Emerson’s Art and Criticism in the Twenty-First Century: Harold Bloom and TED

November 15, 2015 § Leave a comment

Harold Bloom, one of the more famous living literary critics and theorists, is also among the most well-known readers and critics to have been inspired by Emerson.  He refers to him as “the Mind of America” and “our father Emerson.” Bloom is, if nothing else, a student from Emerson’s school.

Among other things, Bloom developed a highly idiomatic theory of poetic criticism (known by one of the titles of his books, The Anxiety of Influence, with critical perspective analogized from the Kabbalah, a Hebrew mystical tradition and method of interpretation). For Bloom, every great poet is a critic of precursor poets (Stevens and Whitman must wrestle anxiously with Emerson, for example) and every great critic (Bloom, of course, most prominently seeks to make his or her criticism poetic. As Emerson puts it at the end of “Art and Criticism”: “Then the critic is poet.” This is something Bloom has in mind. For Bloom, a key rhetorical principle in the Emersonian toolkit of poetry becoming criticism and criticism becoming poetry is the figure Emerson names in “Art and Criticism” as the “principal power of rhetoric,” namely “metonymy.” [Bloom refers to Emerson and metonymy in his book The Breaking of the Vessels]

How does Emerson’s understanding of metonymy provide a foundation for critical perspective? If metonymy is the rhetorical figure that represents or relates by way of context and contiguity (parts that are touching or proximate), what kind of criticism results? How might such “metonymy” guide your own critical work in the final project?

All conversation, as all literature, appears to me the pleasure of rhetoric, or, I may say, of metonomy. “To make of motes mountains, and of mountains motes,” Isocrates said, “was the orator’s office.” Well, that is what poetry and thinking do. Whatever new object we see, we perceive to be only a new version of our familiar experience, and we set about translating it at once into our parallel facts. We have hereby our vocabulary. [“Art and Criticism”]

What new version and vocabulary of familiar experience might you translate in your project?

For some further reading into Bloom on Emerson, of a sort that might be useful for the final project, and for bibliographic exploration, consider this recorded interview with Bloom from 2003 (the year of the Emerson bicentennial). In the first tape early on, Bloom discusses contemporary Emersonians. This gives us some sense of what, at least according to Bloom, Emersonian means.

Bloom is something of a public intellectual. Though an academic and theorist, longtime professor at Yale, who is also known for publishing books intended for a wider audience, including Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and an entire series of introductory guides to literature designed for high school students. Another place–is it the only place?–we might locate an Emersonian criticism, an intellect speaking to a public audience beyond the academy, is TED. This is something I’d like to explore further. This discussion of TED talks begins with reference to Emerson and the importance of lecturing for his writing. This public forum of intellect from the 19th century, the Lyceum which shaped Emerson’s work and writing, has seemingly moved to a digital forum. This TED talk on the power of aphorism and metaphorically speaking refers briefly to Emerson. With an understanding of Emerson’s theory, not just practice, of creative reading and metonymic thinking–where criticism reveals new versions of familiar experience–we might recognize Emerson’s larger influence in this new media forum of conversation and intelligence. We might even think of the 18 minute limit of TED talks in terms of Emerson’s principle of “compression,” the value of omitting. And we might wonder, yet again, about the problem of getting transcendent ideas and genius into some sort of readable or translatable form. Consider this problem Nathan Heller raises in his essay about TED, “Listen and Learn”:

Should we be grateful to TED for providing this form of transcendence—and on the Internet, of all places? Or should we feel manipulated by one more product attempting to play on our emotions? It’s tricky, because the ideas undergirding a TED talk are both the point and, for viewers seeking a genericTED-type thrill, essentially beside it: the appeal of TED comes as much from its presentation as from its substance.

I am curious to explore this potential parallelism further. I do so with questions and concerns motivating my curiosity. Is there the potential here for conformity. Is TED just the newest kind of house that inevitably comes to confine the spirit? Or a spirit for possibly better understand the houses we live in?

Elements of Dickinson’s Poetics

October 22, 2015 § Leave a comment

Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem...

Image via Wikipedia

To see the Summer Sky

Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie–

True Poems flee–      [#1472]

Here are some elements of Dickinson’s poetics, her grammar. For Dickinson, it seems, poetry is and isn’t formal, can and can’t be captured in a structure: it lies in a book–thus hearing one of her poetic elements, the play on lie. This tension between the formal and the resistance to form should sound familiar, given its prominence in Emerson’s thinking and Whitman’s example.

