In August 1835 Emerson delivered a lecture to the sixth annual meeting of the American Institute of Instruction in Boston "On the Best Mode of Inspiring a Correct Taste in English Literature." In strong contrast to the starchy, neoclassical title, the surviving pages of this talk, published in (volume one, 1959), emphasize the idea that a reader must approach a text with sympathy, empathy, openness, and a willingness to try out the author's point of view. It is, he says, a major principle "that a truth or a book of truths can be received only by the same spirit that gave it forth." This notion is very different from learning a few rules or current ideas and then judging works of literature by whether they conform to those rules and ideas. Emerson also makes a distinction between types of reading and warns us "reading must not be passive." An active reader is one who engages fully with the text. "As we say translations are rare because to be a good translator needs all the talents of an original author so to be a good reader needs the high qualities of a good writer." Above all the reader is to remember that books and poems are not ends in themselves. They convey truths or wisdom, they stand for and convey to us things that exist in nature. "I should aim to show him [the young reader] that the poem was a transcript of Nature as much as a mariner's chart is of the coast."
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Emerson is here talking about the concept of "organic form" as opposed to "mechanic form." The distinction was clearly made by . "The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the proportions of the material--as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened." Thus, for most modern poets, to use a sonnet form is to use mechanic form. "The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes as it developes, itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form." Emerson's own essays grew organically, and both 's and 's can be seen as examples of the organic form here described. In Emerson's doctrine of forms, the form should follow from the nature of the evolving material. In Emerson's terminology, form depends on soul.
had claimed that education, reflection, and self-cultivation lead us to invert "the vulgar views of nature, and brings the mind to call ... that real, which it use[d] to call visionary." Now Emerson pushes one step further, poetry is "the science of the real," which is to say that it is not concerned so much with the material or the phenomenal as it is with underlying laws. Emerson had made this stand clear in earlier essays, but in "The Poet" he discusses more fully the poet's use of language. The poet must not only use words, but he must be able to use things--nature--as a language. "Nature offers all her creatures to him as a picture language," Emerson says. "Things admit of being used as symbols, because nature is a symbol, in the whole and in every part." If the student asks what nature is symbolic of, the answer is, symbolic of the human spirit. "The universe is the externalization of the soul." This idea, too, had been said by Emerson before, though not with such epigrammatic authority. What really happens in poetic practice is suggested by Emerson when he says, "the world being thus put under the mind for verb and noun, the poet is he who can articulate it." What the poet realizes is that not only words and things, but "we are symbols, and inhabit symbols."
Books of course are an important part of "The American Scholar," and Emerson gives a description of what he calls "the theory of books." "The scholar of the first age received into him the world around; brooded thereon; gave it the new arrangement of his own mind, and uttered it again. It came into him--life; it went out from him--truth." But once the book is written, says Emerson, there "arises a grave mischief. The sacredness which attaches to the act of creation,--the act of thought,--is instantly transferred to the record." The book is now regarded as perfect, untouchable, unimprovable, and what might have been a guide becomes a tyrant, leading the young people in libraries to read and admire the books of others when they would be better off writing their own. By overvaluing the finished book and underrating the act of book writing, we become mere bookworms, a book-learned class who value books as such. "Hence, the restorers of readings, the emendators, the bibliomaniacs of all degrees." "The American Scholar" makes a major protest against what has called the burden of the past and what Harold Bloom has called the anxiety of influence. Books "are for nothing but to inspire," Emerson declares. "I had better never see a book than to be warped by its attraction clean out of my own orbit, and made a satellite instead of a system." Books must not be overestimated. They can too easily intimidate us and make us forget that "the one thing in the world of value, is, the active soul." Another way to keep the great work of past writers in proper perspective is to read actively and not passively. "There is then creative reading, as well as creative writing." The most valuable part of the text may be what the reader brings to it. "When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion." Emerson is set against any suggestion that we should worship the great books of the past. We can learn from them, of course, but "the man has never lived that can feed us ever." The human spirit, fluid and restless and charged with heat and energy, will always be breaking out with new experiences, and Emerson draws on personal observation from his Italian trip of 1833 to make a bold metaphor of the human mind as "one central fire which flaming now out of the lips of Etna, lightens the capes of Sicily; and now out of the throat of Vesuvius, illuminates the towers and vineyards of Naples."
