Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
II. May-Day and Other Pieces
IF 1 the red slayer think he slays,
  Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
  I keep, and pass, and turn again.
Far or forgot to me is near;        5
  Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
  And one to me are shame and fame.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
  When me they fly, I am the wings;        10
I am the doubter and the doubt,
  And I the hymn the Brahmin sings.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
  And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!        15
  Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
Note 1. This poem was one of the four which Mr. Emerson contributed to the first number of the Atlantic Monthly, in November, 1857. In his note-book for the year before, where it is called “The Song of the Soul,” are many pages of extracts from the Hindoo scriptures, yet not those to which the poem gives expression. The first appearance of the doctrine is found in an extract from Parmenides given in the notes on Degerando’s Histoire Comparée des Systèmes de Philosophie, made by Mr. Emerson in 1830: “Thought and the object of thought are but one.”
  In the year 1845 he was reading the Vishnu Purana, and made these among other extracts:—
  “He who eternally restrains this and the other world, and all beings therein, who standing in the earth is other than the earth, whom the earth knows not, whose body the earth is, who interiorly restrains the earth, the same is thy soul, and the Internal Check immortal.”
  “What living creature slays or is slain? What living creature preserves or is preserved? Each is his own destroyer or preserver, as he follows evil or good.”
  The latter extract he thus rendered in 1845:—
  What creature slayeth or is slain?
What creature saves or savèd is?
His life will either lose or gain,
As he shall follow harm or bliss.
  Dr. William T. Harris, in his interesting chapter on Emerson’s Orientalism [Genius and Character of Emerson; Lectures at the Concord School of Philosophy. Edited by F. B. Sanborn. Boston: J. R. Osgood & Co., 1885.], sheds much light on the origin of the poem, quoting various passages in the Bhagavat-Gita. The thought of the first verse is thus rendered by Thomson in his translation of the second chapter:—
  “He who believes that this spirit can kill, and he who thinks that it can be killed, both of these are wrong in judgment. It neither kills nor is killed. It is not born nor dies at any time. It has no origin, nor will it ever have an origin. Unborn, changeless, eternal, both as to future and past time, it is not slain when the body is killed.”
  Many passages show the independence of Brahma of Time and Space, and the absence in Indian philosophy of the dualism of the Persians, believing in separate principles of Good and Evil; thoughts conveyed in the second verse.
  The equivalent of the last line in the third verse Dr. Harris finds in the tenth chapter, where Brahma says, “Of the Vedas, I am the S´ma-Veda. I am the Vrihatsaman among the hymns.”
  The “Strong Gods” of the fourth verse are Indra, god of the sky and wielder of the thunderbolt; Agni, the god of fire; and Yama, the god of death and judgment. These shall finally be absorbed into Brahma. The “Sacred Seven” are the Maharshis or highest saints.
  The last line finds its origin in the eighteenth chapter:—
  “Abandoning all religious duties, seek me as thy refuge. I will deliver thee from all sin. Be not anxious.”
  The striking passage from the Oriental scriptures with which the essay on Immortality concludes might well be read in connection with this poem.
  In “The Sphinx,” the line,
  Thou art the unanswered question,
is matched by that in this poem,
  I am the doubter and the doubt.
  In a little book in which Mr. Emerson collected quotations concerning Love, he wrote, “The best word I know on the subject is the motto on a little engraving of the heavenly Cupid, who is represented as turning his head to look down on the towers of Heaven, and underneath is written Superna respicit Amor,—He looketh back on Heaven.”
  In spite of the difficulties which “Brahma” presented to many minds, and the ridicule which it excited, it presented no difficulty to others who had no Oriental knowledge except that of the New Testament. A little school-girl was bidden by her teacher to learn some verses of Emerson. Next day she recited “Brahma.” The astonished teacher asked why she chose that poem. The child answered that she tried several, but could n’t understand them at all, so learned this one, “for it was so easy. It just means ‘God everywhere.’”
  Mr. Emerson, much amused when people found “Brahma” puzzling, said to his daughter, “If you tell them to say Jehovah instead of Brahma they will not feel any perplexity.” [back]

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