Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
I. Poems
IT 1 fell in the ancient periods
  Which the brooding soul surveys,
Or ever the wild Time coined itself
  Into calendar months and days.
This was the lapse of Uriel,        5
Which in Paradise befell.
Once, among the Pleiads walking,
Seyd overheard the young gods talking;
And the treason, too long pent,
To his ears was evident.        10
The young deities discussed
Laws of form, and metre just,
Orb, quintessence, and sunbeams,
What subsisteth, and what seems.
One, with low tones that decide,        15
And doubt and reverend use defied,
With a look that solved the sphere,
And stirred the devils everywhere,
Gave his sentiment divine
Against the being of a line.        20
‘Line in nature is not found;
Unit and universe are round;
In vain produced, all rays return;
Evil will bless, and ice will burn.’
As Uriel spoke with piercing eye,        25
A shudder ran around the sky;
The stern old war-gods shook their heads,
The seraphs frowned from myrtle-beds;
Seemed to the holy festival
The rash word boded ill to all;        30
The balance-beam of Fate was bent;
The bounds of good and ill were rent;
Strong Hades could not keep his own,
But all slid to confusion. 2
A sad self-knowledge, withering, fell        35
On the beauty of Uriel;
In heaven once eminent, the god
Withdrew, that hour, into his cloud;
Whether doomed to long gyration
In the sea of generation,        40
Or by knowledge grown too bright
To hit the nerve of feebler sight. 3
Straightway, a forgetting wind
Stole over the celestial kind,
And their lips the secret kept,        45
If in ashes the fire-seed slept.
But now and then, truth-speaking things
Shamed the angels’ veiling wings;
And, shrilling from the solar course,
Or from fruit of chemic force,        50
Procession of a soul in matter, 4
Or the speeding change of water,
Or out of the good of evil born,
Came Uriel’s voice of cherub scorn,
And a blush tinged the upper sky,        55
And the gods shook, they knew not why.
Note 1. From its strange presentation in a celestial parable of the story of a crisis in its author’s life, this poem demands especial comment. In his essay on Circles, which sheds light upon it, Emerson said, “Beware when the great God lets loose a thinker on this planet.” His letters and journals, even while he was a clergyman, show his belief that religion owed to Copernicus a great emancipation. In a later essay he speaks of the great astronomer’s destroying the “pagan fictions of the Church by showing mankind that the earth on which we live was not the centre of the Universe,… and thus fitted to be the platform on which the Drama of the Divine Judgment was played before the assembled Angels of Heaven,… but a little scrap of a planet, rushing round the sun in our system, which in turn was too minute to be seen at the distance of many stars which we behold.” [“Historical Notes of Life and Letters in New England,” Lectures and Biographical Sketches.] The lapses and perturbations of the planets, as seen from the eccentric earth, which troubled the astrologers under the Ptolemaic system, gave way to the beautiful ordered dance of the heavenly bodies, including the comets, around the sun. From boyhood Emerson was familiar with Paradise Lost, and Uriel, the bright Archangel of the Sun, would best see the vast orbits, the returns and compensations, the harmony and utter order of the Universe,—God in all. This did away with Original Sin, a separate principle of Evil, hopeless Condemnation, Mediation,—for Emerson saw in Nature a symbol. The Law was alike in matter and spirit. He had shaken off dogma and tradition and found that the Word
  Still floats upon the morning wind,
Still whispers to the willing mind.
  The earnest young men on the eve of entering the ministry asked him to speak to them. After serious thought he went to Cambridge (July 15, 1838) to give them the good and emancipating words which had been given to him in solitude, well aware, however, that he must shock or pain the older clergy who were present. The poem, when read with the history of the Divinity School Address, and its consequences, in mind, is seen to be account of that event generalized and sublimed,—the announcement of an advance in truth, won not without pain and struggle, to hearers not yet ready, resulting in banishment to the prophet; yet the spoken word sticks like a barbed arrow, or works like a leaven. [back]
Note 2. While the “young deities” (divines) discuss the Universe, Identity, Illumination, Being and Seeming, one startles them with the doctrine, doing away with arbitrary bound, of Eternal Return, involving Good out of Evil. They only see the Circle, not the Spiral which is Advance combined with Return, adding the element of Progress. They only see in it Revolution, not Evolution. Perhaps Uriel is not yet quite clear. In Mr. Henry Walker’s fine painting of Emerson’s Uriel in the Congressional Library at Washington, clouds of doubt still hand on the Archangel’s brow.
  Plotinus said, “The Intellect sees because it is turned back to its origin, the One; its movement is circular.” Professor Andrews Norton, representing “the stern old war gods,” said of the Address, “Theories which would overturn society and resolve the world into chaos.” Rev. Henry Ware, honored and loved by Mr. Emerson, who had been associated with him as junior pastor, was one of the frowning seraphs, for he could not quite follow his young friend in his new departure. Another honored friend of Mr. Emerson, the Rev. Nathaniel L. Frothingham, soon after, in a sermon to which the Address gave rise, used as a text, “Some said it thundered, others that an angel spake.” [back]
Note 3. The Pythagorean doctrine of transmigration of the soul. “Every partial soul must make periods of ascent from and descent into generation, and this forever and ever.” (Proclus.) The next two lines suggest a sentence of Plutarch in the Morals: “The Sun is the cause why all men are ignorant of Apollo, by sense withdrawing the rational intellect from that which is to that which appears.” [back]
Note 4. Dr. William T. Harris, in the Memoir of Bronson Alcott, apropos of this poem, quotes Plotinus thus:—
  “There are two kinds of souls that descend into the world of matter, the higher order, like so many kings, associating with the governor of all things, become his colleagues in the general administration of the world. They descend for the sake of causing the perfection of the universe. The second class of souls descend because they are condemned to suffer punishment.”—IV. Ennead, book VIII., chapters 4, 5. [back]

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