The Rhetoric and Poetics of Emerson’s Sentences

Some Critical Insight on the Rhetoric of Emerson’s Sentences:

David Robinson, a scholar of Emerson, provides an insightful critical reading of the ways Emerson’s essays work–which is also to say, the way Emerson works the reader through the essays. This can help us grasp Emerson’s philosophy of the essay, while moving us out to a broader understanding of the rhetorical effects (and effectiveness) of essays–our focal point in the next section of the course.

Here is what Robinson writes about Emerson’s “Experience” in his book Emerson and The Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work.

The pattern of continual doubling back, in which every new idea or perspective develops its opposite, recurs even here, when it seems as if the problem of alienation had been settled by dismissing it as frivolous. Each step toward resolution in “Experience” generates a further complication. The hidden negation revealed by each successive affirmation forces the essay into successive turns of direction. The structure of the essay’s argument thus reflects the structure of the essay’s subject. The structure of “Experience” is the structure of experience.  [63-64]

Robinson’s point is that Emerson’s apparent contradictions in the midst of his essays–this is something he is known for, and often blamed for, the lack of consistency–entail a rhetorical purpose. They are rather complications: ways that he pursues the complexity of the experience, and the thinking, that he is after. Here, then, is how Robinson characterizes the nature of an Emerson essay as a version of what Jeff Porter calls “thought thinking”:

The tensions in Emerson’s thought are apparent when one attempts to specify his intellectual position in a given essay, but to write such an essay off as contradictory misses a larger value, its ability to take the reader into an exemplary act of thinking…. They emphasize the living out of ideas. [12-13]

We will see this at work in “Quotation and Originality,” where Emerson pursues a deliberate contradiction of his earlier and more famous essay on originality, “Self-Reliance.” Or rather, pursues a seeming contradiction. Or rather, shows thought and ideas to emerge out of differences that somehow relate. Emerson enacts a counterargument–a deliberate contradiction that serves a rhetorical purpose–and does so in an argument for the necessity of ideas always to be countered. Or, to use one of the keywords of that essay: recomposed.

Some Critical and Practical Insights on the Poetics of Emerson’s sentences:

[1]F. O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (1941), p. 65

“The sentence was his unit, as he recognized when confessing sadly to Carlyle (1838) that his paragraphs were only collections of ‘infinitely repellent particles.’ It is significant that he said the same thing when reflecting on society as an ‘imperfect union’:  ‘Every man is an infinitely repellent orb, and holds his individual being on that condition.’ The sentence was the inevitable unit for the man who could say, ‘A single thought has no limit to its value.’ He was at his best when he could give both release and embodiment to one of his thoughts in a plastic image; but though he talked about the unexampled resources of metaphor and symbol, his staple device was analogy. As he said, ‘All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy.’”


[2]Robert D. Richardson, First We Read, Then We Write: Emerson on the Creative Process (2009), pp. 55-57.

“He liked sentences that had a little bite or pop, a flash-point, and he had several different ways of achieving this effect, which we may distinguish as the whip-crack, the back-flip, the brass ring (hole in one), and the mousetrap.”

Whip-crack sentence: the final word/phrase makes the sentence snap.

“…something which I fancied was a part of me, which could not be torn away without tearing me, nor enlarged without enriching me, falls off from me, and leaves no scar.”

Back-flip sentence: energy comes from a surprising reversal, putting the verbal energy at end, like German puts verb at end of sentence.

“Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

“Temperament puts all divinity to rout.”

This reversal can take the form of the subject of the sentence being delayed or lost–contrary to grammatical norms. For example this one from “Experience”: “Like a bird which alights nowhere, but hops perpetually from bough to bough, is the Power which abides in no man and in no woman, but for a moment speaks from this one, and for another moment from that one” (CW 3: 34).

Brass ring: come up with unforgettable phrase that remain in English ever since.

“Hitch your wagon to a star.”

“The eye is the first circle.”

Mouse-trap sentence: baited with Latinate abstraction and sprung with plain Anglo-Saxon.

“A foolish consistency is the hobogblin of little minds.”

“…and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.”

Hearing and Seeing Emerson’s rhythm:

I have lately been hearing a certain rhythm and tone of Emerson’s sentence-poetics, and in particular the devastating sentence from Experience that follows the revelation of the death of his son, in the rhythm of the Bon Iver song “Holocene.” We will be exploring later in the course the poetics of voice and style in essay writing. This is toward some initial grasp of that, how with Emerson and what he described as the “infinitely repellent particles” of his sentences we need to grasp not just what they say but how they sound. For Emerson, the philosophy (the idea, the sentiment, the argument, the “intellect”) is conveyed not just through the sentences, but in them. The sentences in “Experience,” it seems to me, offer syntactical and poetic renditions of: surprise, provocation, temperament, balance, mediation. They move us through the series of the essay, much as he argues we move with these ideas through the series and surfaces of life.

