skill and activity is the first merit of all men, and
disparages such as say and do not, overlooking the fact that some men,
namely poets, are natural sayers, sent into the world to the end of
expression, and confounds them with those whose province is action but
who quit it to imitate the sayers. But Homer's words are as costly and
admirable to Homer as Agamemnon's victories are to Agamemnon. The poet
does not wait for the hero or the sage, but, as they act and think
primarily, so he writes primarily what will and must be spoken,
reckoning the others, though primaries also, yet, in respect to him,
secondaries and servants; as sitters or models in the studio of a
painter, or as assistants who bring building materials to an architect.

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. For nature is as truly
beautiful as it is good, or as it is reasonable, and must as much appear
as it must be done, or be known. Words and deeds are quite indifferent
modes of the divine energy. Words are also actions, and actions are a
kind of words.

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. For we do not 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 music-box of
delicate tunes and rhythms, and whose skill and command of language, we
could not sufficiently praise. But when the question arose whether he
was not only a lyrist but a poet, we were obliged to confess that he is
plainly a contemporary, not an eternal man. He does not stand out of our
low limitations, like a Chimborazo under the line, running up from the
torrid Base through all the climates of the globe, with belts of the
herbage of every latitude on its high and mottled sides; but this genius
is the landscape-garden of a modern house, adorned with fountains and
statues, with well-bred men and women standing and sitting in the walks
and terraces. We hear, through all the varied music, the ground-tone of
conventional life. Our poets are men of talents who sing, and not the
children of music. The argument is secondary, the finish of the verses
is primary.

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. 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 was with him, and all men will be the richer in his fortune. For
the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world
seems always waiting for its poet. I remember when I was young how much
I was moved one morning by tidings that genius had appeared in a youth
who sat near me at table. He had left his work and gone rambling none
knew whither, and had written hundreds of lines, but could not tell
whether that which was in him was therein told; he could tell nothing
but that all was changed,--man, beast, heaven, earth and sea. How gladly
we listened! how credulous! Society seemed to be compromised. We sat
in the aurora of a sunrise which was to put out all the stars. Boston
seemed to be at twice the distance it had the night before, or was much
farther than that. Rome,--what was Rome? Plutarch and Shakspeare were
in the yellow leaf, and Homer no more should be heard of. It is much to
know that poetry has been written this very day, under this very roof,
by your side. What! that wonderful spirit has not expired! These stony
moments are still sparkling and animated! I had fancied that the oracles
were all silent, and nature had spent her fires; and behold! all night,
from every pore, these fine auroras have been streaming. Every one has
some interest in the advent of the poet, and no one knows how much it
may concern him. We know that the secret of the world is profound, but
who or what shall be our interpreter, we know not. A mountain ramble,
a new style of face, a new person, may put the key into our hands.
Of course the value of genius to us is in the veracity of its report.
Talent may frolic and juggle; genius realizes and adds. Mankind in good
earnest have availed so far in understanding themselves and their work,
that the foremost watchman on the peak announces his news. It is the
truest word ever spoken, and the phrase will be the fittest, most
musical, and the unerring voice of the world for that time.

All that we call sacred history attests that the birth of a poet is
the principal event in chronology. Man, never so often deceived, still
watches for the arrival of a brother who can hold him steady to a truth
until he has made it his own. With what joy I begin to read a poem which
I confide in as an inspiration! And now my chains are to be broken; I
shall mount above these clouds and opaque airs in which I live,--opaque,
though they seem transparent,--and from the heaven of truth I shall see
and comprehend my relations. That will reconcile me to life and renovate
nature, to see trifles animated by a tendency, and to know what I am
doing. Life will no more be a noise; now I shall see men and women, and
know the signs by which they may be discerned from fools and satans.
This day shall be better than my birthday: then I became an animal; now
I am invited into the science of the real. Such is the hope, but the
fruition is postponed. Oftener it falls that this winged man, who will
carry me into the heaven, whirls me into mists, then leaps and frisks
about with me as it were from cloud to cloud, still affirming that he
is bound heavenward; and I, being myself a novice, am slow in perceiving
that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that
I should admire his skill to rise like a fowl or a flying fish, a little
way from the ground or the water; but the all-piercing, all-feeding, and
ocular air of heaven that man shall never inhabit. I tumble down again
soon into my old nooks, and lead the life of exaggerations as before,
and have lost my faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me
thither where I would be.

