Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
V. Appendix
The Poet
RIGHT 1 upward on the road of fame
With sounding steps the poet came;
Born and nourished in miracles,
His feet were shod with golden bells,
Or where he stepped the soil did peal        5
As if the dust were glass and steel.
The gallant child where’er he came
Threw to each fact a tuneful name.
The things whereon he cast his eyes
Could not the nations rebaptize,        10
Nor last posterity forget. 2
Yet every scroll whereon he wrote
In latent fire his secret thought,
Fell unregarded to the ground,
Unseen by such as stood around.        15
The pious wind took it away,
The reverent darkness hid the lay. 3
Methought like water-haunting birds
Divers or dippers were his words,
And idle clowns beside the mere        20
At the new vision gape and jeer.
But when the noisy scorn was past,
Emerge the wingèd words in haste.
New-bathed, new-trimmed, on healthy wing,
Right to the heaven they steer and sing.        25
A Brother of the world, his song
Sounded like a tempest strong
Which tore from oaks their branches broad,
And stars from the ecliptic road.
Times wore he as his clothing-weeds,        30
He sowed the sun and moon for seeds. 4
As melts the iceberg in the seas,
As clouds give rain to the eastern breeze,
As snow-banks thaw in April’s beam,
The solid kingdoms like a dream        35
Resist in vain his motive strain,
They totter now and float amain. 5
For the Muse gave special charge
His learning should be deep and large,
And his training should not scant        40
The deepest lore of wealth or want:
His flesh should feel, his eyes should read
Every maxim of dreadful Need; 6
In its fulness he should taste
Life’s honeycomb, but not too fast;        45
Full fed, but not intoxicated;
He should be loved; he should be hated;
A blooming child to children dear,
His heart should palpitate with fear.
And well he loved to quit his home        50
And, Calmuck, in his wagon roam
To read new landscapes and old skies; 7
But oh, to see his solar eyes
Like meteors which chose their way
And rived the dark like a new day!        55
Not lazy grazing on all they saw,
Each chimney-pot and cottage door,
Farm-gear and village picket-fence,
But, feeding on magnificence,
They bounded to the horizon’s edge        60
And searched with the sun’s privilege.
Landward they reached the mountains old
Where pastoral tribes their flocks infold,
Saw rivers run seaward by cities high
And the seas wash the low-hung sky;        65
Saw the endless rack of the firmament
And the sailing moon where the cloud was rent,
And through man and woman and sea and star
Saw the dance of Nature forward and far,
Through worlds and races and terms and times        70
Saw musical order and pairing rhymes. 8
The gods talk in the breath of the woods,
They talk in the shaken pine,
And fill the long reach of the old seashore
With dialogue divine;        75
And the poet who overhears
Some random word they say
Is the fated man of men
Whom the ages must obey:
One who having nectar drank        80
Into blissful orgies sank;
He takes no mark of night or day,
He cannot go, he cannot stay,
He would, yet would not, counsel keep,
But, like a walker in his sleep        85
With staring eye that seeth none,
Ridiculously up and down
Seeks how he may fitly tell
The heart-o’erlading miracle. 9
Not yet, not yet,        90
Impatient friend,—
A little while attend;
Not yet I sing: but I must wait,
My hand upon the silent string,
Fully until the end.        95
I see the coming light,
I see the scattered gleams,
Aloft, beneath, on left and right
The stars’ own ether beams;
These are but seeds of days,        100
Not yet a steadfast morn,
An intermittent blaze,
An embryo god unborn.
How all things sparkle,
The dust is alive, 10        105
To the birth they arrive:
I snuff the breath of my morning afar,
I see the pale lustres condense to a star:
The fading colors fix,
The vanishing are seen,        110
And the world that shall be
Twins the world that has been.
I know the appointed hour,
I greet my office well,
Never faster, never slower        115
Revolves the fatal wheel!
The Fairest enchants me,
The Mighty commands me,
Saying, ‘Stand in thy place;
Up and eastward turn thy face;        120
As mountains for the morning wait,
Coming early, coming late,
So thou attend the enriching Fate
Which none can stay, and none accelerate.’
