Ralph Waldo Emerson's idealized and mesmerizing description of the role and life of the poet describes not only the particular calling and obligation of those who choose to follow the poetic muses but also -- because of Emerson's own influence on the writings of Americans who followed him -- proved to be a strongly proscriptive piece of advice for other poets and writers in the decades after Emerson helped to found the 19th-century artistic and philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. The Transcendentalists defined themselves by their belief in a highly idealistic and fundamentally coherent system of belief in the essential unity of all things on earth -- the connection of each thing to its neighbor -- as well as a belief in the absolute importance of personal experience and insight (as opposed to knowledge and beliefs gained through formal logic and formal education) and the essential goodness of humanity.
We can see this conviction that the personal is paramount and that one's personal experience can incite others to investigate their own worlds to induce in themselves equally deeply felt feelings and beliefs in Emerson's "The Poet" -- which is hardly surprising -- but we can also see it in a work like Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." While the two works at first glance seem to have nothing to do with each other because of the dramatic differences in writing style (in everything from vocabulary to meter to rhythm to overall effect and affect) between the two authors, in fact a closer reading of Emerson suggests at some of the basic motivations of Whitman's own poetry. However, while we can see in Whitman an extension and a validation of the insistence on the privileging of personal experience and a belief in oneself that Emerson asks of the writer (and of us all), we also see in Whitman elements that are absent from Emerson and indeed that Emerson would no doubt have disagreed with. Whitman's world is far more sensual, far more bound to the particular through physical experiences, than in Emerson's.
The lives of both Whitman and Emerson extended nearly the length of the 19th century and so each man was reacting in his writing (and in his life) to most of the same historical and political events, but the two responded to them in ways that, while not entirely divergent, were certainly not entirely parallel either. We see in Emerson a sense of nostalgia that is missing from Whitman's work, a longing for a quieter time. There are clear analogues between the work of Emerson and leaders of the Arts and Crafts Movement like William Morris. The Arts and Crafts Movement, popular in England in the last decades of Emerson's and Whitman's life and popular by the turn of the 19th century in the United States, asked people to look back to a time before industrialization had alienated us from our world, to a time when not everything was the same as everything else and the local and the different and the personal were more important than the newest and the fastest and the most expensive.
It is striking that Emerson, in trying to evoke the process and power of poetry, turns to images from the past. The poet here searches with "Apollo's privilege" and sings with the tongue of "Olympian bards." Thus the poet's is a voice speaking to us from across the centuries, from across the millennia even, a voice that connects us with all of human history and specifically and especially with the history of humanity before the sounds of machines kept us from having personal and intimate...
The poet for Emerson is a child not in any literal sense: This child is the child at the beginning of humanity, a voice speaking to us not from our own youth but from the very youth of our species, when we were not so strapped in and sheltered by the comforts (and perils!) of civilization that we could not feel and appreciate each day the reckless joy that is to be found in a life lived close to nature, including human nature.
Like Emerson's "The Poet." Whitman's "Song of Myself" -- a complicated poem in terms of its metrical construction, its imagery and its content -- is a poem designed to encompass all of poetry, all of life and experience, everything the poet has learned and hopes to learn. This expansiveness of Whitman's is both its greatest strength and its greatest limitation, for Whitman both carries us along on a marvelous journey. And if he sometimes loses us along the way, we are still afforded a marvelous trip.
Whitman's poem, in part simply because it is so much longer than Emerson's, is much more personal. Emerson's "The Poet" may be looked on in some sense as the outline of a theory; he is suggesting how a poet might and even should write about personal experiences in a way that makes them real both to himself or herself as well as to the reader. With its wealth of personal detail, Whitman's "Song of Myself" may be seen as an actualization, an acting-out, of Emerson's instructions to the poet.
Whitman (just as did Emerson) is attempting in his poem to give us a sense of the poetic calling -- and more particularly what it meant to be called to be a poet in a country in which poetry still felt in many ways like a foreign imposition, a foreign import. This emphasis on the American-ness of his calling and of his poetry in Whitman is very different from the way in which Emerson connects himself as a (then) modern American writer to ancient European traditions.
The Americans of Whitman's day (which was of course also Emerson's day, but the two men saw their shared historical era in a very different light) were still, at least in large measure, a rural people, and a people proud of the toughness that had allowed them to tame the New World. (And a people who had not yet begun to have too many qualms about the morality of taming such a place through the means that they had used.)
"Song of Myself" was a response to the rising sense of national pride and accomplishment -- and the rising sense that Americans could now claim the old, European forms of artistic expression for themselves -- as well as a response to Whitman's own desire to create a larger-than-life poetic reputation for himself. Whitman wanted to write a poem as big as the United States -- and he wanted to make himself into the poet capable of such a task. Emerson was a humbler, quieter man.
From the time that he wrote "Song of Myself" throughout the rest of his creative life, Whitman not only wrote the poems of a national poet of a nation on the rise but he also allowed these ideas to permeate every aspect of his life: He did everything that he could to become the representative voice of this nascent country, an America that was growing into its adulthood and into a sense of itself as an important and integral player on the world's stage.
And yet even as Whitman seized the voice of poetry from Europe he also sought to transform it, to make it essentially and undeniably American. His poetry -- and this is clearly seen in these stanzas -- reflected the oratorical style of American public speech and the various regional dialects of the nation. Emerson was interested in no such transformation, but was interested rather in a continuation of ancient traditions, a sense of connection between the past and present.
The most striking formal aspect of Whitman's poem result from his philosophy, and the way that his philosophy of poetry…
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