(1850), a book made up of lectures first given in 1845 on , Swedenborg, Montaigne, , Napoleon, and Goethe, is the fullest account of Emerson's biographical approach to literature. This subject is not new with him. It goes back at least to his early lecture on , but it now has a new emphasis. Just as he had once claimed that there is properly no history, only biography, so comes close to saying there is properly no literature, there are only literary persons. "There must be a man behind the book," he says of Goethe. "It makes a great difference to the force of any sentence whether there be a man behind it or no." Emerson's representative figures are his Plutarchan heroes. The book is a pantheon of heroes, chosen not from among warriors (except for Napoleon), but from among thinkers and writers, who are of use to us because they represent or symbolize qualities that lie in us, too. They are essays in symbolic literary biography. Assuming that language is representative, that is, symbolic, Emerson says that "Behmen and Swedenborg saw that things were representative." Then, moving, not toward circular idealism, but toward biography, he states: "Men also are representative: first of things, and secondly, of ideas." Emerson identifies in each of his figures some permanent quality of the human mind. He is also a prestructuralist in that he believes that the world people make and inhabit is determined partly or even largely by the structure of the human mind. "Our colossal theologies of Judaism, Christism, Buddhism, Mahometism are the necessary and structural action of the human mind." It follows from this that our reading is a process of recognizing our own thoughts, or capabilities for thought and imagination, in the work and lives of others. Emerson sums this up concisely. "The possibility of interpretation lies in the identity of the observer with the observed." The democratic aesthetic also follows from this. "As to what we call the masses, and common men,--there are no common men. All men are at last of a size; and true art is only possible on the conviction that every talent has its apotheosis somewhere."
There is only one paragraph about America and American poetry in "The Poet." Emerson specifically says he is "not wise enough for a national criticism," and he ends the essay as he began, with a consideration not of the American poet but of the modern poet. The essay closes with a repetition of the idea that it is the of poetry, not the resulting text, that constitutes the live essence of poetry, and he puts it in yet another of his triumphant aphorisms. "Art is the path of the creator to his work." True poetry is not the finished product, but the process of uttering or writing it.
The true poet will be "the translator of nature into thought" and will not get lost in unintelligible private symbolism, in "the mistake of an accidental and individual symbol for an universal one." Nearing the end of the essay, Emerson notes that he looks "in vain for the poet whom I describe.... 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 ." It is a passage which seems to predict the advent of . Emerson continues, "yet America is a poem in our eyes, its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres." Eleven years later, 's appeared as if in answer.
It is finally the imagination, not wine, which intoxicates the true poet, and the same quality works in us, too. "The use of symbols has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for all men.... This is the effect on us of tropes, fables, oracles and all poetic forms." Consider, for example, the sense of delight with which we are momentarily freed of the tyranny of English numbers by the child's book which tells us, if we are tired of counting to ten in the same old way, to try a new way, such as "ounce, dice, trice, quartz, quince, sago, serpent, oxygen, nitrogen, denim." Of such language, Emerson says, "We seem to be touched by a wand, which makes us dance and run about happily like children." He concludes, in a phrase that sums up the essay, "poets are thus liberating gods." Themselves free, they set us free--free, for example, to take only what we want from the books we read. "I think nothing is of any value in books, excepting the transcendental and extraordinary." Thus Emerson cheerfully and knowingly dismisses all but the very best of even his own writing.
"The Poet" also suggests the true function of the critic. "And herein is the legitimation of criticism, in the mind's faith, that the poems are a corrupt version of some text in nature, with which they ought to be made to tally." Emerson, however, is still more interested in the function of the poet than in the text, and he goes on now to explain that so many poets flirt with intoxication because they are really trying to tap into a realm of experience larger than that offered by their own private lives. Whether we think of it as the world-soul, or collective consciousness, or the oversoul, the poet must transcend his own limited and personal experience in order to participate in the broader experience of the common human spirit. In an important--and difficult--passage, Emerson says, "it is a secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect, he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself), by abandonment to the nature of things; that, besides his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power, on which he can draw...."
Emerson calls 's work the bible of educated people, claiming that it is "impossible to think, on certain levels, except through him." Swedenborg saw, and stands for, the interconnectedness of human beings and nature. and Goethe exemplify and stand for the power to express, to convert life into life-giving words. Emerson ends each essay with a review of the shortcomings of the subject. is too literary, not enough the prophet. Swedenborg is over-whelmed by a private and rigid symbolism his reader cannot fully share. The effect of these negative conclusions is to prevent the reader from idolizing or enthroning , Swedenborg, or any other great person. The great ones are of interest to us only because each has something to teach us, and it is the present reader, the student, and not the great writer or teacher whom Emerson really cares about. Each great representative figure "must be related to us, and our life receive from him some promise of explanation." So the praise of Goethe, whom Emerson seems to have admired above all writers, is for such things as the creation of Mephistopheles in (1808-1832). In order to make the devil real, Goethe "stripped him of mythologic gear, of horns, cloven foot, harpoon tail, brimstone and blue-fire, and instead of looking in books and pictures, looked for him in his own mind, in every shade of coldness, selfishness, and unbelief that, in crowd or in solitude, darkens over the human thought." Thus Goethe reimagines Mephistopheles: "He shall be real; he shall be modern; he shall be European; he shall dress like a gentleman." The result, says Emerson, is that Goethe "flung into literature, in his Mephistopheles, the first organic figure that has been added for some ages, and which will remain as long as the Prometheus."