Text: Gerald M. Garmon, “Emerson’s ‘Moral Sentiment’ and Poe’s ‘Poetic Sentiment’ A Reconsideration,” Poe Studies, June 1973, Vol. VI, No. 1, 6:19-21


[page 19:]

Emerson’s “Moral Sentiment”
and Poe’s “Poetic Sentiment”:
A Reconsideration

West Georgia College

Emerson once referred to Poe derisively as the “jingle man,” and it is widely known that Emerson and the other moralists of the later nineteenth century were generally disposed to view Poe as a man of dissipation, if not of active evil. Whitman, for example, took issue with almost all of Poe’s principles, both artistic and what he thought moral. He found Poe “almost without the first sign of moral principle, or of the concrete or its heroisms, or the simpler affections of the heart.” While he acknowledged Poe’s “intense faculty for the technical and abstract beauty,” Whitman judged him finally to belong “among the electric lights of imaginative literature, brilliant and dazzling, but with no heat.” It is, of course, understandable that nineteenth-century Americans, like their English Victorian counterparts, should have dismissed Poe’s art because they thought it immoral or amoral. Poe’s art was viewed in the light of what they believed, largely erroneously, his wicked life to have been. Griswold’s early biography depicted Poe as an instrument of “demon rum” and a disciple of the devil. It was not until late in that century that John Ingram’s more authoritative and generous biography began to redeem some of Poe’s reputation into respectability. It was largely due to a sullied reputation that Poe was scorned as an “unfit” writer and, therefore, no more than a minor literary figure.

In point of fact, however, Poe’s moral view seems not to have differed greatly from that constantly overt moralist, Emerson himself. And upon examination we will find that Whitman is as wrong about Poe’s moral principle as he is about his literary importance. The opinions of Emerson and Poe on art and morality are not so antithetical as has been suggested. To take a single example, we may compare Poe’s “poetic sentiment” with Emerson’s “moral sentiment.” The term in the case of each author is crucial to his overall philosophy; careful consideration of these terms reveals that Poe and Emerson expressed not so much individualistic ideas on the relationship between art and morality, but rather both men expressed, or codified, the spirit of the age in which they lived.

In attempting to define the Moral Sentiment one may say, very generally, that it is an innate, intuitive, mystical knowledge of right. Emerson writes at one point: “The moral law lies at the centre of nature and radiates to the circumference. It is the pith and morrow of every substance, every relation, and every process. . .” (1). And later: “What our heart thinks great is great. The soul’s emphasis [column 2:] is always right” (II, 145). Emerson deduces this from his belief that there is a “union of man and God in every act of the soul” (II, 292). The Over-Soul enters into us and we come “to live in thoughts and act with energies which are immortal” (II, 296) . When the Over-Soul “breathes through” man’s intellect, “it is genius; when it breathes through his will, it is virtue; when it flows through his affection, it is love” (II, 271). For Emerson, the whole of nature and of history is the manifestation and revelation of a cosmic and morally responsible Reality, the Over-Soul. To experience mystical communication with this Over-Soul is to know the Moral Sentiment.

For the most part, Poe’s Poetic Sentiment deals with a different medium. Here Poe is representing the relationship, not of God to man, but of art to the artist. It must be understood that the Poetic Sentiment is not a definition of poetry; rather it is the reaction of the poetic spirit to true poetry. Poe describes such a reaction in the following quotation:

To look upwards from any existence, material or immaterial, to its design, is perhaps, the most direct, and the most unerring method of attaining a just notion of the nature of the existence itself. Nor is the principle at fault when we turn our eyes from Nature even to Nature’s God. . . . Very nearly akin to this feeling, and liable to the same analysis, is the Faculty of Ideality — which is the sentiment of Poesy. This sentiment is the sense of the beautiful, of the sublime, and of the mystical. Thence spring immediately admiration of the fair flowers, the fairer forests, the bright valleys and rivers and mountains of the Earth — and love of the gleaming stars and other burning glories of Heaven and, mingled up inextricably with this love and this admiration of Heaven and of Earth, the unconquerable desire to know. Poesy is the sentiment of Intellectual Happiness here, and the Hope of a higher Intellectual Happiness hereafter.

Imagination is its soul . . . (2)

Here is the Poetic Sentiment in words so clear, “as to imbue even the most obtuse intellect with a comprehension of it sufficiently distinct for all the purposes of practical analysis” (VIII, 281). In it are found certain similarities to Emerson’s Moral Sentiment.

