RALPH WALDO EMERSON COLLECTED WORKS VOLUME IX: POEMS by Albert Von Frank and Thomas Wortham, eds., Reviewed by Todd Richardson

Eds. Albert Von Frank and Thomas Wortham
(Harvard, 2011) cxlviii + 705 pp.
Reviewed by Todd Richardson on 2012-03-06.

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"It has been settled that I cannot write poetry." So declared Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1878 to Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, a second-generation Transcendentalist who had asked the great American thinker to provide some verse to accompany a magazine sketch he was writing about him. (Sanborn, Ralph Waldo Emerson [Small, Maynard, and Company 1901] 89). Thus Emerson explained why he could not meet Sanborn's request. Coming at the end of his life, Emerson's declaration serves as his final assessment not only of his poetic achievement but also of his public reputation as a poet, which is what he had called himself in an 1834 letter to Lydia Jackson, his future second wife (xxxvi). As Lawrence Buell has observed, "Poet he would have liked to be; scholar he never doubted that he was" (Emerson [2005] 40). Indeed, Emerson is best known not as a poet but as a scholar whose essays inspired poets such as Walt Whitman. As the saying goes, his best poetry is in his prose.

Even so, the publication of Poems is a truly momentous event, certain to engender a significant re-appraisal of Emerson's poetry. Indeed, the trend has already begun. The international Ralph Waldo Emerson Society, for example, has devoted more than one of its recent meetings to new interpretive strategies for his verse and to reconsiderations of his reputation as a poet. This volume is the first-ever scholarly edition of all the poems Emerson saw fit to publish. It will soon supplant the not-so-scholarly edition that Emerson's son Edward prepared in 1904. The volume joins eight others in the Collected Works, which began appearing in 1971 and will finish with the final volume, Miscellanies, scheduled for release later this year. The completion of this massive ten-volume scholarly project is sure to evoke a great deal of excitement from informed readers and critics alike.

This captivating edition of Poems reads like an autobiography in verse. For all of its flaws, Emerson's poetry is the most personal and reflective of his published writing, and, unlike all the other volumes of the Collected Works, this one includes writings from the beginning to the end of his active intellectual life. With the aid of Albert von Frank's exquisitely written Historical Introduction and headnotes on individual titles, poems ranging from juvenilia to "Terminus" reveal Emerson's crushing losses, extra-marital flirtations, and deep personal struggles.

Among the most deeply moving poems Emerson ever wrote is "Threnody," his wrenching response to the death of his beloved son Waldo at the age of five in 1842. Although Emerson recalls the death in his essay "Experience," (published 1844), he mutes its profoundly personal impact by using it to rethink his philosophical idealism. So diminished is his grief, in fact, that he has been charged with a nearly perverse emotional callousness. But there is nothing callous about his response to Waldo's death in this wonderful American elegy, which begins with the following stanza:

The South-wind brings
Life, sunshine, and desire,
And on every mount and meadow
Breathes aromatic fire;
But over the dead he has no power,
The lost, the lost, he cannot restore;
And, looking over the hills, I mourn
The darling who shall not return. (1-8)

Beginning with the familiar Transcendentalist conceit that nature is the conduit of God's life-giving and transformative power, the poem then grapples with the terrible reality that nature is unequal to the task of restoring his little son to him. Unlike "Experience," however, this poem foregrounds Emerson's grief while relegating its philosophical implications to the background. All he comprehends, all he transmits, is the overwhelming and incontrovertible reality that his darling boy is gone.

Likewise, Emerson's poetry reveals far more than his prose about his well-known vocational struggle. In one essay, the "Divinity School Address," Emerson aims to show to the greatest possible audience how the Unitarian church has degenerated. But his poem "The Problem," composed in the midst of the controversy generated by the "Address," shows how he came to discover this degeneracy in the first place:

I like a church; I like a cowl;
I love a prophet of the soul;
And on my heart monastic aisles
Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles;
Yet not for all his faith can see
Would I that cowled churchman be. (1-6)

As this opening stanza suggests, Emerson's decision to walk away from the church was hardly an easy one, for he considered the life and vocation of the "prophet of the soul" to be meaningful, appealing, and fulfilling. But as he indicates in later lines of the poem, he left the church because it no longer manifested the full generative capacity of God working through nature.

