Ralph Waldo Emerson – The Poet

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

One of the seminal essays on the central role of poetry in society was written by the American poet and lecturer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). In his essay, entitled simply “The Poet,” and published in 1844, Emerson passionately defends not only the poet’s artistic vocation but places poetry at the heart of cultural life. His central thesis is that human society is incomplete if it lacks cultural expression: “For all men live by truth, and stand in need of expression.” Man is only half himself, the other half is his expression; words are actions, actions are words!

By extrapolation, Emerson’s arguments can be applied to all forms of artistic expression including music, theatre and the plastic arts. The artist is representative not of his individual wealth but of the commonwealth. Below, is an edited extract from Emerson’s essay, the complete text of which can be accessed at http://www.bartleby.com/5/110.html. It follows from this that poetry, and the arts in general, should be central to the curriculum of young people and should be given pride of place in our schools.

The poet (an adapted extract)

The poet is the sayer
           the namer
and represents beauty
           He is a sovereign
and stands at the centre

For the world is not painted
           or adorned
but is from the beginning
Beauty is the creator of the universe
           Criticism is infested with a cant
of materialism which assumes
           that manual skill and activity
is the first merit of all men
           and disparages such
as say and do not
           overlooking the fact
that some – namely poets –
           are natural sayers
sent into the world to express

The poet does not wait
           for the hero or the sage
but as they act and think primarily
           so the poet writes primarily
what will and must be spoken

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

Poets of more delicate ear
           write down these cadences
and these transcripts though imperfect
           become the songs of nations
For nature is as truly beautiful
           as it is good or as it is reasonable
and must as much appear
           as it must be done or be known

Words and deeds
           are quite indifferent modes
of universal energy
           Words are also actions
and actions are a kind of words

Ralph Waldo Emerson


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