Here’s another post in one of our National Poetry Month series: The Roots of Emily Dickinson. We’ve already touched on Emily Bronte, who’s fierceness inspired the American Emily; and Helen Hunt Jackson, a childhood classmate who encouraged Dickinson to publish her work.* Today we look at a poem from the foremost public intellectual of her region and era, Ralph Waldo Emerson. We’ll see how it connects to Dickinson, and you may be surprised at how current Emerson’s thoughts about water are.
It’s difficult to think of a modern analog to Emerson. It’s not an exact fit, but Oprah Winfrey could be put forward—but that understates the level of Emerson’s pioneering in the mid-19th century when America was still seen as a backwater. Like Winfrey, Emerson’s approval or endorsement could do much to help a new writer come to the fore. Emerson’s opinions, not just on the arts, but on public culture in general, about how best to live and shape one’s own life, were widely distributed and read by a broad readership. But even if similar in fame and broad impact, Winfrey has never pretended to be a philosopher herself, while Emerson was viewed as a central figure in a movement called Transcendentalism. What is Transcendentalism is a book-length subject, but there are, within its core, beliefs in the powers of individual insight over religious authority and the desirability of a close reading of the book of nature.
If it was the middle of the 19th century, the guy on the right might be your Oprah.
When I would read Transcendentalist writings more than a hundred years after they were written, in my 1960s, I would be struck with how often (if one gave some allowances for language changes) they sounded like a hippie critique of 20th century culture,** and in the half-century and more since, if I dip back into them, I find some of their focus surprisingly contemporary.
Was Emily Dickinson a Transcendentalist? I can’t say for sure, but it’s near certain that Transcendentalist ideas, particularly as expressed by Emerson, were familiar to her. His thoughts were in the newspapers and magazines she read in her lifetime. We know she had been given a book of his poems by a friend, and we know she read them, and even copied at least one of them in her own handwriting. It’s possible that she attended one of Emerson’s popular public lectures.
Part of Emerson’s poem “Sacrifice” copied in Emily Dickinson’s own hand.
Emerson’s poetry rarely works well, and Dickinson is a great poet, yet in poems like today’s Emerson selection “Water” I can see similarities between them. Emerson punctuated his poem as one purported sentence, but its syntax is impossible to follow, and so “Water” is as fragmented as one of Dickinson’s heavily dashed poems. Incredible leaps occur from line to line with no attempt to bridge them with explanatory connections in either poet’s work. Emerson begins his poem with a striking phrase, similar to many of Dickinson’s great first lines: “The water understands/Civilization well;” but we soon meet a strange homey image of sticking a toe (or foot) in it, and Dickinson too loved to mix the universal and the mundane. Emerson’s poem develops with water personified as not having or having certain feelings, and then with little preparation we’re warned it can be the destroyer.
I think Emerson is making a very modern point here, one that he expressed also in his essay “Civilization.” When water is respected and harnessed appropriately for its utility *** we are in harmony with nature’s nature. But, if we ill-use nature, we literally go against the tide, and water will be our destroyer.
If Dickinson was influenced by Emerson’s ideas and outlook, and if she picked up his individualist style that dares to be somewhat obscure to stay true to the individual’s perceptions, why is she so often a great poet while Emerson isn’t?
I think Dickinson makes better word choices both for sound and impact. Having “decketh,” “adoreth,” and “doubleth” as three wet dish-rags in a four-word stretch is enough to make Emerson’s poem soggy. And Dickinson has a talent for intriguing mystery that pulls us along even to places we don’t fully understand. She does that partly with her hymn/ballad rhythms which Emerson doesn’t use. Dickinson is usually more immediate too. A few posts back I stated that a poem is not about ideas, but the experience of ideas. In an Emily Dickinson poem, I’m more often able to feel I’m experiencing those ideas as the are perceived, where I feel Emerson is summarizing his thoughts after the fact.
Unafraid, I waded through the -eth words and performed Emerson’s “Water” with my own music, and you can hear it with the player below. And here’s the text of Emerson’s poem if you’d like to follow along on the page.
*With the exception of one poem, which was published anonymously while Dickinson was alive, Jackson failed at that. Still, I think it possible that having some knowledge of her friend selecting poems for publication could have been motivation for Dickinson to create her hand-written booklets of poems which were found after her death.
**This is for good and ill. Idealistic critiques of society are important, but adventurers often take wrong turns. And idealists have a hard time figuring out viable new structures.
***Emerson’s Massachusetts led the nation in using water power for small to large industry in the 19th century. So, when the city of Minneapolis was founded largely due to it’s exploitable water power, a good portion of the city fathers had New England backgrounds. Many Minneapolis streets still bear the name of 19th century New England luminaries, including Emerson. Alas there’s no Dickinson Avenue, as Dickinson’s poems were not published until close to the end of the century.