The Poetry of Power

Political leadership in this country is not what it used to be. We tend to chew up our political leaders, whether Democrat or Republican, incumbent or challenger. The shouts of praised and admiration from the public are guaranteed to be short-lived. As I watch the 2010 state and national elections I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poem Fame. Emerson opens his poem with the following lines:

He pays too high a price

For knowledge and for fame

Who sells his sinews to be wise

His teeth and bones to buy a name,

And crawls through life a paralytic

To earn the praise of bard and critic.

Were it not better to done

To dine and sleep through forty years;

Be loved by few; be feared by none;

And take the mortal leap undaunte3d

Content that all we asked was granted?

What Emerson is seeking to remind us is that fame, in this case political fame, comes with enormous personal sacrifice. Candidates running for political office have to beg strangers for money, allow high priced consultants reshape their persona, and open themselves to a steady stream of criticism and invective that most of us would never tolerate. They have little time for themselves and little opportunity to be themselves.

What keeps them going through the maze of American electoral politics is that they have enormous self-confidence and a steely character that shields them from all the slings and arrows of opposition. They have chosen not in Emerson’s words to ” dine and sleep through forty years” or to be ” loved by few and feared by none.”

Later in the poem Emerson praises those who seek fame saying that ” fate will not permit the seed of gods to die.” For many of us linking fame with the gods is gross hyperbole. In this age of cynicism and doubt about our leaders we would rather ridicule them than place them on a pedestal.

Somewhere along the line we got comfortable making fun of political leaders and took joy in accenting their errors in judgment and their personal misfortunes. Gods? Hardly. Targets of endless griping and second-guessing? Most certainly.

Yet despite the fact thyat we as a nation seem to enjoy tearing our politicians down, political leadership remains the highest calling in a democracy and service to the public a noble profession. We should be thankful that we have leaders in this country who have the courage and determination to “take the mortal leap undaunted.”

Emerson ends his poem with these words that capture the loneliness and the melancholy of those who aspire to greatness.

Go then, sad youth, and shine,

Go, sacrifice to Fame;

Put youth, joy, health upon the shrine

And life to fan the flame;

Being a Seeming bravely barter

And die to Fame a happy martyr.


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