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Transcendentalism


A POEM IN TWELVE BOOKS

Stop playing, poet! May a brother speak?
'Tis you speak, that's your error. Song's our art:
Whereas you please to speak these naked thoughts
Instead of draping them in sights and sounds.
--True thoughts, good thoughts, thoughts fit to treasure up!
But why such long prolusion and display,
Such turning and adjustment of the harp,
And taking it upon your breast, at length,
Only to speak dry words across its strings?
Stark-naked thought is in request enough: 10
Speak prose and hollo it till Europe hears!
The six-foot Swiss tube, braced about with bark,
Which helps the hunter's voice from Alp to Alp--
Exchange our harp for that--who hinders you?

But here's your fault; grown men want thought, you think;
Thought's what they mean by verse, and seek in verse.
Boys seek for images and melody,
Men must have reason--so, you aim at men.

Quite otherwise! Objects throng our youth,'tis true;
We see and hear and do not wonder much: 20
If you could tell us what they mean, indeed!
As German Boehme never cared for plants
Until it happed, a-walking in the fields,
He noticed all at once that plants could speak,
Nay, turned with loosened tongue to talk with him.
That day the daisy had an eye indeed--
Colloquized with the cowslip on such themes!
We find them extant yet in Jacob's prose.
But by the time youth slips a stage or two
While reading prose in that tough book he wrote 30
(Collating and emendating the same
And settling on the sense most to our mind)
We shut the clasps and find life's summer past.
Then, who helps more, pray, to repair our loss--
Another Boehme with a tougher book
And subtler meanings of what roses say--
Or some stout Mage like him of Halberstadt,
John, who made things Boehme wrote thoughts about?
He with a "look you!" vents a brace of rhymes,
And in there breaks the sudden rose herself, 40
Over us, under, round us every side,
Nay, in and out the tables and the chairs
And musty volumes, Boehme's book and all--
Buries us with a glory, young once more,
Pouring heaven into this shut house of life.

So come, the harp back to your heart again!
You are a poem, though your poem's naught.
The best of all you showed before, believe,
Was your own boy-face o'er the finer chords
Bent, following the cherub at the top 50
That points to God with his paired half-moon wings.


NOTES

"Transcendentalism" is a criticism, placed in the mouth of a poet,
of another poet, whose manner of singing is prosaic, because it
seeks to transcend (or penetrate beyond) phenomena, by divesting
poetic expression of those concrete embodiments which enable it to
appeal to the senses and imagination. Instead of bare abstractions
being suited to the developed mind, it is the primitive mind, which,
like Boehme's, has the merely metaphysical turn, and expects to
discover the unincarnate absolute essence of things. The maturer
mind craves the vitalizing method of the artist who, like the
magician of Halberstadt, recreates things bodily in all their
beautiful vivid wholeness. Yet the poet who sincerely holds so
fragmentary a conception of art is himself a poem to the poet who
holds the larger view. His boy-face singing to God above his
ineffective harp-strings is a concrete image of this sort of poetic
transcendentalism.

[It is obvious that Browning uses the Halberstadt and not the Boehme
method in presenting this embodiment of his subject. The
supposition of certain commentators that Browning is here picturing
his own artistic method as transcendental is a misconception of his
characteristic theory of poetic art, as shown here and elsewhere.]

22. Boehme: Jacob, an "inspired" German shoemaker (1575-1624), who
wrote "Aurora," "The Three Principles," etc., mystical commentaries
on Biblical events. When twenty-five years old, says Hotham in
"Mysterium Magnum," 1653, "he was surrounded by a divine Light and
replenished with heavenly Knowledge . . . going abroad into the
Fieldes to a Greene before Neys-Gate at Gorlitz and viewing the
Herbes and Grass of the Fielde, in his inward light he saw into
their Essences . . . and from that Fountain of Revelation wrote Signatura Rerum>," on the signatures of things, the "tough book" to
which Browning refers.

37. Halberstadt: Johann Semeca, called Teutonicus, a canon of
Halberstadt in Germany, who was interested in the unchurchly study
of mediaeval science and reputed to be a magician, possessing the
vegetable stone supposed to make plants grow at will, having the
same power over organic life that the philosopher's stone of the
alchemists had over minerals, so that, like Albertus Magnus, another
such mage of the Middle Ages, he could cause flowers to spring up in
the midst of winter.


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