Emerson's Literary Criticism

By Eric W. Carlson; Ralph Waldo Emerson | Go to book overview

The Poet

This essay is Emerson's major statement on art as experience, organic form and symbolism, and the contribution of art to democratic culture and to the collective development of man. Rich with insights, it prepares the way for Whitman's great Preface of 1855. Imagine the impact on Whitman of such words as these: "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. " Although there is no explicit evidence of Emerson's indebtedness to the medieval allegorists or the emblem writers of the Renaissance, he does acknowledge his debt to the Neo-Platonists (Proclus, Iamblichus) and to "the highest minds of the world" (Orpheus, Plato, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plutarch, Swedenborg). On the other hand, he anticipates the modern functional aesthetics of John Dewey's Art as Experience: the organic principle that "it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem"; that "all symbols are fluxional," not static and conventional; that realistic symbols ("small and mean things") and natural symbols of the life process (sex, gestation, birth, growth) are the most powerful. The inspired American poet, who "speaks somewhat wildly," his "intellect inebriated by nectar" drawn from common influences and experiences, has not yet arrived; "yet America is a poem in our eyes," waiting to be realized by the genius and reconciler to come.

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. 23

-24-

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Emerson's Literary Criticism
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Emerson''s Literary Criticism *
  • Contents v
  • List of Abbreviations vii
  • Introduction *
  • I- Art as Experience *
  • Beauty (1836) 3
  • Language 8
  • Art 14
  • The Poet 24
  • Beauty (1860) 45
  • II- The Creative Process *
  • Intellect 59
  • Bacchus 70
  • Merlin 73
  • III- The Art of Rhetoric *
  • Diction and Style 81
  • Art and Criticism 84
  • The Craft of Poetry 96
  • IV- Toward a Modern Critical Perspective *
  • Emerging Critical Concepts 103
  • Thoughts on Modern Literature 108
  • The Novel of Character vs. the Costume Novel 121
  • V- Writers and Books *
  • Europe and European Books 127
  • Literature 134
  • Preface to Parnassus 143
  • Chaucer 151
  • Bacon 156
  • Montaigne 159
  • Shakespeare 162
  • Milton 179
  • Burns 187
  • Byron 190
  • Shelley 193
  • Tennyson 194
  • Wordsworth 197
  • Carlyle 204
  • Coleridge 206
  • Dickens 210
  • Scott 212
  • Margaret Fuller 216
  • Hawthorne 219
  • Thoreau 222
  • Whitman 227
  • Bibliography 237
  • Acknowledgments 245
  • Index *
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