Emerson’s Philosophy of Poetry
EMERSON, RALPH WALDO. (English) Autograph Letter Signed to Abby Dwight Woodbridge.
Concord, 6 July 1841
3 1⁄4 pp. on a single folded sheet with address panel. Small seal hole with slight loss of text. Framed.
“In short, all poetry should be original & necessary.”
In this tremendous letter on his philosophy of the individual and on writing poetry, Emerson describes for a prospective contributor the workings of his fabled literary magazine, The Dial. Founded the previous year, the magazine was the chief publication of the Transcendentalists. When The Dial failed in 1844, Horace Greeley called it “most original and thoughtful periodical ever published in this country.” Emerson writes in part,
“… respecting our little journal, the Dial, I have to say that all the contributions to that paper are gratuitous. It was set on foot by a party of friends, & is furnished with matter by them. A very few persons, on whose pen a constant dependence is placed, receive each a copy of the work & no other reward. The occasional contributors have not received even this recompense so entirely is this journal an experiment, hitherto uncertain whether its subscription list would pay its printing and publication. Miss [Margaret] Fuller, the editor, who is to have some contingent allowance from the publishers, has thus far, I believe, received none.”
Emerson outlines his philosophy of poetry. Referring to “the petty tyranny of my office as poetic critic,” Emerson explains “why I did not press my friend Miss Fuller to insert these harmonious lines you have sent me in the Dial for this month.” He acknowledges that “I am very hard to please in the matter of poetry, but my quarrel with most of the verses I read is this, namely, that it is conventional, that it is a certain manner of writing agreed on in society (in a very select society, if you will),—and caught by the ear; but is not that new, constitutional, unimitated & inimitable voice of the individual, which poetry ought always to be…. The imagery ought to reveal to me where & with whom he or she has spent the hours, & ought to show me what objects (never before so distinguished) his constitution & temperament have made affecting to him. In short, all poetry should be original & necessary.”
Continuing this splendid rejection letter, Emerson praises Woodbridge’s “smooth and elegant verse” but notes “I should prize more highly much ruder specimens from your portfolio … which recorded in a way you could not repeat, some profound experience of happiness or pain.” The recipient, Abby Dwight Woodbridge, was a poet and teacher in Albany. In a biographical sketch of the poet in A Woman’s Record, Sarah J. Hale observed that Woodbridge’s “writings are her amusement and relaxation in her hours of leisure, and show much purity of taste and ease of expression.”
Emerson closes, “You must not, however, judge me so ill as to think me quite contented with such verses as we have published in our magazine. Yet I please myself much with the marked taste for poetry which is showing itself everywhere in the country, & I congratulate you on the possession of an ear & talent which promise so much.”
This long letter on poetry and individual experience reflects one of the great themes of Emerson’s thought— the individual. “Emerson remained throughout his lifetime the champion of the individual and a believer in the primacy of the individual’s experience. In the individual can be discovered all truths, all experience. … Central to defining Emerson’s contribution to American thought is his emphasis on non-conformity that had so profound an effect on Thoreau. Self-reliance and independence of thought are fundamental to Emerson’s perspective in that they are the practical expressions of the central relation between the self and the infinite. To trust oneself and follow our inner promptings corresponds to the highest degree of consciousness” (IEP).
This is one of the best Emerson letters to appear on the market in decades.
“I am very hard to please in the matter of poetry, but my quarrel with most of the verses I read is this, namely, that it is conventional, that it is a certain manner of writing agreed on in society … but is not that new, constitutional, unimitated & inimitable voice of the individual, which poetry ought always to be …”