“The Poet”, by Ralph Waldo Emerson, is a short essay describing Emerson’s thoughts on what he believes makes up a poet both in character and in his place in society. Rather than describe a man who simply has the talent for writing poems, Emerson takes the idea of a poet to a different level, contending that a true poet delves deeper into the soul than the average man and therefore is able to speak what others are thinking and feeling but are afraid or unable to say. For this reason, it can be argued that the poet Emerson describes may not be, in all actuality, a poet, but could be a character such as Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn.
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Emerson’s poet is not a poet in the typical sense of the word. He is a seeker of truth, who struggles to understand humanity and the world around him. This is true for the character of Huckleberry Finn. From the beginning of the story, Mark Twain makes it clear to the reader that Huck Finn does not come from a high class, or even a middle class, background. He is the lowest member of white society. He is described as uneducated, dirty, with no mother and a drunken father who disappears for months on end, often leaving Huck homeless and hungry. This lack of a “proper education” actually has some benefits for Huck because it means he does not live under the conforms of his society. Being a very curious child, he is constantly in search of truths and, although he struggles with some of the preconceptions taught to him by members of the properly educated society, he comes to his own conclusions. The answers he finds are true in their context but would shock most of his community.
Emerson opens the second paragraph with the statement “The breadth of the problem is great, for the poet is representative.” By this he means that the poet represents all men and can be seen as the idyllic man by the American people. Emerson’s poet lives a life outside of society’s bounds, sometimes isolated, but closer to truth than any normal man could ever be. In a way, Huck Finn also lives his life outside of society’s rigid bounds by refusing to give up his independent spirit, even when the Widow Douglas attempts to clean him up, educate him, and in her words “reform” him.
When Emerson discusses the liberating feeling that a poem can invoke in the reader he says, “If the imagination intoxicates the poet, it is not inactive in other men. The metamorphosis excites in the beholder an emotion of joy. The use of symbols has a certain power of emancipation and exhilaration for all men.” He goes on to call poets “liberating gods”. He is clearly referencing society’s lack of imagination and the lack of motivation to search for deeper meaning. As pointed out by these lines, most people are content to live in the strictly structured confinement they have created for themselves, never venturing out and never daring to question anything. To Emerson, the poet is the man who “liberates” other men from this prison-like society. His poems allow the mind to wander beyond the individual’s selfish thoughts, to find enjoyment in life. Huck is much like this poet in that he questions the morals and rules society has imposed upon him, choosing to follow his own path instead. Huck is able to see the hypocrisy of the general public and the contradictory rules and boundaries they have set for themselves. He cannot grasp the notion of slavery as a “civilized” concept, and cannot comprehend how people can commit heinous acts but go unpunished, while minor frivolous acts, if committed by the wrong person, can lead to execution.
Furthermore, Huck’s decision to escape from civilization, with Jim the slave, and try to create a home in the wilderness, where he feels most secure, is comparable to Emerson’s description of the poet’s closeness to nature. Emerson suggests that most people living in conformity are unfamiliar with nature’s “living” power. Nature is everywhere but most people cannot truly appreciate it the way a poet does. Thus, Emerson calls him a “namer” and “language maker”, imparting on him the task of interpreting nature for the rest of men. Huck, just like the poet Emerson seeks, is more comfortable in nature than he is in civilization.
When Emerson states, “So in regard to other forms, the intellectual men do not believe in any essential dependence of the material world on thought and volition. Theologians think it a pretty air-castle to talk of the spiritual meaning of a ship or a cloud, of a city or a contract, but they prefer to come again to the solid ground of historical evidence;” he is talking about man’s connection between the spiritual world and the physical, concrete world, or the ideal world vs. the real world. Most men fall into one of two categories. They are either intellectuals, who see the material world and the world of thoughts as two separate entities, or theologians who view the two as intertwined. Huckleberry Finn, although he does not realize it himself, is able to effortlessly link the two, as a true poet can. The people in Huck’s community, such as the Widow, who try to force him to obey the rules and behave conventionally, keep their thoughts hidden, as they believe them to be unrelated to the material world. Huck cannot accept this lifestyle and chooses to speak his mind, believing that what we think and what we do are directly connected. He views his surroundings practically as well as logically which is what Emerson claims a poet must always do. Emerson’s poet is always aware of his surroundings both intellectually and artistically.
Additionally, Huck Finn does not fill his observations with judgments and preconceived notions. The images of the things he sees are completely honest and realistic. He describes to the reader what he sees truthfully, as he sees it, rather than describing it the way it ought to be described. This makes him the “sayer” and poet that Emerson is searching for.
Emerson ends “The Poet” with a call for anybody that believes himself to be a true poet to come forth. He leaves us with the impression that such a poet has not existed yet in America, but the probability of such a man existing is probable. His descriptions of the man he is looking for fall in line with Mark Twain’s description of Huckleberry Finn and therefore, Huckleberry Finn can very well be the poet Emerson is searching for.
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