Letters

Ralph Waldo Emerson - 1803-1882

Every day brings a ship,
Every ship brings a word;
Well for those who have no fear,
Looking seaward well assured
That the word the vessel brings
Is the word they wish to hear.

More by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The Sphinx

The Sphinx is drowsy,
        The wings are furled;
Her ear is heavy,
        She broods on the world.
"Who'll tell me my secret,
        The ages have kept?--
I awaited the seer,
        While they slumbered and slept;--

"The fate of the man-child;
        The meaning of man;
Known fruit of the unknown;
        Daedalian plan;
Out of sleeping a waking,
        Out of waking a sleep;
Life death overtaking;
        Deep underneath deep?

"Erect as a sunbeam,
        Upspringeth the palm;
The elephant browses,
        Undaunted and calm;
In beautiful motion
        The thrush plies his wings;
Kind leaves of his covert,
        Your silence he sings.

"The waves, unashamed,
        In difference sweet,
Play glad with the breezes,
        Old playfellows meet;
The journeying atoms,
        Primordial wholes,
Firmly draw, firmly drive,
        By their animate poles.

"Sea, earth, air, sound, silence,
        Plant, quadruped, bird,
By one music enchanted,
        One deity stirred,--
Each the other adorning,
        Accompany still;
Night veileth the morning,
        The vapor the hill.

"The babe by its mother
        Lies bathed in joy;
Glide its hours uncounted,--
        The sun is its toy;
Shines the peace of all being,
        Without cloud, in its eyes;
And the sum of the world
        In soft miniature lies.

"But man crouches and blushes,
        Absconds and conceals;
He creepeth and peepeth,
        He palters and steals;
Infirm, melancholy,
        Jealous glancing around,
An oaf, an accomplice,
        He poisons the ground.

"Outspoke the great mother,
        Beholding his fear;--
At the sound of her accents
        Cold shuddered the sphere:--
'Who has drugged my boy's cup?
        Who has mixed my boy's bread?
Who, with sadness and madness,
        Has turned the man-child's head?'" 

I heard a poet answer,
        Aloud and cheerfully,
"Say on, sweet Sphinx! thy dirges
        Are pleasant songs to me.
Deep love lieth under
        These pictures of time; 
They fad in the light of
        Their meaning sublime.

"The fiend that man harries
        Is love of the Best;
Yawns the pit of the Dragon,
        Lit by rays from the Blest.
The Lethe of nature
        Can't trace him again,
Whose soul sees the perfect,
        Which his eyes seek in vain.

"Profounder, profounder,
        Man's spirit must dive;
To his aye-rolling orbit
        No goal will arrive;
The heavens that now draw him
        With sweetness untold,
Once found,--for new heavens
        He spurneth the old.

"Pride ruined the angels,
        Their shame them restores;
And the joy that is sweetest
        Lurks in stings of remorse.
Have I a lover
        Who is noble and free?--
I would he were nobler
        Than to love me.

"Eterne alternation
        Now follows, now flied;
And under pain, pleasure,--
        Under pleasure, pain lies.
Love works at the centre,
        Heart-heaving alway;
Forth speed the strong pulses
        To the borders of day.

"Dull Sphinx, Jove keep thy five wits!
        Thy sight is growing blear;
Rue, myrrh, and cummin for the Sphinx--
        Her muddy eyes to clear!"--
The old Sphinx bit her thick lip,--
        Said, "Who taught thee me to name?
I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow,
        Of thine eye I am eyebeam.

"Thou art the unanswered question;
        Couldst see they proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh;
        And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
        It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
        Time is the false reply."

Uprose the merry Sphinx,
        And crouched no more in stone;
She melted into purple cloud,
        She silvered in the moon;
She spired into a yellow flame;
        She flowered in blossoms red;
She flowed into a foaming wave;
        She stood Monadnoc's head.

Through a thousand voices
        Spoke the universal dame:
"Who telleth one of my meanings,
        Is master of all I am."

The Problem

I like a church; I like a cowl;
I love a prophet of the soul;
and on my heart monastic aisles
Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles;
Yet not for all his faith can see
Would I that cowled churchman be. 

Why should the vest on him alure,
Which I could not on me endure?

Not from a vain or shallow thought
His awful Jove young Phidias brought;
Never from lips of cunning fell
The thrilling Delphic oracle;
Out from the heart of nature rolled
The burdens of the Bible old;
the litanies of nations came,
Like the volcano's tongue of flame,
Up from the burning core below,--
The canticles of love and woe;
The hand that rounded Peter's dome,
And groined the aisles of Christian Rome,
Wrought in a sad sincerity;
Himself from God he could not free;
He builded better than he knew;--
The conscious stone to beauty grew. 