I am neither faint nor weary,        125
Fill thy will, O faultless heart!
Here from youth to age I tarry,—
Count it flight of bird or dart.
My heart at the heart of things
Heeds no longer lapse of time,        130
Rushing ages moult their wings,
Bathing in thy day sublime.
The sun set, but set not his hope:—
Stars rose, his faith was earlier up:
Fixed on the enormous galaxy,        135
Deeper and older seemed his eye,
And matched his sufferance sublime
The taciturnity of Time. 11
Beside his hut and shading oak,
Thus to himself the poet spoke,        140
‘I have supped to-night with gods,
I will not go under a wooden roof:
As I walked among the hills
In the love which Nature fills,
The great stars did not shine aloof,        145
They hurried down from their deep abodes
And hemmed me in their glittering troop. 12
      ‘Divine Inviters! I accept
The courtesy ye have shown and Kept
From ancient ages for the bard,        150
To modulate
With finer fate
A fortune harsh and hard.
With aim like yours
I watch your course,        155
Who never break your lawful dance
By error or intemperance.
O birds of ether without wings!
O heavenly ships without a sail!
O fire of fire! O best of things!        160
O mariners who never fail!
Sail swiftly through your amber vault,
An animated law, a presence to exalt.’ 13
Ah, happy if a sun or star
Could chain the wheel of Fortune’s car,        165
And give to hold an even state,
Neither dejected nor elate,
That haply man upraised might keep
The height of Fancy’s far-eyed steep.
In vain: the stars are glowing wheels,        170
Giddy with motion Nature reels,
Sun, moon, man, undulate and stream,
The mountains flow, the solids seem, 14
Change acts, reacts; back, forward hurled,
And pause were palsy to the world.—        175
The morn is come: the starry crowds
Are hid behind the thrice-piled clouds;
The new day lowers, and equal odds
Have changed not less the guest of gods;
Discrowned and timid, thoughtless, worn,        180
The child of genius sits forlorn:
Between two sleeps a short day’s stealth,
’Mid many ails a brittle health,
A cripple of God, half true, half formed,
And by great sparks Promethean warmed,        185
Constrained by impotence to adjourn
To infinite time his eager turn,
His lot of action at the urn.
He by false usage pinned about
No breath therein, no passage out,        190
Cast wishful glances at the stars
And wishful saw the Ocean Stream:—
‘Merge me in the brute universe,
Or lift to a diviner dream!’ 15
Beside him sat enduring love,        195
Upon him noble eyes did rest,
Which, for the Genius that there strove,
The follies bore that it invest.
They spoke not, for their earnest sense
Outran the craft of eloquence. 16        200
He whom God had thus preferred,—
To whom sweet angels ministered,
Saluted him each morn as brother,
And bragged his virtues to each other,—
Alas! how were they so beguiled,        205
And they so pure? He, foolish child,
A facile, reckless, wandering will,
Eager for good, not hating ill,
Thanked Nature for each stroke she dealt;
On his tense chords all strokes were felt,        210
The good, the bad with equal zeal,
He asked, he only asked, to feel.
Timid, self-pleasing, sensitive,
With Gods, with fools, content to live;
Bended to fops who bent to him;        215
Surface with surfaces did swim.
‘Sorrow, sorrow!’ the angels cried,
‘Is this dear Nature’s manly pride?
Call hither thy mortal enemy,
Make him glad thy fall to see!        220
Yon waterflag, yon sighing osier,
A drop can shake, a breath can fan;
Maidens laugh and weep; Composure
Is the pudency of man.’ 17
Again by night the poet went        225
From the lighted halls
Beneath the darkling firmament
To the seashore, to the old seawalls,
Out shone a star beneath the cloud,
The constellation glittered soon,—        230
‘You have no lapse; so have ye glowed
But once in your dominion.
And yet, dear stars, I know ye shine
Only by needs and loves of mine;
Light-loving, light-asking life in me        235
Feeds those eternal lamps I see. 18
And I to whom your light has spoken,
I, pining to be one of you,
I fall, my faith is broken,
Ye scorn me from your deeps of blue.        240
Or if perchance, ye orbs of Fate,
Your ne’er averted glance
Beams with a will compassionate
On sons of time and chance,
Then clothe these hands with power        245
In just proportion,
Nor plant immense designs
Where equal means are none.’
