Every artist was first an amateur. Ralph Waldo Emerson
The words and life of Ralph Waldo Emerson had a profound effect on me when I was just a schoolboy, so much so that during my senior year in high school I lobbied and won the right to name the new black labrador puppy we had brought into the family, Waldo. Back then everyone my age knew about Emerson's long friendship with Henry David Thoreau and their famous exchange. According to some accounts, Emerson visited Thoreau in the Concord jail for refusing to pay his poll tax and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Thoreau replied, “Waldo, the question is what are you doing out there?" Thoreau was refusing to finance the government war machine of his day.
Although having nothing to do with Thoreau or what many have called "his hippie politics" run amuck, I have since tried to find the precise language shot from the brow of Mr. Emerson that had pierced me, words that I paraphrased with aplomb and a surety to others for years, but I have not been able to locate the exact words. However, at the other extreme of this entry, I will do my best to reconstruct the thought.
Meanwhile I did find these several contiguous paragraphs I immediately embraced because they not only reminded me of something I think I read in Henry Miller about Kierkgaard, but they are so similar to the lines I'm looking for I was surprised when I couldn't find them in the essay from which I lifted the following words:
The characteristic of such verses is, that being not written for publication, they lack that finish which the conventions of literature require of authors. But if poetry of this kind has merit, we conceive that the prescription which demands a rhythmical polish may be easily set aside; and when a writer has outgrown the state of thought which produced the poem, the interest of letters is served by publishing it imperfect, as we preserve studies, torsos, and blocked statues of the great masters. For though we should be loath to see the wholesome conventions, to which we have alluded, broken down by a general incontinence of publication, and every man's and woman's diary flying into the bookstores, yet it is to be considered, on the other hand, that men of genius are often more incapable than others of that elaborate execution which criticism exacts. Men of genius in general are, more than others, incapable of any perfect exhibition, because however agreeable it may be to them to act on the public, it is always a secondary aim. They are humble, self-accusing, moody men, whose worship is toward the Ideal Beauty, which chooses to be courted not so often in perfect hymns, as in wild ear-piercing ejaculations, or in silent musings. Their face is forward, and their heart is in this heaven. By so much are they disqualified for a perfect success in any particular performance to which they can give only a divided affection. But the man of talents has every advantage in the competition. He can give that cool and commanding attention to the thing to be done, that shall secure its just performance. Yet are the failures of genius better than the victories of talent; and we are sure that some crude manuscript poems have yielded us a more sustaining and a more stimulating diet, than many elaborated and classic productions.
We have been led to these thoughts by reading some verses, which were lately put into our hands by a friend with the remark, that they were the production of a youth, who had long passed out of the mood in which he wrote them, so that they had become quite dead to him. Our first feeling on reading them was a lively joy. So then the Muse is neither dead nor dumb, but has found a voice in these cold Cisatlantic States.
Here is poetry which asks no aid of magnitude or number, of blood or crime, but finds theatre enough in the first field or brookside, breadth and depth enough in the flow of its own thought. Here is self-repose, which to our mind is stabler than the Pyramids; here is self-respect which leads a man to date from his heart more proudly than from Rome. Here is love which sees through surface, and adores the gentle nature and not the costume. Here is religion, which is not of the Church of England, nor of the Church of Boston. Here is the good wise heart, which sees that the end of culture is strength and cheerfulness.
In an age too which tends with so strong an inclination to the philosophical muse, here is poetry more purely intellectual than any American verses we have yet seen, distinguished from all competition by two merits; the fineness of perception; and the poet's trust in his own genius to that degree, that there is an absence of all conventional imagery, and a bold use of that which the moment's mood had made sacred to him, quite careless that it might be sacred to no other, and might even be slightly ludicrous to the first reader.
One more thought on Thoreau and what my sources call his poll tax. Seems as if one didn't always have to be a poor Negro languishing in the Southern Disguise under Jim Crow to be smacked with a poll tax in this man's United States of America. As for knocking Thoreau and his Walden Pond fantasy, I made my own Walden Pond fantasy some to pass down in Florida, Lofton Creek, east of Yulee, where my blistering education really got a kickstart away from the slow gentle death I had been suffering since leaving highschool, my glory years of school confinement grades 1-12 which I loved, for married life and the strong American red, white, and blue work ethic which I loved considerably less...
But Emerson made plain my future to me when he described the world as full of young wits who have a measure of both skill and resolve. However, they burst upon the stage, and soon are spent, wasted, with nothing else to say, and not much of what they did say will stand. However, wrote Emerson, one should prefer to be the man who exercises patience, disabusing himself of the notion of early riches and fame only to flame out. This man would rather hone his skill, his talent, his art, his learning, and then when the time of maturity has arrived, he will have something more substantial to say, something more lasting, something more beneficial.
I would love to stumble across Emerson's exact words, but for now...