Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Poetic Portals: Emerson's Essay Epigraphs

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Poetic Portals: Emerson's Essay Epigraphs

Article excerpt

In a boldly unconventional structure, original verse epigraphs frequently preface Emerson's essays. Readers, however, most often ignore the epigraphs, and scholarship has given them virtually no extended consideration. I explore the generic and theoretical significance of these largely neglected threshold poems. By disregarding them, we both lose the pleasure of engaging the poetry and elide perspectives crucial to the prose that follows. The epigraphs resonate with the playful and arch rejoinder in "Self-Reliance," "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim.'" Similarly replacing scriptural text, the words of God, and the blood of the lamb, the epigraphs combine sacrality and joviality as whimsical yet profound pre-liminary conundrums. Attention to them is fundamental for our understanding relationships among Emerson's various texts and voices. In the epigraphs, I suggest, Emerson's poetry becomes the vital "Whim" upon the lintel of his prose.

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Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the Instauration instead of the new book.

"Quotation and Originality"

I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim.

"Self-Reliance"

For twenty-nine essays in four separate collections, Emerson chose to print poems of his own composition as epigraphs. (1) That decision was altogether unconventional--or, more precisely, was anti-conventional. At the thresholds of prose pieces, as on the lintels of doorways, we expect to see "sacred" text, whether from the Bible, or from Shakespeare, Homer, Dante, or Milton. The tradition is definitively deferential. This sort of highly canonical literature does provide most epigraph material. Writers use epigraphs for their fiction, nonfiction, occasionally even poetry, in order simultaneously to situate their own work within particular traditions and to reinscribe "holy" writ. That reinscription may be taken almost literally in this case, since epi-graphs were originally carved upon public monuments--"written on" them, as it were.

But a number of contradictory tendencies inhabit this orthodox epigraphic strategy. First, such citations seek at once to honor crucial precursors and to sanction the material they introduce, at once commemorating previous texts and appropriating them for purposes of legitimation. In addition, although the quoted epigraph has spatial priority in relation to the text it prefaces, it lies outside the bounds of the text proper, is much shorter, and is presumably of less immediate import than the text itself. (Our current use of the term "text" is interesting in this regard: it more commonly used to mean the biblical text before a sermon, and now frequently refers to the body of the work.) At the same time, while its position grants the epigraph spatial priority, that placement also invites us to imagine the motto's supersession. And finally, while standard epigraphs typically involve distillation or metonymic variation on the theme of the work they introduce, they are sometimes used for precisely the opposite purpose--in order to provide a point of departure. (2)

That Emerson was quite aware of, and resistant to, what he saw as sycophantic and impoverishing tendencies within the epigraphic convention is evident from my own epigraph from "Quotation and Originality":

Quotation confesses inferiority. In opening a new book we often discover, from the unguarded devotion with which the writer gives his motto or text, all we have to expect from him. If Lord Bacon appears already in the preface, I go and read the Instauration instead of the new book. (W 8.188 [Letters and Social Aims])

He is even more adamant in his journal: "I hate quotation. Tell me what you know" (May 1849; JMN 11. …

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