Emerson's verse also reveals his private desires. In "Hermione," which first appeared in the 1847 edition of his Poems, Emerson writes,

Southwind is my next of blood;
He is come through fragrant wood,
Drugged with spice from climates warm,
And in every twinkling glade,
And twilight nook,
Unveils thy form. (50-6)

Drugged with spice from climates warm, the south wind of Emerson's longing unveils the mysterious and deliciously seductive form of Hermione. We don't often find such forms in Emerson's essays. Spicing the intrigue, Hermione was a not-so-secret appellation for Caroline Sturgis, a Transcendentalist poet and confidante of Emerson's but emphatically not of his wife. Their flirtation, which lasted for some years, sometimes surfaced in Emerson's poetry. In early 1847, according to Robert D. Richardson, Emerson sent Sturgis a sheaf of poems that most certainly were included in the Poems he published that year. "Hermione" could well have been among them. Evidently Sturgis was not a little surprised to find some authentic "personalities" there disclosed (Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire [1995] 439).

Despite the fine qualities of Emerson's verse, some of it has disappointed readers past and present. It offers a peculiar variety of narrative voices, including a squirrel, a pine warbler, Mount Monodnac, a pine tree, the collective voice of Boston, the earth, the wood gods, the ocean, and an extremely articulate titmouse. My personal favorite is the pine tree in "Woodnotes II" that asks us to

Come learn with me the fatal song
Which knits the world in music strong,
Whereto every bosom dances,
Kindled with courageous fancies. (211-14)

According to rumor, Emerson's friend and fellow Transcendentalist Theodore Parker observed that "a pine-tree which should talk as Mr. Emerson's tree talks would deserve to be plucked up and cast into the sea" (qtd. 102). It would seem, then, that some of Emerson's poetic conceits left at least one of his contemporaries cold.

They probably also did not warm to his meter and rhyme schemes, which cannot simply be explained away by the argument that Emerson, like all good Romantics, paid no homage to ossified poetic convention. Take for instance these lines from "Woodnotes I" about a "travelling bard":

In the wood he travels glad,
Without better fortune had,
Melancholy without bad.
Planter of celestial plants,
What he knows nobody wants;
What he knows he hides, not vaunts. (23-8)

This particular bard has little to vaunt about anyway.

A more serious problem is Emerson's racism, which appears from time to time in his verse as well as his prose. Following the lead of Len Gougeon in Virtue's Hero: Emerson, Antislavery, and Reform (1990), many current scholars have effectively and appropriately stressed Emerson's abolitionist activity, especially in the decade before the Civil War. But those who celebrate his abolitionism sometimes overlook the problematic sentiments that emerge in poems such as "Ode, Inscribed to WH Channing," written in 1846. Chastising Channing for his personal outrage and "statesman's rant" against slavery, Emerson proffers instead his own "honied thought," and goes on to identify a sort of divinely ordained racial determinism at work in the natural order:

He who exterminates
Races by stronger races,
Black by white faces,--
Knows to bring honey
Out of the lion (83-7)

A sad but sweet plan, it seems, governs the meeting of strong and weak races. In their global ascendancy, Anglo-Saxons are gradually effacing African Americans, Native Americans, and others. Some might excuse Emerson's moral obtuseness for being typical of the time, for race-based social thought was not uncommon among proponents of Manifest Destiny. But many others, including Channing himself, thought differently. Von Frank, in his footnote to the above lines, writes that "Emerson's thinking about 'weaker races' was complicated" (152). Let's call it what it is--racist.

Taken as a whole, however, this volume will generate keen interest in Emerson's poetry and intellectual life generally. If Edward Emerson's 1904 edition of his father's poetry attracted readers for over one hundred years, there is no telling how long this new edition will be valued. Readers interested in Emerson or early American poetry would do well to add this volume to their library.

Todd H. Richardson is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin.

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