But, leaving these victims of vanity, let us, with new hope, observe
how nature, by worthier impulses, has ensured the poet's fidelity to his
office of announcement and affirming, namely by the beauty of things,
which becomes a new and higher beauty when expressed. Nature offers
all her creatures to him as a picture-language. Being used as a type,
a second wonderful value appears in the object, far better than its old
value; as the carpenter's stretched cord, if you hold your ear close
enough, is musical in the breeze. "Things more excellent than every
image," says Jamblichus, "are expressed through images." Things admit of
being used as symbols because nature is a symbol, in the whole, and in
every part. Every line we can draw in the sand has expression; and
there is no body without its spirit or genius. All form is an effect of
character; all condition, of the quality of the life; all harmony,
of health; and for this reason a perception of beauty should be
sympathetic, or proper only to the good. The beautiful rests on the
foundations of the necessary. The soul makes the body, as the wise
Spenser teaches:--

     "So every spirit, as it is most pure,
      And hath in it the more of heavenly light,
      So it the fairer body doth procure
      To habit in, and it more fairly dight,
      With cheerful grace and amiable sight.
      For, of the soul, the body form doth take,
      For soul is form, and doth the body make."

Here we find ourselves suddenly not in a critical speculation but in a
holy place, and should go very warily and reverently. We stand before
the secret of the world, there where Being passes into Appearance and
Unity into Variety.

The Universe is the externization of the soul. Wherever the life is,
that bursts into appearance around it. Our science is sensual, and
therefore superficial. The earth and the heavenly bodies, physics, and
chemistry, we sensually treat, as if they were self-existent; but
these are the retinue of that Being we have. "The mighty heaven,"
said Proclus, "exhibits, in its transfigurations, clear images of the
splendor of intellectual perceptions; being moved in conjunction with
the unapparent periods of intellectual natures." Therefore science
always goes abreast with the just elevation of the man, keeping step
with religion and metaphysics; or the state of science is an index of
our self-knowledge. Since everything in nature answers to a moral power,
if any phenomenon remains brute and dark it is that the corresponding
faculty in the observer is not yet active.

No wonder then, if these waters be so deep, that we hover over them with
a religious regard. The beauty of the fable proves the importance of the
sense; to the poet, and to all others; or, if you please, every man is
so far a poet as to be susceptible of these enchantments of nature; for
all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration. I
find that the fascination resides in the symbol. Who loves nature? Who
does not? Is it only poets, and men of leisure and cultivation, who live
with her? No; but also hunters, farmers, grooms, and butchers, though
they express their affection in their choice of life and not in their
choice of words. The writer wonders what the coachman or the hunter
values in riding, in horses and dogs. It is not superficial qualities.
When you talk with him he holds these at as slight a rate as you. His
worship is sympathetic; he has no definitions, but he is commanded
in nature, by the living power which he feels to be there present. No
imitation or playing of these things would content him; he loves the
earnest of the north wind, of rain, of stone, and wood, and iron. A
beauty not explicable is dearer than a beauty which we can see to the
end of. It is nature the symbol, nature certifying the supernatural,
body overflowed by life which he worships with coarse but sincere rites.

The inwardness and mystery of this attachment drives men of every class
to the use of emblems. The schools of poets and philosophers are not
more intoxicated with their symbols than the populace with theirs. In
our political parties, compute the power of badges and emblems. See
the great ball which they roll from Baltimore to Bunker hill! In the
political processions, Lowell goes in a loom, and Lynn in a shoe,
and Salem in a ship. Witness the cider-barrel, the log-cabin, the
hickory-stick, the palmetto, and all the cognizances of party. See the
power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a
lion, an eagle, or other figure which came into credit God knows how, on
an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind on a fort at the ends of
the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest or the most
conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are
all poets and mystics!

