Over break, I made a point to grab some of the many books I’ve bought at Barnes and Noble over the years. I wanted to directly compare what we’ve been learning in class about “the line” with what had sparked my interest in more classic works. My favorite writer is 214 years old. It’s Ralph Waldo Emerson, and he was a huge part of the American Transcendentalism movement that arose when people were moving farther West. He, and many others wrote romantic pieces about the new, natural world they were seeing. What I notice about his writings, along with Walt Whitman, and John Keats’ work is that their interpretation of “the line” is much different than ours is today. They’re able to use different elements of prose and diction that seem “kitsch” today when imitated.
The language is somehow both more sophisticated and simple, but I’m not sure if that comes from the fact that these writers documented very different lives than ours today. For example, in Emerson’s , The Humble Bee, his diction is understandable, yet it utilizes each word in a polished way:
“Burly dozing humble- bee,
Where thou art is clime for me.
Let them sail for Porto Rique,
Far off heats through seas to seek;
I will follow thee alone,
Thou animated torrid-zone!
Zigzag steerer, desert cheerer,
Let me chase thy waving lines;
Keep me nearer, me thy hearer,
Singing over shrubs and vines.”
They strictly used the things around them to describe their experiences, because there was no Google, and you were either on horseback or walking from town to town, giving more time for reflection and contemplation of their surroundings. Many poems from this movement speak about the human experience or nature themselves, because they were most impacted by the natural wonders that they were experiencing. (Imagine stumbling across the California Redwoods, or one of the sprawling plains of the Midwest. For them, every encounter with nature was magical, because it had never been documented, and was unlike what anyone had ever seen.) Almost all of their lines rhyme, as well. The rhyming scheme seems to be a way for each respective writer to punctuate their lines, instead of using white space to add weight. The question is whether or not they rhymed as a way to convey their infatuation, or if that was the normal format for poems.
Keats, from I Stood Tip-Toe Upon A Little Hill:
“I gazed a while, and felt as light and free
As though fanning wings of Mercury
Had play’d upon my heels: I was light hearted,
And many pleasures to my vision started;
So I straightway began to pluck a posey
Of luxuries bright, milky, soft and rosy.”
The only Romanticist writer that I can argue is able to punctuate their work without a rhyme scheme is Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass. That’s not to say that there aren’t exceptions, but for me, this particular part in the work utilizes word choice and line space in a more contemporary way.
“Failing to find me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
So, what I’m saying with this history lesson is that 200 years ago, people wrote about different things in different ways. They seldom played with white space, because their words counted more than a blank piece of paper could, and I’m sure it wouldn’t make sense to waste paper that had not been mass produced as it is today. But how are we impacted by our environment and the movements going on today? Our language has adapted to incorporate different words, and the internet makes it easier to search for better adjectives and words instantaneously. If we were to only use words that abide by the constraints of a dictionary or by sitting outside and just observing, how would that effect our writing? Is it possible to rhyme like they did and not sound incredibly cheesy? Lastly, Emerson and Whitman are known for their extensive work in essay writing, where the power of a line is so that it contributes to a larger body of an essay. I feel as if this changes the way they were to work with a line, in that each line is supposed to carry weight, but they are not meant to stand alone. I wonder how our respective backgrounds in how we were educated and how we got into writing influence us? Food for thought.
Maybe all of my interpretations of the differences between “old world” poems and “new world” poems are completely irrelevant and false, but it’s just something I thought I’d point out, and I’d love for anyone to agree or disagree with me.