Means, dear brother, ask them not;
  Soul’s desire is means enow,        250
Pure content is angel’s lot,
  Thine own theatre art thou.
Gentler far than falls the snow
In the woodwalks still and low
Fell the lesson on his heart        255
And woke the fear lest angels part.
I see your forms with deep content,
I know that ye are excellent,
  But will ye stay?
I hear the rustle of wings,        260
Ye meditate what to say
Ere ye go to quit me for ever and aye.
Brother, we are no phantom band;
Brother, accept this fatal hand.
Aches thine unbelieving heart        265
With the fear that we must part?
See, all we are rooted here
By one thought to one same sphere;
From thyself thou canst not flee,—
From thyself no more can we. 19        270
Suns and stars their courses keep,
But not angels of the deep:
Day and night their turn observe,
But the day of day may swerve.
Is there warrant that the waves        275
Of thought in their mysterious caves
Will heap in me their highest tide,
In me therewith beatified?
Unsure the ebb and flood of thought,
The moon comes back,—the Spirit not.        280
Brother, sweeter is the Law
Than all the grace Love ever saw;
We are its suppliants. By it, we
Draw the breath of Eternity;
Serve thou it not for daily bread,—        285
Serve it for pain and fear and need.
Love it, though it hide its light;
By love behold the sun at night.
If the Law should thee forget,
More enamoured serve it yet;        290
Though it hate thee, suffer long;
Put the Spirit in the wrong; 20
Brother, no decrepitude
  Chills the limbs of Time;
As fleet his feet, his hands as good,        295
  His vision as sublime:
On Nature’s wheels there is no rust;
Nor less on man’s enchanted dust
  Beauty and Force alight.
Note 1. This poem, called in its early form “The Discontented Poet, a Masque,” was begun as early as 1838, probably earlier. It received additions through several years and was much improved, but Mr. Emerson never completed it.
  “The Poet” seems to have been written parallel, so to speak, with the lectures on the same theme which are condensed into the opening essay in the Second Series. It was written in the years when Emerson, who saw God and Man and Nature as a poet in the highest sense sees them, was struggling through impediments towards a fitting expression of his vision or thought in verse. He soon discarded the first title and such morbid lines as had been written during a somewhat unrestful period. He felt, as he told a friend, that these desires contained the promise of their fulfilment. The poem truly pictures his own method of seeking inspiration, sitting under the pines in Walden woods by day and walking along under the stars by night,—listening always. The stanza beginning,—
  The sun set, but set not his hope
(used as the motto for “Character”) and that preceding it, show his happy patience, secure that his time would come.
  “The Poet” as here printed has a reasonable unity, but around it was a system of satellite pieces on this favorite topic, of a later date and more musical. In these, the poet is called Saadi, or, as often more convenient for metre, Said or Seyd.
  Dr. Holmes was greatly interested in these poems. I quote from his Memoir of his friend:—
  “If any doubter wishes to test his fitness for reading them, and if the poems already mentioned are not enough to settle the question, let him read the paragraph of ‘May-Day,’ beginning,—
  ‘I saw the bud-crowned Spring go forth,’
‘Seashore,’ the fine fragments in the Appendix to his published works, called, collectively, ‘The Poet,’ blocks bearing the mark of poetic genius, but left lying round for want of the structural instinct, and last of all that which is, in many respects, first of all, the ‘Threnody.’” [back]
Note 2. Journal, 1839. “The poet is a namer. His success is a new nomenclature.”