  • Form: there is form, and the resistance to form. As  Professor Folsom argues in “Transcendental Poetics,” Higginson thought of Dickinson as struggling a bit with formlessness, in need of help–but not as wildly formless as he viewed Whitman: phrase without form. Our foray into Dickinson scholarship and its more recent interests in the manuscripts of Dickinson, in the implications of her variants, suggests one way to think of Dickinson’s riddle of formless form. Her writing in its materiality (her physical use of the page) is both formal and at the same time, resistant to form.
    • For an overview of Dickinson’s manuscripts, visit this page of the Dickinson museum.
  • Rhetoric: Like Whitman and Emerson before her, I would argue that we have another poet interested in the argument of poetry as much, if not more, than in particular conventions of poems. In other words, there is rhetoric for us to reckon with.
    • Compression: A prominent rhetorical element of her poetry I would identify as its compression. This is, on one hand, a formal element: her poems take place in short space; this is not Leaves of Grass. But compression is also a key rhetorical figure, one associated in particular with metonymy. [In his lecture Art and Criticism, Emerson identifies “compression” (and metonymy) as key virtues of rhetoric: “The silences, pauses, of an orator are as telling as his words.1 What the poet omits exalts every syllable that he writes.”] Metonymy figures association and reference by way of compression, reduction. Something is taken out, elided, in the process of making the connection, leaving the reader with relation that is suggestively partial, somewhat elliptical. For example, one might imagine: “In my emotional state I felt as though the mourner who feels overwhelmed in her head attending a funeral” becomes “I felt a funeral in my brain.” This extreme sort of elliptical metonymy is known by the rhetorical term metalepsis, figuring by way of remote association–the poet skips a step or two in suggesting the relationship, or crosses (transgresses) narrative boundaries. (In film,, for example, metalepsis is evident when a song playing on the radio in a scene becomes part of the film soundtrack, or the reverse). A vivid example of this sort of transgression  comes in another famous opening figure: My life had stood a loaded gun. This example is so wildly remote in association as to be unconventional and trangressive. The rhetorical term for that is catechresis: basically, a mixed metaphor or other misapplication of a word or figure according to conventional standards.
      • In comparison to Whitman and to Emerson, there is a good deal more metaphor we reckon with in Dickinson. True. And yet, there is more metonymy than some might think–particularly if we think of the ways many of her figures, seemingly metaphors (like a loaded gun) may be more metonymic (associational, contextual), just with the association having been removed or compressed or condensed.
    • Consider this electronic poem, “This is Not a Poem,” for elements of the way Dickinson’s poems compress–and also, perhaps, desire to flee from the page.
  • Punctuation.
    • The dashes, of course. Perhaps another marker of transgression and compression. I like the idea that some in the class have begun to explore, that Dickinson writes and wants to be read more dynamically, dramatically. The dashes, from this perspective, signal movement in her poetry and mark places not to read, but to perform or play the poem.
  • Diction.
    • I notice the ways her word choice moves from very specific, capitalized nouns (in the manner of German) that are uncommon or unusual in some form: Sagacity, Crucifixion, Circuit, Circumference. And then others, such as the relative pronoun “this” or the adverb/adjective “then” that leave things rather suggestively vague. The “then” at the end of “I felt a funeral”–is it an adverb, marking time, or an adjective, indicating a next step that has been cut off by the dash? Or in the same poem, the word “here” which rhymes with ear, thus evoking its homonym, hear, at the same time that it signals its location–here, this poem, this reading, this hearing .Or “this” in any location, when used without a clear referent: suggests the possibility, always, of this poem, her writing, sitting in her room. Something like Whitman’s “you.”
      • from the perspective of linguistics and semiotic theory (the study of signs), words such as “here” and “this” (like “I” or “you”) can be thought of as indexes–a sign that points to something. For more on indexicality.
    • When not confusing or vague, there is the simple oddity of a word choice that strikes me. To the point where Dickinson’s imagery, her conceits, seem almost metaphysical, in the manner of a poet like John Donne. Consider: I hear a fly buzz when I died–the way the fly is “interposed” in the middle of the poem.
  • Sight.
    • A theme, among others: Dickinson’s interest in the eye. Some of that seems to be biographical–Dickinson experienced severe problems with her vision at one point in her life. But there is also a way to think about sight as one of her poetry’s senses, given the ways her poems exist on the page: both in terms of the manuscripts and the printed versions. The visual form matters for any poem; for this poet, it seems crucial. For a compelling and insightful critical look at sight in Dickinson, in relation to nineteenth-century photography, read Marta Werner’s digital essay.
  • Sound.
    • We spoke initially of Dickinson’s use of common meter, of the highly metrical element of her poetry, but always at some sort of slant: for example, the use of slant or half rhymes–where the rhyme is almost there, but partially…missing, emerging, compressed? I note from “This world is not conclusion” the tension or difference the poet draws between music and sound: music is invisible, but sound is positive.
      • The American composer Aaron Copland’s version of “I felt a funeral in my brain” (note the last stanza is missing). It helps us think about the performance of the poetry as necessary for reading.
  • Syntax
    • As Donna Campbell points out on her Dickinson site, there are different kinds of Dickinson poems, often marked with a different syntax in the opening.
      • What kinds of poems did she write?
        According to William Shullenberger and Sharon Cameron, Emily Dickinson has characteristic ways of opening poems:

          1. Definitions: S LV SC form.
            • “Pain has an element of blank.
            • “This was a Poet–It is that
            • “Longing is like the Seed”
          2. Riddles, some with lack of specific referents for pronouns.
            • “I like to see it lap the miles”
            • “A narrow fellow in the grass”
          3. Declarations: “I’m wife–I’ve finished that”
          4. Landscape descriptions.
          5. Tales, parables, allegories
          6. Requests
          7. Complaints
          8. Confessions
          9. Prayers

