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



Montaigne’s style

Further Reading and Thinking: Montaigne’s Style

poetics-> rhetoric-> philosophy of essaying.


[opening paragraph “Of Repentance”]

Others form man; I only report him: and represent a particular one, ill fashioned enough, and whom, if I had to model him anew, I should certainly make something else than what he is: but that’s past recalling. Now, though the features of my picture alter and change, ’tis not, however, unlike: the world eternally turns round; all things therein are incessantly moving, the earth, the rocks of Caucasus, and the pyramids of Egypt, both by the public motion and their own. Even constancy itself is no other but a slower and more languishing motion. I cannot fix my object; ’tis always tottering and reeling by a natural giddiness: I take it as it is at the instant I consider it; I do not paint its being, I paint its passage; not a passing from one age to another, or, as the people say, from seven to seven years, but from day to day, from minute to minute. I must accommodate my history to the hour: I may presently change, not only by fortune, but also by intention. ’Tis a counterpart of various and changeable accidents, and of irresolute imaginations, and, as it falls out, sometimes contrary: whether it be that I am then another self, or that I take subjects by other circumstances and considerations: so it is, that I may peradventure contradict myself, but, as Demades said, I never contradict the truth. Could my soul once take footing, I would not essay but resolve: but it is always learning and making trial.


[Emerson on Montaigne’s style: “Motaigne; or, The Skeptic”]

The sincerity and marrow of the man reaches to his sentences. I know not anywhere the book that seems less written. It is the language of conversation transferred to a book. Cut these words, and they would bleed; they are vascular and alive. One has the same pleasure in it that he feels in listening to the necessary speech of men about their work, when any unusual circumstance gives momentary importance to the dialogue. For blacksmiths and teamsters do not trip in their speech; it is a shower of bullets. It is Cambridge men who correct themselves and begin again at every half sentence, and, moreover, will pun, and refine too much, and swerve from the matter to the expression. Montaigne talks with shrewdness, knows the world and books and himself, and uses the positive degree; never shrieks, or protests, or prays: no weakness, no convulsion, no superlative: does not wish to jump out of his skin, or play any antics, or annihilate space or time, but is stout and solid; tastes every moment of the day; likes pain because it makes him feel himself and realize things; as we pinch ourselves to know that we are awake. He keeps the plain; he rarely mounts or sinks; likes to feel solid ground and the stones underneath. His writing has no enthusiasms, no aspiration; contented, self-respecting and keeping the middle of the road. There is but one exception,- in his love for Socrates. In speaking of him, for once his cheek flushes and his style rises to passion.