Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
 
II. May-Day and Other Pieces
The Harp
 
ONE 1 musician is sure,
His wisdom will not fail,
He has not tasted wine impure,
Nor bent to passion frail.
Age cannot cloud his memory,        5
Nor grief untune his voice,
Ranging down the ruled scale
From tone of joy to inward wail,
Tempering the pitch of all
In his windy cave.        10
He all the fables knows,
And in their causes tells,—
Knows Nature’s rarest moods,
Ever on her secret broods.
The Muse of men is coy,        15
Oft courted will not come;
In palaces and market squares
Entreated, she is dumb;
But my minstrel knows and tells
The counsel of the gods,        20
Knows of Holy Book the spells,
Knows the law of Night and Day,
And the heart of girl and boy,
The tragic and the gay,
And what is writ on Table Round        25
Of Arthur and his peers;
What sea and land discoursing say
In sidereal years.
He renders all his lore
In numbers wild as dreams,        30
Modulating all extremes,—
What the spangled meadow saith
To the children who have faith;
Only to children children sing,
Only to youth will spring be spring.        35
 
  Who is the Bard thus magnified?
When did he sing? and where abide?
 
  Chief of song where poets feast
Is the wind-harp which thou seest
In the casement at my side.        40
 
  Æolian harp,
How strangely wise thy strain!
Gay for youth, gay for youth,
(Sweet is art, but sweeter truth,)
In the hall at summer eve        45
Fate and Beauty skilled to weave.
From the eager opening strings
Rung loud and bold the song.
Who but loved the wind-harp’s note?
How should not the poet doat        50
On its mystic tongue,
With its primeval memory,
Reporting what old minstrels told
Of Merlin locked the harp within,—
Merlin paying the pain of sin,        55
Pent in a dungeon made of air,—
And some attain his voice to hear,
Words of pain and cries of fear,
But pillowed all on melody,
As fits the griefs of bards to be. 2        60
And what if that all-echoing shell,
Which thus the buried Past can tell,
Should rive the Future, and reveal
What his dread folds would fain conceal?
It shares the secret of the earth,        65
And of the kinds that owe her birth.
Speaks not of self that mystic tone,
But of the Overgods alone:
It trembles to the cosmic breath,—
As it heareth, so it saith;        70
Obeying meek the primal Cause,
It is the tongue of mundane laws.
And this, at least, I dare affirm,
Since genius too has bound and term,
There is no bard in all the choir,        75
Not Homer’s self, the poet sire,
Wise Milton’s odes of pensive pleasure,
Or Shakspeare, whom no mind can measure,
Nor Collins’ verse of tender pain,
Nor Byron’s clarion of disdain,        80
Scott, the delight of generous boys,
Or Wordsworth, Pan’s recording voice,—
Not one of all can put in verse,
Or to this presence could rehearse
The sights and voices ravishing        85
The boy knew on the hills in spring,
When pacing through the oaks he heard
Sharp queries of the sentry-bird,
The heavy grouse’s sudden whir,
The rattle of the kingfisher;        90
Saw bonfires of the harlot flies
In the lowland, when day dies;
Or marked, benighted and forlorn,
The first far signal-fire of morn.
These syllables that Nature spoke,        95
And the thoughts that in him woke,
Can adequately utter none
Save to his ear the wind-harp lone. 3
Therein I hear the Parcæ reel
The threads of man at their humming wheel,        100
The threads of life and power and pain,
So sweet and mournful falls the strain.
And best can teach its Delphian chord
How Nature to the soul is moored,
If once again that silent string,        105
As erst it wont, would thrill and ring.
 
  Not long ago at eventide,
It seemed, so listening, at my side
A window rose, and, to say sooth,
I looked forth on the fields of youth:        110
I saw fair boys bestriding steeds,
I knew their forms in fancy weeds,
Long, long concealed by sundering fates,
Mates of my youth,—yet not my mates,
Stronger and bolder far than I,        115
With grace, with genius, well attired,
And then as now from far admired,
Followed with love
They knew not of,
With passion cold and shy.        120
O joy, for what recoveries rare!
Renewed, I breathe Elysian air,
See youth’s glad mates in earliest bloom,—
Break not my dream, obtrusive tomb!
Or teach thou, Spring! the grand recoil        125
Of life resurgent from the soil
Wherein was dropped the mortal spoil. 4
 
Note 1. “The Harp” formed a part of “May-Day” when that poem first appeared. It followed the passage which tells of the harmonizing by the air of discordant natural sounds at Lake Superior.
  The wild wind-harp of the pine, or the artificial one in his study-window played on by the West-wind, gave the music that stirred Emerson. [back]
Note 2. The story, from the Morte d’Arthur, of Merlin hopelessly confined in a chamber of air, from which he speaks to the passing knights, is given in full in “Poetry and Imagination,” in Letters and Social Aims. [back]
Note 3. Journal, 1861. “What a joy I found and still can find in the Æolian harp; what a youth find I still in Collins’s ‘Ode to Evening’ and in Gray’s ‘Eton College’! What delight I owed to Moore’s insignificant but melodious poetry! That is the merit of Clough’s ‘Bothie’ that the joy of youth is in it!” [back]
Note 4. In a lecture on Italy, which Mr. Emerson gave on his return in 1834, he said:—
  “On Ash Wednesday the famous Miserere was sung before the Pope and the Cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. The saying at Rome is that the effect of the piece as performed in the Sistine Chapel cannot be imitated, not only by any other choir, but in any other chapel in the world…. Of its merits I am quite unable to speak who know nothing of psalmody. And yet even to me it was sweet music and sounded more like an Æolian harp than anything else.” [back]
 
 
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