Whitman’s poetic grammar: attending to process

October 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

“Poem of the Singers, and of The Words Of Poems” 1856 Leaves of Grass

With the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass, Whitman sends to Emerson a poetry that would seem to be a direct response to his call (in “The Poet”) for a “metre-making argument.” Such is a poetry that moves beyond the conventional forms and metres of poety: a poetry that finds its source in the very forms of America (a poem in our eyes). In his letter back to Emerson, included in the 1856 edition (standing in for the preface, perhaps) Whitman addresses this notion that his poetry, or America’s poetry, is to be “commensurate” with the people he goes among in the city:

These are to be attended to; I am myself more drawn here than to those authors, publishers, importations, reprints, and so forth. [639]

So creating a poetry that attends to the people is one way to describe the “argument” of Leaves of Grass: the poetry derives from the people and finds its audience there as well.

What becomes Section 15 of “Song of Myself” (page 23, beginning with “The pure contralto sings”) provides a good example of this sort of attending. This is the place where the poem turns headlong into its first catalog of people and occupations (as though Whitman is walking with us through the city), attending to them in each line, and in the end, deriving or “weaving” the lines of this very “song of myself” from them, with them. This section is a good example of the significance of metonymy in Whitman. It speaks to the argument that Ed Folsom makes in “Transcendental Poetics”: that Whitman would seem to take Emerson’s notion of the poet’s use of metaphor and emblem and extend it more toward metonymy, “generat[ing] an ecological set of connections that renders as metonym what we previously thought of as metaphor: We are not like these things in nature; we are these things, given time and space enough” [270]. And we could extend this to the insight Professor Folsom offers on the Whitman documentary–that Whitman discovers his poetics in walking the city, seeing various people and realizing his relation to them: that could be me; I could be you.

So metonymy is a more specific poetic characteristic of Whitman–a key figure in his poetics, his poetic grammar, so to speak. Think back to the ways we have encountered Emerson’s own interest in metonymy (as he names it in “Poetry and Imagination”); and then consider Whitman as though he is putting this theory of organic or democratic or pragmatic poetics (as I argued in my post on Emerson’s poetics of convertibility) into the practice of his lines. This may make Whitman more or less Emersonian, depending on the lines you have in mind. What other examples of Whitman’s metonymy would you focus on as significant?

I hear it in this moment from “Poem of the Singers, and of the Words of Poems.” Whitman recalls Emerson’s argument from “The Poet” that all people are poets in their interest in song, but the poet has a “finer ear” for receiving and making something of the primal songs. Whitman recalls this, then fulfills it in the lines that emerge, the poem he creates out of the various names for poets and their poems. Notice how his use of repetition, the repeated term “singer” attached to each of the words, itself makes a poetry, a continual rhyme. He makes a poem out of the words of poems. This, too, is metonymy.

The singers are welcomed, understood, appear
often enough—but rare has the day been,
likewise the spot, of the birth of the maker
of poems,
Not every century, or every five centuries, has
contained such a day, for all its names.


The singers of successive hours of centuries may
have ostensible names, but the name of each
of them is one of the singers,
The name of each is, a heart-singer, eye-singer,
hymn-singer, law-singer, ear-singer, head-
singer, sweet-singer, wise-singer, droll-
singer, thrift-singer, sea-singer, wit-singer,
echo-singer, parlor-singer, love-singer, pas-
sion-singer, mystic-singer, weeping-singer,
fable-singer, item-singer, or something else.


All this time, and at all times, wait the words of
poems; [1856, p. 263]

The vision of attending to the people, and generating a poetry for them, and of them, or from them, is thus richly metonymic. To echo Emerson from “Experience,” I (and this book, these lines) am a fragment and these are a fragment of me. That line evokes another element of Whitman’s poetic grammar, one explored by Angus Fletcher in A New Theory for American Poetry: Democracy, the Environment, and the Future of Imagination. Fletcher identifies as a key aspect of Whitman’s poetics the grammatical characteristic of middle voice. In short, this is a voice between active and passive–one English doesn’t really have. Fletcher hears it in Whitman’s characteristic use of intransitive verbs and reflexive phrases, in phrasings that “remain perpetually intransitive, like the vast majority of his middle-voicing verbs, his verbs of sensation, perception, and cognition.”  Fletcher goes on to extend this interest in “middle-voicing verbs,” to Whitman’s use of the present participle: “the phrase of the pure verb, the verb before it is locked down into predication” (109). Fletcher also identifies metonymy as crucial to the poetics Whitman invents (with some help from Emerson) for American poetry. This mixture of metonymy and middle voice creates something Fletcher names the “environment-poem” in which the focus of the poetry shifts from conventional categories of substance or product to process.

For in any environment substance is only known and functions only as (and in) process–precisely the subject matter of the new science of Complexity Theory, with its concern for emergent adaptations. The reader is asked to join in the formal experience of evolving with the environment created by the ever-expanding book. [173]

So: metonymy, middle voice, anaphora, present participles…. What other elements of Whitman’s poetic grammar do we notice in this evolving environment of Leaves of Grass?

