Discontinuity in Self-Reliance and When I Consider How My Light Is Spent
Ralph Waldo Emerson emphatically proclaims in "Self-Reliance" that "the highest merit we ascribe to Moses, Plato, and Milton is that they set naught at traditions but spoke…what they thought" (515). Emerson declares that Milton’s greatness is attributed not to conformity but rather to originality. Milton’s break with consistent expectations is epitomized in his use of a Petrarchan sonnet in the poem "When I Consider How My Light Is Spent." Nonconformity and discontinuity in a man’s approach to life are the doctrines espoused by Emerson in his work "Self-Reliance," and Milton embodies an Emersonian outlook while inwardly searching for personal truth in his sonnet. The lack of formal structure in the works of the two authors enhances rather than inhibits the reader’s grasp of the literature. Although both Emerson and Milton employ a discontinuous literary style in their respective works, Emerson revels in his lack of continuity to further promulgate his ideology of nonconformity and inconsistency while Milton’s use of discontinuity is procured in an attempt to understand his place before God. The foundation for comparing the two works will be based on the following definition of discontinuity: any literary approach that deviates from standard structural form.
The absence of formal structure in Emerson’s "Self-Reliance" has been derided by some critics as an "insuperable handicap" to an appropriate understanding of the work (Warren 200). A thorough examination of the work, however, evokes two fundamental claims: Emerson provides a basis for some semblance of structure, and complete continuity is antithetical to the fundamentals of Emerson’s "Self-Reliance." Emerson’s original style is seen as a "strategy" to highlight his philosophical tenets rather than a haphazard infirmity to the reader’s understanding of the work (Buell 173).
As for the organization of "Self-Reliance," it is fair to say that there is more order than the reader first notices and that "Emerson provides enough clues to ensure continuity, though in a studiously offhand…manner"(174). Jonathan Bishop, in his Emerson on the Soul, states that Emerson is a "worker in sentences and single verses"; however, Emerson ties these verses together with structurally sound conclusions and catalogued guides (57). Evidence of discontinuity can be seen when the reader comes upon the sentence, "the other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency." Immediately, the reader wonders what the other terror is that Emerson has omitted. It is not till the conclusion of Emerson’s work "I hope in these days we have heard the last of conformity and consistency" that the reader realizes that conformity is the missing terror (520). The Emersonian tactic of delaying an answer till the conclusion is an original stylistic application of discontinuity and this approach simultaneously "reassures us that...