“The Poet” is an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson sometime between 1841 and 1843 and published in 1844 in Emerson’s collection Essays: Second Series. Walt Whitman claimed that “The Poet” had a profound influence on his own work. After first reading it, Whitman desired to answer Emerson’s call for a truly American poet. Whitman then wrote his 1855 poetry collection, Leaves of Grass and sent a copy to Emerson once it was first published. Emerson next wrote a letter in response to the collection, describing it as “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” This letter and support from Emerson helped gain Leaves of Grass considerable popularity and success. 1


In this essay, Emerson argues that there is a great need for a true American poet. For Emerson, the “true poet” will be able to effectively write about and capture the new country’s virtues and vices.

Notes & Quotes

  • For Emerson, the true poet is representative of nature and is able to speak for all men. The poet is able to not only receive transmission from his senses, but he’s capable of accurately reproducing the sensual experience.
  • Yet, in our experience, the rays or appulses have sufficient force to arrive at the senses, but not enough to reach the quick and compel the reproduction of themselves in speech. The poet is the person in whom these powers are in balance, the man without impediment, who sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and to impart.

  • He believes that each age and each culture requires at least one true poet to represent it.
  • For the experience of each new age requires a new confession, and the world seems always waiting for its poet.

  • He views words as “action” (and all actions as words). Therefore, the poetry of the true poet would be experiential.
  • For all symbols are fluxional; all language is vehicular and transitive, and is good, as ferries and horses are, for conveyance, not as farms and houses are, for homestead.

  • Perhaps the most important part of this essay for me is his urgent call for an American poet.
  • We have yet had no genius in America, with tyrannous eye, which knew the value of our incomparable materials, and saw, in the barbarism and materialism of the times, another carnival of the same gods whose picture he so much admires in Homer… Our logrolling, our stumps and their politics, our fisheries, our Negroes and Indians, our boats and our repudiations, the wrath of rogues and the pusillanimity of honest men, the northern trade, the southern planting, the western clearing, Oregon and Texas, are yet unsung. Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for meters. If I have not found that excellent combination of gifts in my countrymen which I seek, neither could I aid myself to fix the idea of the poet by reading now and then in Chalmers’s collection of five centuries of English poets.

  1. This background information comes from “The Poet” Wikipedia page.

“The Poet” (1844) by Caitlin Duffy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.