Origins of Rupture: Ralph Waldo Emerson's 'Woods, a Prose Sonnet'
Published in 1839, nearly half a century before Aestheticism’s implementation of vers libre, Emerson’s “Woods, a Prose Sonnet” appears to disregard nearly every convention familiar to the sonnet form, as well as most customs endemic to poetry as such. It contains no meter or rhyme scheme, nor is it broken into lines. While the logical turn toward its end (“This I would ask of you, o sacred Woods”) might constitute a volta, even its subject—the wisdom imparted by nature—departs from the topic of romantic courtship, which readers associate with the sonnet from Petrarch onwards. But as Paul Oppenheimer argues, the sonnet is, first and foremost, a “lyric of self-consciousness, or of the self in conflict” (3). Inasmuch as it comprises a mind-event wherein an embattled consciousness seeks to resolve a psychically bound antagonism, Emerson’s “Sonnet” not only satisfies the form’s most crucial criterion, it recalibrates what readers moving forward might expect from the form more generally. This shift grants license to a range of twentieth-century poets, from John Ashbery and Stanley Kunitz to Wanda Coleman, Harryette Mullen, and Terrance Hayes. That it appears at a seminal juncture in American letters amplifies this crucial aesthetic decision, demonstrating that the origin of the American sonnet falls well beyond the bounds of traditional prosody. Indeed, to read the development of the American sonnet as a movement from convention toward its radical liberation eclipses the weaponization of its strictures by poets of color, many of whom have adopted and subverted its conventions in order to carve a space for themselves in an otherwise homogenous and exclusive Anglophone canon. Building on research by Elisa Tamarkin, Jennifer Ann Wagner, and Stephanie Kuduk Weiner, this paper will examine the curious formal logic of Emerson’s “Woods” to complicate the current critical understanding of the early American sonnet. In so doing, I aim to revise the narrative of the American sonnet’s evolution, characterizing that trajectory less as a march toward formal radicality and more as a dialectic between various aesthetic commitments, whose tradition begins in rupture and reinstantiates that radicality through its adoption of and departure from lyric form.
John James is the author of The Milk Hours (Milkweed, 2019), selected by Henri Cole for the Max Ritvo Poetry Prize. His poems appear in Boston Review, Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast, PEN America, Best American Poetry, and elsewhere. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in English at University of California-Berkeley.