Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson

I picked this book up years ago at a used book store and finally got around to reading it. As a whole, there were things I loved about this collection of poems, and others, not so much.

First off, there are some great poems in here, and I blogged about several of them individually as I read through the book (Two Rivers; April; and Blight). The poems all deal with transcendent ideas and many are instilled with a reverent view of Nature. My one criticism is that some of the poems were just boring to read. As I thought about it, the ones that were boring were poems where Emerson seemed to be concerned with maintaining a formal structure. Conversely, the poems that show less concern with structure and instead use the cadence of the language to drive the verse are the ones that are the most interesting and inspiring.

Another thing that I really enjoyed about this book was the inclusion of passages from Emerson’s essays. While his poetry is good and at times brilliant, I think Emerson truly shines as an essayist. One excerpt in particular brought back fond memories for me. In college, while taking my Survey of American Literature class, we were given an assignment as part of the Emerson section. Students had to pair up and silently stare into each others eyes until we got a sense of that person’s inner self. This was intended to provide us with the experience that Emerson conveys in the essay Behavior:

The eyes of men converse as much as their tongues, with the advantage that ocular dialect needs no dictionary, but is understood all the world over. When the eyes say one thing and the tongue another, a practiced man relies on the language of the first. If the man is off his centre, the eyes show it. You can read in the eyes of your companion whether your argument hits him, though his tongue will not confess it. (p. 88)

My guess is that this book is out of print, so I’m not going to suggest that you seek it out. I will say that if you have not read any of Emerson’s works, you should at least read Self-Reliance and some of his poetry. He was a unique American writer who made a lasting mark on American literature.

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