Summary and Analysis of The Poet
Emerson considers the nature and the functions of the poet, "the man of Beauty," to whom he ascribes a superior calling. Unlike the intellectual, who sees no dependence between the material world and the world of thoughts and ideas, or the theologian, who relies exclusively on historical evidence for truth, the poet acknowledges an interdependence between the spiritual and the material worlds. This relationship between the ideal — that which we aspire to be — and the real — that which is — is a central issue in the discussion. Continuing the image of the child from the epigraph, Emerson states that we are "children of the fire," and the energy and brilliance of this fire is similar to the spirit in each of us.
Following this introductory paragraph, Emerson defines the poet as representing all humanity. The poet is "the complete man" whom Americans can look to as an ideal. Isolated from society, the poet has a spiritual affinity with nature. We need interpreters of what nature expresses, Emerson reasons, because too many of us have distanced ourselves from nature's life-affirming spirit: "Too feeble fall the impressions of nature on us to make us artists. Every touch should thrill." The best interpreter of nature is the poet, who sees what most of us only dream about. The poet must act as a conduit, exposing nature's hidden secrets to us.
Likening the poet to one of three "children" of the universe, Emerson constructs a system of threes: cause, operation, and effect. Instances of this three-fold structure include Christianity's Father, Spirit, and Son, and the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer. These triads stand for the love of truth, the love of good, and the love of beauty, respectively, with the poet representing the last element in each set: He is both the "sayer" and the lover of beauty. Emerson creates an argument formally known as a syllogism: If, as he maintains, "Beauty is the creator of the universe"; and if the poet is "the man of Beauty"; then the poet is the creator of the universe.
Emerson continues his discussion of the poet as the creator of the universe by arguing that "poetry was all written before time was . . ." He is not suggesting that every poem was written long ago, but that the recurring subject matter of poems — namely, our lives and the reasons for our being — existed since the beginning of time. Because our basic concerns of survival and our questioning why we exist influence each age, he can legitimately characterize the poet's writings as "primal warblings," present at time's beginning and shared by all of humanity. The person who mines this spiritualism is "the true poet," true in the sense of being fundamental and essential to our lives and our living.
Contrasting the true poet with the mere versifier, Emerson joins the age-old fray about which is more important, how a poem is written or what a poem is about, by arguing that content is only slightly more important than a poem's form for two reasons. If the thought that the poet is writing about "adorns nature with a new thing," then the form of the poem will naturally follow the content and will not feel contrived. Also, a poem's subject matter occurs prior to the form that a poem eventually takes: We cannot write poetry without first having a subject to write about. A person may be proficient in meter and rhyme but lack the inspiration and vision of the true poet, who is not tied to a single age or format, but who writes about nature's inner truths.