The Knower and the Sayer
In the normal course of things, critics are reactive: first there is the work, and then there is the criticism. Of course, a criticism, once heard, may have a prescriptive effect; once you see Christopher Hitchens crush someone like a grape, you may think twice about employing that particular offending trope yourself. Occasionally one may hear some lip-service being paid to the role of critics on creativity, such as, “Gore was such an influence on me,” though that kind of interview-pabulum may be more social than truly descriptive of Mr. Vidal’s influence on a writer’s work. But examples of prescriptive criticism do exist. A fine example of such is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lofty demand in 1844 for a Real American Poet, and the enthusiastic embrace of that demand by Walt Whitman.
The opening piece in Emerson’s second series of essays is “The Poet,” and it is nearly outrageous in its description of an ideal poet. To be clear, “we do not speak now of men of poetical talents, or of industry and skill in meter, but of the true poet.” As he begins assessing the poor state of poets and poetry of his day, Emerson is first apologetic that we stand in need of such rare interpreters of the world in the first place. He speculates that it must be some excess of phlegm in our constitution which keeps nature from affecting us directly. “Every touch should thrill. Every man should be so much an artist, that he could report in conversation what has befallen him.” But it is only the true poet who has those powers of reception and expression in balance and can “handle that which others dream of.” Reviewing the horizon of active poets in America, Emerson seeks a “Chimborazo,” a solitary volcano like Kilimanjaro or Mt. Rainier, to tower over the landscape, and he does not see one.
What exactly is Emerson looking for? As a neo-Platonic transcendentalist, he believes deeply that everything one sees is symbolic:
“See the power of national emblems. Some stars, lilies, leopards, a crescent, a lion, and eagle, or other figure, which came into credit God knows how, on an old rag of bunting, blowing in the wind, on a fort, at the ends of the earth, shall make the blood tingle under the rudest, or most conventional exterior. The people fancy they hate poetry, and they are all poets and mystics!”
For Emerson, the entire world, both the natural world and the artifices of man, is rife with just this kind of symbolism: “. . . the world is a temple, whose walls are covered with emblems.” It is the unfortunate condition of everyday people that we are not constantly tuned in to the depth of meaning all around us. Master craftsmen and woodsmen experience a kind of selflessness or unity with their work necessary to see deeply into the everyday, but the poet’s skill is in expressing it. The poet not only sees universality in all the mundane aspects of the cosmos, but can also express those experiences in such as way as to help the rest of us see it too.
When Emerson reads the common poets of his day – nearly all of whom are entirely unremembered today – his hopes of being led heavenward, to transcend everyday experiences, are so high that is disappointment with the outcome is almost inevitable:
“Oftener it falls, that this winged man, who will carry me into the heaven, whirls me into the clouds, then leaps and frisks about with me from cloud to cloud, still affirming that he is bound heavenward; and I, being a novice, am slow in perceiving that he does not know the way into the heavens, and is merely bent that I should admire his skill to rise . . . I tumble down again soon into my old nooks . . . and have lost my faith in the possibility of any guide who can lead me thither where I would be.”
Emerson retains the metaphor of wings to describe the works of true poets. Those poems have wings, he says, because “such was the virtue of the soul out of which they came,” and these wings carry the poems “fast, far, and infix them irrevocably in the hearts of men.” At this point, he pauses to take a quick swipe at critics who cannot silence the works of true poets: “clamorous flights of censures which swarm” about the songs of poets and threaten to devour them, but “at the end of a very short leap they fall plump down, and rot, having received from the souls out of which they came no beautiful wings.”
Emerson says that mid-nineteenth century America is every bit the equal of Homeric Troy, but where is the new American Homer? “Banks and tariffs, the newspaper and caucus, Methodism and Unitarianism, are flat and dull to dull people, but rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy.” He “look[s] in vain for the poet whom I describe,” and declares, “We have yet had no genius in America.”
Enter the young and not-yet-famous Walt Whitman.
Whitman says of Emerson’s influence on his early work that, “I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.” In the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855) he spends more than ten pages of lyrical prose addressing many of the points from The Poet directly (ellipsis are Whitman’s), “The land and sea, the animals fishes and birds, the sky of heaven and the orbs, the forests mountains and rivers, are not small themes . . . but folks expect of the poet to indicate more than the beauty and dignity which always attach to dumb real objects . . . they expect him to indicate the path between reality and their souls.” Emerson could easily be the very “folks” referred to, as Emerson himself says in The Poet, “[I]t is dislocation and detachment from the life of God, that makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and the Whole.”
Whitman sent a first edition of Leaves of Grass to Emerson, and the Sage of Concord responded by sending him back a gushing letter of admiration:
“I am not blind to the worth of the wonderful gift of ‘Leaves of Grass.’ I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed. I am very happy in reading it, as great power makes us happy. It meets the demand I am always making of what seemed the sterile and stingy nature, as if too much handiwork, or too much lymph in the temperament, were making our western wits fat and mean.”
The exchange of letters between Emerson and Whitman is fraught with misunderstandings and bruised feelings. Emerson’s extremely encouraging letter might not have been quite as expansive if he had known Whitman was going to – without asking permission – publish it in the New York Tribune as an advertisement for the book, include it as an appendix to the second edition, and stamp the best line (“I greet you at the beginning of a great career”) in gold leaf on the second edition’s spine. But despite the disappointment Emerson felt about Whitman’s rudeness, the unguarded contents of the letter were genuine; Whitman had heard his call for a new American poet. Far from recanting the letter, Emerson met with Whitman several times to discuss the evolution of the book which Whitman was constantly adding to and revising.
Emerson’s thunderbolt of a letter was a godsend to an unknown poet who just self-published his first book; perhaps we may forgive him his tactless bout of excessive marketing. Crucially though, the connection between “The Poet” and Whitman’s inspiration predates the letter. Whitman had penned the first edition’s long responsive preface and decided to send Emerson a copy long before he knew how it would be received.
That preface was not reprinted in later editions of Leaves of Grass. Instead, the 1856 second edition contained an open letter to Emerson about the future development of literature in America. In this letter Whitman promised that, “The time is at hand when inherent literature will be a main part of These States, as general and real as steam-power, iron, corn, beef, fish. First-rate American persons are to be supplied.” There can be no doubt that Whitman considered himself one of those first-rate persons. In this new letter we have a confluence of legitimate homage, unbridled self-promotion, and possibly a sly apology – expressed as exuberant praise – for so brashly going public with Emerson’s support. He concludes with both humility and a demand from the one he calls “Master:”
“Those shores you found. I say you have led The States there—have led Me there . . . Receive, dear Master, these statements and assurances through me, for all the young men, and for an earnest that we know none before you, but the best following you; and that we demand to take your name into our keeping, and that we understand what you have indicated, and find the same indicated in ourselves, and that we will stick to it and enlarge upon it through These States.”
Did Whitman succeed at being the poet of Emerson’s ideal, the call for “an American seer-prophet?” He certainly was the quintessential American poet: brazen, unbridled, mystical, pompous to the point of being charming again, and he wrote of specifically American things – workingmen, Manhattan, democracy. Posterity has determined that he is a giant in the field of American poetry. What is refreshing about this exchange is how a well-executed piece of forward-looking criticism is capable of inspiring such a creative and seminal work. “The experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet,” Emerson wrote. Most assuredly there are also poets waiting for their critical inspiration.
Jeffrey Eaton is a fundraiser, amateur photographer, and Open Letters editor-at-large. He lives in Washington, D.C.