Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
 
I. Poems
Merlin I
 
THY 1 trivial harp will never please
Or fill my craving ear;
Its chords should ring as blows the breeze,
Free, peremptory, clear.
No jingling serenader’s art,        5
Nor tinkle of piano strings,
Can make the wild blood start
In its mystic springs.
The kingly bard
Must smite the chords rudely and hard,        10
As with hammer or with mace;
That they may render back
Artful thunder, which conveys
Secrets of the solar track,
Sparks of the supersolar blaze. 2        15
Merlin’s blows are strokes of fate,
Chiming with the forest tone,
When boughs buffet boughs in the wood;
Chiming with the gasp and moan
Of the ice-imprisoned flood;        20
With the pulse of manly hearts;
With the voice of orators;
With the din of city arts;
With the cannonade of wars;
With the marches of the brave;        25
And prayers of might from martyrs’ cave.
 
Great is the art,
Great be the manners, of the bard.
He shall not his brain encumber
With the coil of rhythm and number;        30
But, leaving rule and pale forethought,
He shall aye climb
For his rhyme.
‘Pass in, pass in,’ the angels say,
‘In to the upper doors,        35
Nor count compartments of the floors,
But mount to paradise
By the stairway of surprise.’ 3
 
Blameless master of the games,
King of sport that never shames,        40
He shall daily joy dispense
Hid in song’s sweet influence.
Forms more cheerly live and go,
What time the subtle mind
Sings aloud the tune whereto        45
Their pulses beat,
And march their feet,
And their members are combined.
 
By Sybarites beguiled,
He shall no task decline;        50
Merlin’s mighty line
Extremes of nature reconciled,—
Bereaved a tyrant of his will,
And made the lion mild.
Songs can the tempest still,        55
Scattered on the stormy air,
Mould the year to fair increase,
And bring in poetic peace.
 
He shall not seek to weave,
In weak, unhappy times,        60
Efficacious rhymes;
Wait his returning strength.
Bird that from the nadir’s floor
To the zenith’s top can soar,—
The soaring orbit of the muse exceeds that journey’s length.        65
Nor profane affect to hit
Or compass that, by meddling wit,
Which only the propitious mind
Publishes when ’t is inclined.
There are open hours        70
When the God’s will sallies free,
And the dull idiot might see
The flowing fortunes of a thousand years;—
Sudden, at unawares,
Self-moved, fly-to the doors,        75
Nor sword of angels could reveal
What they conceal.
 
Note 1. Mr. Emerson, in his recoil from academic and imitative versifying, found the rude Norse Sagas, and the no less strong but finer and more imaginative songs of the Welsh Bards, tonic and inspiring. As a boy he had delighted in Ossian. Merlin, in the old English metrical romance, but especially in the Morte d’Arthur, stirred his imagination. Then he read the fragmentary poems, not labored or polished, but struck out white-hot with enthusiasm or love or grief, that are attributed to Taliessin, Llewarch Hen and the other great Cymrian bards. Here and in other later poems (the “Song of Merlin” and the motto to “Considerations by the Way,” in Conduct of Life) he uses Merlin to typify the haughty, free and liberating poet, working the magic of thought through the charm of Art.
  Among notes on English poetry in 1853 he wrote:—
  “I find or fancy more true poetry, the love of the Vast, in the Welsh and Bardic fragments of Taliessin and his school, than in a good many volumes of British classics.”
  “Merlin” was finished in the summer of 1846, but in the journal of the year before are its beginnings, which may interest the reader as showing that the finished poem expressed the author’s aspiration:—
  I go discontented thro’ the world
Because I cannot strike
The harp to please my tyrannous ear:
Gentle touches are not wanted,
These the yielding gods had granted.
It shall not tinkle a guitar,
But strokes of fate
Chiming with the ample winds,
With the pulse of human blood,
With the voice of mighty men,
With the din of city arts,
With the cannonade of war,
With the footsteps of the brave
And the sayings of the wise,
Chiming with the forest’s tone
When they buffet boughs in the windy wood,
Chiming with the gasp and moan
Of the ice-imprisoned flood.
I will not read a pretty tale
To pretty people in a nice saloon
Borrowed from their expectation,
But I will sing aloud and free
From the heart of the world.
 [back]
Note 2. In his notes for a course of lectures in the winter of 1835–36, among the sentences on “Ideas that predominated in the old English,” is this: “Their poet is not a Pope, but a Talliefer, who, whilst he sings, tosses his sword into the air and catches it as it falls.” Alluding, of course, to the warrior-minstrel who rode out before the Conqueror’s array at Hastings, singing the Chanson de Roland and challenging the Saxons. [back]
Note 3. On a stray lecture-sheet these words occur: “Do not the great always live extempore, mounting to heaven by the stairs of surprise?” [back]
 
 
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