Vol. 17 No. 17 · 7 September 1995
Injury succeeds insult for Ralph Waldo Emerson in the pages of the London Review of Books. Ian Hamilton’s poem ‘Steps’ (LRB, 3 August) reads like a hastily versified set of notes taken from the first paragraph of ‘Experience’. The text of Emerson’s great essay reads as follows:
Where do we find ourselves? In a series of which we do not know the extremes, and believe that it has none We wake and find ourselves on a stair; there are stairs below us, which we seem to have ascended; there are stairs above us, many a one, which go upward and out of sight. But the Genius which according to the old belief stands at the door by which we enter, and gives us the lethe to drink, that we may tell no tales, mixed the cup too strongly, and we cannot shake off the lethargy now at noonday.
Hamilton’s poem reproduces not only the paragraph’s central image (that of the staircase), which is commonplace enough, but also, word for word, its opening sentence (‘Where do we find ourselves?’), its second sentence, in a somewhat altered version (‘we know not the extremes’), and, in a very slight variation, one of the paragraph’s most striking phrases (‘this lethargy at noon’). I question the tact of the author, and the judgment of his editors, in publishing this work without acknowledgment.
J. Mark Smith
Mammoth Lakes, California
Ian Hamilton made it clear when he offered us ‘Steps’ for publication that the poem had its source in an essay by Emerson. Archaisms like ‘We know not’ and ‘Alas’ surely signal that there is a source and that the poet is not addressing us in his own person. A formal acknowledgment, it seemed to us and to him, would have been heavy-handed.
Editor, ‘London Review’