“The Poet” was first published in 1844 in the collection Essays: Second Series. In this essay, Emerson describes the function of the poet and nature of poetry. Scholars consider the essay a major statement of international romantic expressionism (i.e., the idea that the expression of thought and feelings is not simply a drive of, but rather one of the main purposes of, human life), and one of the most significant explanations of literature as process.
The Role of the Poet and Nature of Poetry
Emerson distinguishes his perspective on poetry from those of elitist critics – those “esteemed umpires of taste” – whose knowledge of the fine arts derives from the study of rules or form based on admired artwork, but whom lack beauty in their souls or actions. For Emerson, poetry is not about an aesthetic based upon specialized knowledge, but rather one based upon the soul, and thus accessible to all. In turn, “the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common wealth.” The poet fulfills the need of all humanity for truth and expression.
The poet does so as a ‘sayer’ and a ‘namer’, rather than a maker or creator of novel material.
For poetry was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of the nations.
The poet hears such “picture-language” - symbols whose meaning fluctuates with time – and sets it down into words. (In contrast, he remarked, “Mysticism consists in the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for a universal one.”) And thus creates a new layer of thought and words in the sediment of language, as all poets have done.
The poets made all the words, and therefore language is the archives of history, and, if we must say it, a sort of tomb of the muses. For though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment it symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer… Language is fossil poetry.
Unsurprisingly, Emerson dismisses concerns over rules or form, his antiformalist theory of poetic process captured in the sentence, “For it is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem, - a thought so passionate and alive that like the spirit of a plant or an animal it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” A poem with such an argument opens our eyes to the zeitgeist of the present age and the way the world works. “This day shall be better than my birthday; then I became an animal; now I am invited into the science of the real.” Poetry offers liberation.
Unfortunately, Emerson laments, no great American poet has yet arisen. “We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer.” Walt Whitman heard, and would eventually answer, his call.
Rather than end his essay with a call for national poetry, Emerson emphasizes poetry as process. He writes, “Art is the path of the creator to his work.”