Monday, May 25, 2009

Emerson and his bee

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born May 25, 1803. He went on to become the leading voice in the Transcendental movement. Emerson and others believed that individuals could achieve perfection and work together to better society as a whole. In addition to his role as philosopher, Emerson was a lecturer, essayist, and a poet. Poe said the "transcendental vagabonds ... may all go to the devil together." Poe disagreed with the movement's idealism; they believed that pure reason and trust in the senses can lead to the absolute truth of nature, even without explicit external evidence. Poe's characters (most obviously the narrator in "The Tell-Tale Heart") make it clear that the senses cannot be trusted.

But forget the philosophy. What about Emerson's poetry? In March 1842, when Poe met Charles Dickens, we know they discussed the state of American poetry and Poe read Emerson's "To the Humble Bee" as an example. We don't know if Poe liked or disliked the poem; an extant letter merely states that he read it. Of course, who can forget such memorable lines:

Insect lover of the sun,
Joy of thy dominion!
Sailor of the atmosphere;
Swimmer through the waves of air;
Voyager of light and noon;
Epicurean of June;
Wait, I prithee, till I come
Within earshot of thy hum,—
All without is martyrdom.
He goes on to acknowledge the bee as "wiser far than human seer" and a "yellow-breeched philosopher." Clearly, Emerson's view of nature is one of worship, where he can see the inspirational philosophy of something as humble as a bee. The poem is dripping with sweetness and sentamentality, to the point of obnoxiousness, really. Rufus Griswold, that arbiter of what makes American poetry great, praised this poem profusely, and asked Emerson about it directly in a letter dated September 18, 1841.

But what is Poe's poetic view of nature? He didn't write about nature very often, certainly not in the same sense that Emerson did. For some reason, however, I can't help but compare "To the Humble Bee" to Poe's "The Conqueror Worm":
Lo! 'tis a gala night
Within the lonesome latter years!
An angel throng, bewinged, bedight
In veils, and drowned in tears,
Sit in a theatre, to see
A play of hopes and fears,
While the orchestra breathes fitfully
The music of the spheres.

Mimes, in the form of God on high,
Mutter and mumble low,
And hither and thither fly—
Mere puppets they, who come and go
At bidding of vast formless things
That shift the scenery to and fro,
Flapping from out their Condor wings
Invisible Woe!

That motley drama — oh, be sure
It shall not be forgot!
With its Phantom chased for evermore,
By a crowd that seize it not,
Through a circle that ever returneth in
To the self-same spot,
And much of Madness, and more of Sin,
And Horror the soul of the plot.

But see, amid the mimic rout
A crawling shape intrude!
A blood-red thing that writhes from out
The scenic solitude!
It writhes! — it writhes! — with mortal pangs
The mimes become its food,
And seraphs sob at vermin fangs
In human gore imbued.

Out — out are the lights — out all!
And, over each quivering form,
The curtain, a funeral pall,
Comes down with the rush of a storm,
While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, "Man,"
And its hero the Conqueror Worm.
If Poe could be convinced of Emerson's theory that man could see the truth in nature, what truth would Poe see? Would he see the beautiful philosophy of something as humble as a bee? Or, would he see the tragedy that is man, whose only hero is the worm that eats his rotting flesh? No two men could be more dissimilar!

Nevertheless, happy birthday, Ralph Waldo Emerson!


Anonymous said...

Not much of an Emerson fan are you?

J.D. said...

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