Emersonian Poetics

October 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

In his chapter on “Emersonian Poetics,” Buell advances a fascinating claim: that Emerson’s poetry, which has long been viewed as weaker than his essays, which have long been viewed as the place where Emerson’s poetic sensibility shines–that the poems in some way are meant to fail. Buell argues from an understanding of what he calls an “aesthetics of unfinished business” and an “aesthetics of incompletion” that is part of a “Romantic Fragment Aesthetics” (109).

Does this make sense: given Emerson’s philosophy (as we have seen it in his essays, such as “Experience” and “Circles”)? given Emerson’s aesthetic philosophy proposed in “The Poet”? given his actual poetry? What of the implication, therefore, that Emerson has to fail as a poet in order to be a good Emersonian poet?

For some further thinking on this interesting problem/potential of Emerson’s poetics, we can turn to Joel Porte’s argument from “The Problem of Emerson” (included in our Norton edition). Porte contends that Emerson doesn’t fail as a writer, but that he has never, until more recently, been fully and appropriately read by critics as a writer, in terms of his writing.

The Emerson we now see, I am convinced, has always existed; indeed it is the same Emerson whom William James was moved to praise as an artist. This Emerson’s interest and appeal reside in the imaginative materials and structures of his writing–in his tropes and topoi, his metaphor and verbal wit, in the remarkable consistencies of his conceiving mind and executing hand. [684]

Here is an insight from Dan Chiasson’s recent New Yorker essay on Emerson’s poetics, and the difference between the essays and the poems:

Emerson’s essays are like wonder handbooks: they tell you where to find it, how to use it, what to do when it fails you. “Nature,” “The Poet,” “Self-Reliance,” “Circles,” “Experience”: you can use these essays to become enchanted; many dejected secular people have gone to them regularly to see the world in renewed and refreshed terms of beauty. They outfit you for a walk in the woods or an ordinary morning. They are modular: you can remember bits of one, bits of another, mess up the order, mix and match. Their authority comes not from the Church or the ministry but from the power of their prose. Emerson must have realized that half of the people in church were there to hear language electrified by the preacher; his essays are, as Harold Bloom put it, “interior oratory,” free-range sermons that make their own occasions.

Chiasson argues a thesis that compares to what Buell will pose in his chapter “Emersonian Poetics”: the argument of poems overwhelms the form. This makes the poetry fail to some extent in the poem, but succeed to a related extent in the failure–given the poetic theory of forms Emerson proposes. But Chiasson takes the argument a step further in suggesting the ways that Emerson’s poetics matter for his two most important, though different, “disciples” (Whitman and Dickinson). Here is his provocative conclusion: “If Emerson’s poems had been just a little better than they were, we might not have American literature as we know it. Our greatest writers, seeing their own visions usurped, might have been content to remain his readers.”

Talk about complication and conflict–very useful as the basis for our next writing project. Would you argue at this point, therefore, that Mary Oliver’s “Snow Geese” is a better or more faithful Emersonian poem than the poetry Emerson produced? Or A.R. Ammons? You can see from this description from the Poetry Foundation that he is viewed as Emerson’s “progeny.” Here is an example, his poem “Poetics”:

I look for the way
things will turn
out spiralling from a center,
the shape
things will take to come forth in

so that the birch tree white
touched black at branches
will stand out
totally its apparent self:

I look for the forms
things want to come as

from what black wells of possibility,
how a thing will

not the shape on paper — though
that, too — but the
uninterfering means on paper:

not so much looking for the shape
as being available
to any shape that may be
summoning itself
through me
from the self not mine but ours.

Is it too much to see this problem reiterated in the contemporary poetics of conceptual poetry, in the work of someone like Kenneth Goldsmith? I note, at least, the echoes back to “Quotation and Originality.”

Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible

October 4, 2015 § 2 Comments

No, Emerson’s convertible is not a car–though given Emerson’s interest in “the highway” (a phrase he will use in “Experience”) and in the ways the Emersonian spirit is taken up by artists of the road (Whitman, Kerouac, Springsteen), it is not too much of a stretch. Emerson’s “convertible” has come up often in his writing; this key word appears in “Poetry and Imagination,” for example:

Your condition, your employment, is the fable of you. The world is thoroughly anthropomorphized, as if it had passed through the body and mind of man…. We are advertised that there is nothing to which man is not related; that every thing is convertible into every other. [Norton edition, 302]

Emerson goes on to refer to this convertibility as “this metonymy.” I thus identify in Emerson’s interest in the convertibility and conditions of life that poetry highlights, or should, four related characteristics or (to use his term) “conditions” of Emerson’s poetics.

