Time and the universe are designed to make us disappear. What makes us cry at that? What makes us laugh at that? What is the agreement we can reach with that?
The words in this piece are from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson is another of those 19th century New England worthies that we’ve touched on before. Many other writers were encouraged, promoted, and inspired by Emerson in their day.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (Lake and Palmer not available)
If Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson are the father and mother of modern American poetry, Emerson is their common grandfather.
For Dickinson, Emerson’s heterodox religious views seem to have buffered her from her family’s more conventional Christianity. Emerson’s ideas of individuality, of attention to inner voices and discernment, and on the book of nature illuminate Dickinson’s world-view. Some of what is obscure and puzzling in Dickinson (a poet whose music can grab us long before her meaning and vision can become clear) opens up when read in the light of Emerson and his circle.
Walt Whitman, that iconoclast who otherwise defies all authority, promoted his career on the back of an enthusiastic letter of praise from Emerson. He published that letter for PR effect, and then blurbed it prominently in subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass. Never shy, Whitman’s work often trumpets Emersonian ideas and concepts, sometimes taking them farther than Emerson would. Emerson may have written this poem and titled it “Eros,” but Whitman’s poetic accounts of physical love caused Emerson to personally consul discretion to Whitman.
Dickinson’s personal library contained the Emerson poetry collection where this poem, Eros, appeared. When writing to Emerson’s colleague, Thomas Higginson, Dickinson said this of Higginson’s mention of Whitman:
You speak of Mr Whitman-I never read his Book-but was told that he was disgraceful
However, Emily Dickinson was quite capable of portraying herself to Higginson in misleading ways, so one never knows. Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Dickinson’s hometown. He even stayed next door during the visit. Biographers say she attended Emerson’s lecture but didn’t meet him.
Thomas Higginson, Transcendentalist and long-tail cargo bike pioneer
So Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson. Each of the poets had seen Emerson, each read him, but the other side of the triangle probably never closed. Dickinson was not widely published in Whitman’s lifetime, preventing Whitman from reading her work, and Dickinson may not have read Whitman. So let’s leave it at Ralph Waldo Emerson, and put it shortly:
Emerson is the theory, and Dickinson and Whitman are the practice.
Emerson also wrote poetry, though his considerable 19th century fame came from other things. As a popular lecturer and essayist, he was able to introduce his ideas widely into American culture. As a scene-maker, he declared American independence in cultural matters roughly 60 years after the political fact of independence, and his school of thought, Transcendentalism, was in America the 1960’s counter-culture of the 1840’s.
For such an influential person, particularly as an influence to poets, his poetry is not always rewarding.
To put it frankly, Eros is strangely worded. It’s rhymed and loosely metrical—but despite the casualness with structure, some lines read like someone trying to contort English syntax to fit a strict metrical form. The next-to-last line “And, how oft soe’er they’ve turned it,” is an abomination. It sort of echoes the meter of the first part of the couplet, but it just doesn’t sound good or make it’s point well. I’m also not clear on the image in that line. Are “men and gods,” or some other “they”, turning love on a lathe and not improving its natural form?
So, regarding that line, good Transcendentalists may well just respond: “OK, Ralph, whatever.” The strong point in Eros, to put “To love and to be beloved” in the center of existence’s meaning is strong enough to overlook infelicities.
In creating this piece, I did some things to try to convey the poem’s strengths. I turned the separated rhyming lines “To love and be beloved” and “’Tis not to be improved” into repeating refrains to bring out that central thought. Musically I use a favorite tactic of mine: repeated motifs that seem at first to be repeating, but are actually changing. Sonically the guitar part has a modulated echo that adds a bit of microtonal warble, and I treated the vocal with a light “throat singing” effect. My sonic goal there was to tip my hat to Emerson and Transcendentalism’s introduction of Asian religious concepts to America.
To here my music and reading of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Eros, click on the gadget below.