Emerson’s Poet: The Convertible

October 4, 2015 § 3 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]

Emerson and the Nature of Metonymy

September 8, 2015 § 1 Comment

The marvelous and wild “transparent eyeball” passage we read and reflected on in the last class is most often cited as the model of Emerson’s “transcendental poetics” of idealism. The idealism part we began to discuss: Emerson’s vision, mediated through Kantian and Platonic philosophy, that there is a spiritual realm of Reason beyond or at least related to the material understanding, that one can be uplifted from material nature into the Nature of Mind and universal spirit, become part and particle of God. Nature is thereby a “metaphor” of the mind.

The poetics part emerges fully in the “Language” chapter. I mean by “poetics” a philosophy or theory of language that a writer uses in making (“poetics” literally means making) and crafting his/her work. Emerson’s theory of language clearly relates to his theory of nature: language mediates the relation between mind and matter. As he puts it there, “the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind.”

This notion reiterates Emerson’s deep interest in “analogy,” in something he also calls (thinking of the philosopher-mystic Swedenborg) “correspondence”: all in nature is related or analogical because matter itself is the making of Mind. It is that line in particular that some critics more recently, particularly ecocritics (literary and cultural criticism  that is ecologically-oriented), take issue with. Emerson reduces nature, on their view, to mere metaphor, a figment of human imagination; Donald Worster, in Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas, contrasts Emerson with Thoreau in arguing that Emerson “tended to devalue the material world except insofar as it could be put to higher spiritual uses by the human mind” (78).

I think there is more to it than this. In a word, I think Emerson has something in mind that goes beyond mere “metaphor,” even though he uses that word here. I see him beginning to get at that–some relationship between matter and mind, between human and nature–in his vision of language and his interest in the analogical relationships that language conveys. A better word, I would argue, for the kind of figural relationship that Emerson has in mind is not metaphor but a word he uses in his later writing (for example, in “Poetry and Imagination”) to describe his poetics: metonymy. I will be exploring this with you further as we continue in Emerson. What’s the difference?

Metaphor works by way of abstraction: the comparison (or analogy) suggests relationship through similarity or resemblance, but the two items (if the metaphor is to work) must not be physically or temporally or contextually related. To borrow a wonderful metaphor from his essay “Circles”: “I am a God in nature; I am a weed by the wall.” The relation figured between the self (human) and God /weed (not human) works because the two terms are from entirely different categories or paradigms.

Metonymy works by way of condensation and compression: the comparison/analogy suggests relationship through physical or temporal connection, through shared  context. Metonymy takes a chain of related items and condenses it: rather than saying “The President of the United States who works in the Oval Office in the White House in Washington D.C” each time one wants to refer to something said or done there, we tend to compress it into this metonym, a figure of speech: the White House today said…

The transparent eyeball is conventionally viewed as a spectacular metaphor. But it seems to me–particularly if we view Emerson’s vision of transcendence to be more dynamic, to move not just from the material to the spiritual, but back and forth between the two–that the eyeball is, rather, a metonymy for the kind of vision of nature Emerson has in mind (using the eye one sees with, the eye as a representative part of the body and mind that does the seeing, the eye that mediates the relation between natural and spiritual particles). In this sense, that wild eyeball scene could be viewed not as anti-environmental (in its seem self-absorptive focus on the human mind) but as something more ecological–where mind is part and particle of God, but God is also part and particle of material nature.

“Metonymy” as a concept resonates in Emerson as part of a philosophy, a poetic, and a rhetoric. We will thus be returning to it throughout the semester. As an idea relevant to Emerson’s philosophy of nature (our initial focus), one key word and phrase that speaks to metonymy and its emphasis on contextual and associational meaning and reference can be pulled from “Self-Reliance,” the essay we turn to soon. The word is “proximities”: “I will have no covenants but proximities.” An entire world and philosophy, I would argue, globes itself around that reference–and in Emersonian fashion, could be referred back to every essay we have read thus far.

Further Reading and Thinking… 

For some more thinking on the poetics of metonymy and metaphor–a discussion we will by necessity continue as we turn to Whitman and then Dickinson–take a look at my discussion of metonymy and metaphor from my course on The Essay, or my essay “Ecology and Imagination” on Thoreau, Emerson, and metonymy in relation to ecocriticism.

Emerson: Nature and Natural Philosophy

September 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

Caricature drawn by Christopher Cranch

Nature, published anonymously in 1836, is Emerson’s first publication. The title suggests the significance of nature in Transcendentalism, as well as Emerson’s significance in early forms of American environmental writing and thinking.  However, Nature–where Emerson proposes a ‘theory of nature’–is more specifically an attempt at philosophy than what we might think of as “nature writing.”

