(a) poet, (b) philosopher; pick one

This judgment of Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported by Julia Ward Howe in her Reminiscences: 1819-1899:

“Theodore Parker once said to me, ‘I do not consider Emerson a philosopher, but a poet lacking the accomplishment of rhyme.’ ”

Coming from Parker, who could at least pretend to be a philosopher/theologian, that’s a fairly harsh thing to say. After she reports Parker’s bon mot, Howe, who considered herself a poet, goes on to add her own judgment:

“This may not be altogether true, but it is worth remembering…. The deep intuitions, the original and startling combinations, the sometimes whimsical beauty of his illustrations,– all these belong rather to the domain of poetry than to that of philosophy…. Despite his rather defective sense of rhythm, his poems are divine snatches of melody….”

I think Howe and Parker are right: Emerson is more of a poet than a philosopher. Since Emerson remains the most important philosopher/theologian of North American Unitarianism, that has some interesting implications for who we are today.

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