Art is the path of the creator to his work. The paths, or methods, are ideal and enternal, though few men ever see them, not the artist himself for years, or for a lifetime, unless he come into the conditions. [“The Poet,” 196]

I would argue that these four conditions of Emerson’s vision of writing and the writer are crucial to American literature but also in need of remembering. We don’t think of these much when we think of the words: poet, poetry, writer, literature. Convertibility means that poetry (like the Poet) is…

  1. democratic: the focus is on the “daily” (and its transubstantiation) and the social, the common and even the low; sounds most like Whitman in these references. He views Shakespeare’s genius along these lines as well.
  2. pragmatic: the focus is on “use” and the uses of poetry and nature; think William Carlos Williams (no ideas but in things); think William James; think of the end of “Experience”: the transformation of genius into practical power.
  3. metonymic: the focus is on relation and contiguity (the proximities) as well as contingency (accident, surprise); what lies near; the near explains the far–and the fact that language is the means or medium of this convertibility, as well as one of its best examples. I referred to metonymy initially in our reading of Emerson’s Nature (his understanding of relation, of parts related to an unseen whole. For further thinking on the poetics of metonymy and its difference from metaphor, read this post from my blog on The Essay.
  4. organic: the focus is on living forms. “Rightly, poetry is organic. We cannot know things by words and writing, but only by taking a central position in the universe and living it its forms. We sink to rise” [309]

Think how this last point and principle–sinking to rise–reiterates the previous three. Convertibility thus relates the local to the global, the near to the far. And it unsettles (to use the word from “Circles) or de-centers the individual at the very same time that it relates her or him to something larger–but something other. Think of this line from “The Transcendentalist” where Emerson has in mind the “manifold” symbolic nature of the world–and think of the poetic implications for this concept, the sort of writing that such a vision of relational thought would create.

His thought,–that is the Universe. His experience inclines him to behold the procession of facts you call the world, as flowing perpetually outward from an invisible, unsounded centre in himself, centre alike of him and of them, and necessitating him to regard all things as having a subjective or relative existence, relative to that aforesaid Unknown Centre of him. [95]

As a way to grasp the poetics (the writing) of this passage, not just its concept, is it too much to see and hear in Emerson’s first sentence, the transition marked by the dash, Whitman’s ellipses or Dickinson’s dashes? We will have to wait and see. This is suggests that as we turn a corner in the course to focus on Emersonian Poetics, on his interest in the Poet, and his influence in American poetry, particularly by way of poets such as Whitman, Dickinson, Stevens, Frost, are into new territory? Or are we continuing to think about Emerson’s philosophy of intellect, of the scholar, of experience?

Here is a recent reading of Emerson’s essay “The Poet” by the contemporary essayist Sven Birkerts. This suggests that there is a familiar problem that we encounter in Emerson’s conception of poetry and the poet’s stance, or argument. One word for that familiar problem: soul.

[The image is from Robert Frank’s The Americans, the book by the photographer I would offer as an Emersonian artist/poet; I think of photography in metonymic terms–the way it represents the “conditions” of its subject]

Rereading and Revising Emerson: Strategies

September 27, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here are some “recomposition” strategies for reading and revising Emerson this week for the first Writing Project on the challenge and problem of Emerson’s philosophical relations. (Recall that “recomposition” is the last word of the essay “Quotation and Originality”).

How best to read Emerson and the challenges, as we have both seen and heard from critics, of how he provokes and performs thinking that is dynamic, wave-like, contradictory, fluctuating?

One answer, as I understand Dillard: devote your whole life to it; become a nun, or better yet, become a moth and burn for Emerson.

But short of that, since getting burned will get in the way of the work you need to do in other places, since both Emerson and Dillard argue for the world in which we live, for experience of the days, for transforming genius into practical power, there are some ways to approach a creative reading of Emerson and his relations that will be more rhetorically effective for the project–even if that project will need to remain, in some form, unfinished in order to be truly Emersonian.