Yet one common response to Emerson from philosophers is that his thought isn’t very systematic: too poetic, too much metaphor, not enough system for a work in philosophy. For the most part, he hasn’t been accepted as a worthy figure in American philosophy (one major exception is the work of the philosopher Stanley Cavell; I would  also note that he is included in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Remember, Emerson tells us as much: he has no system. But another way to view this would be to understand that Emerson, in the early and middle part of the 19th century, represents a middle ground or hybrid between poetry and philosophy (also between poetry and science) that is called Natural Philosophy. In this context, before academic specialization separates poets, philosophers, and scientists, one could be all three. So we need to read Emerson, starting with Nature, with this forgotten poetic science and/or poetic philosophy in mind (and the reverse: scientific and philosophical poetics). Nature might be thought of as Emerson’s demonstration of how writing by “Man Thinking” reads.

Emerson uses in Nature various words and concepts from the science of his day, generally called natural philosophy or natural history, in poetic ways. Put differently, his writing and his focus on language reveals a “relation” (key term for him) between the study of nature, the study of philosophy, and the language tools of the poet. After all, nature is viewed as in some way emerging through language, a vehicle of the mind. I want to dig in at this point into what emerges from this vision of nature and its language–and how a ‘poetics of science’  figures in Emerson’s thinking. First, let’s consider some of the language he uses (with help from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary)–pierce through some “rotten” and forgotten diction.


TRANSMU”TE, v.t. [L. transmuto; trans and muto, to change.]

To change from one nature or substance into another. Water may be transmuted into ice, and ice into water; the juices of plants are transmuted into solid substances; but human skill has not been able to transmute lead or copper into gold.

A holy conscience sublimates every thing; it transmutes the common affairs of life into acts of solemn worship to God.The caresses of parents and the blandishments of friends, transmute us into idols.

Continuing in the language and tools of transmutation–Alembic:


A chimical vessel used in distillation; usually made of glass or copper. The bottom part containing the liquor to be distilled, is called the cucurbit; the upper part which receives and condenses the stream, is called the head, the beak of which is fitted to the neck of a receiver. The head is more properly the alembic. This vessel is not so generally used now, as the worm still and retort.

E*pit”o*me (?), n.; pl. Epitomes (#). [L., fr. Gr. a surface incision, also, and abridgment, fr. to cut into, cut short; upon + to cut: cf. F. épitome. See Tome.]

1. A work in which the contents of a former work are reduced within a smaller space by curtailment and condensation; a brief summary; an abridgement.

[An] epitome of the contents of a very large book. Sydney Smith.

2. A compact or condensed representation of anything.

An epitome of English fashionable life. Carlyle.

A man so various that he seemed to be Not one, but all mankind’s epitome. Dryden.

Syn. — Abridgement; compendium; compend; abstract; synopsis; abbreviature. See Abridgment.

ANAL”OGY, n. [Gr. ratio, proportion.]

1. an agreement or likeness between things in some circumstances or effects, when the things are otherwise entirely different. Thus a plant is said to have life, because its growth resembles in some degree, that of an animal. In life and growth, then, there is an analogy between a plant and an animal. Learning enlightens the mind, because it is to the mind, what light is to the eye, enabling it to discover things before hidden. When the things which have an analogy follow a preposition, that preposition must be between or betwixt; as there is an analogy between plants and animals, or between customs. When one of the things precedes a verb, and the other follows, the preposition used must be to or with; as, a plant has some analogy to or with an animal.2. With grammarians, analogy is a conformity of words to the genius, structure or general rules of a language. Thus the general rule in English is that the plural of a noun ends in es; therefore all nouns which have that plural termination have an analogy, or are formed in analogy with other words of a like kind.
HIEROGLYPH”IC, n. [Gr. sacred, and to carve.]
1. In antiquity, a sacred character; a mystical character or symbol, used in writings and inscriptions, particularly by the Egyptians, as signs of sacred, divine, or supernatural things. The hieroglyphics were figures of animals, parts of the human body, mechanical instruments, &c., which contained a meaning known only to kings and priests. It is supposed they were used to vail morality, politics, &c., from vulgar eves.2. Pictures intended to express historical facts; supposed to be the primitive mode of writing.3. The art of writing in picture.

EM”BLEM, n. [Gr. to cast in, to insert.]

1. Properly, inlay; inlayed or mosaic work; something inserted in the body of another.2. A picture representing one thing to the eye, and another to the understanding; a painted enigma, or a figure representing some obvious history, instructing us in some moral truth. Such is the image of Scaevola holding his hand in the fire, with these words,”agere et pati fortiter Romanum est.” to do and to suffer with fortitude is Roman.3. A painting or representation, intended to hold forth some moral or political instruction; an allusive picture; a typical designation. A balance is an emblem of justice; a crown is the emblem of royalty; a scepter, of power or sovereignty.4. That which represents another thing in its predominant qualities. A white robe in scripture is an emblem of purity or righteousness; baptism, of purification.EM”BLEM, v.t. To represent by similar qualities.AL”LEGORY,n. [Gr. other, to speak, a forum, an oration.]

