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Jorge Luis Borges

Borges on Emerson and Whitman

I think the following two poems say volumes about Borges’ aspirations as a writer. In this collection, at least, the second poem directly follows the first.

To me, the more shocking of the two is the first one, which begins rather traditionally, by providing a rather acute summary of Emerson, who was known primarily as an essayist and philosopher who had been strongly influenced by Montaigne.

EMERSON

Closing the heavy volume of Montaigne,
The tall New Englander goes out
Into an evening which exalts the fields.
It is a pleasure worth no less than reading.
He walks toward the final sloping of the sun,
Toward the landscape’s gilded edge;
He moves through darkening fields as he moves now
Through the memory of the one who writes this down.
He thinks: I have read the essential books
And written others which oblivion
Will not efface. I have been allowed
That which is given mortal man to know.
The whole continent knows my name.
I have not lived. I want to be someone else.

The next few lines seem to capture Emerson’s love of nature, and go on to summarize his fame. Of course, it’s the last line that is completely unexpected. I’m still not sure I understand what it means, much less whether I agree with it. Since I’ve never encountered anything like it in Emerson’s own writing, I’d have to assume that that is how Borges would have felt if he had been Emerson.

Why he would feel that way seems to be suggested in

CAMDEN, 1892

The smell of coffee and the newspapers.
Sunday and its lassitudes. The morning,
and on the adjoining page, that vanity-
the publication of allegorical verses
by a fortunate fellow poet. The old man
lies on a white bed in his sober room,
a poor man’s habitation. Languidly
he gazes at his face in the worn mirror.
He thinks, beyond astonishment now: that man
is me, and absentmindedly his hand
touches the unkempt beard and the worn-out mouth.
The end is close. He mutters to himself-
I am almost dead, but still my poems retain
life and its wonders. I was once Walt Whitman.

Unlike the first poem where Emerson is revealed in the title, it’s not entirely clear that this poem is about Walt Whitman until the last line. The first poem begins on a positive note, whereas this one begins on a negative note. The man is living in “a poor man’s habitation” and appears close to death, with an “unkempt beard and the worn-out mouth./The end is close.” But he is astonishingly happy because he “was once” Walt Whitman and wrote “allegorical verses.”

I wonder if Borges would prefer to be Whitman because he senses he is more like Emerson, which certainly seems the case to me? More and more, though, I’m beginning to suspect that he’s more like Hawthorne than either of those two. His is certainly a rather dark Romanticism rather than an optimistic Transcendentalism, which might simply say that it’s nearly impossible for a modern writer to be be Transcendentalist.