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
I AM 1 the Muse who sung alway
By Jove, at dawn of the first day.
Star-crowned, sole-sitting, long I wrought
To fire the stagnant earth with thought:
On spawning slime my song prevails,        5
Wolves shed their fangs, and dragons scales;
Flushed in the sky the sweet May-morn,
Earth smiled with flowers, and man was born. 2
Then Asia yeaned her shepherd race,
And Nile substructs her granite base,—        10
Tented Tartary, columned Nile,—
And, under vines, on rocky isle,
Or on wind-blown sea-marge bleak,
Forward stepped the perfect Greek:
That wit and joy might find a tongue,        15
And earth grow civil, HOMER sung.
  Flown to Italy from Greece,
I brooded long and held my peace,
For I am wont to sing uncalled,
And in days of evil plight        20
Unlock doors of new delight;
And sometimes mankind I appalled
With a bitter horoscope,
With spasms of terror for balm of hope.
Then by better thought I lead        25
Bards to speak what nations need;
So I folded me in fears,
And DANTE searched the triple spheres,
Moulding Nature at his will,
So shaped, so colored, swift or still,        30
And, sculptor-like, his large design
Etched on Alp and Apennine. 3
  Seethed in mists of Penmanmaur,
Taught by Plinlimmon’s Druid power,
England’s genius filled all measure        35
Of heart and soul, of strength and pleasure,
Gave to the mind its emperor,
And life was larger than before:
Nor sequent centuries could hit
Orbit and sum of SHAKSPEARE’S wit.        40
The men who lived with him became
Poets, for the air was fame.
  Far in the North, where polar night
Holds in check the frolic light,
In trance upborne past mortal goal        45
The Swede EMANUEL leads the soul.
Through snows above, mines underground,
The inks of Erebus he found;
Rehearsed to men the damnèd wails
On which the seraph music sails.        50
In spirit-worlds he trod alone,
But walked the earth unmarked, unknown.
The near bystander caught no sound,—
Yet they who listened far aloof
Heard rendings of the skyey roof,        55
And felt, beneath, the quaking ground;
And his air-sown, unheeded words,
In the next age, are flaming swords.
  In newer days of war and trade,
Romance forgot, and faith decayed,        60
When Science armed and guided war,
And clerks the Janus-gates unbar,
When France, where poet never grew,
Halved and dealt the globe anew,
GOETHE, raised o’er joy and strife,        65
Drew the firm lines of Fate and Life
And brought Olympian wisdom down
To court and mart, to gown and town.
Stooping, his finger wrote in clay
The open secret of to-day.        70
  So bloom the unfading petals five,
And verses that all verse outlive.
Note 1. I believe the early rhythmic ventures from which this poem grew in time must interest some readers, and therefore give them in part.
  The older one (close to a rehearsal for “Alphonso of Castile”) begins thus:—
    Clouds on clouds,
Thro’ clouds of fire and seas of mist
Burned the globe of amethyst,
Old forces hardly yet subside
Within the bounds of time and tide:
Saurian, snake and dragon can
Slowly ripen into man.
Asia spawned its shepherd race,
Egypt built its granite base;
Then war and trade and clearest clime
Precipitate the man of time,
And forward stepped the perfect Greek
To fight, to carve, to paint, to speak.
Will, wisdom, joy had found a tongue
In the charmed world when Homer sung.
  The other beginning runs thus:—
  I am the Muse,
Memory’s daughter,
I stood by Jove at the first,—
Take me out, and no world had been,
Or chaos bare and bleak.
If life has worth, I give it,
And if all is taken, and I left,
I make amends for all.
Long I wrought
To ripen and refine
The stagnant, craggy lump
To a brain
And shoot it through
With electric wit.
At last the snake and dragon
Shed their scales,
And man was born.
Then was Asia,
Then was Nile,
And at last
On the sea-marge bleak
Forward stepped the perfect Greek;
That will, wit, joy might find a tongue,
And earth grow civil, Homer sung.
Pleased, the planet hummed the tunes, etc.
Note 2. This phrase from the Vishnu Purana occurs in “Hamatreya.” [back]
Note 3. Mr. Emerson, writing to a friend in 1849, spoke with praise of the translation of the “Inferno” by Dr. John Carlyle, the brother of Thomas Carlyle: “I read it lately by night with wonder and joy at all its parts, and at none more than at the nerve and courage which is as essential to the poet as the soldier. Dante locked the door and put the key in his pocket. I believe we only value those who do so.”
  In the verse-book here follow four lines:—
  Silence brooded in my heaven
For seven times seventy and seven,
Prelude of the following song
Well worth such strain to tarry long.

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