Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
I. Poems
The Problem
I LIKE 1 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        5
Would I that cowlèd churchman be.
Why should the vest on him allure,
Which I could not on me endure?
Not from a vain or shallow thought
His awful Jove young Phidias brought; 2        10
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,        15
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        20
Wrought in a sad sincerity;
Himself from God he could not free;
He builded better than he knew;—
The conscious stone to beauty grew. 3
Know’st thou what wove yon woodbird’s nest        25
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?        30
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 haste her lids        35
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;        40
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;        45
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 tribes that knelt within.        50
Ever the fiery Pentecost
Girds with one flame the countless host,
Trances the heart through chanting choirs,
And through the priest the mind inspires.
The word unto the prophet spoken        55
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.        60
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, 4        65
And he who blent both in his line,
The younger Golden Lips or mines,
Taylor, the Shakespeare of divines.
His words are music in my ear.
I see his cowlèd portrait dear;        70
And yet, for all his faith could see,
I would not the good bishop be.
Note 1. This poem, one of the few that bear a date,—10 November, 1839,—is better known and more often quoted than any other which Mr. Emerson wrote. It is also remarkable in this, that it would almost seem, like Athene, to have sprung matured and perfect from its author’s brain. No fragments, no trials remain; much fewer verbal changes than is usual appear in the manuscript book of poetry, and not one since the poem saw light in the first number of the Dial in July, 1840. Mr. Emerson at first called it “The Priest.” Here is the thought as recorded in the journal:—
“AUGUST 28, 1838.    
  “It is very grateful to my feelings to go into a Roman Cathedral, yet I look as my countrymen do at the Roman priesthood. It is very grateful to me to go into an English Church and hear the liturgy read, yet nothing would induce me to be the English priest.
  “I find an unpleasant dilemma in this, nearer home. I dislike to be a clergyman and refuse to be one. Yet how rich a music would be to me a holy clergyman in my town. It seems to me he cannot be a man, quite and whole; yet how plain is the need of one, and how high, yes, highest is the function. Here is division of labor that I like not: a man must sacrifice his manhood for the social good. Something is wrong; I see not what.” [back]
Note 2. The same thought occurs in the essay on Compensation (Essays, First Series, p. 108), and this poem is another chapter on the Over-Soul. [back]
Note 3. Journal, Florence, 1833. “It is in the soul that architecture exists, and Santa Croce and the Duomo are poor, far-behind imitations.”
  In the essays on Art (Essays, First Series, and Society and Solitude) the inspiration, in its fullest sense, of the best works of man in Art and Architecture is taught. [back]
Note 4. The gentle, serious and humane priest John of Antioch (347–407) was raised to the bishopric of Constantinople. Because of his Homilies (said to be the best in Christian literature) the name Chrysostom (Golden Mouth) was given him by the Ecumenical Council two hundred years after his death.
  In sending to a friend the Confessions of Saint Augustine, “translated two hundred years ago, in the golden time when all translations seemed to have the fire of original works,” Mr. Emerson said, “I push this little antiquity toward you merely out of gratitude to some golden words I read in it last summer.”
  Of Taylor (1613–1667), the author of Holy Living and Holy Dying, Mr. Emerson said in an early journal:—
  “’T is pity Jeremy Taylor could not always remember ‘rien n’est beau que le vrai.’ I have been reading the ‘Contemplations of the State of Man.’ An immense progress in natural and religious knowledge has been made since his death. Even his genius cannot quicken all that stark nonsense about the blessed and the damned. Yet in the ‘Life of Christ’ I have thought him a Christian Plato; so rich and great was his philosophy. Is it possible the intellect should be so inconsistent with itself? It is singular also that the bishop’s morality should sometimes trip, as in his explanation of false witness.” [back]

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