Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Emerson & Whitman

While reflecting on Romanticism and Transcendentalism after reading Emerson's "The Poet", my thoughts began to venture to another great Transcendentalist poet, Walt Whitman. In particular, I was struck by the great number of similarities I see existing between Emerson's "The Poet" and Whitman's "Song of Myself," with each work acting as an encouragement of sorts, urging the reader to rejoice in themselves, denying the artificial or the controlled.

One of the things I find to be most encouraging about "The Poet" is Emerson's sense that we all, each of us, have the ability to see the beauty that poets see and so beautifully interpret. I love the idea of the poet as as a representative for the common man, able to communicate with a transcendent world that most would simply find to be inaccessible. Emerson writes,

The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative. He stands among partial men for the complete man, and apprises us not of his wealth, but of the common-wealth. The young man reveres men of genius, because, to speak truly, they are more himself than he is. They receive of the soul as he also receives, but they more.

Indeed, this sentiment is also echoed in Whitman's "Song of Myself" as Whitman tells the reader that while the poem is essentially a celebration of himself, he is also universalized. In the opening lines Whitman writes,

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

In proclaiming themselves to be representatives of the common man, a universalized poet if you will, both Whitman and Emerson seem to be exercising a healthy ego. They may see themselves as connected to the rest of us mere mortals, but Emerson did proclaim himself to be complete, and Whitman did name his poem "Song of Myself" not "Song of Ourselves." I don't begrudge them of this - in fact, the first time I read "Song of Myself" I celebrated with Walt Whitman, appreciating the banalities of life with a new passion. I love that both Whitman and Emerson reject the artificial, with Emerson declaring what art is not and Whitman rejoicing in, among other things, "the bustle of growing wheat."

Each time I finish reading a Romantic/Transcendentalist work, I am always inspired to reflect on the beauty in my own life. Reading Emerson or Whitman almost becomes a form of spirituality, inasmuch as I come away with a new appreciation for my God-given talents and blessings. With Whitman, I begin to recognize the beauty of the world, and with Emerson, I start to realize that I too can can touch this beauty.

Finally, I found this YouTube on Emerson that some may enjoy. Emerson lovers of the world, unite!


Peter Kerry Powers said...

Good connections, Emily. I think to some degree Whitman is much more a poet of the body even though they are both romantics. Emerson was much more of a platonist than was Whitman, or at least he seems to be so to me. This means he's less likely to affirm the physical world per se, except as an avenue to what is beyond the physical world. Whitman comes much closer to valuing the materials world as an inherently spiritual entity. Something emerson might agree with in theory, but didn't really embody in his work.

goldenrod and loblolly said...

Hey, I'm writing an essay for an Emerson class that is focused on the mutual inspiration between these two men. Do you know of any literature available that is focused on this topic? I love both Whitman and Emerson and believe I could write a paper citing only my own imagination, but we're required 5 sources. Thanks.