A figurative sentence or discourse, in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances. The principal subject is thus kept out of view, and we are left to collect the intentions of the writer or speaker, by the resemblance of the secondary to the primary subject. Allegory is in words that hieroglyphics are in painting. We have a fine example of an allegory in the eightieth Psalm, in which God”s chosen people are represented by a vineyard. The distinction in scripture between a parable and an allegory, is said to be that a parable is a supposed history, and an allegory, a figurative description of real facts. An allegory is called a continued metaphor. The following line in Virgil is an example of an allegory.Claudite jam rivos, pueri, sat prata biberunt.Stop the currents, young men, the meadows have drank sufficiently; that is let your music cease, our ears have been sufficiently delighted.

What about “hieroglyphic”? We find that the 1828 Webster’s defines the word as a mystical character or symbol. It relates, certainly, to the other words that focus on the emblematic nature of Nature that Emerson locates in our language: that is, language is the vehicle of nature, which is itself symbolic of spirit–thus the words we find are analogy, allegory, epitome. Early on this view of  symbolic relation has a spiritualist (and almost mystical) connotation: the occult relation between man and the vegetable world (ie, the living world other than man). Emerson’s tree-waving, as we put it, more so than tree-hugging. (It’s 11 am, have you spoken to a tree today?)

There is a spiritual component to this that makes its way directly into Emerson’s thinking in Nature. The most prominent source that Emerson is working from is Swedenborg, whom he cites at the end of “American Scholar” and in Nature refers to in quoting (without citing him): the visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible. This figure of the dial and the idea of what Emerson also calls “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” is a key to Transcendentalism (and Nature is considered by many to be the ur-text of the transcendental movement in America). But it turns out that all this spiritual-mystical-philosophical-alchemical vision of nature is not just a 19thc. version of a seance. It is also the place, in the very same ideas of relation and correspondence and emblem, where Emerson engages in the science of his day.

This science did not rigidly separate (as we have done) study of the natural world with imagination or poetry or philosophy. So, it makes sense to speak of a ‘poetics of science’–though the combination of poetry and science is strange to our ears. I borrow this phrase from the Emerson scholar Laura Dassow Walls who wrote the book, literally, on Emerson’s significant interest in science and the way natural philosophy of his day informs his thinking: Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. To pick up one piece from this exhaustive reading of Emerson’s work in relation to science: there is the figure of polarity and magnetism that appears throughout his writing; a metaphor that he borrows from his own readings and observations of experiments and discoveries in his day–but more than that (so I would argue): a metonymy  that he focuses on, to the extent that his own thinking and writing is already (in his understanding of nature and writing both) related, correspondent, in a more than metaphorical sense of the word related. With metonymy, we might think of it more in the ecological senses of relation. (More discussion to come about this rhetorical concept, metonymy, of importance to Emerson).

We see this metonymyic (not just metaphorical) vision of nature and language in the “Language” chapter of Nature. We also see it in the lecture “Humanity of Science” where Emerson takes up a prominent theory from natural philosophy made famous by Goethe (a poet-scientist of interest to Emerson):

The order of the world has been wisely called ‘an open secret.’ And it is true that Nature’s mode of concealing a law is in its very simplicity; she hides facts by putting them next us.

The near explains the far. This idea that shows up in “American Scholar” as a vision for American learning and poetry–a poetry and philosophy of the street, of the familiar, the near, the low–is thus also related to Emerson’s understanding of science. And, as Emerson will go on in his “Humanity of Science” lecture, poetry is important to remind science of this poetic/symbolic condition of nature–the open secret, nature as hieroglyphic, emblematic. In other words, he remind us that science needs help from poets to interpret and express nature’s secrets to the public. Emerson’s humanistic scientist sounds a lot like his poet from the later essays. It is a remarkable claim–one that seems very distant to our culture that splits science and poetry, but perhaps all the more relevant because of that.

For those wanting some further reading on Emerson’s philosophical conceptions of science and its relevance for multidisciplinary approaches to nature and the environment, I can send you to T.S. McMillin’s essay “The Discipline of Abandonment: Emersonian Properties of Transdisciplinarity and the Nature of Method” (Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2013). I have a pdf copy of the essay that I can provide, should you want to do more with this for your Writing Project.

Whitman: Convulsiveness

October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

The keyword, the crypt-word, of Whitman’s Civil War prose, so far as I can see, is “convulsiveness.” It comes toward the end of memoranda that he puts at the center of his autobiography, Specimen Days. In the original Memoranda During the War, the section shows up in an introduction, warning the reader of the “convulsive” character and condition of the writing to come. Here is the passage, in total [from the UVA e-text of Memoranda]:

