The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson address almost all areas of life and helped frame the intellectual identity of America throughout the 19th century. As the leading figure of the Transcendentalist movement, he supported a community of writers with a similar enthusiasm for their nation. His understanding of poetry was built upon his ideas about beauty and art and the importance of symbolic representation not just in day-to-day life, but in the long-term effort to craft an original and venerable American culture.
In his essay “Nature,” Emerson describes a tripartite analysis of beauty. Firstly, beauty is the perception of natural forms. Nature presents itself to us in such a way which requires nothing extra to invoke affection within us. The epitome of beauty is to be found in nature, setting the standard which all other creations and representations are emulating. It is, however, somewhat slippery, and cannot be precisely located or hunted down.
Secondly, beauty is indicative of the presence of spirit. Emerson writes that “Beauty is the mark God sets upon virtue,” and here we can recognize his understanding of the synchronicity of ideals in nature. Supernatural might not be the best description, but Emerson does acknowledge a unity between goodness, truth, and beauty which individuals cannot fully grasp. Beauty, like truth and goodness, originates from somewhere outside of us, and envelops the character of great men and women as it clings to their actions.
Lastly, Emerson discusses beauty as an object of the intellect. Despite the power beauty has when it truly appears before individuals, it is always subject to distillation through the mind. The impetus is to try and understand beauty as it is without the attached emotional reaction—to give it a precise explanation without compromising its character. This discovery is the main goal of artists and poets, which not only influences their creative works, but makes such works truthful. Art is truly beautiful insofar as its beauty can only resemble that which occurs naturally. Every poem or painting is thus an instance of nature operating through human activity. Furthermore, no individual work could ever fully encapsulate the ideal of beauty, because in its entirety it is seen in coherence with truth and goodness. But if this is already how nature is structured, how much can we expect from new art?
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“The Poet” (1844)
In his essay, “The Poet,” Emerson addresses the poet’s method and the function poetry has in society. Whether someone is a poet or even a proficient writer has no correlation with how immersed or detached they are from nature, or how much of their time they spend experiencing life as fully as possible. Being aware of nature’s magnificence and writing works which reflect the broadness of its beauty is what separates great poets from mediocre ones. While some poets rely too much on their own fancy and fantasy to inspire their writing, great poets transcend their time because their work reflects their awareness of the eternal. For Emerson, there will always be a need for poets to put the right words to life’s many phenomena and share these articulations with those less skilled in their language use.
All of Emerson’s work establishes nature as fundamental for determining what we can and cannot know. Emerson spends most of this essay showing how great poetry’s connection to a fixed, natural essence of beauty does not prevent new great poetry from being written. To him, great poets have a lot of power behind their language use because it is their way to share an entirely new perspective with the world. As the poet observes the world and its changes, their writing describes what they see in a way that reintegrates it with nature as a whole. Emerson acknowledges that a lot of areas in life need symbols and emblems for representation, but that poets take special authority over language, continually revitalizing it by finding new ways to link words to the intrinsic beauty of their referents. New language emerges with this energy until it becomes conventional and starts to lag behind changes in the world.
Another key takeaway is Emerson’s referral to poets as “liberating gods.” This hinges on the idea that gods in polytheistic cultures are incarnations of intense passions or affections. When a poet successfully channels intense emotion into their work, it is as if they are bringing divine intensity into the real world through their poetry.
Emerson and America’s Ideal Poet
Towards the end of this essay Emerson portends the rise of a poet keen enough to champion their entire nation. Emerson’s approach to poetry resembles Romanticism, but that movement took unique shape because it was a response to the Enlightenment in Europe. Despite a similar emphasis on capturing and embracing emotion through poetry, American poetry would need to correspond to its own growth as a nation, molding the beauty of its own landscapes, people, and ideals. Emerson wrote poetry himself, but does not intend to become the poet he describes. It is crucial that such a poet be embraced by their nation, and Emerson admits to having no interest in seeking out criticism to help shape his poetry towards perfection. It would not take long, however, for one poet to rise to the challenge and fully capture the beauty of his nation through his voice.