Re/composition Strategy 1: What’s working here? Use the OED. Recognize that Emerson uses language, every word, with an understanding of its historical and symbolic complexities. Recall his discussion from the “Language” chapter of Nature. Select words from passages that you have in mind, put into the OED and see what’s in the archive. You can use this to generate analysis and interpretation as well as go back to a draft and rethink that interpretation. What’s working here, in the word, in the passage, that you can expand upon, given this history. What else might you say–or what might you need to revise or counter–given a more complicated reading nested in the connotations of the language?

A further way to elaborate what’s working, what’s at work in a passage or in the essay is to make the critical connection to Buell. Use that to authorize and extend the interpretation you are pursuing.

Re/composition Strategy 2:  What else might be said here, or is being said here, or somewhere else? Use Voyant Tools to track Emerson’s words across a text, or across several texts. In addition to digging into a word, with Emerson we also need to move across an essay, and across a series of essays, looking for both repetition (of words and their images and ideas) and resistance, contradiction. Remember the difficult lesson of “pulses” in “Experience,” or the necessity of being “misunderstood” as expressed in “Self-Reliance.” We talked about counterargument as a crucial philosophical and rhetorical perspective that Emerson has in mind and puts to work.  You can do the same by asking, and having peer readers ask: what else might be said, or is being said, in this very word or phrase (for example: “understanding”)  that seems to say something different later in the essay, or in another essay? Look for ways to counter your argument, and then use that to strengthen your argument–or move on to a better one. We need to be consistent (in the end) to produce an effective argument; a foolish consistency (“I’m sticking with the argument I started with regardless”) is highly ineffective.

This sort of potential for countering perspective can also be done with the relation you pursue with Dillard or James

Re/composition strategy #3: What’s the larger project? Think about what aspects of this initial project don’t fit here, and will need more time and space. Realize that this is an incomplete project to the extent that you have an opportunity, and most likely the necessity (if you are reading Emerson effectively), to return to this thought later: develop upon it in some way for the final project, for a senior thesis project, or maybe for that essay or book you will someday write while living as a sort of pilgrim in a cabin on the Puget Sound. At the same time, getting a better grasp on the larger project (and its implications) can provide you with good material for a conclusion that your argument works toward, larger implications that are opened up at the end, even as you close your initial argument and reinforce its claims.

Emerson and William James

September 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

In 1842, while Emerson was lecturing in New York City, the lecture series that included “The Poet” attended by Walter Whitman, a newspaper editor from Brooklyn, a newborn William James was brought to Emerson for his blessing. Ever since, Emerson has been viewed as William James’s intellectual godfather. James, later in his life, read through Emerson’s works carefully (more than once), and frequently cited his thought or expression–as he does in “On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings.” James is known for developing a philosophy of pragmatism. This essay isn’t from his book of that name (it comes a few years later, significantly after he does an extended rereading of Emerson in preparation for his 1903 memorial address “Emerson”), but it could be read as on its way to that perspective, especially the resolution it reaches for how we should act, given our blindness. Earlier in his career, James also published a monumental work on Psychology, which includes a famous chapter on “The Stream of Thought.”

For more reading and research on William James, should you want to purse this philosophical relation further, consult the following web sources:

William James (UKY site): links to digital versions of many of his texts and essays.

William James’ Cambridge.

For more on James’s interest in, and understanding of, Emerson, read his memorial address included in our Norton edition of Emerson’s works.

You could also read an essay that I have written on Emerson, James, and (as I argue) a relationship of ideas and context that concern rhetoric and the changes in liberal education that emerge with the new American university at the end of the nineteenth century. That essay, “Metonymies of Mind: Ralph Waldo Emerson, William James, and the Rhetoric of Liberal Education,” will be published in the journal Philosophy and Rhetoric. Here is the abstract (if you want to read the essay, I can send you the manuscript):

Critics in both philosophy and literary studies have rightly emphasized a “poetics of transition” relating the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson to that of William James. However, less attention has been given to the ways that Emerson’s philosophy of rhetoric correlates with James’s rhetorical perspectives on psychology and philosophy. Fundamentally rhetorical interests in the contiguous circumstances and contingent reception of thinking link James to Emerson beyond matters of poetics and style. This essay correlates Emerson’s understanding of a rhetoric of metonymy as the basis of thinking with the principle of contiguity crucial to James’s philosophy of mind. This relation between rhetoric and philosophy reiterates a rhetoric of mind that both Emerson and James associate with the older liberal education of the college just at the point that it disappears into the professional, specialized disciplines of the emerging university in late nineteenth-century America.

