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  • The Promethean Form:A Poet's Ontological Metamorphosis in Emerson's "Self-Reliance" and "The Poet"
  • Trent Michael Sanders

What does Emerson want for himself and for us, or, put another way, what does he do in his writings as a whole? Can we understand Emerson's writings today? One critic, F. O. Matthiessen, in his American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, pithily remarks that some of Emerson's philosophical essays (like "Self-Reliance") are "generally unreadable";1 Len Gougeon, however, argues that we can know something about Emerson. Gougeon suggests that Emerson emphasizes the individual and the American political sphere, noting Emerson's increased focus on the political climate as America approached civil war.2 Crucial to his argument is the transformation of Emerson the man into one of the most important and renowned thinkers of the nineteenth century. He addresses "how a middle-class preacher of modest ability transformed himself into the nineteenth century's greatest prophet . . . the acknowledged genius of his age" (EE, p. 19; emphasis added).

The idea of transformation is at the heart of Gougeon's analysis. Whereas his work ultimately makes a statement about Emerson's political engagement, Branka Arsić develops a philosophical argument concerned with the consciousness of the individual. In On Leaving: A Reading in Emerson, Arsić draws upon the philosophical tradition that influenced Emerson to argue that Emerson is a philosopher of oscillation, meaning that he constantly changes: "migration, mutation, and metamorphosis [are] the great formula in Emerson's thinking."3 Her claim delves into [End Page 222] fascinating and important perspectives on Emerson and ontology, specifically the ontology of water, primarily because water in its very nature is in motion, and therefore unstable.

In this essay, I read Emerson's "Self-Reliance" through the lens of metamorphosis in order to show distinct parallels and implicit transformations of the human from "Self-Reliance" to "The Poet." "Self-Reliance" prefigures for "The Poet" the ontological question of what is human. "Self-Reliance" undergoes metamorphosis both in terms of its form on the page with respect to its content as the first draft of "The Poet" and its definitions of the essential nature of the human. While "Self-Reliance" is not specific about the identity of the human being, and instead focuses on universal, human attributes—for instance, an individual with trust in their own thoughts, rather than in the authority of books4—"The Poet" defines the apex of humanity as the poet begotten by fire, i.e., enlightenment. These two essays break open and look at one of Emerson's intellectual projects, in which he pursues to the core questions such as the (divine) nature of humanity and the purpose of humanity. One Promethean torch from the heavens that began humanity's enlightenment becomes darkness when set in relief to Emerson's vision for humanity: the (American) poet.

In "The Poet," metamorphosis is teleological, or purposeful, and thus develops, changes, and progresses towards an aim. That purpose is unity of thought, though in a rather unorthodox form, because as Emerson states in "Self-Reliance," he is anything but consistent ("SR," p. 265). Kenneth Sacks contextualizes the man Emerson amidst growing American civil conflict, in and outside of Massachusetts, in order to stage the constant tension Emerson felt from his transcendentalist ideology and from his integration into public life. Sacks's work informs the question of what Emerson's unity of thought is because he argues Emerson's "lifelong goal" of self-reliance does not change ("SR," p. 48). At the age of thirty-six on June 21, 1839, Emerson theorizes on the vast intricacies of his personal writings, his public lectures such as "The Harvard Divinity School Address" and "The American Scholar," and his published book, Nature. "The voyage of the best ship," he postulates, "is a zigzag line on a hundred tracks. This is only microscopic criticism. See the line from a sufficient distance and it straightens itself to the average tendency."5 Two years later, in "Self-Reliance," the quote appears almost verbatim, apart from a slight lexical variation from the original word "tracks" to the metamorphosed word "tacks," and the...


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