Beyond this universality of the symbolic language, we are apprised of
the divineness of this superior use of things, whereby the world is a
temple whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures, and commandments
of the Deity,--in this, that there is no fact in nature which does not
carry the whole sense of nature; and the distinctions which we make in
events and in affairs, of low and high, honest and base, disappear when
nature is used as a symbol. Thought makes everything fit for use. The
vocabulary of an omniscient man would embrace words and images excluded
from polite conversation. What would be base, or even obscene, to the
obscene, becomes illustrious, spoken in a new connexion of thought. The
piety of the Hebrew prophets purges their grossness. The circumcision is
an example of the power of poetry to raise the low and offensive. Small
and mean things serve as well as great symbols. The meaner the type by
which a law is expressed, the more pungent it is, and the more lasting
in the memories of men: just as we choose the smallest box or case in
which any needful utensil can be carried. Bare lists of words are found
suggestive to an imaginative and excited mind; as it is related of Lord
Chatham that he was accustomed to read in Bailey's Dictionary when he
was preparing to speak in Parliament. The poorest experience is rich
enough for all the purposes of expressing thought. Why covet a knowledge
of new facts? Day and night, house and garden, a few books, a few
actions, serve us as well as would all trades and all spectacles. We are
far from having exhausted the significance of the few symbols we use.
We can come to use them yet with a terrible simplicity. It does not
need that a poem should be long. Every word was once a poem. Every new
relation is a new word. Also we use defects and deformities to a sacred
purpose, so expressing our sense that the evils of the world are such
only to the evil eye. In the old mythology, mythologists observe,
defects are ascribed to divine natures, as lameness to Vulcan, blindness
to Cupid, and the like,--to signify exuberances.

For as it is dislocation and detachment from the life of God that
makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the
Whole,--re-attaching even artificial things and violations of nature,
to nature, by a deeper insight,--disposes very easily of the most
disagreeable facts. Readers of poetry see the factory-village and the
railway, and fancy that the poetry of the landscape is broken up by
these; for these works of art are not yet consecrated in their reading;
but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the
beehive or the spider's geometrical web. Nature adopts them very fast
into her vital circles, and the gliding train of cars she loves like
her own. Besides, in a centred mind, it signifies nothing how many
mechanical inventions you exhibit. Though you add millions, and never so
surprising, the fact of mechanics has not gained a grain's weight. The
spiritual fact remains unalterable, by many or by few particulars; as no
mountain is of any appreciable height to break the curve of the sphere.
A shrewd country-boy goes to the city for the first time, and the
complacent citizen is not satisfied with his little wonder. It is not
that he does not see all the fine houses and know that he never saw such
before, but he disposes of them as easily as the poet finds place for
the railway. The chief value of the new fact is to enhance the great and
constant fact of Life, which can dwarf any and every circumstance, and
to which the belt of wampum and the commerce of America are alike.

The world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is
he who can articulate it. For though life is great, and fascinates, and
absorbs; and though all men are intelligent of the symbols through which
it is named; yet they cannot originally use them. We are symbols and
inhabit symbols; workmen, work, and tools, words and things, birth and
death, all are emblems; but we sympathize with the symbols, and being
infatuated with the economical uses of things, we do not know that they
are thoughts. The poet, by an ulterior intellectual perception, gives
them a power which makes their old use forgotten, and puts eyes and
a tongue into every dumb and inanimate object. He perceives the
independence of the thought on the symbol, the stability of the thought,
the accidency and fugacity of the symbol. As the eyes of Lyncaeus were
said to see through the earth, so the poet turns the world to glass, and
shows us all things in their right series and procession. For through
that better perception he stands one step nearer to things, and sees
the flowing or metamorphosis; perceives that thought is multiform; that
within the form of every creature is a force impelling it to ascend
into a higher form; and following with his eyes the life, uses the forms
which express that life, and so his speech flows with the flowing of
nature. All the facts of the animal economy, sex, nutriment, gestation,
birth, growth, are symbols of the passage of the world into the soul
of man, to suffer there a change and reappear a new and higher fact. He
uses forms according to the life, and not according to the form. This is
true science. The poet alone knows astronomy, chemistry, vegetation
and animation, for he does not stop at these facts, but employs them as
signs. He knows why the plain or meadow of space was strewn with these
flowers we call suns and moons and stars; why the great deep is adorned
with animals, with men, and gods; for in every word he speaks he rides
on them as the horses of thought.

