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Edification or False Idolatry in Emerson’s The American Scholar

Edification or False Idolatry in Emerson’s The American Scholar

Commencement speeches are customarily routine, pedantic, platitude filled, mildly inspiring lectures. This description, however, was never applied to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s oration, “The American Scholar,” delivered to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard in 1837. Oliver Wendell Holmes called this speech America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence.” In addition to being a call for literary independence from Europe and past traditions, the speech was a blueprint for how humans should live their lives. Emerson believed that the way to reunite with the Over-Soul was to become “The American Scholar.” He would do this by observing nature, by studying the past through books, and by taking action. To become a scholar, humans also needed to develop self trust, espouse freedom and bravery, and value the individual over the masses.

Because this speech is so pregnant with discussion topics, an intrinsic part of the blueprint may not catch the reader’s attention or receive the analysis it deserves. It delivers a message that contemporary humans still need to receive. The startling, heretical admonition not to worship or make false idols of books and other objects of art, given in Emerson’s “The American Scholar,” demonstrates his belief in the vital necessity for self-reliance and active, creative reading and writing. When he exhorts us to live as a scholar, as “Man Thinking,” rather than “a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking” (1530), he is cautioning us against the false idolatry of book or Bible worship.

When Emerson introduces the second great influence on the spirit of the scholar, he at first praises books. He expounds on “the mind of the Past,–in whatever form, whether of literature, of art, of institutions, that mind is inscribed. Books are the best type of the influence of the past” (1532). Emerson is saying that books are the best vehicle available to the scholar for studying the ideas and accomplishments of past men and ages. But after affirming that “the theory of books is noble” (1532) and presenting an idealized way of reading and reusing books from past ages by which “business” and “dead facts” come out as “poetry” and “quick thought” when read and rewritten in a new age, Emerson

begins to show doubts that reuse is possible and states that “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather each generation for the next succeeding.

The Power of Sixteen Words Exposed in The Red Wheelbarrow

The Power of Sixteen Words Exposed in The Red Wheelbarrow

William Carlos Williams’s poem “The Red Wheelbarrow” is extraordinary for what it accomplishes within its eight short lines. It is exactly one sentence long, sixteen words. Numbers like that wouldn’t normally be important in the consideration of a poem’s merit, but “The Red Wheelbarrow” begs to be noticed for its length (or, rather, its lack of length) and for the arrangement of its sixteen words on the page.

In fact, an interesting experiment would be to give a group of people the words that Williams uses and ask them to arrange the words into the structure of a poem. How many people would do as Williams does and end up with four almost perfectly congruent stanzas, each one with three words in the first line and one word in the second line? The syllable count in Williams’s arrangement is not perfectly congruent, but it is harmoniously different: the two longer stanzas (by only one syllable apiece) sandwich the two shorter stanzas. A sentence which would otherwise sprawl across the page, nearly without structure (it has no punctuation or end-mark),

so much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens. is poured into a form of mathematical precision:

Instead of flying through the sentence, as one would do if it were simply written in a linear way across the page, the reader tends to stop at each line-break and at every stanza break to contemplate how each stanza is different.

And there is a difference. The first stanza is abstract, calling upon the reader to agree to the notion that something depends on…

… middle of paper …

…ores (involving the red wheelbarrow, perhaps)? In the back room, looking out the window? In any case, the scene we look at is framed and self-contained by the structure of the poem, and all the sensory information of the objects we look at comes through that frame, opens up through that frame. Perhaps the real “dependency” in this poem is not that the speaker of the poem depends on the wheelbarrow as a farmer depends on his tools, although that is certainly part of it. Perhaps the real “so much depends / upon” is that the speaker, the beholder through the frame (and, by extension, the reader of the poem) knows that he or she is alive, that his or her senses are responding to the things of this world, and that, in a sense, the world — in all its variety and beauty and variegation, even in the most mundane things — responds to the person who has eyes to see.

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