The Past

- 1803-1882

The debt is paid,
The verdict said,
The Furies laid,
The plague is stayed.
All fortunes made;
Turn the key and bolt the door,
Sweet is death forevermore.
Nor haughty hope, nor swart chagrin,
Nor murdering hate, can enter in.
All is now secure and fast;
Not the gods can shake the Past;
Flies-to the adamantine door
Bolted down forevermore.
None can re-enter there,—
No thief so politic,
No Satan with a royal trick
Steal in by window, chink, or hole,
To bind or unbind, add what lacked,
Insert a leaf, or forge a name,
New-face or finish what is packed,
Alter or mend eternal Fact.

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.

Concord Hymn

By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
    Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
    And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
    Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
    Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
    We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
    When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

Spirit, that made those heroes dare
    To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
    The shaft we raise to them and thee.

Related Poems

Constancy to an Ideal Object

Since all that beat about in Nature's range,
Or veer or vanish; why should'st thou remain
The only constant in a world of change,
O yearning Thought! that liv'st but in the brain?
Call to the Hours, that in the distance play,
The faery people of the future day—
Fond Thought! not one of all that shining swarm
Will breathe on thee with life-enkindling breath,
Till when, like strangers shelt'ring from a storm,
Hope and Despair meet in the porch of Death!
Yet still thou haunt'st me; and though well I see,
She is not thou, and only thou are she,
Still, still as though some dear embodied Good,
Some living Love before my eyes there stood
With answering look a ready ear to lend,
I mourn to thee and say—'Ah! loveliest friend!
That this the meed of all my toils might be,
To have a home, an English home, and thee!'
Vain repetition! Home and Thou are one.
The peacefull'st cot, the moon shall shine upon,
Lulled by the thrush and wakened by the lark,
Without thee were but a becalméd bark,
Whose Helmsman on an ocean waste and wide
Sits mute and pale his mouldering helm beside.

And art thou nothing? Such thou art, as when
The woodman winding westward up the glen
At wintry dawn, where o'er the sheep-track's maze
The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist'ning haze,
Sees full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round its head;
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he makes the shadow, he pursues!

Sic Vita

‘It is but thin soil where we stand; I have felt my roots in a richer ere this. I have seen a bunch of violets in a glass vase, tied loosely with a straw, which reminded me of myself.’—The Week.

I am a parcel of vain strivings tied
   By a chance bond together,
Dangling this way and that, their links
   Were made so loose and wide,
                        Methinks,
         For milder weather.

A bunch of violets without their roots,
   And sorrel intermixed,
Encircled by a wisp of straw
   Once coiled about their shoots,
                        The law
         By which I’m fixed.

A nosegay which Time clutched from out
   Those fair Elysian fields,
With weeds and broken stems, in haste,
   Doth make the rabble rout
                        That waste
         The day he yields.

And here I bloom for a short hour unseen,
   Drinking my juices up,
With no root in the land
   To keep my branches green,
                        But stand
         In a bare cup.

Some tender buds were left upon my stem
   In mimicry of life,
But ah! the children will not know,
   Till time has withered them,
                        The woe
         With which they’re rife.

But now I see I was not plucked for nought,
   And after in life’s vase
Of glass set while I might survive,
   But by a kind hand brought
                        Alive
         To a strange place.

That stock thus thinned will soon redeem its hours,
   And by another year,
Such as God knows, with freer air,
   More fruits and fairer flowers
                        Will bear,
         While I droop here.

 

An Hymn to the Evening

Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav’nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr’s wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring,
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
   Through all the heav’ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with every virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
   Fill’d with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers soothe each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav’nly, more refin’d;
So shall the labors of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
   Night’s leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.