By virtue of this science the poet is the Namer or Language-maker,
naming things sometimes after their appearance, sometimes after their
essence, and giving to every one its own name and not another's, thereby
rejoicing the intellect, which delights in detachment or boundary. 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. The
etymologist finds the deadest word to have been once a brilliant
picture. Language is fossil poetry. As the limestone of the continent
consists of infinite masses of the shells of animalcules, so language
is made up of images or tropes, which now, in their secondary use, have
long ceased to remind us of their poetic origin. But the poet names the
thing because he sees it, or comes one step nearer to it than any other.
This expression or naming is not art, but a second nature, grown out
of the first, as a leaf out of a tree. What we call nature is a certain
self-regulated motion or change; and nature does all things by her own
hands, and does not leave another to baptize her but baptizes herself;
and this through the metamorphosis again. I remember that a certain poet
described it to me thus:

Genius is the activity which repairs the decays of things, whether
wholly or partly of a material and finite kind. Nature, through all her
kingdoms, insures herself. Nobody cares for planting the poor fungus; so
she shakes down from the gills of one agaric countless spores, any one
of which, being preserved, transmits new billions of spores to-morrow or
next day. The new agaric of this hour has a chance which the old one had
not. This atom of seed is thrown into a new place, not subject to the
accidents which destroyed its parent two rods off. She makes a man;
and having brought him to ripe age, she will no longer run the risk of
losing this wonder at a blow, but she detaches from him a new self, that
the kind may be safe from accidents to which the individual is exposed.
So when the soul of the poet has come to ripeness of thought, she
detaches and sends away from it its poems or songs,--a fearless,
sleepless, deathless progeny, which is not exposed to the accidents of
the weary kingdom of time; a fearless, vivacious offspring, clad with
wings (such was the virtue of the soul out of which they came) which
carry them fast and far, and infix them irrecoverably into the hearts
of men. These wings are the beauty of the poet's soul. The songs, thus
flying immortal from their mortal parent, are pursued by clamorous
flights of censures, which swarm in far greater numbers and threaten to
devour them; but these last are not winged. At the end of a very short
leap they fall plump down and rot, having received from the souls out of
which they came no beautiful wings. But the melodies of the poet ascend
and leap and pierce into the deeps of infinite time.

So far the bard taught me, using his freer speech. But nature has a
higher end, in the production of New individuals, than security, namely
ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms. I knew in my
younger days the sculptor who made the statue of the youth which stands
in the public garden. He was, as I remember, unable to tell directly,
what made him happy or unhappy, but by wonderful indirections he could
tell. He rose one day, according to his habit, before the dawn, and saw
the morning break, grand as the eternity out of which it came, and for
many days after, he strove to express this tranquillity, and lo! his
chisel had fashioned out of marble the form of a beautiful youth,
Phosphorus, whose aspect is such that it is said all persons who look
on it become silent. The poet also resigns himself to his mood, and that
thought which agitated him is expressed, but alter idem, in a manner
totally new. The expression is organic, or the new type which things
themselves take when liberated. As, in the sun, objects paint their
images on the retina of the eye, so they, sharing the aspiration of the
whole universe, tend to paint a far more delicate copy of their essence
in his mind. Like the metamorphosis of things into higher organic forms
is their change into melodies. Over everything stands its daemon or
soul, and, as the form of the thing is reflected by the eye, so the
soul of the thing is reflected by a melody. The sea, the mountain-ridge,
Niagara, and every flower-bed, pre-exist, or super-exist, in
pre-cantations, which sail like odors in the air, and when any man goes
by with an ear sufficiently fine, he overhears them and endeavors to
write down the notes without diluting or depraving them. And herein is
the legitimation of criticism, in the mind's faith that the poems are a
corrupt version of some text in nature with which they ought to be made
to tally. A rhyme in one of our sonnets should not be less pleasing than
the iterated nodes of a sea-shell, or the resembling difference of a
group of flowers. The pairing of the birds is an idyl, not tedious as
our idyls are; a tempest is a rough ode, without falsehood or rant;
a summer, with its harvest sown, reaped, and stored, is an epic song,
subordinating how many admirably executed parts. Why should not the
symmetry and truth that modulate these, glide into our spirits, and we
participate the invention of nature?

