Summary and Analysis of The Poet
The poet, who uses nature's language to interpret the world for society, benefits greatly from imagination, "a very high sort of seeing." Emerson begins his inquiry into the nature of imagination by telling the story of a local sculptor. This man was inarticulate and inexpressive in words, but his statues conveyed a beauty and a meaning beyond words. In similar fashion, the poet perceives the spiritual essences of things: Whereas the sculptor shapes marble, the poet patterns language to create art. A poem may not always have realistic details, but, by using imagination, the poet depicts an inner reality, a poetic expression that often seems wild and irrational.
From this idea Emerson moves to the frequent association of poets with overindulgence, especially with alcohol or narcotics, which is to be understood, he says, because the poet always seeks contact with what is below the surface of things, what he terms "the true nectar." Furthermore, the poet, because he deals in images of physical beauty, is more attuned to the life of the senses, to appetites and sensations. However, the true poet, who reaches the highest understanding, takes the greatest care to ingest only what is pure and most unsullied: "The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body." This true poet realizes that imagination itself is the most satisfying and effective intoxicant.
Emerson now returns to the importance of the poet to humanity, and this time he stresses that the poet is not only an interpreter of nature: He is akin to "liberating gods." The poet releases the liberating power of our imaginations, and those of us whose imaginations struggle to make sense of the world can find our inspiration in his words. The image of children signifies the unrestrained and refreshing joy Emerson says touches those whose imaginations are free from everyday, urban worries. Note the uncharacteristic buoyancy in this reference: "We seem to be touched by a wand which makes us dance and run about happily, like children." Later in this passage, Emerson uses the terms "liberation" and "emancipation" as equivalents for "transcendence." Liberation, he says, is similar to the transcendence he describes in other essays. Here, the transcendent state is presented in such phrases as "a new sense" and "within their world another world, or nest of worlds."
If the poet is humanity's liberating god, what is it that humanity needs liberating of? Emerson answers this question by using the image of a shepherd lost only a few feet from his cottage door. This shepherd, who perishes in a snowstorm because he is unable to find the security of home, is emblematic of the floundering state of humanity, which is "on the brink of the waters of life and truth . . . miserably dying." We are so locked into our private thoughts and our selfish actions, Emerson says, that the greater truths that bind us together have been lost; we are at the edge of the water that is universal truth, but we do not realize our thirst and are slowly wasting away in our personal prisons. The poet is the key to unlock these prisons, the cup that can quench our thirsts, because he creates new thoughts that liberate us of our own selfish wants.
In discussing this liberating aspect of poetry, Emerson invokes the name of Emanuel Swedenborg, a Swedish mystic and philosopher who is mentioned in many of his essays. Swedenborg is an example of the visionary who sees what others do not, and whose strange and original images allow us to view our world in a new light. Note Swedenborg's nationality, and recall Emerson's invocation in "The American Scholar" for an American literature free from the confines of the European tradition. At first glance, Emerson seems to be contradicting his own proclamations concerning this new American vision when he admiringly discusses Swedenborg. However, Swedenborg represents an ideal that Emerson hopes Americans will achieve for themselves, which is why Emerson, in the next section, will launch his characteristic summons for an American literature and an American poet whose voice celebrates America's rich character — not Europe's.