One other line of thinking for further reading. Recall how James uses his dog–and our intimate relation to such animals, and yet our inability to understand them–as analogy for how humans are radically blind to all beings, human and nonhuman. This implication from James and his philosophy of pragmatism has been taken up by philosophers more recently and applied to the topic of environmentalism and animal rights. For example, the volume Animal Pragmatism: Rethinking Human-Nonhuman Relationships. I wonder if you see this sense of ethical relation to the world in Emerson’s philosophy of nature and experience, or would argue for this perspective as a counter to the ways Emerson seems to locate the natural world in the mind of the self. Something, perhaps, for a final project.

Terrence Malick, “The Tree of Life,” and Emerson

September 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

Malick’s transparent eyeball? [scene from “Tree of Life”]

For some thoughts on Terrence Malick’s creative and philosophical relations to Emerson, particularly with regard to his film “Tree of Life,” read this article on “American Transcendentalism and ‘The Tree of Life’.”

A scholar at Oregon State University wrote a Master’s Thesis on the subject: “The Soul Announces Itself: Terrence Malick’s Emersonian Cinema.”

There is also this Cinephile review of “Tree of Life” that connects it to Emerson and Transcendentalism.

In discussion of Emerson’s “Experience,” and ways that we might think of Malick’s film as his version of “Experience,” borrowing the plot, so to speak, of the essay, with the mother as the voice of Emerson, I also mentioned a book of essays about rethinking funerals, and questioning some of the conventions we have around death. The book is Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty.

After class, another book, a novel, came to mind as potentially Emersonian, or at least, related in its exploration of the grieving process, of thriving by casualties. It is Enon by Paul Harding.

Pilgrim Thinking: Dillard’s Emerson

September 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

A vision from Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

In Holy the Firm, Dillard signals her relation to Emerson with an explicit reference toward the end. The relation concerns the writer’s visionary experience in the world, despite all the evidence that seems to push us away from its mystery by its very mysteriousness–or worse, seemingly cruel indifference. Dillard declares: “you learn it from Emerson, who noticed that the meanness of our days is itself worth our thought; and your learn it, fitful, in your pew, at church” (57).

This Emersonian lesson on the days circles back to her opening lines, “Every day is a god, each day is a god,” where she invokes Emerson without quoting him. In her later book, she gives us the source for this Emersonian scripture learned fitfully in the pew. The Writing Life is prefaced by an epigraph of the following line from an Emerson letter to Margaret Fuller: “No one suspects the days to be gods.” Dillard concludes her first book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek–where she proposes to be a pilgrim and an anchoress (like Julian of Norwhich) rooting down to pay attention to nature, her world, where she finds herself–with this reference to an Emersonian vision: “Emerson saw it. ‘I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished tot he size of an apple. Then an angel took it in his hand and brought it to me and said, ‘This must thou eat.’ And I ate the world.’ All of it. All of it intricate, speckled, gnawed, fringed, and free” (276). In Holy the Firm, we see this sort of visionary moment, among other places–one could argue that the entire essay is about any moment, any day, as visionary–when she describes various particles, cells, and “parcels” of the world as “transparent.” Her version of Emerson’s moment of transcendence, however, reverses his famous line: I am everything: I can hardly see. There is something of this interest in the filmmaker Terence Malick’s vision of the world, its correlation of the spiritual and the material. It strikes me as particularly Emersonian in “Tree of Life.” Perhaps Dillard’s vision in Holy the Firm can help us make sense of the ways Emerson relates to Malick’s cinematic version and vision of ecstatic experience, of the “transcendentalism of everyday life,” as Emerson phrases it in “Circles.”

The Emersonian relations between Dillard and Emerson become more complexly creative when we understand that Dillard is not merely any reader of Emerson, but a reader (and writer) married to one of the great readers of Emerson, Robert Richardson, the author of the gorgeous, intellectual biography Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Richardson posted to Dillard’s website an unpublished, brief biography of Dillard. It includes the following discussion of Holy the Firm that might be useful to our purposes:

HolytheFirm began when Dillard took a line from a letter of Emerson’s to Margaret Fuller, “No one suspects the days to be gods,” and decided to make the next three days a test case. On the second day, an islander’s plane crashed nearby. In the book, facial burns disfigure  a young girl, Julie Norwich, whom Dillard had met making cider. What can we say of  the gods of these three days? the book asks. The first god is a pagan divinity, inhabiting all creation, inspiriting the mountains, a small naked manlike god tangled in the writer’s hair. The second day, “God’s Tooth,” is indifferent to the cruelty of physical accident—is absent. The third day’s god, revealed through a knapsack as light shines through skeletal ribs, is the holy God of mystery. The book ends with a return to the burned girl, rededication to vocation and a revealed vision of the baptism of Christ.

