Emerson's Literary Criticism

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

every boy's and girl's head carries snatches of his songs, and they say them by heart, and, what is strangest of all, never learned them from a book, but from mouth to mouth. The wind whispers them, the birds whistle them, the corn, barley, and bulrushes hoarsely rustle them, nay, the music-boxes at Geneva are framed and toothed to play them; the hand-organs of the Savoyards in all cities repeat them, and the chimes of bells ring them in the spires. They are the property and the solace of mankind.

From " Robert Burns," Miscellanies, W 11:436-43; from speech ( 25 January 1853).


Byron

Beginning in 1818 and through the early 1820s Emerson read most of Byron's poetry, probably aware of the controversy over Byron in the literary reviews. In 1821 Emerson found "Manfred" a "sublime dramatic poem" and in 1822 he thought Byron's "intensity of feeling" and "impassioned earnestness" praiseworthy and his heroes no longer vicious but of "redeeming gentle affections. "But in 1823-24 he deplored "the profligate Byron" and repudiated Don Juan as a breaker of moral law and Byron's poetry as a poisonous influence. In his 1836 lecture, from which these excerpts are drawn, a favorable judgment is supported by examples of Byron's lyrical flow and true sentiment. But while praising the purity and power of Byron's language, Emerson deplored the pride, the selfishness, and the malevolent and morbid feelings expressed. Thereafter, Emerson limited his occasional comments on Byron to a paragraph, as in " Thoughts on Modern Literature, " where the "Feeling of the Infinite" is said to predominate in Byron, though in him it is blind. In the journal of 1846 (J 7:163; JMN 9:376) appears Emerson's most severe transcendental judgment: " Byron is no poet: what did he know of the world and its law and Lawgiver?" In the 1874 Preface to Parnassus, Byron's verses, though felicitous and musical, are judged wanting in "solid knowledge" and "lofty aims"—essentially the same criticism as in 1836. Yet the choice of thirty-three of Byron's poems for Parnassus is itself a high tribute.

-190-

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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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