Literary historians usually credit Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) with initiating the movement in the U.S. of developing its own literary traditions apart from European traditions. One of Emerson’s most important essays about literature as such is “The Poet.”
We have been examining the idea of proper literary taste over the last several weeks, and I have played off several common ideas about the whole idea of literary taste currently assumed by many against the seemingly conservative ideas of the Enlightenment thinker David Hume. Following up from those posts I would like to take up very briefly another idea about the nature of taste from Emerson.
Since critics in his day, in Hume’s day, and in our own day have had profound influence on what proper literary taste is assumed to be, let’s see what Emerson says about these critics.
So here’s the question: What is the most important qualification for a person of taste, for a critic—for you?
At the beginning of “The Poet” Emerson says, “Those who are esteemed umpires of taste, are often persons with knowledge of admired pictures or sculptures, and have an inclination for whatever is elegant; but if you inquire whether they are beautiful souls, and whether their own acts are like fair pictures, you learn that they are selfish and sensual.”
Have you ever thought about the quality of one’s soul in determining his or her taste and as a qualification for prescribing such taste upon you? This may seem like a funny question, perhaps even quaint. But don’t dismiss it. Has Emerson got a point?
Now don’t confuse Emerson’s idea of a soul with conventional ideas in some branches of Christianity about one’s soul. Emerson was a New England transcendentalist, after all.
Take this idea of the beautiful soul even further, though. How important is the quality of one’s soul in reading, appreciating, and responding to great literature? Write your ideas in the comment box.
To finish up here, Emerson expounds on his idea of the beautiful soul in reference to literary taste in this, one of his most famous statements:
But the highest minds of the world have never ceased to explore the double meaning, or, shall I say, the quadruple, or the centuple, or much more manifold meaning, of every sensuous fact: Orpheus, Empedocles, Heraclitus, Plato, Plutarch, Dante, Swedenborg, and the masters of sculpture, picture, and poetry. For we are not pans and barrows, nor even porters of the fire and torch-bearers, but children of the fire, made of it, and only the same divinity transmuted, and at two or three removes, when we know least about it.