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Emerson on Poetry

How is it that I have reckoned myself a poet all these years, and yet
not read this?

For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire
and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it,
and only the same divinity transmuted and at two or three
removes, when we know least about it.


Too feeble fall the impressions of nature
on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill.
Every man should be so much an artist that he could
report in conversation what had befallen him. Yet, in
our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient
force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach
the quick and compel the reproduction of themselves in
speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are
in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and
handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole
scale of experience, and is representative of man, in
virtue of being the largest power to receive and to


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. The thought and the form are equal
in the order of time, but in the order of genesis
the thought is prior to the form. The poet has a new
thought; he has a whole new experience to unfold; he
will tell us how it was with him, and all men will be
the richer in his fortune. For the experience of each
new age requires a new confession, and the world seems
always waiting for its poet. I remember when I was
young how much I was moved one morning by tidings that
genius had appeared in a youth who sat near me at
table. He had left his work and gone rambling none
knew whither, and had written hundreds of lines, but
could not tell whether that which was in him was
therein told; he could tell nothing but that all was
changed,--man, beast, heaven, earth and sea. How gladly
we listened! how credulous! Society seemed to be
compromised. We sat in the aurora of a sunrise which
was to put out all the stars. Boston seemed to be at
twice the distance it had the night before, or was
much farther than that. Rome,--what was Rome? Plutarch
and Shakspeare were in the yellow leaf, and Homer no
more should be heard of. It is much to know that poetry
has been written this very day, under this very roof,
by your side.

What! that wonderful spirit has not
expired! These stony moments are still sparkling and
animated! I had fancied that the oracles were all silent,
and nature had spent her fires; and behold! all night,
from every pore, these fine auroras have been streaming.
Every one has some interest in the advent of the poet,
and no one knows how much it may concern him. We know
that the secret of the world is profound, but who or
what shall be our interpreter, we know not. A mountain
ramble, a new style of face, a new person, may put the
key into our hands.


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 beside his privacy of
power as an individual man, there is a great public
power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks,
his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to
roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up
into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder,
his thought is law, and his words are universally
intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows
that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks
somewhat wildly, or, "with the flower of the mind;"
not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the
intellect released from all service and suffered to
take its direction from its celestial life; or as the
ancients were wont to express themselves, not with
intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by


The poets are thus liberating gods. The ancient
British bards had for the title of their order, "Those
Who are free throughout the world." They are free, and
they make free.


There is good reason why we should prize this
liberation. The fate of the poor shepherd, who,
blinded and lost in the snow-storm, perishes in a
drift within a few feet of his cottage door, is an
emblem of the state of man. On the brink of the
waters of life and truth, we are miserably dying.
The inaccessibleness of every thought but that we
are in, is wonderful. What if you come near to it;
you are as remote when you are nearest as when you
are farthest. Every thought is also a prison; every
heaven is also a prison. Therefore we love the poet,
the inventor, who in any form, whether in an ode or
in an action or in looks and behavior has yielded
us a new thought. He unlocks our chains and admits
us to a new scene.


Doubt not, O poet, but persist. Say 'It is in me,
and shall out.' Stand there, balked and dumb,
stuttering and stammering, hissed and hooted, stand
and strive, until at last rage draw out of thee that
dream-power which every night shows thee is thine
own; a power transcending all limit and privacy, and
by virtue of which a man is the conductor of the
whole river of electricity. Nothing walks, or creeps,
or grows, or exists, which must not in turn arise
and walk before him as exponent of his meaning. Comes
he to that power, his genius is no longer exhaustible.


O poet! a new nobility is conferred in groves and
pastures, and not in castles or by the sword-blade
any longer. The conditions are hard, but equal.
Thou shalt leave the world, and know the muse only.
Thou shalt not know any longer the times, customs,
graces, politics, or opinions of men, but shalt take
all from the muse. For the time of towns is tolled
from the world by funereal chimes, but in nature the
universal hours are counted by succeeding tribes of
animals and plants, and by growth of joy on joy. God
wills also that thou abdicate a manifold and duplex
life, and that thou be content that others speak for
thee. Others shall be thy gentlemen and shall
represent all courtesy and worldly life for thee;
others shall do the great and resounding actions also.
Thou shalt lie close hid with nature, and canst not
be afforded to the Capitol or the Exchange. The world
is full of renunciations and apprenticeships, and this
is thine: thou must pass for a fool and a churl for a
long season. This is the screen and sheath in which
Pan has protected his well-beloved flower, and thou
shalt be known only to thine own, and they shall
console thee with tenderest love. And thou shalt not
be able to rehearse the names of thy friends in thy
verse, for an old shame before the holy ideal. And
this is the reward; that the ideal shall be real to
thee, and the impressions of the actual world shall
fall like summer rain, copious, but not troublesome,
to thy invulnerable essence. Thou shalt have the whole
land for thy park and manor, the sea for thy bath and
navigation, without tax and without envy; the woods
and the rivers thou shalt own; and thou shalt possess
that wherein others are only tenants and boarders.
Thou true land-lord! sea-lord! air-lord! Wherever
snow falls or water flows or birds fly, wherever day
and night meet in twilight, wherever the blue heaven
is hung by clouds or sown with stars, wherever are
forms with transparent boundaries, wherever are outlets
into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and
love,--there is Beauty, plenteous as rain, shed for thee,
and though thou shouldest walk the world over, thou shalt
not be able to find a condition inopportune or ignoble.

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