This insight, which expresses itself by what is called Imagination, is
a very high sort of seeing, which does not come by study, but by the
intellect being where and what it sees; by sharing the path or circuit
of things through forms, and so making them translucid to others. The
path of things is silent. Will they suffer a speaker to go with them? A
spy they will not suffer; a lover, a poet, is the transcendency of their
own nature,--him they will suffer. The condition of true naming, on the
poet's part, is his resigning himself to the divine aura which breathes
through forms, and accompanying that.

It is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that, beyond
the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a
new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the
nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an individual man,
there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at
all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll
and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the
Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are
universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that
he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or, "with
the flower of the mind;" not with the intellect used as an organ, but
with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its
direction from its celestial life; or as the ancients were wont to
express themselves, not with intellect alone but with the intellect
inebriated by nectar. As the traveller who has lost his way throws his
reins on his horse's neck and trusts to the instinct of the animal
to find his road, so must we do with the divine animal who carries us
through this world. For 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 procurers
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, travelling, 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. These are
auxiliaries to the centrifugal tendency of a man, to his 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. But never
can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the
world, the great calm presence of the Creator, comes not forth to the
sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure
and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. That is not an inspiration,
which we owe to narcotics, but some counterfeit excitement and fury.
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, and 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 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-imbedded
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 York, with fashion and covetousness, and wilt stimulate
thy jaded senses with wine and French coffee, thou shalt find no
radiance of wisdom in the lonely waste of the pinewoods.

If the imagination intoxicates the poet, it is not inactive in other
men. The metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy. The
use of symbols has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for
all men. We seem to be touched by a wand which makes us dance and run
about happily, like children. We are like persons who come out of a cave
or cellar into the open air. This is the effect on us of tropes, fables,
oracles, and all poetic forms. Poets are thus liberating gods. Men have
really got a new sense, and found within their world another world, or
nest of worlds; for, the metamorphosis once seen, we divine that it
does not stop. I will not now consider how much this makes the charm
of algebra and the mathematics, which also have their tropes, but it
is felt in every definition; as when Aristotle defines space to be an
immovable vessel in which things are contained;--or when Plato defines
a line to be a flowing point; or figure to be a bound of solid; and
many the like. What a joyful sense of freedom we have when Vitruvius
announces the old opinion of artists that no architect can build any
house well who does not know something of anatomy. When Socrates, in
Charmides, tells us that the soul is cured of its maladies by certain
incantations, and that these incantations are beautiful reasons, from
which temperance is generated in souls; when Plato calls the world an
animal; and Timaeus affirms that the plants also are animals; or affirms
a man to be a heavenly tree, growing with his root, which is his head,
upward; and, as George Chapman, following him, writes,--

     "So in our tree of man, whose nervie root
      Springs in his top;"--

when Orpheus speaks of hoariness as "that white flower which marks
extreme old age;" when Proclus calls the universe the statue of the
intellect; when Chaucer, in his praise of 'Gentilesse,' compares good
blood in mean condition to fire, which, though carried to the darkest
house betwixt this and the mount of Caucasus, will yet hold its natural
office and burn as bright as if twenty thousand men did it behold; when
John saw, in the Apocalypse, the ruin of the world through evil, and the
stars fall from heaven as the figtree casteth her untimely fruit; when
Aesop reports the whole catalogue of common daily relations through
the masquerade of birds and beasts;--we take the cheerful hint of the
immortality of our essence and its versatile habit and escapes, as when
the gypsies say "it is in vain to hang them, they cannot die."

The poets are thus liberating gods. The ancient British bards had for
the title of their order, "Those Who are free throughout the world."
They are free, and they make free. An imaginative book renders us
much more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes, than
afterward when we arrive at the precise sense of the author. I think
nothing is of any value in books excepting the transcendental and
extraordinary. If a man is inflamed and carried away by his thought, to
that degree that he forgets the authors and the public and heeds only
this one dream which holds him like an insanity, let me read his paper,
and you may have all the arguments and histories and criticism. All
the value which attaches to Pythagoras, Paracelsus, Cornelius Agrippa,
Cardan, Kepler, Swedenborg, Schelling, Oken, or any other who introduces
questionable facts into his cosmogony, as angels, devils, magic,
astrology, palmistry, mesmerism, and so on, is the certificate we have
of departure from routine, and that here is a new witness. That also is
the best success in conversation, the magic of liberty, which puts the
world like a ball in our hands. How cheap even the liberty then seems;
how mean to study, when an emotion communicates to the intellect the
power to sap and upheave nature; how great the perspective! nations,
times, systems, enter and disappear like threads in tapestry of large
figure and many colors; dream delivers us to dream, and while the
drunkenness lasts we will sell our bed, our philosophy, our religion, in
our opulence.