The structure of the book is a complex as a late Beethoven Quartet. HolytheFirm has three parts: creation, fall, redemption. The first part is anchored in the senses, presents the new-born island world as vivid with spirit, and presents pantheism. Part two depends on mind. It proceeds –outraged—to examine the fall, the crash of the second day,  by means of  reason, which can make no sense of needless suffering. Part three is anchored in spirit, moving through ecstasy to enlightment.  The writing teeters on the limit of what can be felt and said. All of this, it cannot be too much emphasized, is accomplished through narrative, the things of this world, the island, farm, girl, books, boy. It is narrative heightened, freighted, wrought into symbol, and narrative first and last.

The opening event illuminates the whole story, and sets out themes: a monk or artist’s life of sacrificial dedication to ego-less emptiness, fire, terror, beauty. Dillard was camped alone and reading a novel about the young French Poet, drunken Arthur Rimbaud, “that had made me want to be a writer when I was sixteen. I was hoping it would do it again.” One night a moth flies into her candle. “A golden female moth, a biggish one with a two-inch wingspan, flapped into the fire, dropped her abdomen into wet wax, stuck, flamed, frazzled and fried in a second. Her moving wings ignited like tissue paper, enlarging the circle of light in the clearing….When it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs….All that was left was the glowing horn shell of her abdomen and thorax—a fraying, partially collapsed gold tube jammed upright in the candle’s round pool.

And then this moth-essence, this spectacular skeleton, began to act as a wick. She kept burning. The wax rose in the moth’s body from her soaking abdomen to her thorax to the jagged hole where her head should be, and widened into flame, a safron-yellow flame that robed her to the ground like any immolating monk….

She burned for two hours without changing, without bending or leaning—only glowing within, like a building fire glimpsed through silhouetted walls, like a hollow saint, like a flame-faced virgin gone to God, while I read by her light, kindled, while Rimbaud burned out his brains in a thousand poems, while night pooled wetly at my feet.

If Dillard learns from Emerson, what can we learn from Dillard about learning from Emerson?

By the way, back to that image from the film: it’s a nautilus, a natural, ecological, nonlinear, analogical image growth that was a favorite of Emerson’s. And the fractal dimensions of that image is a topic of interest for Dillard (read here for more on Dillard and fractals).

Emerson’s Philosophical “Experience”

September 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

The best Emersonian readers I have studied and learned from all suggest that Emerson’s philosophy of experience is not merely discussed or developed in the essay of that name, but communicated through it. In a real sense, these readers argue, the experience of reading the essay “Experience” is a key part of its philosophy.

David Robinson, to take one example, provides an insightful critical reading of the ways Emerson’s essays work–which is also to say, the way Emerson works the reader through the essays. This can help us grasp Emerson’s philosophy of the essay, and the ways his essays do philosophy. In the next section of the course, we can pursue this further as a matter of his poetics (Buell, for example, will discuss “Experience” in the chapter on Emersonian poetics) and eventually his rhetoric.

Here is what Robinson writes about Emerson’s “Experience” in his book Emerson and The Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work.

The pattern of continual doubling back, in which every new idea or perspective develops its opposite, recurs even here, when it seems as if the problem of alienation had been settled by dismissing it as frivolous. Each step toward resolution in “Experience” generates a further complication. The hidden negation revealed by each successive affirmation forces the essay into successive turns of direction. The structure of the essay’s argument thus reflects the structure of the essay’s subject. The structure of “Experience” is the structure of experience.  [63-64]

Robinson’s point is that Emerson’s apparent contradictions in the midst of his essays–this is something he is known for, and often blamed for, the lack of consistency–entail a philosophical purpose. They are rather complications: ways that he pursues the complexity of the experience, and the thinking, that he is after. Here, then, is how Robinson characterizes the nature of an Emerson essay as a version of thought in the dynamic action of complication, which is to say, thinking.

