The Forgotten Language
of Sentimentality
For as it is dis-location and detachment from the life of God that
makes things ugly, the poet, who re-attaches things to nature and
the Whole, - re-attaching even artificial things and violation of na-
ture, to nature, by a deeper insight, -disposes very easily of the
most disagreeable facts, -
Emerson, "The Poet."
Unlike most recent attempts to come to terms with the American senti-
mental tradition which focus on narrative and the novel, I have become
convinced that the poetry of the nineteenth century, as a practice and as
a product, deserves closer attention. After all, when Ralph Waldo Emer-
son in
addressed the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa Society with an appeal
for and description of "The American Scholar," he began by making a
millennial claim for poetry: "'Who can doubt that poetry will revive and
lead in a new age, as the star in the constellation Harp, which now flames
in our zenith, astronomers announce, shall one day be the pole star for a
thousand years"
To those who were not familiar with the most re-
cent astronomical theories, it might have been possible to doubt that out
of the plethora of stars crowding the zenith of the sky, one would even-
tually move into the lonely, fixed position of the pole star around which
the rest of the galaxy revolves and by which earthly observers navigate.
But it was hardly possible to "doubt that poetry will revive and lead in
a new age," because Emerson was only describing what many people felt
and were enacting in villages and farmsteads across New England.
Although Emerson's poet is insistently gendered male, numerous
women as well as men attested to their faith in the capacity of poetry
to correct the threatening "dislocation of and detachment from the life
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