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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
 
Preface
 
IN Mr. Cabot’s prefatory note to the Riverside Edition of the Poems, published the year after Mr. Emerson’s death, he said:—  1
  “This volume contains nearly all the pieces included in the POEMS and MAY-DAY of former editions. In 1876, Mr. Emerson published a selection from his Poems, adding six new ones and omitting many. 1 Of those omitted, several are now restored, in accordance with the expressed wishes of many readers and lovers of them. Also some pieces never before published are here given in an Appendix; on various grounds. Some of them appear to have had Mr. Emerson’s approval, but to have been withheld because they were unfinished. These it seemed best not to suppress, now that they can never receive their completion. Others, mostly of an early date, remained unpublished, doubtless because of their personal and private nature. Some of these seem to have an autobiographic interest sufficient to justify their publication. Others again, often mere fragments, have been admitted as characteristic, or as expressing in poetic form thoughts found in the Essays.  2
  “In coming to a decision in these cases it seemed, on the whole, preferable to take the risk of including too much rather than the opposite, and to leave the task of further winnowing to the hands of Time.  3
  “As was stated in the preface to the first volume of this edition of Mr. Emerson’s writings, the readings adopted by him in the Selected Poems have not always been followed here, but in some cases preference has been given to corrections made by him when he was in fuller strength than at the time of the last revision.  4
  “A change in the arrangement of the stanzas of ‘May-Day,’ in the part representative of the march of Spring, received his sanction as bringing them more nearly in accordance with the events in Nature.”  5
  In the preparation of the Riverside Edition of the Poems, Mr. Cabot very considerately took the present editor into counsel (as representing Mr. Emerson’s family), who at that time in turn took counsel with several persons of taste and mature judgment with regard especially to the admission of poems hitherto unpublished and of fragments that seemed interesting and pleasing. Mr. Cabot and he were entirely in accord with regard to the Riverside Edition. In the Centenary Edition, the substance of the Riverside Edition has been preserved, with hardly an exception, although some poems and fragments have been added. None of the poems therein printed have been omitted. “The House,” which appeared in the first volume of Poems, and “Nemesis,” “Una,” “Love and Thought” and “Merlin’s Songs,” from the May-Day volume, have been restored. To the few mottoes of the Essays, which Mr. Emerson printed as “Elements” in May-Day, most of the others have been added. Following Mr. Emerson’s precedent of giving his brother Edward’s “Last Farewell” a place beside the poem in his memory, two pleasing poems by Ellen Tucker, his first wife, which he published in the Dial, have been placed with his own poems relating to her.  6
  The publication in the last edition of some poems that Mr. Emerson had long kept by him, but had never quite been ready to print, and of various fragments on Poetry, Nature and Life, was not done without advice and careful consideration, and then was felt to be perhaps a rash experiment. The continued interest which has been shown in the author’s thought and methods and life—for these unfinished pieces contain much autobiography—has made the present editor feel it justifiable to keep almost all of these and to add a few. Their order has been slightly altered.  7
  A few poems from the verse-books sufficiently complete to have a title are printed in the Appendix for the first time: “Insight,” “September,” “October,” “Hymn” and “Riches.”  8
  After much hesitation the editor has gathered in their order of time, and printed at the end of the book, some twenty early pieces, a few of them taken from the Appendix of the last edition and others never printed before. They are for the most part journals in verse covering the period of his school-teaching, study for the ministry and exercise of that office, his sickness, bereavement, travel abroad and return to the new life. This sad period of probation is illuminated by the episode of his first love. Not for their poetical merit, except in flashes, but for the light they throw on the growth of his thought and character are they included.  9
  With regard to the notes: the editor has annotated the poems where possible from the journals and the essays, has given various readings where it seemed worth while, and their dates when he knew them, with such circumstances and facts as he thought might be interesting. He has in a few instances given from the notebook the original rhapsody in which Mr. Emerson strove to render on the moment, as best he might, the message which he heard from the woodland Muse.  10
  Where there is any question as to the significance of a poem or passage, the editor has tried to make clear in which cases the explanations he offers are given confidently as based on authority, and in which cases he merely hazards a surmise. He admits responsibility for many titles in the Appendix.  11
  No attempt will be made to estimate Emerson’s place among the poets. It was his lot to be
        Joy-giver and enjoyer,
as his Saadi says the poet should be, and, though not thinking highly of his own work, he said, “I am more of a poet than anything else.” In September, 1839, he wrote to his unseen friend, John Sterling, “I am naturally keenly susceptible to the pleasures of rhythm, and cannot believe but one day I shall attain to that splendid dialect, so ardent is my wish; and these wishes, I suppose, are ever only the buds of power; but up to this hour I have never had a true success in such attempts.” With an eager patience he waited his appointed hour when his expression should be liberated, for the message came to him listening; “for poetry,” he said, “was all written before time was, and whenever we are so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, we hear those primal warblings and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word or a verse, and substitute something of our own and thus miswrite the poem. The men of more delicate ear write down these cadences more faithfully, and these transcripts, though imperfect, become the songs of Nations.” He saw the stream of Nature and Spirit always flowing, and he told his friend Dr. Bartol, “The miller, like the poet, is a lazy man, setting his wheel in the Stream;” and added, “But his watching is work.”
  12
  Dr. Holmes, in the last years of his life, studied his friend’s poems and tried him by his own test (though he by no means admits this as the only one):—  13
  “Shall we rank Emerson among the great poets or not?  14
  “‘The great poets are judged by the frame of mind which they induce; and to them, of all men, the severest criticism is due.’  15
  “These are Emerson’s Words in the Preface to Parnassus. His own poems will stand the test as well as any in the language.”  16
  The case is not closed. In this volume the course of the Muse, as Emerson tells it, is pursued with regard to his own poems.
  I hang my verses in the wind,
Time and tide their faults will find.
EDWARD W. EMERSON.    
  March 12, 1904.
  17
 
Note 1. Selected Poems: Little Classic Edition. [back]
 
 
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