Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
I. Poems
Ode to Beauty
WHO 1 gave thee, O Beauty,
The keys of this breast,—
Too credulous lover
Of blest and unblest?
Say, when in lapsed ages        5
Thee knew I of old?
Or what was the service
For which I was sold?
When first my eyes saw thee,
I found me thy thrall,        10
By magical drawings,
Sweet tyrant of all!
I drank at thy fountain
False waters of thirst;
Thou intimate stranger,        15
Thou latest and first!
Thy dangerous glances
Make women of men;
New-born, we are melting
Into nature again. 2        20
Lavish, lavish promiser,
Nigh persuading gods to err!
Guest of million painted forms,
Which in turn thy glory warms!
The frailest leaf, the mossy bark,        25
The acorn’s cup, the raindrop’s arc,
The swinging spider’s silver line,
The ruby of the drop of wine,
The shining pebble of the pond,
Thou inscribest with a bond,        30
In thy momentary play,
Would bankrupt nature to repay.
Ah, what avails it
To hide or to shun
Whom the Infinite One        35
Hath granted his throne?
The heaven high over
Is the deep’s lover;
The sun and sea,
Informed by thee,        40
Before me run
And draw me on,
Yet fly me still,
As Fate refuses
To me the heart Fate for me chooses.        45
Is it that my opulent soul
Was mingled from the generous whole;
Sea-valleys and the deep of skies
Furnished several supplies;
And the sands whereof I ’m made        50
Draw me to them, self-betrayed?
I turn the proud portfolio
Which holds the grand designs
Of Salvator, of Guercino,
And Piranesi’s lines. 3        55
I hear the lofty pæans
Of the masters of the shell,
Who heard the starry music
And recount the numbers well;
Olympian bards who sung        60
Divine Ideas below,
Which always find us young
And always keep us so. 4
Oft, in streets or humblest places,
I detect far-wandered graces,        65
Which, from Eden wide astray,
In lowly homes have lost their way.
Thee gliding through the sea of form,
Like the lightning through the storm,
Somewhat not to be possessed,        70
Somewhat not to be caressed,
No feet so fleet could ever find,
No perfect form could ever bind. 5
Thou eternal fugitive,
Hovering over all that live,        75
Quick and skilful to inspire
Sweet, extravagant desire,
Starry space and lily-bell
Filling with thy roseate smell, 6
Wilt not give the lips to taste        80
Of the nectar which thou hast.
All that ’s good and great with thee
Works in close conspiracy;
Thou hast bribed the dark and lonely
To report thy features only,        85
And the cold and purple morning
Itself with thoughts of thee adorning;
The leafy dell, the city mart,
Equal trophies of thine art;
E’en the flowing azure air        90
Thou hast touched for my despair;
And, if I languish into dreams,
Again I meet the ardent beams.
Queen of things! I dare not die
In Being’s deeps past ear and eye;        95
Lest there I find the same deceiver
And be the sport of Fate forever.
Dread Power, but dear! if God thou be,
Unmake me quite, or give thyself to me! 7
Note 1. The Ode was printed in the Dial in October, 1843. In the first stanza, as there printed, the third and fourth line read:—
  To thee who betrayed me
To be ruined or blest?
and the thirteenth and fourteenth,—
  Love drinks at thy banquet
Remediless thirst.
Note 2. The last four lines of this stanza were a later addition. Mr. Emerson sent the Dial to his young friend Henry Thoreau (then teaching Mr. William Emerson’s boys in Staten Island), who had contributed “A Winter Walk” to that number. Mr. Thoreau in a letter of just comment on the magazine wrote, “I have a good deal of fault to find with your ‘Ode to Beauty.’ The tune is altogether unworthy of the thoughts. You slope too quickly to the rhyme, as if that trick should be performed as soon as possible, or as if you stood over the line with a hatchet and chopped off the verses as they came out, some short and some long. But give us a long reel and we’ll chop it off to suit ourselves. It sounds like parody. ‘Thee knew I of old,’ ‘Remediless thirst’ are some of those stereotyped lines…. Yet I love your poetry as I do little else that is near and recent, especially when you get fairly round the end of the line, and are not thrown back upon the rocks.” [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson wrote in October, 1839, to a friend who had lent him a portfolio of engravings, then rare in this country, of the works of the Italian masters:—
  “I have your portfolio in my study, and am learning to read in that book too. But there are fewer painters than poets. Ten men can awaken me by words to new hope and fruitful musing, for one that can achieve the miracle by forms. Besides, I think the pleasure of the poem lasts me longer…. But the eye is a speedier student than the ear; by a grand or a lovely form it is astonished or delighted once for all, whilst the sense of a verse steals slowly on the mind and suggests a hundred fine fancies before its precise import is finally settled.” [Letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson to a Friend. Edited by Charles Eliot Norton. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1899.]
  Margaret Fuller seems also to have sent him a portfolio of reproductions of the drawings of Guercino and Salvator Rosa. [back]
Note 4. These four lines were used by Mr. Emerson as the motto for “The Poet,” in Essays, Second Series. [back]
Note 5. “Nature is a sea of forms….What is common to them all,—that perfectness and harmony,—is Beauty.”—Nature, Addresses and Lectures, p. 23.
  Mr. Emerson quotes Proclus as saying that Beauty swims on the light of forms. [back]
Note 6.
  Hollow space and lily-bell
is the expression in the verse-book. [back]
Note 7. The following scraps from lecture-sheets seem to be appropriate here:—
  “Beauty has rightful privilege: may do what none else can, and it shall be blameless. Indeed, all privilege is that of Beauty—of face, of form, of manner, of brain or method.”
  “How else is a man or woman fascinating to us but because the abode of mystery and meanings never told and that cannot be exhausted? ’T is the fulness of man that runs over into objects, and makes his Bibles and Shakspeares and Homers so great.” [back]

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