Hitch Your Wagon to a Star

As we continue to celebrate National Poetry Month here, I ask your indulgence—today’s piece isn’t based on a poem. Earlier this week I did use a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem, mentioning then that his poetry often fails. Well, there are compensations—as an essayist, Emerson often expresses himself poetically.

Today’s piece is part of an Emerson essay published in The Atlantic in April 1862 called “American Civilization.”  In it Emerson ranges quite a bit, including some racial and regional stereotyping that may shock some modern readers with its ignorance and prejudice. But rather than concentrate on what Emerson got wrong—after all, I don’t need to go to 150-year-old writing to find that sort of thing, our own age will supply all we’ll ever need—I want to present to you some things that Emerson might have gotten right.

I’ve selected a handful of sections from Emerson’s essay for today, the parts of the essay that strike me as if they were a poem. I call my extracted text “Emerson’s Wagon,”  in that one of the phrases it popularized became a pervasive folk-motto: “Hitch your wagon to a star.”

What do you think that means when you hear it today? Most likely you think it means have high ambitions, aim for success not mediocrity, that if you only make it half-way you’ll still get farther than if you’d set your sites lower.*

If so, you may be surprised to hear how Emerson meant that phrase. Indeed, the whole argument Emerson makes in today’s piece is a subtle and surprisingly contemporary one.

Ralph Waldo Emerson at desk

Emerson wondering if his essay will go viral—wait—can something go viral on the telegraph?


“Emerson’s Wagon”  starts by telling a technology story. While he’s speaking about the telegraph, a recent marvel of his time, the metaphor here could just as easily be applied to the Internet on which you are reading this.**  In this metaphor we meet the essay’s first wagon, and it’s, well, stuck and broken down. He points out technology has found a way to get around that.

OK, nice story. Interesting contemporary parallel.

Then mid-19th century Emerson starts considering renewable energy. A couple years back I was talking to someone about that very subject and he mentioned Massachusetts had fewer resources than some other parts of the U.S. for that, which I found ironic, because Emerson’s 19th century Massachusetts was leading the country in exploiting water and tidal energy for industrial power.

Here is Emerson’s second wagon, the first one he hitches to a star. He’s not talking about personal advancement particularly, he’s talking about harnessing nature’s renewable power, and working with it to improve our civilization.

Now his technological story is getting more interesting. How many times have you heard of nature and technology portrayed as opposites? Enough that you may think that technology inevitably destroys nature, or that technology is replacing nature, and so on?

Emerson’s asking you to think of technology (and also nature, as we’ll soon see) differently. Technology comes from close observation of and analysis of the powers of nature. And in concert, the book of nature can tell us something about how to use and deploy technology, and how we should share the bounty of that.

Finally, Emerson goes somewhere you probably won’t expect. His third wagon*** says that moral principles are natural principles (and vice versa). We moderns may have some doubts about this, but it was part of the Transcendentalist ideals that Emerson and his fellows believed. From that equivalence, he says that for American civilization to succeed, for us to fix those broken and stuck in the mud situations like that first wagon, we must align ourselves (if we wish to make change) with the moral principles of a nature that spreads over all and gives benevolently. To do so makes us more powerful agents of change that cannot be defeated in the long run.

An interesting thought for a time of lies and behavior that isn’t pulled forward by the tides of heroic stars, that instead aims at the lower level of personal enrichment defended with the muddy shield of not-quite-legally-indictable.

To hear me perform Emerson’s story of three wagons, use the player below, and electricity will transfer it to you in its invisible pockets. To read all of Emerson’s essay, you can find it here.




*It was a phrase my mother would use, and in this sense too. She raised her large and different family whose members did different things, so maybe it has some value used in this way as well.

**The “invisible pockets” he has the telegraph carrying data in so easily become the “packets” that have flown through TCP/IP routers to bring this post or the accompanying audio file to you. Did you know that some of the savviest conceptual thinking about how the Internet works can be expressed via carrier pigeons?

***As he once more returns to the line “hitch your wagon to a star” Emerson eventually reels off a list of constellations named after heroes. You might be thrown by the first one on his list “Charles’ Wain.” I’d never heard of it. Turns out it’s another name for the Big Dipper. Wain is a Middle English word for, yes, wagon and together Charles’ Wain sort of morphs into the name of legendary king Charlemagne.


Emerson’s Water

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.

Emerson Poem Sacrifice copied by Dickinson2

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.

The Trees are Down

I indicated when I first presented a poem by Charlotte Mew this month that I’d talk more about her life, but what I know is so limited and sad that I’ll try to condense things.

