Tag Archives: Ralph Waldo Emerson

“This piece shows the lusty side of the 1600th century.”

You know what he meant: the 17th century. Or possibly the 16th century. I’ve written before about the trouble students have keeping the ordinals straight when referring to (notice how I resisted writing “referencing”?) centuries, and perhaps this student was trying to avoid making a mistake by making the actual date ordinal.

But I like to think rather that he’s imagining how much fun the future will be. It may be driven by technology, and robots (like corporations?) may by then be “people, my friend,” and because of climate change (if of course it’s real) the landscape may be unrecognizable—but fear not, it WILL have a lusty side.

We haven’t read any literature that predicts the future, but I’ll imagine my student had that in mind anyway. Always best to err on the hopeful side.

Today’s forecast for Connecticut is daunting: blizzard, white-out, closed roads, snow piling and drifting deep, probable widespread loss of power, cold temperatures… I looked for Horrors that had to do with any of that, just so my blog post could be topical, but I found none. Hence this post about “this piece.” At least the lusty 1600th century takes us into hyperbolic territory.

And in case you’re shut in by weather but still have power, I invite you to enjoy “Snowbound,” by John Greenleaf Whittier. My fifth-grade class had to memorize chunks of it, and any snowfall continues to evoke its images, its rhythms, its world, its human warmth. It was published in 1866 and is a reminiscence from the author’s youth: it is a 19th-century poem. A lovely, lovely one.

More snow for you:

Emily Dickinson… “It sifts from leaden sieves—”

Edna St. Vincent Millay… “The Snow Storm”

Ralph Waldo Emerson… “The Snow Storm” (this one has one of my absolute favorite last lines!)

Wallace Stevens… “The Snow Man”

Billy Collins… “Snow Day”

If you enjoy these, please leave a comment and your own favorite snow poem!

snow deck for blog

After a snowstorm a few years ago: view from my deck. NOTHING compared to what is forecast this time!







“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was…”

I think this is going to be another one of those sentences that begin all right, go on all right, and then go on a little too far and become ridiculous. And I know it’s coming because although it does begin all right, it doesn’t begin with much elegance or focus. “Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass'” is a fairly flat beginning. “Yeah, so?” asks the reader. The opening has no promise: my student was merely pushing a pawn, so to speak, as a rather unimaginative rhetorical gambit. Statement of fact.

And the adjective clause that follows offers merely to define the noun just introduced. So, fact followed by definition. (Oh, I know you’re thinking that “which was” could launch an observation rather than a definition: “which was revolutionary in form as well as content”; “which was the first truly American poem”; “which was arguably the most influential poetic work of the American nineteenth century”; and so on. But that’s not what my student had in mind; she wanted a definition, and definition she gave.)

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that…” she goes on. The “that” may be launching a definition of the collection or the poems—in other words, a definition of something in the current definition. Or of course she may NOW be about to make an observation or judgment (“that shook the literary establishment,” “that together defined Whitman and his world,” “that he sent to Ralph Waldo Emerson in response to Emerson’s call for a truly American voice”…).

But, at least up to the “that,” she is on solid ground, if not very interesting ground. Put a period in there, my dear, and move quickly to engage your reader with the next sentence!

Here’s what she did:

“Walt Whitman wrote ‘Leaves of Grass,’ which was a collection of poems that he wrote in his lifetime.”

You see? She really didn’t have anything in mind when she began the sentence, but she kept going in hopes that light would dawn. For that, I guess she didn’t go on long enough. But evidently to her the sentence had acquired some necessary gravitas, or sonority, or importance, and was enough. Where the essay went from there I do not recall. Where could it go from there?

This student is not the only one fascinated by the fact that poets tend to write while they are alive. Or perhaps I should say Whitman was not the only poet who wrote while alive: Dante did too, for example.

I honestly don’t know of any poet who wrote before birth, or after death. I once wrote something I had dreamed (Ah, Coleridge, you too?), but I don’t think any dead poets were dictating.

But certainly there are many poets whose work lives on.

Mourning the loss today of Seamus Heaney, whose lyric poems are breathtaking, alive, moving—and whose translation of Beowulf reveals all the vigor of its Old English original as well as the story and its characters. Most distinct in his work is its life. You can’t achieve that if you’re not alive yourself.

“A good example of nature writing is Thoreau’s famous piece ‘Waldo.'”

Make this the first book on your summer reading list!

This sentence communicates a lot. Most obviously, it identifies the writer as a member of a specific generation and a player of a specific game. The British children’s book Where’s Wally?, retitled Where’s Waldo? for the American and international markets, appeared in 1987. You know that book: pages crowded with little people and things, and somewhere the elusive Waldo (or Wally) for the sharp-eyed child to proudly find. It was a huge hit, prompting a whole book series as well as a film and a video game. So the writer of this sentence is probably under 40, and most likely considerably well under 40. Hearing the word “Walden” and not coming from Concord, Massachusetts, such a person might well hear the unstressed syllable as “O” rather than “(e)n.”

This hearing error is, alas, most likely to occur in a student who has not just read the assignment for the day, Henry David Thoreau’s Walden—and very likely didn’t read it when excerpts were assigned back in high school English, either. His confusion might have been increased if he did remember the name of Thoreau’s friend and fellow “nature writer,” Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Come to think of it, maybe my student knows of a text I haven’t heard of. It would be, perhaps, the first draft of what later became known as “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau’s inspirational essay on the individual’s relationship to the state and on nonviolent resistance to unjust law or authority. Those of us who have read our assignments will recall that Thoreau refused to pay his poll tax (current and delinquent), as the best way he could find of severing ties with the government that was engaged in the Mexican-American War and that permitted and enforced slavery. Concord was determined to keep him in jail until the tax was paid. Emerson tried to persuade him that his gesture was futile, and before Thoreau had languished behind bars more than a night his aunt ponied up the dough. Can’t you just see him, emerging enraged into the sunny street, bellowing “WHERE’S WALDO????” in the belief that Emerson had encouraged dear Aunt Maria (or one of his other aunts) to betray his principles for him.

I’d like to read such a text—Henry laying out while still in high dudgeon his complaints against the state and his frustration in being thwarted in his protest, and blaming it all on Waldo! We might finally truly understand Wordsworth’s point that good poetry is strong emotion recollected in tranquility. Thoreau was a terrific writer—his defense of John Brown can still make me gasp and weep—what must he have been like in a rage? Yes, I would love the chance to read Thoreau’s “Waldo.”

Henry David Thoreau. What rage may be seething behind his calm demeanor?
This well-known image can be found on numerous sites, including transcendentalists.com.