From the opening statement, “To look upwards from any existence . . . to its design,” the definition seems almost a restatement of Emerson’s concept of man’s relation to Nature and the Over-Soul. Compare it, for example, with Emerson’s, “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” (I, 15), or with the following:

Nor can it be doubted that this moral sentiment which scents the air, grows in the grain, and impregnates the waters of the world, is caught by man and sinks into his soul. The moral influence of nature upon every individual is that amount of truth which it illustrates to him. . . . How much tranquility has been reflected to man from the azure sky, over whose unspotted deeps the winds forever drive flocks of strong clouds, and leave no wrinkle or stain? (I, 48)

Is this very different from the sentiment that produced the admiration of the flowers, forests, and rivers? The Poetic Sentiment is the sentiment of “Intellectual Happiness,” and Emerson has used such words as “mind,” “thought” and “intellect” as corollary terms of his Moral Sentiment and did, finally, conclude that the Moral Sentiment was dependent on intellectual endowment. [page 20:]

Since Poe has introduced “Nature’s God” into his definition — although he is not primarily concerned with the concept of God in the Poetic Sentiment — it will not be much amiss to compare Poe’s concept of “Nature’s God” with Emerson’s Over-Soul. Emerson wrote of the OverSoul that “we live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE” (II, 270).

In a letter to Lowell dated July 2, 1844, Poe wrote: “The unparticled matter, permeating and impelling all things is God. Its activity is the thought of God — which creates. Man, and other thinking beings, are individualizations of the unparticled matter” (3). Poe certainly knew the Transcendentalists and was doubtlessly influenced by them; and the correspondence of these two statements might suggest that he had borrowed from them, but there are hardly grounds for proof here.

There is yet another point in Poe’s definition which finds support in Emerson’s writings. Poe says that imagination is the soul of the Poetic Sentiment. Emerson wrote in his Journals that imagination is the naming of the spiritual laws by the physical facts (4). That is to say, Emerson defined imagination as the faculty which creates poetry, and this is in complete accord with Poe.

The most important and complete expression of the Poetic Sentiment is Poe’s “The Poetic Principle,” which appeared in 1850, a year after Poe’s death. It represents his most mature thinking and lacks the rancor of his earlier criticism. Here he tells us that the Poetic Sentiment is not restricted to poetry but may develop in Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Dance, and “very especially in Music” (XIV, 274). It is poetry, however, that he is concerned with, for poetry is “The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty.” In the “contemplation of Beauty we alone find it possible to attain that pleasurable elevation, or excitement, of the soul, which we recognize as the Poetic Sentiment” (XIV, 275). The Beauty that Poe worships is a Supernal Beauty, a heavenly and unearthly beauty that elevates the soul: “An immortal instinct, deep within the spirit of man, is thus, plainly, a sense of the Beautiful” (XIV, 273).

It is no mere appreciation of the beauty before us — but a wild effort to reach the beauty above. Inspired by an ecstatic prescience of the glories beyond the grave, we struggle, by multiform combinations among the things and thoughts of Time, to attain a portion of that Loveliness whose very elements, perhaps, appertain to eternity alone. (XIV, 273)

With Emerson the “contemplation of Beauty” becomes contemplation of Nature. What elevates the soul and excites it is its communion with Nature.

Standing on the bare ground — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. (I, 14)

The “Supernal Beauty” to Emerson is the “great delight which the fields and woods minister,” and the terms in [column 2:] which Emerson describes Beauty are remarkably like those of Poe.

There is still another aspect under which the beauty of the world may be viewed, namely, as it becomes an object of the intellect. . . . The intellect searches out the absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God, and without the colors of affection. . . . The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation. . . . Thus is art a nature passed through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works. (I, 28)

In “The Poetic Principle” Poe describes the purpose of a poem as creating Beauty first and inculcating a moral — if at all — only by implication. Here again Emerson and Poe would agree on the theory. Poe says of the moral, which he calls truth, “The demands of Truth are severe. She has no sympathy with the myrtles” (XIV, 274). But he is willing to admit that truth, or moral truth, may be suggested by a poem, so long as it is not openly stated. Indeed, Beauty itself is a moral instinct. And Emerson agreed when he wrote, “. . . picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it is a man in alliance with truth and God” (I, 36) . Emerson, however, in practice, saw no reason why morality or truth should not be pointed out bluntly to those who could not — or would not — see beyond the beauty of the lines to the Supernal Beauty. Poe maintained that a poem of beauty would create a thirst, which “belongs to the immortality of man” (XIV, 273). This was sufficient moral. Quinn, in his biography of Poe, explains this point.

Poe was constantly concerned in his poetry and prose with the effect of sin, rather than with sin itself. . . . Poe has so often been described as unmoral by those who fail to understand his work, that it will be necessary to call attention . . . to his realization of the dramatic values of the conflicts between Divine law and the idols wrought either by the strength or the weakness of mankind (5).

Poe divided the world of mind into three distinctions: Pure Intellect, Taste, and the Moral Sense. Taste he placed in the middle where it may hold intimate relations with Intellect and the Moral Sense.

Just as the Intellect concerns itself with Truth, so Taste informs us of the beautiful while the Moral Sense is regardful of Duty. . . . Taste contents herself with displaying the charms: — waging war upon vice solely on the ground of her deformity — her animosity to the fitting, to the appropriate, to the harmonious — in a word, to Beauty. (XIV, 273)

And to Poe it is the sacred duty of the artist to wage this war against deformity; it is a part of the “irritable” soul. It is not only duty, it is compulsion; and who is not so compelled is no poet.

As the artist is commanded by the Poetic Sentiment, so all men must be commanded by the Moral Sentiment, says Emerson.