She was born into a family that had more than its share of illness and mortality. Three siblings died in childhood, two were institutionalized for insanity. Her father died “without making adequate provision for his family” according to the Wikipedia article, leaving her mother and surviving sister to try to scrape by in late 19th Century London. She appears to have been socially awkward and eccentric. Eventually her mother died, and then her sister, with Mew ending up being the final caretaker for both. After the death of that final sister, Mew herself was unable to care for herself. She was institutionalized and committed suicide by the decidedly unromantic method of drinking Lysol.

There is so much unanswered detail in her story. For example, the two surviving sisters are said to have vowed not to marry for fear that the insanity might be hereditary. My now largely forgotten medical knowledge/experience wonders what the exact elements were of these early deaths and the cluster of undifferentiated mental illness. Quick, idle thoughts fall to something like Huntington’s Disease.

Anyway, during her life Mew was something of a writer’s writer. Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf both championed her and apparently got her a government stipend for support. She was not prolific, and she didn’t write grand poetic epics or found a new school of poetry or critical theory. Still from the first time I read her poems this year I was easily struck by how different they often were. In her era there were a lot of Modernist poets who were shockingly different then—and who often still retain easily seen uniqueness today. Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, Mina Loy, Tristan Tzara, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, H. D., and William Carlos Williams made individual showy breaks away from fusty tradition in the time Mew was writing her poetry.

But Mew wasn’t really a Modernist as they were, not in any card-carrying sense. Her breaks from poetic orthodoxy were sometimes subtle and sometimes seem artless in both the good and bad senses of that term.*

Today’s piece “The Trees are Down”  is a good example. Although I didn’t include it in the reading, it starts with a biblical epigraph from Revelation:  “—and he cried with a loud voice: Hurt not the earth, neither the sea, nor the trees—” What follows starts off as if it’s miscategorized prose, as casual as a diary entry, a letter, or blog post. But it soon adopts a subtle rhythm, something like F. S. Flint’s “unrhymed cadences,” with a little symphony of sound verbs and some mixed in background sound from the workmen felling trees.

A Plane Tree in London

A London plane tree. Poetic enough…


But Mew will turn from this abruptly, rather than developing that sound and theme, almost literalizing the cliché “red herring.” She recalls finding a dead rat—not at the site of the tree work, not recently—just a rat’s carcass once encountered some “long past spring.” And she remembers thinking that even this “god-forsaken thing” should be alive in spring.

rat carcass

…not quite as romantic as a majestic tree.


Then she leaves this odd aside and begins a passage of irregular rhyme and near rhyme, once more looping in a sample of the workmen’s cries (“Down now!”). Nearly every phrase has end-rhyme, but we are made to wait seven phrases for a rhyme between “fine grey rain” and her return to that seemingly unconnected dead rat with a remark that except for this strange connection with the rat carcass and the death of the trees “I might never have thought of him again.”**

And then she changes once more, back to the unrhymed cadences mode as she begins to introduce her final theme. Her cadence strengthens in her last stanza, and she closes with the introduction again of a series of end-rhymes. She makes her closing case so clearly that I feel no need to make any paraphrase. That case borders on the sentimental I suppose, and I’d guess that any of the few reading “The Trees are Down”  in Mew’s own time would see it as that in their context.

Today, when we encounter those same words Mew wrote, we might contextualize them differently. First, we may not be expecting Mew to sound like a fine regular poet with even meters and regular rhymes. Nor are some of us requiring she make it new in some bold way that makes a revolutionary show of novel ways of speaking and writing. We’re are more likely than readers in Mew’s time to be comfortable with poets speaking in unique and personal but merely human terms about events up unto death. The strange anecdote of the dead rat controls the sentimentality of the death of the great and stalwart trees. We may even see a subtext here, one we’ve come to increasingly realize: that of men callously controlling and seeking to reign over and reign in nature.

In the same way that we now read what had once been seen as inconsequential “relationship issues” in the poetry of Millay or Teasdale and see important social dynamics, we might read “The Trees are Down”  now a hundred years later and see an ecological perspective.

To hear the LYL Band perform Charlotte Mew’s “The Trees are Down”  use the player below.




*Harold Monro, who published Mew’s first book of poetry in 1916, tried to describe this difficulty in Mew’s je ne sais quoi “No argument, or quotation, can prove that the poetry of Charlotte Mew is above the average of our day. She writes with the naturalness of one whom real passion has excited; her diction is free from artificial conceits, is inspired by the force of its subject, and creates its own direct intellectual contact with the reader. Her phraseology is hard and concentrated.” For a modern appreciation of Mew’s style see Molly Peacock here.

**I wonder if Mew, an upright human towering over the dead rat is being compared with the those-who-are-about-to-die trees towering over the humans beneath them.