Ralph Waldo Emerson was an American poet who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century. Emerson read the works of Blake, Coleridge and Wordsworth, bringing many of their ideas into his own writings and to many others. After understanding that Emerson views the imagination as a “sixth sense”, it is a whole lot easier to understand poems written by authors during that time period. The Emersonian Imagination is most prominent throughout poems such “The Little Black Boy” and “The Chimney Sweeper” by William Blake.
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Emerson was a prominent writer in the Romantic Era. Romanticism can best be defined as the focus of the rise of the individual, including an individual’s imagination. An individual’s imagination helps them to reflect upon nature and themselves, as well as helping to preserve their experience and insight. The Emersonian perspective of imagination can best be defined as a second sight, or sixth sense, that allows us to connect deeper with the world and ourselves (Emerson p.3). The things we interpret from this sixth sense can be communicated best through poetry. Poetry uses figurative language to access truths deeper than facts in nature and human nature through imagination (Emerson p.1). Poetry allows us to see goodness and the truth. Emerson states that “poetry is the perpetual endeavor to express the spirit of the thing” (p. 2). Literally meaning that poetry is the never ending search to try and be able to communicate our souls. It is the spontaneous overflow of our feelings, while we are spiritually searching our lives for our purpose.
One poet in particular, William Blake wrote several pieces that had a significant influence on how Emerson came to perceive his ideas of imagination and poetry. When reading these poems, it becomes clear that this is where Emerson derived his philosophy from. “The Little Black Boy” from Songs of Innocence, provides a particularly good example of the Emersonian philosophy of imagination. The poem is told from the perspective of an African-American child, in which the concept of racism is being discussed. The boy says” and I am black, but O! my soul is white” (Blake p.3). The child does not know what racism is, and he does not understand why he is not loved the same as a white boy, he only sees the difference in their skin color. He begins to talk with his mother about this subject, and she tells him that “ when our souls have learn’d the heat to bear…we shall hear his voice, saying ‘come out from the grove, my love & care, and round my golden tent like lambs rejoice’” (Blake p.3). Meaning that everyone will be loved equally in heaven and he says that “ When I from black and he from white cloud free, and round the tent of God like lambs we joy, I’ll shade him from the heat..” (Blake p.3). The boy hopes that one day he will be able to be a servant to the white boy in heaven.
At first it may not be easy to identify how this poem relates to Emersonian imagination, but after a close reading it becomes evident. This young boy is pouring out his feelings in this poem. He is trying to understand his life, and why he is the one to be hated on for his skin color. The boy is reflecting on the cruelty of human nature and himself. This poem is using the boy’s imagination to access the deeper truths of the world, the horrible truth that racism exists. In the little boy’s case, goodness can be seeked out through his mother, since she is speaking from an experienced point of view. He discovers an ugly truth about the world, yet he also discovers that there is goodness to that ugly truth, and that truth comes from God in heaven. The boy is trying to express his feelings about the oppression he is facing, he is communicating what is in his soul through this poem when he asks why he is not loved like the white boy is. The boy is essentially soul searching through this poem, trying to find his identity and his purpose in society by questioning the nature of humans.
Another poem that Blake has written that provides a good insight on the Emersonian perspective of imagination is “The Chimney Sweeper”. This poem is also being told from the point of view of a child. This child is also facing some oppression from society, he/she is being forced into a dangerous job as a chimney sweeper. Back during Blake’s time it was common for children to hold jobs such as chimney sweepers because they were small enough to fit inside the chimneys. The child was “crying ‘weep! weep!’ in notes of woe” asking “Where are thy father & mother? say?” (Blake p.6). The child is left outside in the cold, sad, wondering where his/her parents are. It turns out that the parents, “gone up to the church to pray” (Blake p. 6). The parents are praying and giving thanks because they think that their child is healthy and happy. The child says that his/her parents had “clothed me in the clothes of death, And they taught me to sing the notes of woe” (Blake p.6). The parents had put their child in this job to provide for the family, while they both stayed home. The child has not disclosed with his/her parents that he/she is in fact not healthy or happy. The child states “ And because I am happy & dance & sing, They think they have done me no injury, And are gone to praise God & his Priest & King, Who make up a heaven of our misery.” The child is truly miserable and wish that his/her parents weren’t so oblivious and naive.
This poem is really similar to “The Little Black Boy” and how it relates to the Emersonian Imagination. The child is expressing his/her true feelings about their life in this poem. The child is trying to understand why his/her parents cannot understand that what they are doing is not right. Similar to “The Little Black Boy”, this child is also reflecting on the cruelty of human nature. The child is beginning to realize how inhumane society can really be. This is the truth that is revealed to him/her once he/she begins to search for their purpose in life. This poem is depressing because you can sympathize with the child and their misery. Having to risk their life everyday to provide for their family, when in reality the parents should be providers? That is truly sad. But it is the ugly truth of how the world is, the society functioned that way, and saw nothing wrong with it. This poem is using the child’s thoughts to access the deeper truths of the world and the way it works. This child is using their “sixth sense” or their imagination in order to connect deeper with themselves and the world. They goodness in this poem is that the child begins to realize that there is something wrong with how things are working out, and so maybe that child can make a change in his/her world by bringing this to other people’s attentions.
Emerson believes that imagination is essentially our sixth sense, and is the basis for poetry, especially Romantic poetry. After reading authors such as Blake, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, Emerson was able to better cultivate his ideas and base a whole entire movement off of it. The Emersonian philosophy is honestly very accurate and can be applied to nearly all poems and is most accurately portrayed through poems written by authors in the Romantic Era. Poems such as “The Little Black Boy” and “The Chimney Sweeper” are very good examples because they were both written by Blake, who had a large influence on Emerson. Without Emerson, the Romantic Era and the Transcendentalist movement may have never happened and literature would not be the same as it is today.
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