Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


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."

Credit


From Collected Poems & Translations by Ralph Waldo Emerson, published by Library of America.

Author


Ralph Waldo Emerson

American poet, essayist, and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston.

Date Published: 1841-01-01

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/sphinx