DURING the Union War I commenced at the close of 1862, and continued steadily through ’63, ’64 and ’65, to visit the sick and wounded of the Army, both on the field and in the Hospitals in and around Washington city. From the first I kept little note-books for impromptu jottings in pencil to refresh my memory of names and circumstances, and what was specially wanted, &c. In these I brief’d cases, persons, sights, occurrences in camp, by the bedside, and not seldom by the corpses of the dead. Of the present Volume most of its pages are verbatim renderings from such pencillings on the spot. Some were scratch’d down from narratives I heard and itemized while watching, or waiting, or tending somebody amid those scenes. I have perhaps forty such little note-books left, forming a special history of those years, for myself alone, full of associations never to be possibly said or sung. I wish I could convey to the reader the associations that attach to these soil’d and creas’d little livraisons, each composed of a sheet or two of paper, folded small to carry in the pocket, and fasten’d with a pin. I leave them just as I threw them by during the War, blotch’d here and there with more than one blood-stain, hurriedly written, sometimes at the clinique, not seldom amid the excitement of uncertainty, or defeat, or of action, or getting ready for it, or a march. Even these days, at the lapse of many years, I can never turn their tiny leaves, or even take one in my hand, without the actual army sights and hot emotions of the time rushing like a river in full tide through me. Each line, each scrawl, each memorandum, has its history. Some pang of anguish — some tragedy, profounder than ever poet wrote. Out of them arise active and breathing forms. They summon up, even in this silent and vacant room as I write, not only the sinewy regiments and brigades, marching or in camp, but the countless phantoms of those who fell and were hastily buried by wholesale in the battle-pits, or whose dust and bones have been since removed to the National Cemeteries of the land, especially through Virginia and Tennessee. (Not Northern soldiers only — many indeed the Carolinian, Georgian, Alabamian, Louisianian, Virginian — many a Southern face and form, pale, emaciated, with that strange tie of confidence and love between us, welded by sickness, pain of wounds, and little daily, nightly offices of nursing and friendly words and visits, comes up amid the rest, and does

4-not mar, but rounds and gives a finish to the meditation.) Vivid as life, they recall and identify the long Hospital Wards, with their myriad-varied scenes of day or night — the graphic incidents of field or camp — the night before the battle, with many solemn yet cool preparations — the changeful exaltations and depressions of those four years, North and South — the convulsive memories, (let but a word, a broken sentence, serve to recall them) — the clues already quite vanish’d, like some old dream, and yet the list significant enough to soldiers — the scrawl’d, worn slips of paper that came up by bushels from the Southern prisons, Salisbury or Andersonville, by the hands of exchanged prisoners — the clank of crutches on the pavements or floors of Washington, or up and down the stairs of the Paymasters’ offices — the Grand Review of homebound veterans at the close of the War, cheerily marching day after day by the President’s house, one brigade succeeding another until it seem’d as if they would never end — the strange squads of Southern deserters, (escapees, I call’d them;) — that little genre group, unreck’d amid the mighty whirl, I remember passing in a hospital corner, of a dying Irish boy, a Catholic priest, and an improvised altar — Four years compressing centuries of native passion, first-class pictures, tempests of life and death — an inexhaustible mine for the Histories, Drama, Romance and even Philosophy of centuries to come — indeed the Verteber of Poetry and Art, (of personal character too,) for all future America, (far more grand, in my opinion, to the hands capable of it, than Homer’s siege of Troy, or the French wars to Shakspere;) — and looking over all, in my remembrance, the tall form of President Lincoln, with his face of deep-cut lines, with the large, kind, canny eyes, the complexion of dark brown, and the tinge of wierd melancholy saturating all.More and more, in my recollections of that period, and through its varied, multitudinous oceans and murky whirls, appear the central resolution and sternness of the bulk of the average American People, animated in Soul by a definite purpose, though sweeping and fluid as some great storm — the Common People, emblemised in thousands of specimens of first-class Heroism, steadily accumulating, (no regiment, no company, hardly a file of men, North or South, the last three years, without such first-class specimens.)

I know not how it may have been, or may be, to others — to me the main interest of the War, I found, (and still, on recollection, find,) in those specimens, and in the ambulance, the Hospital, and even the dead on the field. To me, the points illustrating the latent Personal Character and eligibilities of These States, in the two or three millions of American young and middle-aged men, North and South, embodied in the armies — and especially the one-third or one-fourth of

5-their number, stricken by wounds or disease at some time in the course of the contest — were of more significance even than the Political interests involved. (As so much of a Race depends on what it thinks of death, and how it stands personal anguish and sickness. As, in the glints of emotions under emergencies, and the indirect traits and asides in Plutarch, &c., we get far profounder clues to the antique world than all its more formal history.)Future years will never know the seething hell and the black infernal background of countless minor scenes and interiors, (not the few great battles) of the Secession War; and it is best they should not. In the mushy influences of current times the fervid atmosphere and typical events of those years are in danger of being totally forgotten. I have at night watch’d by the side of a sick man in the hospital, one who could not live many hours. I have seen his eyes flash and burn as he recurr’d to the cruelties on his surrender’d brother, and mutilations of the corpse afterward. [See, in the following pages, the incident at Upperville — the seventeen, kill’d as in the description, were left there on the ground. After they dropt dead, no one touch’d them — all were made sure of, however. The carcasses were left for the citizens to bury or not, as they chose.]

Such was the War. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written, its practicality, minutia of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual Soldier of 1862-’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp — I say, will never be written — perhaps must not and should not be.

