Summary and Analysis of The Poet Paragraphs 10-18


In this second part of the essay, Emerson discusses the poet's medium — language — and its relationship to nature. Central to his thinking is the concept of language as a natural phenomenon. Original, primitive languages tended to be highly image-based, and Emerson believes that this characteristic can still be verified through etymologies, which trace the history of words back to their original meanings, usually constructed from concrete nouns. For instance, recalling the examples presented in Nature, the word heart is used today to express emotion, and we use the term head to characterize thought. This is all part of what Emerson understands as the symbolic function of language, which should not surprise us if we recall his saying, "Things admit of being used as symbols because nature is a symbol, in the whole, and in every part."

This symbolic language is universal, but it is obscure to most people. One of the poet's main tasks is to interpret nature for us. Hence, Emerson calls the poet "Namer" and "Language-maker." He is not suggesting that a person who is not connected with nature is wholly oblivious to its wonders, for such a person is "commanded in nature by the living power which he feels to be there present." However, the "living power" remains illusive and inexplicable to such a person, and especially to the city dweller.

In this section, Emerson spends much of his time reemphasizing his beliefs concerning the language of nature and the nature of language, and the poet as the intermediary between the two. He also develops two themes that are interrelated to each other: Every individual object in nature is a microcosm of the whole, and these microcosms establish order in nature. For example, most of us take a landscape's objects for granted, ". . . but the poet sees them fall within the great Order not less than the beehive or the spider's geometrical web." By interpreting a landscape for society, the poet infuses each object with a power that makes it new: An object is re-created into something new that the public has never seen before. Emerson also touches on a favorite theme — evolution when he assures us that the poet notes every object's spirit, which compels each object to ascend into a higher form. Later in the essay, he will expand this theme to include the passage of the soul into a higher form.

Through a highly elaborate comparison, Emerson reflects on the relationship between the poet and the poet's work. The poet is under the care of nature, just as a mushroom is. A mushroom grows wild, with no one to ensure that it propagates and survives; nature, however, sees to it that the fungus drops spores, which become new mushrooms. These spores are comparable to poems leaving the poet's control and going out into the world like immortal descendants, a process much like the Olympian bards' eternally young songs from the epigraph. This notion of immortality is furthered by the image of wings, which allow the true poet's poems to escape the censure of small-minded critics, whose words are wingless and plodding. These poems, winged with spiritual beauty, are able to escape mortality.