The sentiment never stops in pure vision, bur will be enacted. It affirms not only its truth, but its supremacy. It is nor only insight, as science, as fancy, as imagination is; or an entertainment, as friendship and poetry are; but it is a sovereign rule: [page 21:] and the acts which it suggests — as when it impels a man to go forth and impart it to other men, or sets him on some asceticism or some practice of self-examination to hold him to obedience, or some zeal to unite men to abate some nuisance, or establish some reform or charity which it commands — are homage we render to this sentiment, as compared with the lower regard we pay to other thoughts. (X , 103)

To Poe, the search for beauty, which is the Poetic Sentiment, is not just a struggle; at times it may even be achieved, but it is in the search that the artist is fulfilled. “This it is,” he wrote, “which administers to his delight in the manifold forms, and sounds, and odours, and sentiments amid which he exists” (XIV, 273). The same satisfaction is to be had by the moralist who follows Emerson’s Sentiment.

The lessons of the moral sentiment are, once for all, an emancipation from that anxiety which takes all the joy out of life. It touches a great peace. It comes itself from the highest place. It is that, which being in all sound natures, and strongest in the best and most gifted men, we know to be implanted by the Creator of Men. (X, 225)

This “emancipation from anxiety” is the peace which comes from the mystic experience and the communion with the inner-self. He concludes the essay “Self-Reliance” with these words: “Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principles.” Poe held the principle of art to be all important, and he held that beauty affords “rapturous enjoyment” to the artist. And since beauty is that which is the outward manifestation of the soul of the poet, it may be said that the poet is also looking within himself for enjoyment and peace.

The comparison so far made might give the impression that Poe and Emerson thought along precisely similar lines, but this is far from correct. Outside of the two Sentiments which have been here discussed there are wide differences of opinion, and even within there are several of detail and interpretation. One is of major importance. It is a concept of the utmost importance to the Moral Sentiment and comes into the Poetic Sentiment only as a corollary.

Not all men experience the Moral Sentiment, but only because they lack the intellect or the will to comprehend the call of duty. All men can know the Moral Sentiment in some future time. Emerson has faith in an evolutionary process, a spiral up which all things aspire to higher forms. He, as yet, holds out little hope for the individual in the masses, but man as a species is perfectible. The time will come when all men will have the intellect and the will to be led by the Moral Sentiment.

It is this same evolution which Emerson uses to explain sin. Sin is a test which men must pass to improve the intellect. “The glory of character is in affronting the horrors of depravity to draw thence new nobilities of power” (VI, 218; see also 254-255). Sin is a thing to be conquered, and man has constantly done so, or he could not recognize it as mean.

In spite of appearances, in spite of malignity and blind self-interest living for the moment, an eternal, beneficent necessity is always bringing things right; and though we should fold our [column 2:] arms . . . the evils we suffer will at last end themselves through the incessant opposition of Nature to everything hurtful. . . . (X, 188-189)

And Emerson finds historical evidence to support his theory: “The civic history of man might be traced by the successive meliorations as marked in higher moral generalizations” (X, 187) .

On this point, however, Poe disagrees completely. In his letter to Lowell, which has already been quoted, Poe wrote,

I really perceive that vanity about which most men merely prate — the vanity of the human temporal life. I live continually in a reverie of the future. I have no faith in human perfectibility. I think that human exertion will have no appreciable effect upon humanity. Man is now only more active — not more happy — nor more wise, than he was 6000 years ago. The result will never vary — and to suppose that it will, is to suppose that the foregone man had lived in vain — that the myriads who have perished have not been upon equal footing with ourselves — nor are we with posterity. (Letters, 1, 256)

The future for the artist must be the reputation and fame that will live on after him. If he were to assume that after he has gone a superior race will inhabit the earth to judge his work as feeble and primitive, then the promise of art is vitiated. Poe could not accept the belief in the perfectibility of man, therefore, for it is not in keeping with the doctrine that art is immortal, ever changing, ever new and ever old.

Throughout this discussion the great difference between the two sentiments has been overlooked in favor of finding the similarities. Indeed, the similarities do greatly outnumber the differences. But there is this great difference: Emerson conceived of art as the Over-Soul breathing through the alembic of man, and art therefore takes on a secondary importance, while the primary subject is the Over-Soul. For Emerson art is a means to an end. For Poe, it is the end in itself, but he sees art as a science, a knowledge, and a sister of religion. Art is the conversation with the Divine Being. Thus, although Emerson maintained that art was the instrument with which the message is transmitted, both writers would have agreed with Emerson’s definition of God: “To create, to create is proof of a divine presence. Whoever creates is God. . . .” (Journals, IV, 2 52 -2 53) .



(1) The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903), I, 41. Hereafter cited by volume and page in the text.

(2) The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. James A. Harrison (New York: Thomas Crowell, 1902), VIII, 281-283. Hereafter cited by volume and page in the text.

(3) The Letters of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. John Ward Ostrom (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1948), I, 257.

(4) Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), I — , 127.

(5) Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography (New York and London: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1941), p. 82.


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[S:0 - PS, 1973]