Home > Emerson R. W., Literature, Philosophy, Poetry, Whitman W. > Poetry and Prudence I

Poetry and Prudence I

For a long time I have been mulling writing a post or a series of posts on the relation be­tween poetry and prudence, collecting issues I might like to discuss, organizing them, and so forth. The fruit has not yet ripened, but when Emerson writes an essay on Pru­dence that addresses just this issue, I cannot but jump into the fire. This post is not what I have been and still am planning, but perhaps it shall help it to take form, or at least introduce a problem. And, in any event, I prefer green tomatoes to red, so perhaps my own immature endeavor shall not be in vain. This will be, I hope, a prolegomenon to future thoughts.

Citations, as usual, are to the Library of America volume of Emerson’s Essays & Lectures.

What right have I to write on Prudence?

Emerson distinguishes two sorts of writing: “We write from aspiration and antagonism, as well as from experience. We paint those qualities which we do not possess.” (357) Where others of his essays are written from experience, here Emerson ventures into a territory known only by aspiration and antagonism—this should be kept in mind. The essay takes the form, in effect, of an exhortation to himself: become prudent! practice the minor virtues! It is not phrased as such—rather, as advice to his readers—but Emerson takes as a rule that one ought “assume that you are saying precisely that which all think” (366), which explains his choice of presentation. What I want to suggest is that it is perhaps Emerson’s natural aloofness to prudence that leads him to underestimate one of its difficulties.

Poetry and prudence should be coincident

What worries Emerson in this essay is the apparent conflict between poetry and prudence. On the one hand, you have the purely prudent individuals, who ask only after the utility of each thing; on the other hand you have purely poetic individuals, such as scholars, who are useless at practical tasks. “The scholar shames us by his bifold life. Whilst something higher than prudence is active, he is admirable; when common sense is wanted, he is an encumbrance.” (363) Emerson wants to bridge this gap.

One way in which this gap is bridged lies in poetry itself. I have written before of the way in which literature must come to grips with its own effacement, its own non-necessity, and this essay provides more fodder for such themes. In the very first paragraph, Emerson remarks, “The poet admires the man of energy and tactics” (357), and not much later adds, in a similar vein, “The domestic man, who loves no music so well as his kitchen clock, and the airs which the logs sing to him as they burn on the hearth, has solaces which others never dream of.” (360) This is a poetic appreciation of the “domestic man”, and it is part and parcel of a view of poetry that sees poetry as celebrating what is poetic in human life, rather than as an apologia for poetry. Whitman, whose (1855) Leaves of Grass I recently read, is perhaps the best exemplar of this poetic trend, if only because this philosophy of poetry not only is borne out by the content of his poems—i.e. the poetic celebration of energy and tactics within them—but is also given explicit voice within his poems: this is what I, Walt Whitman, poet, am doing. But the examples are, really, endless.

Poetry, then, takes upon itself as a primary task the showing of itself as unnecessary by indicating the universal accessibility of poetry in everyday life, if only one looks. Not for nothing does Whitman distinguish the poet from the non-poet by the poet’s ability to see the poetry, unnoticed by the non-poet, in what the non-poet is doing. And what characterizes such lives is, above all else, prudence. Prudence in maintaining a household, in choosing a job, in spending money, etc.

Emerson draws a distinction, however, between true and base prudence. Base prudence is a devotion to matter, which “asks but one question of any project,—Will it bake bread?” (358) And Emerson’s diagnosis is grave: “This is a disease like a thickening of the skin until the vital organs are destroyed.” (358) Against this is true prudence: “The true prudence limits this sensualism by admitting the knowledge of an internal and real world.” (358)

This opens up the question of prudence onto the whole question of Emerson’s realism and idealism. Emerson’s realist pole recognizes the fixity of matter, of causal relations, of natural law, while his idealist pole sees everything as flexible under the influence of an inquiring intellect. Prudence, whether base or true, is tied to the realist axis. “Prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. It takes the laws of the world, whereby man’s being is conditioned, as they are, and keeps these laws, that it may enjoy their proper good.” (359) It is this first sentence that is key: prudence does not go behind nature, and ask whence it is. Prudence accepts that this is how it is. It is the asking after the “whence it is” that is the domain of poetry, that risks setting all things in motion, that offers the possibility of new evaluations. Poetry holds up the material world to the light of the “internal and real world.” These are the grounds on which poetry and prudence must coincide.

Here lies stubborn matter, and will not swerve from its chemical routine

Emerson has more to say about this coincidence—much of it takes the form of an exhortation to practice the minor, prudential virtues—but my gaze is here drawn to a lurking problem to do with base prudence that I do not think Emerson has sufficiently addressed. My guiding light here is in fact none other than Emerson himself, the Emerson who recognizes that there are objections to every line of action—I always forget where, exactly, this worry finds voice, maybe “Experience”. What Emerson underestimates is base prudence as a source of endless objections to poetry.

To see this requires some groundwork. Emerson is an experimental philosopher, which I take to have two fundamental aspects. First, there is an unflinching commitment to honesty to oneself, one’s true, inner self. Second, there is an ontological gambit: there is no preexisting self to which one can be honest—that self is simultaneous with the honest act. Emerson gives voice to the first of these aspects when he writes, “The natural motions of the soul are so much better than the voluntary ones” (366)—voluntary actions are chosen, but natural motions are necessitated. Emerson—elsewhere, I forget where—notes that there is really only one direction in which the soul can go at any time: any other direction and it runs into a wall. Voluntary action, choosing which way to go, inevitably leads to these walls. Freedom, for Emerson, requires the strictest necessity.

But this means that honesty to oneself is paramount—yet such honesty can always find objections from without. And base prudence is one source of such objections. An experimentally honest action need not be prudent—indeed, the material utility of any action is more or less universal and can efface individuality in the wrong way—and so the “sickness” of base prudence is precisely that the question “will it bake bread” is liable to distract from such honesty. Emerson notes that matter is “stubborn” (359), by which he refers to the fixity of natural law, but matter is “stubborn” in another way, too: it stubbornly puts this question to us.

When prudence functions in this way, as the source of endless objections, clearly poetry and prudence are not coincident. One must privilege honesty, or one must privilege utility, but in either case, they pull in opposite directions. A unity of poetry and prudence requires some method of quelling this tide of prudential objections to poetic honesty, yet Emerson, at least in this essay, provides none. Thus I can only conclude that the problem of harmonizing poetry and prudence remains unsolved.


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