I would not wish to live in a century other than my own, or to have worked for any other. We are citizens of our own Age no less than of our own State. And if it is deemed unseemly, or even inadmissible, to exempt ourselves from the morals and customs of the circle in which we live, why should it be less of a duty to allow the needs and taste of our own epoch some voice in our choice of activity?

But the verdict of this epoch does not, by any means, seem to be going in favor of art, not the least of the kind of art to which alone my inquiry will be directed. The course of events has given the spirit of the age a direction which threatens to remove it ever further from the art of the Ideal. This kind of art must abandon actuality, and soar with becoming boldness above our wants and needs; for Art is a daughter of Freedom, and takes her orders from the necessity inherent in minds, not from the exigencies of matter. But at the present time material needs reign supreme and bend a degraded humanity beneath their tyrannical yoke. Utility is the great idol of our age, to which all powers are in thrall and to which all talent must pay homage. Weighed in this crude balance, the insubstantial merits of Art scarce tip the scale, and, bereft of all encouragement, she shuns the noisy market-place of our century.

If man is ever to solve the problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom.


It is the secret which every intellectual man quickly learns, that beyond the energy of his possessed and conscious intellect he is capable of a new energy (as of an intellect doubled on itself) , by abandonment to the nature of things; that beside his privacy of power as an individual man, there is a great public power on which he can draw, by unlocking, at all risks, his human doors, and suffering the ethereal tides to roll and circulate through him; then he is caught up into the life of the Universe, his speech is thunder, his thought is law, and his words are universally intelligible as the plants and animals. The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or “with the flower of the mind;” not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.

This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other procurers of animal exhilaration. All men avail themselves of such means as they can, to add this extraordinary power to their normal powers; and to this end they prize conversation, music, pictures, sculpture, dancing, theaters, traveling, war, mobs, fires, gaming, politics, or love, or science, or animal intoxication,—which are several coarser or finer quasi-mechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact. These are auxiliaries to the centrifugal tendency of man, to his passage out into free space, and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jail-yard of individual relations in which he is enclosed. Hence a great number of such as were professionally expressers of Beauty, as painters, poets, musicians and actors, have been more than others wont to lead a life of pleasure and indulgence; all but the few who received the true nectar; and, as it was a spurious mode of attaining freedom, as it was an emancipation not into the heavens but into the freedom of baser places, they were punished for that advantage they won, by a dissipation and deterioration. But never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the Creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s voluble sermonizing says so many things at once in such an impressive manner that one can simply believe Ralph Waldo Emerson is saying whatever one wants him to be saying; this might explain his high reputation to this day among both radicals and conservatives. Whitman discovered his poetry in Emerson’s prose, and here then is how America avoided the precision of Poe and embraced the effulgence of the Anything Goes school in the last century. It is hard to believe that, in the passage above, Emerson is sternly cautioning the poet to be sober.  The “nectar” Emerson is selling is clearly not sold anywhere, and his “the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact” and his “abandonment to the nature of things” exist nowhere except in Emerson’s fact-mind and in the thing-minds of those who want to play along with Mr. Emerson—which, as we look over American Letters today, are quite a few.  Beware opium, wine, fires, and mobs.

Schiller (b. 1759), sounding very modern, says things we agree with.

But Emerson is so much more fun.



  1. powersjq said,

    April 15, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    Emerson: “The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or ‘with the flower of the mind’; not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by nectar.”

    In this extract (and in the whole essay), Emerson blends two tropes which are usually regarded as anathema: (1) the Latin trope of the literatus as bee, who drinks or makes “nectar,” and (2) the Platonic trope of the poet as mouthpiece of the Muses, who becomes a maniac drunk on the divine furor. The locus classicus of the former is the 84th epistle of Seneca the younger (, and of the latter Plato’s Phaedrus (with support from the Ion). Both figure importantly in Renaissance poetics, though rarely in tandem. Crucially, the apian trope supposes that literary invention is a process in some way allied to reason, which, though it depends upon an inborn talent, may be developed and amplified through rationally organized training (ars). The manic trope insists that poetry grows out of a psychology that is emphatically UNreasonable.

    Emerson seems to want to have it both ways. The poet composes with an intellect nourished by flowers (a perennial symbol of literary learning), yes, but only when that intellect is inebriated. Emerson cleverly refigures “nectar” from the distillation of book-learning—its usual meaning—into the liquor that shoves the poet through the “doors” (we note the Blakian image) that separate ordinary cogitation from divine-poetic inspiration. And indeed, this is exactly how the Romantics in general hoped to have it both ways. It is difficult to conceive a more adroit figuration of the Romantic position.

    (For those who want the whole essay from which Emerson’s extract is drawn:

  2. powersjq said,

    April 15, 2014 at 2:27 pm


    I believe Emerson is saying that inspiration that comes as a result of “opium, wine, fires, and mobs” cannot be trusted. The poet can only know if her furor is truly divine if it comes to her when she is otherwise sober. Emerson is figuring the “true nectar” as the artistic equivalent of the Puritanical tenet of irresistible grace.

  3. powersjq said,

    April 15, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    Schiller: “Utility is the great idol of our age, to which all powers are in thrall and to which all talent must pay homage.”

