Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Whim upon the Lintel: Emerson's Poetry and a Politically Ethical Aesthetic

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Whim upon the Lintel: Emerson's Poetry and a Politically Ethical Aesthetic

Article excerpt

This essay emphasizes the importance of Emerson's poetry. It close-reads selected poems and puts them into the contexts of Emerson's prose and of what Morris has termed a "politically ethical aesthetic."


I would write on the lintels of the door-post, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation. "Self-Reliance" (1)

Emerson's poetry is fundamental to a reading of his prose, even as it remains among the most underappreciated poetry in American literature. Albert von Frank and Douglas Wortham have given us in the recently published Collected Works: Volume 9, Poems: A Variorum Edition, a wonderful tool for provoking new scholarship on and enjoyment of Emerson's poems. (2) The CW Poems excepted, we have no recent extensive commentary on the poetry, thus none that accommodates contemporary developments in scholarship and theory.

In this essay, I read some of Emerson's best poems, with particular attention to "The Rhodora," "The Snow-Storm," the "Ode" to W.H. Channing, "Concord Hymn," "Brahma," and "Boston Hymn," in light of what I have previously termed a politically ethical aesthetics that I think permeates Emerson's texts, directly and indirectly. (3) This concern (shared variously by Fuller, Thoreau, and other Romantics) is perhaps even more imperative in the twenty-first century, calling us to imagine the poetically beautiful in terms of the politically just, the just in accordance with beauty, and how we read in accord with how we live. In their refusal to dichotomize political praxis and aesthetic experience, and in their representation of justice in economic terms, Emerson's poems attest to impulses that make Transcendentalism, forms of idealism, and forms of postmodernity necessarily liberationist in a political sense, with quite material ramifications, as is indicated by Emerson's powerful influence on radical political activists then and now--Thoreau, Fuller, Stanton, Emma Goldman, Martin Luther King Jr, and so on.

One name in such a list is distinctly important for this essay--that of the Cuban intellectual, revolutionary, and national hero Jose Marti. (4) Marti makes abundant references to Emerson, wrote an essay "Emerson," translated at least five of his poems, and wrote at least one poem to him--a verse elegy. Marti writes that Emerson's "rages [were] holy," so that when Emerson "saw men enslaved and thought about them, his words seemed to be the Tablets of the Law shattering again on the slope of some new biblical mountain." (5) Marti repeatedly praises the extravagant and the ecstatic in Emerson's texts--reading his Transcendentalism as not incompatible with, but the harbinger of, political activism, which Marti associates with Emerson's love of nature: "He prefers the teachings of Nature to the teachings of man.... To be good, all he needs is to gaze upon the beautiful" (630). The good and the beautiful, to Marti, are one, and are inseparable from the demand for the possibility of beautiful material lives for all humankind. "In him," Marti hyperbolically asserts, "idealism ... did walk the earth. Emerson has humanized it.... His poetry is the only polemic verse to sanctify the great struggle [for equality] on this earth" (632).

While many scholars have written about Emerson and democracy, debating whether Emerson were progressive or not, and have commented on the Romantic connection of aesthetics and other ideologies, here I emphasize the more immediate political ramifications, as does Marti. I consider the progressive political implications of Emerson's poetry for his time and our own, and read his texts about nature as part of his potentially radical politics. I say "potentially" because our own inclinations inform, of course, how we read.

"Whim," as Emerson uses it in the passage I have chosen as my epigraph, does not just mean "playful impulse." The phrase invokes one of the most foundational Jewish and Christian topoi. …

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