There is good reason why we should prize this liberation. The fate of
the poor shepherd, who, blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in
a drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an emblem of the state
of man. On the brink of the waters of life and truth, we are miserably
dying. The inaccessibleness of every thought but that we are in, is
wonderful. What if you come near to it; you are as remote when you are
nearest as when you are farthest. Every thought is also a prison; every
heaven is also a prison. Therefore we love the poet, the inventor, who
in any form, whether in an ode or in an action or in looks and behavior
has yielded us a new thought. He unlocks our chains and admits us to a
new scene.

This emancipation is dear to all men, and the power to impart it, as
it must come from greater depth and scope of thought, is a measure of
intellect. Therefore all books of the imagination endure, all which
ascend to that truth that the writer sees nature beneath him, and uses
it as his exponent. Every verse or sentence possessing this virtue will
take care of its own immortality. The religions of the world are the
ejaculations of a few imaginative men.

But the quality of the imagination is to flow, and not to freeze. The
poet did not stop at the color or the form, but read their meaning;
neither may he rest in this meaning, but he makes the same objects
exponents of his new thought. Here is the difference betwixt the poet
and the mystic, that the last nails a symbol to one sense, which was a
true sense for a moment, but soon becomes old and false. For all symbols
are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as
ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are,
for homestead. Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and
individual symbol for an universal one. The morning-redness happens to
be the favorite meteor to the eyes of Jacob Behmen, and comes to stand
to him for truth and faith; and, he believes, should stand for the same
realities to every reader. But the first reader prefers as naturally the
symbol of a mother and child, or a gardener and his bulb, or a jeweller
polishing a gem. Either of these, or of a myriad more, are equally
good to the person to whom they are significant. Only they must be held
lightly, and be very willingly translated into the equivalent terms
which others use. And the mystic must be steadily told,--All that you
say is just as true without the tedious use of that symbol as with it.
Let us have a little algebra, instead of this trite rhetoric,--universal
signs, instead of these village symbols,--and we shall both be gainers.
The history of hierarchies seems to show that all religious error
consisted in making the symbol too stark and solid, and was at last
nothing but an excess of the organ of language.

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. The men in one of his visions, seen in heavenly light,
appeared like dragons, and seemed in darkness; but to each other they
appeared as men, and when the light from heaven shone into their cabin,
they complained of the darkness, and were compelled to shut the window
that they might see.

There was this perception in him which makes the poet or seer an object
of awe and terror, namely that the same man or society of men may wear
one aspect to themselves and their companions, and a different aspect to
higher intelligences. Certain priests, whom he describes as conversing
very learnedly together, appeared to the children who were at some
distance, like dead horses; and many the like misappearances. And
instantly the mind inquires whether these fishes under the bridge,
yonder oxen in the pasture, those dogs in the yard, are immutably
fishes, oxen, and dogs, or only so appear to me, and perchance to
themselves appear upright men; and whether I appear as a man to all
eyes. The Bramins and Pythagoras propounded the same question, and
if any poet has witnessed the transformation he doubtless found it
in harmony with various experiences. We have all seen changes as
considerable in wheat and caterpillars. He is the poet and shall draw us
with love and terror, who sees through the flowing vest the firm nature,
and can declare it.

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 chaunt 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 he 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. Our logrolling, our stumps and their
politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boats and our
repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men,
the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon
and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample
geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.
If I have not found that excellent combination of gifts in my countrymen
which I seek, neither could I aid myself to fix the idea of the poet
by reading now and then in Chalmers's collection of five centuries of
English poets. These are wits more than poets, though there have been
poets among them. But when we adhere to the ideal of the poet, we have
our difficulties even with Milton and Homer. Milton is too literary, and
Homer too literal and historical.

