Lecturer, poet, essayist, and lapsed Unitarian minister, Ralph Waldo Emerson lived during a time of intellectual blossoming in America and was associated with the transcendentalist movement. Emerson was born in 1803, the son of a Unitarian minister, and grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He attended Harvard’s Unitarian Divinity School and was a minster from 1829-1832 at Boston’s Second Church. He left the church after the death of his first wife to tuberculosis, when he coincidentally experienced a crisis of faith in which he questioned the ceremonies of the church service. A reader of poetry and philosophy, Emerson toured Europe after his wife’s death; in Europe he met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle.After Emerson returned to New England in 1833, he gave public lectures on cultural topics, bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, and married Lydia Jackson.
The couple had four children, the first of whom died of scarlet fever in 1842. Concord became the center for the transcendentalist movement in America.
Emerson was a member of the Transcendentalist Club, and a contributor to The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion. He lectured at lyceums in the Boston area, gave the 1838 address to the senior class at Harvard Divinity School—where he created a stir for advocating a closer connection to nature—and wrote essays and poetry. He was acquainted with many of the leading intellectuals of the time, including Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, Amos Bronson Alcott, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.“The Poet” was published in Emerson’s collection Essays: Second Series (1844) and was based on a lecture (heard in New York by Walt Whitman) Emerson gave in 1842. The essay is exuberant, original, and at times rhapsodic.
In it, Emerson describes how the poet is “representative,” standing “among partial men for the complete man.” The only one capable of articulating the transcendent nature of things, the poet is the one who can identify “symbols” and “emblems” of the world: “The world is a temple, whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures, and commandments of the Deity. There is no fact in nature which does not carry the whole sense of nature.” The poet “re-attaches things to nature and the Whole” by “saying” or naming. Emerson writes that the poet has better perceptions than the rest of humanity, “he stands one step nearer to things, and sees the flowing of metamorphosis. His speech flows with the flowing of nature.”In “The Poet,” Emerson also states that good poetry is not solely a matter of technical prowess: “for it is not metres, but a metre-making argument, that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive, that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own, and adorns nature with a new thing.” The poet speaks most “adequatelywhen he speaks somewhat wildly. Not with the intellect.” Emerson observes that a lifestyle “on a key so low and plain” is stimulant enough for poets, our “liberating gods.” At the end of the essay, Emerson laments the lack of poets writing about America: “America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres.”.