Commentary on Commentary: Analyzing Poetics with the use of R.W. Emerson’s essay Circles

“Commentary: 1a: an explanatory treatise- usually used in plural b: a record of events usually used by a participant- usually used in plural 2a: a systematic series of explanations or interpretations (as of a writing) b: comment 3a:something that serves for illustration or explanation . . . b: and expression of opinion”

-Merriam-Webster Online

 Providing commentary on an essay written by Ralph Waldo Emerson is very fitting because it can be argued that Emerson is in fact simply providing his own commentary of a subject matter. Therefore, to begin with a commentary about one of Emerson’s essays, one must understand exactly what commentary is. Words like “explanatory,” “treatise,” “interpretations,” “comment,” “illustration,” “expression” and “opinion” almost perfectly describe the thought process behind Emerson’s essays. Arguably, these are not the only words that can be associated in a description of Emerson’s texts, and Emerson would never aspire to have his work summed up into one word, but never-the-less commentary is a predominant occurrence.


 Emerson often provides epigraphs for his series of essays to assist the body of his essays. On some occasions it is noted that the epigraphs, many of Emerson’s own composition, were added in later versions of the essays. This draws a question as to why Emerson would add an epigraph years after the composition of his essay. Take for example Emerson’s essay Circles written in 1841 from his first series, with its six lines and rhythmic seven-syllable repetition, which was added to the essay in 1847(p. 174). This epigraph can be viewed as a broad generalization of the subject matter to be addresses, while other readers may develop differing opinions on Emerson’s intention of text interpretation. Without examining the hermeneutics of the specific text there is similarity to be found among those epigraphs incorporated into his first series of essays such as Poet and Experience. Each essay has an epigraph that is in a rhythmic rhyme scheme, and at first read is not always apparent in its purpose. The meaning of the epigraph resonates with the body of the essay, and in some instances like in the essay Circles ties in with the title.

This non-apparent meaning of the epigraph allows for a warm-up of the mind, or familiarization of the subject of focus. A reader can interpret the lines of the epigraph, which are highly descriptive with metaphor and allegory, and use the suggested meaning to refer back to when reading one of Emerson’s essay. As is suggested by Richard Poirier, Emerson can often be “hard to read” (p.770) in that the language that he implements through out his writing is not typically used day-to-day among most people. Emerson’s language is difficult, and sometimes requires multiple avenues of interpretation, but it is not impossible. As Poirier points out in his excerpt of From Poetry and Pragmatism, Emerson “seldom uses [words] without allowing for [their] double sense” (p. 769), which can bring about contrasts or better clarification in some of his subjects. The epigraph can aid a reader by offering up certain subject topics to be aware of. Not to necessarily search for, but to remain present in the mind. To possibly peek interest so that one’s own thoughts may branch off Emerson’s thoughts.

While using a published definition of a word is very different from the types of epigraphs used by Emerson, they both achieve the same goal. They engage the reader to think. They behave as a warm-up of the mind, and invite the reader to be active and recall connections through out the text. Similar to the use of epigraphs, Emerson most often begins a paragraph in the same way. Typically he will make a statement, which causes the reader to pause, a slowing down or pacing of the mind before he transitions into a change or different continuation of a subject. Once the statement has been assessed, the movement of tone quickens with his repetitious elaborations to aid his topic.

“Therefore, we value the poet. All the argument, and all the wisdom, is not in the encyclopedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play. In my daily work I incline to repeat my old steps, and do not believe in remedial force, in the power of change and reform. But some Petarch or Arisoto, filled with the new wine of his imagination, writes me an ode, or a brisk romance, full of daring thought and action. He smites and arouses me with his shrill tones, breaks up my whole chain of habits, and I open my eyes on my own possibilities. He clasps wings to sides of all solid old lumber of the world, and I am capable once more of choosing a straight path in theory and practice.”

-Ralph Waldo Emerson, Circles

 Critics of Emerson’s like Barbara Packer refer to this type of passage as “declarative sentences” that transition and “suddenly flower out into illustrative metaphors and periodic sentences” (p. 731). There is a quick movement to be noticed from Emerson’s paragraph, and Packer uses the word “suddenly” to describe it. He makes his statement without previous explanation or clarification, and immediately takes off on a commentary of elaboration. Poirier complements Packer’s theory on Emerson’s structure by suggesting that “you must stay as close as possible to the movements of his language, moment by moment, for at every moment there is movement with no place to rest” (p. 770). Poirier concedes that when “suddenly” his elaboration begins the closeness that a reader must have is to stay close to the comprehension of the language that Emerson uses. The paragraph begins slow and undefined, but the movement soon accelerates, and provides great detail and explanation before slowing down and finishing the train of thought unconcluded and open to further interpretation.

  Emerson uses language in such a stop and go fashion. His essays are a relay race and the paragraphs are the runners with unique abilities. The runners are all lined up in the sequence that they will run. There is an initial understanding by all of the runners, an epigraph, an overview of what is to be accomplished. The first runner takes his place, takes a stance, then “suddenly” sprints into action. The runner quickens the pace, finding his repetitive rhythm. Sometimes there are hurdles and confusion, other times there are a curves, but there are also times of smooth continual surface. Eventually while racing around a tract a runner finds himself on the opposite side of the field from where he began, and gradually has to slow his pace. The runner is coming to the end of his run, but is still left unanswered as to the outcome of the race. The runner comes back to the place that their initial stance was made, and readies himself to hand the baton off to the next runner in line, waiting for her turn to show what she can do. However, even after all of the runners have gone, and the results are in the books, there all always more races to be won, endings can change. There are always new generations of runners that will fall short or set new records much like the circular rotation of the changing seasons.

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