The tensions in Emerson’s thought are apparent when one attempts to specify his intellectual position in a given essay, but to write such an essay off as contradictory misses a larger value, its ability to take the reader into an exemplary act of thinking…. They emphasize the living out of ideas. [12-13]

There is proximity in the critical insight that Lawrence Buell provides in his discussion of the “self-reliant thinking” that his essays provoked and performed: “His compressed, metaphorical prose was intended both to perform self-reliant thinking and provoke it” (68).

We see this performance at work in “Quotation and Originality,” where Emerson pursues a deliberate contradiction of his earlier and more famous essay on originality, “Self-Reliance.” Or rather, pursues a seeming contradiction. Or rather, shows thought and ideas to emerge out of differences that somehow relate. Emerson enacts a counterargument–a deliberate contradiction that serves a rhetorical purpose–and does so in an argument for the necessity of ideas always to be countered. Or, to use one of the keywords of that essay: recomposed.

Given the tradition of Emersonian originality, what should we make of the claim in”Quotation and Originality” that “all minds quote”? Is this view of writing and reading and, more broadly, thinking, as some form of quotation a contradiction of his earlier views of self-reliance and “creative reading?” Does this break from the earlier essays, or somehow extend the vision?

Emerson, mid-way through the essay, seems to admit his own contradiction when he begins to voice a challenge to what he has been saying of quotation. That voice sounds much like the Emerson from “Self-Reliance”: “Quotation confesses inferiority.” Is this just a case of Emerson contradicting himself, being willfully or whimsically inconsistent? (In “Self-Reliance he claims famously: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”)

Emerson, however, has always had a more complicated vision of originality–much as the notion of originality in writing and thinking is more complicated than conventionally presented in schools. Emerson’s vision of original quotation speaks to the essay tradition and its philosophy of relating the personal and ordinary in the world of the writer to the public world of the reader. A good essayist needs to work through quotation, and consider the relation between the quotation and originality of thinking. A better context for understanding the tension between originality and quotation, I suggest, is a rhetorical and logical tradition Emerson was familiar with. This philosophical context for the essay, for any essay Emerson might have in mind, opens up contradiction as a strong potential for an essay, when handled honestly. Contradiction becomes counterargument, a rhetorical strategy; the logic in the essay moves (is not fixed), is dialectical or dynamic.  Think, as Emerson liked to think, of the natural analogy of polarity. And so thought, and thinking in writing, when it accurately reflects its contexts as a natural process, moves between positive and negative poles. All things, as Emerson says, are in flux. The same should be the case, he suggests, for the ideas and arguments in writing. [For more on the rhetorical strategy of counterargument, with an eye toward bringing it into your own writing more effectively, consult this brief discussion of Counterargument from Harvard’s Writing Center.]

Composition and decomposition are the natural poles. Recomposition is the form of writing that generates from this. Reading such writing, as we also see by the end of the essay, participates in the recomposition by being inventive. Invention is a concept of classical rhetoric that speaks to the paradoxical but necessary tension between the originality of our ideas and argument and the given, quoted, borrowed structures and contexts that those ideas must live in, relate and respond to.  This is something you will be working through in your writing projects: taking an accepted or conventional or given understanding, raising questions or observing problems or confusion regarding that conventional view, and seeking in your response an answer that recomposes our understanding.

What place of recomposition–or, as it were, re-composure–does Emerson find and offer us, by the end of “Experience”? Where do we find ourselves?


Some further reading and thinking on the rhythm of Emerson’s thinking (and sentences).

I have lately been hearing a certain rhythm and tone of Emerson’s philosophical sentences, and in particular the devastating sentence from “Experience” that follows the revelation of the death of his son, in the rhythm of the Bon Iver song “Holocene.” We will be exploring later in the course the poetics of voice and style in essay writing. This is toward some initial grasp of that, how with Emerson and what he described as the “infinitely repellent particles” of his sentences we need to grasp not just what they say but how they sound. For Emerson, the philosophy (the idea, the sentiment, the argument, the “intellect”) is conveyed not just through the sentences, but in them. The sentences in “Experience,” it seems to me, offer syntactical and poetic renditions of: surprise, provocation, temperament, balance, mediation. They move us through the series of the essay, much as he argues we move with these ideas through the series and surfaces of life.

Here is the sentence, rendered with breaks to notice the rhythm and repetition we can hear:

So is it with this calamity:

it does not touch me:

some thing which I fancied was a part of me,

which could not be torn away without tearing me,

nor enlarged without enriching me,

falls off from me,

and leaves no scar



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