Know'st thou what wove yon woodbird's nest
Of leaves, and feathers from her breast?
Or how the fish outbuilt her shell,
Painting with morn each annual cell?
Or how the sacred pine-tree adds
To her old leaves new myriads?
Such and so grew these holy piles,
Whilst love and terror laid the tiles.
Earth proudly wears the Parthenon,
As the best gem upon her zone;
And Morning opes with hast her lids,
To gaze upon the Pyramids;
O'er england's abbeys bends the sky,
As on its friends, with kindred eye;
For, out of Thought's interior sphere,
These wonders rose to upper air;
And nature gladly gave them place,
Adopted them into her race,
And granted them an equal date
With Andes and with Ararat.

These temples grew as grows the grass;
Art might obey, but not surpass.
The passive master lent his hand
To the vast soul that o'er him planned;
And the same power that reared the shrine,
Bestrode the stibes that knelt within.
Ever the fiery Pntecost
Girds with one flame the countless host,
Trances the heart through chanting choirs,
And through the priest the mind inspired.
The word unto the prophet spoken
Was writ on tables yet unbroken;
The word by seers or sibyls told,
In groves of oak, or fanes of gold,
Still floats upon the morning wind,
Still whispers to the willing mind.
One accent of the Holy Ghost
The heedless world hath never lost.
I know what say the fathers wise,--
The Book itself before me lies,
Old Chrysostom, best Augustine,
And he who blent both in his line,
The younger Golden Lips or mines,
Taylor, the Shakspeare of divines.
His words are music in my ear,
I see his cowled portrait dear;
And yet, for all his faith could see,
I would not the good bishop be.

Song of Nature

Mine are the night and morning,
The pits of air, the gulf of space,
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days.

I hid in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.

No numbers have counted my tallies,
No tribes my house can fill,
I sit by the shining Fount of Life,
And pour the deluge still;

And ever by delicate powers
Gathering along the centuries
From race on race the rarest flowers,
My wreath shall nothing miss.

And many a thousand summers
My apples ripened well,
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.

I wrote the past in characters
Of rock and fire the scroll,
The building in the coral sea,
The planting of the coal.

And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew;

What time the gods kept carnival,
Tricked out in star and flower,
And in cramp elf and saurian forms
They swathed their too much power.

Time and Thought were my surveyors,
They laid their courses well,
They boiled the sea, and baked the layers
Or granite, marl, and shell.

But he, the man-child glorious,--
Where tarries he the while?
The rainbow shines his harbinger,
The sunset gleams his smile.

My boreal lights leap upward,
Forthright my planets roll,
And still the man-child is not born,
The summit of the whole.

Must time and tide forever run?
Will never my winds go sleep in the west?
Will never my wheels which whirl the sun
And satellites have rest?

Too much of donning and doffing,
Too slow the rainbow fades,
I weary of my robe of snow,
My leaves and my cascades;

I tire of globes and races,
Too long the game is played;
What without him is summer's pomp,
Or winter's frozen shade?

I travail in pain for him,
My creatures travail and wait;
His couriers come by squadrons,
He comes not to the gate.

Twice I have moulded an image,
And thrice outstretched my hand,
Made one of day, and one of night,
And one of the salt sea-sand.

One in a Judaean manger,
And one by Avon stream,
One over against the mouths of Nile,
And one in the Academe.

I moulded kings and saviours,
And bards o'er kings to rule;--
But fell the starry influence short,
The cup was never full.

Yet whirl the glowing wheels once more,
And mix the bowl again;
Seethe, fate! the ancient elements,
Heat, cold, wet, dry, and peace, and pain.

Let war and trade and creeds and song
Blend, ripen race on race,
The sunburnt world a man shall breed
Of all the zones, and countless days.

No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn
Gives back the bending heavens in dew.

Related Poems

Ships That Pass in the Night

Out in the sky the great dark clouds are massing;
   I look far out into the pregnant night,
Where I can hear a solemn booming gun
   And catch the gleaming of a random light,
That tells me that the ship I seek is passing, passing.

My tearful eyes my soul's deep hurt are glassing;
   For I would hail and check that ship of ships.
I stretch my hands imploring, cry aloud,
   My voice falls dead a foot from mine own lips,
And but its ghost doth reach that vessel, passing, passing.

O Earth, O Sky, O Ocean, both surpassing,
   O heart of mine, O soul that dreads the dark!
Is there no hope for me? Is there no way
   That I may sight and check that speeding bark
Which out of sight and sound is passing, passing?