  “Though the origin of most of our words is forgotten, each word was at first a stroke of genius, and obtained currency because for the moment is symbolized the world to the first speaker and to the hearer.”—“The Poet,” Essays, Second Series. [back]
Note 3. In his Introduction to Professor W. W. Goodwin’s revision of Plutarch’s Morals, Mr. Emerson quotes Plutarch’s sentence: “Were there not a sun, we might, for all the other stars, pass our days in the ‘Reverend Dark,’ as Heracleitus calls it.” [back]
Note 4. Compare the last sentence in “Man the Reformer,” Nature, Addresses and Lectures. [back]
Note 5. Mr. Emerson once spoke of his joy when, as a boy, he “caught the first hint of the Berkeleyan philosophy. I could see that there was a Cause behind every stump and clod, and by the help of some fine words could make every old wagon and wood-pile and stone wall oscillate a little and threaten to dance; nay, give me a fair field, and the selectmen of Concord and the Reverend Pound-me-down himself began to look unstable and vaporous.” He said in a lecture, of Shakespeare, “He is the chosen closet companion, who can, at any moment, by incessant surprises, work the miracle of mythologizing every fact of the common life.” [back]
Note 6. In the essay on Domestic Life, Society and Solitude, Mr. Emerson dwells on the inestimable advantage of comparative poverty to youth. [back]
Note 7. Journal, 1838. “The intellectual nomadism is the faculty of Objectiveness or of Eyes which everywhere feed themselves. Who hath such eyes, everywhere falls into true relations with his fellow men. Every man, every object is a prize, a study, a property to him, and this love smooths his brow, joins him to men and makes him beautiful and beloved in their sight. His house is a wagon, he roams through all latitudes as easily as a Calmuc. He must meantime abide by his inward law as the Calmuc by his Khan.”—See “History,” Essays, First Series, pp. 22, 23. [back]
Note 8. The correspondences and harmonies are dwelt on in other poems, as in “Merlin,” II., and in the passage in the second “Woodnotes”—
  Come learn with me the fatal song, etc.
Note 9. Compare the essay on the Poet, in Essays, Second Series, pp. 25 and 39. [back]
Note 10. See in Conduct of Life, “Beauty,” p. 304. [back]
Note 11. This stanza was used by Mr. Emerson as motto for the essay on Character. [back]
Note 12. Journal, 1837. “To-night I walked under the stars through the snow, and stopped and looked at my far sparklers and heard the voice of the wind, so slight and pure and deep as if it were the sound of the stars themselves revolving.”
  1841. “Last night a walk to the river … and saw the moon in the broken water, interrogating, interrogating.” [back]
Note 13. “1838, 24 June, Sunday. Forever the night addresses the imagination, and the interrogating soul within or behind all its functions, and now in the summer night, which makes the earth more habitable, the more. Strange that forever we do not exhaust the wonder and meaning of these stars, points of light merely, but still they speak and ask and warn, each moment with new mind.” [back]
Note 14. “The power of music, the power of poetry, to unfix and as it were clap wings to solid nature, interprets the riddle of Orpheus.”—“History,” Essays, First Series, p. 31. [back]
Note 15. In “The Transcendentalist” (Nature, Addresses and Lectures, pp. 341–343) the eager youth who seem to themselves born out of time are described. [back]
Note 16. Some sentences in the concluding passage of the essay on the Poet recall this stanza picturing the touching loyalty of the family to the man of genius. [back]
Note 17. Composure is the first virtue of man, as modesty is that of woman. [back]
Note 18. The opening passage of Mr. Emerson’s first book, Nature, shows the inspiration which he found in the heavenly bodies, and the lesson to be found in their beauty and their ordered motion. Every astronomical fact interested him. [back]
Note 19. The doctrine of the Universal Mind. [back]
Note 20. Compare the passage in Mr. Emerson’s Address to the Divinity Students beginning, “The perception of this law of laws awakens in the mind a sentiment,” etc.
  In the journal for 1840, he wrote thoughts which occur in the last two stanzas: “The moon keeps its appointment—will not the good Spirit? Wherefore have we labored and fasted, say we, and thou takest no note? Let him not take note, if he please to hide,—then it were sublime beyond a poet’s dreams still to labor and abstain and obey, and, if thou canst, to put the good spirit in the wrong. That were a feat to sing in Elysium, on Olympus, by the waters of life in the New Jerusalem.”
  The last seven lines of the poem were, however, written in 1831. [back]

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