But I am not wise enough for a national criticism, and must use the old
largeness a little longer, to discharge my errand from the muse to the
poet concerning his art.

Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths or methods are
ideal and eternal, though few men ever see them; not the artist himself
for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. The
painter, the sculptor, the composer, the epic rhapsodist, the orator,
all partake one desire, namely to express themselves symmetrically
and abundantly, not dwarfishly and fragmentarily. They found or put
themselves in certain conditions, as, the painter and sculptor before
some impressive human figures; the orator, into the assembly of the
people; and the others in such scenes as each has found exciting to his
intellect; and each presently feels the new desire. He hears a voice,
he sees a beckoning. Then he is apprised, with wonder, what herds of
daemons hem him in. He can no more rest; he says, with the old painter,
"By God, it is in me and must go forth of me." He pursues a beauty,
half seen, which flies before him. The poet pours out verses in every
solitude. Most of the things he says are conventional, no doubt; but by
and by he says something which is original and beautiful. That charms
him. He would say nothing else but such things. In our way of talking
we say 'That is yours, this is mine;' but the poet knows well that it is
not his; that it is as strange and beautiful to him as to you; he would
fain hear the like eloquence at length. Once having tasted this immortal
ichor, he cannot have enough of it, and as an admirable creative power
exists in these intellections, it is of the last importance that these
things get spoken. What a little of all we know is said! What drops of
all the sea of our science are baled up! and by what accident it is
that these are exposed, when so many secrets sleep in nature! Hence the
necessity of speech and song; hence these throbs and heart-beatings in
the orator, at the door of the assembly, to the end namely that thought
may be ejaculated as Logos, or Word.

Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say 'It is in me, and shall out.' Stand
there, balked and dumb, stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted,
stand and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that dream-power
which every night shows thee is thine own; a power transcending all
limit and privacy, and by virtue of which a man is the conductor of
the whole river of electricity. Nothing walks, or creeps, or grows, or
exists, which must not in turn arise and walk before him as exponent
of his meaning. Comes he to that power, his genius is no longer
exhaustible. All the creatures by pairs and by tribes pour into his mind
as into a Noah's ark, to come forth again to people a new world. This is
like the stock of air for our respiration or for the combustion of
our fireplace; not a measure of gallons, but the entire atmosphere if
wanted. And therefore the rich poets, as Homer, Chaucer, Shakspeare, and
Raphael, have obviously no limits to their works except the limits of
their lifetime, and resemble a mirror carried through the street, ready
to render an image of every created thing.

O poet! a new nobility is conferred in groves and pastures, and not in
castles or by the sword-blade any longer. The conditions are hard, but
equal. Thou shalt leave the world, and know the muse only. Thou shalt
not know any longer the times, customs, graces, politics, or opinions of
men, but shalt take all from the muse. For the time of towns is tolled
from the world by funereal chimes, but in nature the universal hours are
counted by succeeding tribes of animals and plants, and by growth of joy
on joy. God wills also that thou abdicate a manifold and duplex life,
and that thou be content that others speak for thee. Others shall be thy
gentlemen and shall represent all courtesy and worldly life for thee;
others shall do the great and resounding actions also. Thou shalt lie
close hid with nature, and canst not be afforded to the Capitol or the
Exchange. The world is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and
this is thine: thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a long
season. This is the screen and sheath in which Pan has protected his
well-beloved flower, and thou shalt be known only to thine own, and they
shall console thee with tenderest love. And thou shalt not be able to
rehearse the names of thy friends in thy verse, for an old shame before
the holy ideal. And this is the reward; that the ideal shall be real
to thee, and the impressions of the actual world shall fall like summer
rain, copious, but not troublesome, to thy invulnerable essence. Thou
shalt have the whole land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath
and navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods and the rivers
thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess that wherein others are only
tenants and boarders. Thou true land-lord! sea-lord! air-lord! Wherever
snow falls or water flows or birds fly, wherever day and night meet in
twilight, wherever the blue heaven is hung by clouds or sown with stars,
wherever are forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets
into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love,--there is
Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee, and though thou shouldest walk
the world over, thou shalt not be able to find a condition inopportune
or ignoble.
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