Tuesday, September 9, 2014


Ralph Waldo Emerson

There are writers who one knows one ought to read, and tries, eventually, but somehow they remain unreadable. Ralph Waldo Emerson was one of these: transcendental poet (the term itself is sufficient to put one off), essayist (who reads essays anyway, unless teachers who are forced to mark them?), poet of Nature ("In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes, I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods" - O spare me, please, the constant harvesting of nature images, the drowning-flood of reiterations of the pathetic fallacy), and virtual inventor of the self-help manual...

But wait, was it not Emerson who described, in precisely that self-help manual, "Self-Reliance", "the need for each individual to avoid conformity and false consistency, and follow his or her own instincts and ideas" (so Wikipedia tells me, and Wikipedia is never wrong)?

Then maybe, maybe there is another kind of writer, heir and disciple of Pascal ("Pensées"), Montesquieu, La Rochefoucauld, writers like Nietzsche and Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, whose works one does not need to read, because their genius does not lie in the totality of their writings, but only in their epigrams. Have I just invented, or discovered, a new genre?

In the opening paragraph I wrote that Emerson "was" one of those writers I had realised I would never read. But then, in 2012, I found myself teaching AP American Literature in a Baltimore high school, helping some 11th graders get the 2-year course done in a single year because the school was closing. Emerson was on the list of examined writers - poems (here and here), the Nature essays (here), and of course the Concord Hymn (here), the one he wrote for the ribbon-cutting ceremony in his home-town on July 4th 1837, for the Concord Monument, the obselisk commemorating the battle there, regarded as the "second shot" in the War of Independence, and therefore studied alongside Longfellow's account of the "first shot", in "Paul Revere's Ride".

Most of his "stuff" (student slang for "literary oeuvre") was way too "boring" (a high school euphemism for "challenging") for these students, who were trained to study examiners' rubrics in detail, in order to know where to look in Shmoop or Cliff's Notes for the minutiae for their essays, and rarely read the actual books at all, which is unnecessary in the epoch of the Internet. So I made the wall-poster that is reprinted at the top of this page*. So I found some recordings of actors reading his translations from the Persian Hafiz, and put them on as background music while the students constructed their A-grade essays without ever so much as opening a book.

* limited space obliged me to leave two of my favourites off that wall-poster, but plenty of room to restore them here:-

                   "As men's prayers are a disease of the will
                           so are their creeds a disease of the intellect."

                   "It does not need that a poem should be long. 

                               Every word was once a poem. 
                                           Every new relationship is a new word."

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