The present Memoranda may furnish a few stray glimpses into that life, and into those lurid interiors of the period, never to be fully convey’d to the future. For that purpose, and for what goes along with it, the Hospital part of the drama from ’61 to ’65, deserves indeed to be recorded — (I but suggest it.) Of that many-threaded drama, with its sudden and strange surprises, its confounding of prophecies, its moments of despair, the dread of foreign interference, the interminable campaigns, the bloody battles, the mighty and cumbrous and green armies, the drafts and bounties — the immense money expenditure, like a heavy pouring constant rain — with, over the whole land, the last three years of the struggle, an unending, universal mourning-wail of women, parents, orphans — the marrow of the tragedy concentrated in those Hospitals — (it seem’d sometimes as if the whole interest of the land, North and South, was one vast central Hospital, and all the rest of the affair but flanges) — those forming the Untold and Unwritten History of the War — infinitely

6-finitely greater (like Life’s) than the few scraps and distortions that are ever told or written. Think how much, and of importance, will be — how much, civic and military, has already been — buried in the grave, in eternal darkness !……. But to my Memoranda.

I key in on this vision of “stray glimpses” and convulsive writing: of representation that not only has limitations, but wants somehow to preserve them. It seems to me it has much to do with what Whitman means by ‘the real war will never get in the books.’ I have also argued that this has something to do with Whitman’s photographic vision of the war that comes through this prose–which can be contrasted with the actual photographs made famous by Brady and Alexander Gardner (image here: Harvest of Death).

Is this a different Whitman–this vision of limitation? Perhaps. But there is also a parallel for us to consider from Emerson. The apparent shift that Emerson seems to make around “Experience.” This too seems to focus more on limitation and suffering–and presumably for good reason. But is the writer’s recognition of that limitation completely foreign to the celebrated singing of “Song of Myself”?Yet again, I think the concept of metonymy holds for us a key. The vision in the war memoranda (as throughout Specimen Days) is thoroughly, sometimes disturbingly, metonymyic. The effects of war represented best (after all) in the “parts of the actual distraction” as Whitman puts it in the “Convulsiveness” chapter of SD. And we know that vision is not new to Whitman–also characterizes the poetry. And it is the same metonymy that shows up in Emerson’s thinking (early and late) and figured in this line from “Experience”: “I know better than to claim any completeness for my picture. I am a fragment and this is a fragment of me.”

The difference to consider, rather, is the way Whitman’s Civil War poetry (so it seems to me) is not as thoroughly metonymyic. In fact, seems much more interested in metaphor, and in producing metaphors of war, in celebrating war as metaphor. Or so it seems to me in the earliest poems in Drum-Taps.

This is the argument, it seems, of “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books,” positioned at the end of the war memoranda section in Specimen Days. Whitman demonstrates the argument in practice most vividly in the chapter just before that, “The Million Dead, Too, Summ’d Up.” The bulk of the chapter is a massive sentence fragment.

The dead in this war—there they lie, strewing the fields and woods and valleys and battle-fields of the south—Virginia, the Peninsula—Malvern hill and Fair Oaks—the banks of the Chickahominy—the terraces of Fredericksburgh—Antietam bridge—the grisly ravines of Manassas—the bloody promenade of the Wilderness—the varieties of the strayed dead, (the estimate of the War department is 25,000 national soldiers kill’d in battle and never buried at all, 5,000 drown’d—15,000 inhumed by strangers, or on the march in haste, in hitherto unfound localities—2,000 graves cover’d by sand and mud by Mississippi freshets, 3,000 carried away by caving-in of banks, &c.,)—Gettysburgh, the West, Southwest—Vicksburgh—Chattanooga—the trenches of Petersburgh—the numberless battles, camps, hospitals everywhere—the crop reap’d by the mighty reapers, typhoid, dysentery, inflammations—and blackest and loathesomest of all, the dead and living burial-pits, the prison-pens of Andersonville, Salisbury, Belle-Isle, &c., (not Dante’s pictured hell and all its woes, its degradations, filthy torments, excell’d those prisons)—the dead, the dead, the dead—our dead—or South or North, ours all, (all, all, all, finally dear to me)—or East or West—Atlantic coast or Mississippi valley—somewhere they crawl’d to die, alone, in bushes, low gullies, or on the sides of hills—(there, in secluded spots, their skeletons, bleach’d bones, tufts of hair, buttons, fragments of clothing, are occasionally found yet)—our young men once so handsome and so joyous, taken from us—the son from the mother, the husband from the wife, the dear friend from the dear friend—the clusters of camp graves, in Georgia, the Carolinas, and in Tennessee—the single graves left in the woods or by the road-side, (hundreds, thousands, obliterated)—the corpses floated down the rivers, and caught and lodged, (dozens, scores, floated down the upper Potomac, after the cavalry engagements, the pursuit of Lee, following Gettysburgh)—some lie at the bottom of the sea—the general million, and the special cemeteries in almost all the States—the infinite dead—(the land entire saturated, perfumed with their impalpable ashes’ exhalation in Nature’s chemistry distill’d, and shall be so forever, in every future grain of wheat and ear of corn, and every flower that grows, and every breath we draw)—not only Northern dead leavening Southern soil—thousands, aye tens of thousands, of Southerners, crumble to-day in Northern earth.

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