Here is the sentence, rendered with breaks to notice the rhythm and repetition we can hear:

So is it with this calamity:

it does not touch me:

some thing which I fancied was a part of me,

which could not be torn away without tearing me,

nor enlarged without enriching me,

falls off from me,

and leaves no scar



Emerson’s Essays: experimental experience

Emerson’s “American Scholar” (published individually in 1837) and “Circles” (1841, from his first book of essays, Essays: First Series) are not entirely essays about the essay. But they come close to that focus, if somewhat obliquely (or to use some of his own geometric imagery, tangentially), since both essays do focus in on how this writer, reader, and thinker views the meaning and method of writing, reading, and thinking. To echo Emerson from “American Scholar,” we see Emerson, the very type of scholar he is trying to redefine in that essay (and originally, a Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard’s graduation), in his “school.” In “American Scholar,” it is a school in which “creative reading” is as important as “creative writing,” but also one in which schools can be problematic, books can be too influential, read wrongly. In “Circles,” shifting the focus a bit more broadly to the method of thinking, we see that thinking as such, not just reading and writing, is necessarily experimental if it is to be natural. Only dead books and dead ideas are finished.

Given what we now know of the essay genre, of its origins in experiment and trial, essay as continuing process, not finished product, I would suggest the appropriateness of understanding Emerson to say that all of our thought, and the reading and writing that (for him, as for any scholar) primarily conveys that thought is necessarily essayistic: it is “thought thinking” (Porter’s phrase) which sounds a lot like Emerson’s famous phrase, “Man thinking.” Thus Emerson writes essays about his essaying.

Here’s the difficulty, and the creative potential, of doing so: of presenting and performing or dramatizing in an essay the experimental experience shaping that and any essay. In his journal in 1839, Emerson writes the following caution that reads to me not unlike Montaigne’s preface to his reader.

I need hardly say to any one acquainted with my thoughts that I have no System. When I was quite young I fancied that by keeping a Manuscript Journal by me, over whose pages I wrote a list of the great topics of human study, as, Religion, Poetry, Politics, Love, &c in the course of a few years I should be able to complete a sort of Encyclopaedia containing the net value of all the definitions at which the world had yet arrived. But at the end of a couple of years my Cabinet Cyclopaedia though much enlarged was no nearer to a completeness than on its first day. Nay somehow the whole plan of it needed alteration nor did the following months promise any speedier term to it than the foregoing. At last I discovered that my curve was a parabola whose arcs would never meet…. (JMN 7: 302)

Emerson fails to finish and complete his planned book that would contain all the thought in the world. “American Scholar” and “Circles” suggest that every book–and every writer and every reader and thinker–must fail at completion if it is to be authentic thinking and not the product of a “mere thinker.” And indeed, in the same journal entry, Emerson goes on to suggest that this statement of his failure is indeed rhetorical, is to the very point of his writing:

At last I discovered that my curve was a parabola whose arcs would never meet, and came to acquiesce in the perception that although no diligence can rebuild the Universe in a model by the best accumulation or disposition of details, yet does the World reproduce itself in miniature in every event that transpires, so that all the laws of nature may be read in the smallest fact. So that the truth [sic] speaker may dismiss all solicitude as to the proportion & congruency of the aggregate of his thoughts so long as he is a faithful reporter of particular impressions. (JMN 7: 302-3)

This is where Emerson’s philosophy of thinking and reading, evident in these essays, also turns toward the rhetoric organizing the essays. They are structured as a parabola rather than a curve. Parabola, in the rhetorical tradition, suggests relation through dissimilarity: analogy, allegory metaphor, metonymy are figures that we can associate with it. Here is the entry from Silva Rhetoricae.

Emerson suggests that in failing to keep all his various topics and ideas neatly categorized, separated, in failing to keep them from running over into each other, he succeeds in demonstrating or faithfully reporting the relation among all the particular impressions and smallest facts. The encyclopedia turns out to be wikipedia, all the knowledge in the world, linked and unfinished.

We can think back to Montaigne’s emphasis on “relation,” and his warning that he does not teach, only relates. Emerson also emphasizes relation. Another word for essayistic relation for Emerson is generalization. In fact, at the end of his essay on Montaigne, Emerson identifies the lesson Montaigne taught, or rather, related to him through his reading: “The expansive nature of truth comes to our succor, elastic, not to be surrounded. Man helps himself by larger generalizations. The lesson of life is practically to generalize; to believe what the years and the centuries say, against the hours; to resist the usurpation of particulars; to penetrate to their catholic sense.”

Some questions: How does this rhetoric of circulation and generalization inform his poetics, the sentences and words making up these related paragraphs of his thinking?

If a “faithful” writing of nature must be parabolic, must resist conventional or systematic logic and understanding, how then do we faithfully read such writing? How do we “understand” an Emerson essay? How might we write such an essay?

Finally, does the essay “Experience” continue in this performance and dramatization of the experimental nature of thinking and writing? It is published in 1844, in his second series of Essays, not long after the death of his first son at the age of 5. Conventionally, this essay has been read as a break with Emerson’s earlier philosophy from “American Scholar” and “Circles,” viewed as Emerson turning toward a more tragic view of life, giving up in some manner. Do you see that?

My annotated (somewhat digitally creative) reading of the Emerson texts from this week:


“American Scholar”