    I always _want_ to agree with the Romantics, and yet they are so often careless in their choice of opponents. Utility means usefulness, means effective means to some end. It is impossible for means in general to play the role of an end. It seems to me that Schiller is arguing that one value of Art is its _utility_ in the struggle for Freedom. What he really means to repudiate, then, is his epoch’s infatuation with utility vis-a-vis some unnamed end. I’m guessing he has in mind mere wealth, perhaps, or power. Surely he means to disparage utility (which sounds like a good thing) only when it serves pride and greed—the great sins of the modern age.

  4. thomasbrady said,

    April 15, 2014 at 7:24 pm


    I think Schiller has a more radical view of Freedom—freedom from all material wants, freedom from all things connected to utility. Art and Beauty are not ‘for’ anything, or ‘moving towards’ anything: the person who enjoys Art and Beauty enjoys them for no reason, for no utility whatsoever.

    Poe disliked Emerson (and Poe said at one point Emerson was just re-writing Seneca) and Poe made attacks against Utility, as well:

    “Aristotle, with singular assurance, has declared poetry the most philosophical of all writing — but it required a Wordsworth to pronounce it the most metaphysical. He seems to think that the end of poetry is, or should be, instruction — yet it is a truism that the end of our existence is happiness; if so, the end of every separate part of our existence — every thing connected with our existence should be still happiness. Therefore the end of instruction should be happiness; and happiness is another name for pleasure; — therefore the end of instruction should be pleasure: yet we see the above mentioned opinion implies precisely the reverse.

    To proceed: ceteris paribus, he who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness, and pleasure is the end already obtained which instruction is merely the means of obtaining.

    I see no reason, then, why our metaphysical poets should plume themselves so much on the utility of their works, unless indeed they refer to instruction with eternity in view; in which case, sincere respect for their piety would not allow me to express my contempt for their judgment; contempt which it would be difficult to conceal, since their writings are professedly to be understood by the few, and it is the many who stand in need of salvation. In such case I should no doubt be tempted to think of the devil in Melmoth, who labors indefatigably through three octavo volumes, to accomplish the destruction of one or two souls, while any common devil would have demolished one or two thousand. . . . ”

    –Poe, “Letter to B__”

    • powersjq said,

      April 15, 2014 at 9:56 pm


      Your point that “Schiller has a more radical view of Freedom” is well taken. I see how he might. Art, the daughter of Freedom, may be known by its glorious and lovely Uselessness. Though in that case, I cannot make sense of Schiller’s suggestion that Beauty should have any meaningful relation at all to politics, which is more or less be definition the proper domain of Utility, in its humanly infinite variety.

      I can’t follow Poe’s argument. I’m not following which points he’s attributing to whom—or claiming for himself. We begin with an ascription to Aristotle, followed by another to Wordsworth; and then the next sentence begins with the singular grammatical subject, “He.” Whom is Poe talking about here?

      “[H]appiness is another name for pleasure.” I don’t dismiss hedonism out of hand, but this simple equivalence is laughable. Even Freud only believed this on his worst days. Surely this isn’t Poe’s position. To whom is he attributing this?

      “[H]e who pleases, is of more importance to his fellow men than he who instructs, since utility is happiness, and pleasure is the end already obtained which instruction is merely the means of obtaining.” I recognize invective when I see it. This is very nearly a reductio ad absurdum. No one—excepting maybe the Paris Hilton (using smaller words, I’m sure)—ever endorsed such nonsense. This is a straw man, not a fair caricature (and I still don’t even know who’s being caricatured). It’s a bit roundabout for invective, but serviceable, I suppose. It says nothing per se against utility, though.

  5. thomasbrady said,

    April 16, 2014 at 1:02 am


    “He” refers to Wordsworth.

    Poe’s argument might be so simple that it doesn’t sink in. I admit to wondering about it.

    I think Schiller’s (related) problem with Utility is that it serves to block an appreciation of beauty. He’s not finding fault with its meaning, but with its philosophy.

    As far as beauty and politics…morality is important to a State…good taste guides citizens to be good intrinsically. Moral punishment isn’t necessary for citizens in love with beauty (good taste). Criminals are guided by utility, not Taste.

    • powersjq said,

      April 16, 2014 at 1:04 pm


      Got it. Knowing that Wordsworth is the main target clarifies things a great deal. I was misunderstanding the last graph in particular, since I was taking “metaphysical poets” to mean Donne, Harvey, and the rest. But now I see that Poe has W. in mind. In which case I think the argument has real teeth, and I think Poe’s frustration with W.’s conceitedness finely expressed, if a little awkwardly articulated at points.

    • powersjq said,

      April 16, 2014 at 1:10 pm


      I follow your defense of Schiller, I confess I still find his view wanting. Maybe I’m just too American, because if i grant that Utility should have its own philosophy, I find myself wanting to be on its side.

      That final sentence of yours—“Criminals are guided by utility, not Taste.”—cuts deeply. I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and rather than tying up the lines of inquiry it opens up, I’m still finding new ones. It’s worthy of serving as the centerpiece of a moral essay. Thank you for the think.

  6. May 10, 2016 at 4:41 am

    Sustain the great work and bringing in the group!

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