Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Greatly influenced by a sacred text of Hinduism, Katha-Upanishad, “Brahma” is a philosophical explication of the universal spirit by that name. The poetic form of elegiac quatrain is used to represent the solemn nature of the subject. Throughout the poem, Brahma appears as the only speaker, sustaining the continuity of the work. That the spirit is the only speaker signifies not only its absolute nature but also its sustaining power, upon which the existence of the entire universe—metaphorically, the poem—is based.
The poem begins by examining the common-sensical view that the spirit ends with one’s death. Even though the body may be destroyed, Brahma, which resides in each individual as the fountain of life, never ceases to exist: “If the red slayer think he slays,/ Or if the slain think he is slain,/ They know not well the subtle ways/ I keep.” When the body is destroyed, the poet maintains, the spirit will appear again, likely in a different form. By employing the examples of both the slayer and the slain, the speaker is suggesting not only the prevalence of their view (that the spirit may not be eternal) but also the dichotomy that normally characterizes a person’s perception.
The dichotomy recurs in the second stanza, in which opposite notions such as far and near, shadow and sunlight, vanishing and appearing, and shame and fame are juxtaposed. To the speaker, who unifies the universe, the seemingly unbridgeable differences between opposite concepts can be perfectly resolved; hence, the paradoxical statements. Brahma’s great power is further described in the third stanza, where the spirit states that it comprehends yet transcends everything—both “the doubter and the doubt,” the subject and object, and matter and mind. In addition, the rhyme scheme befittingly reinforces the spirit’s interweaving power, yielding a sense of wonder based on unusual metrical symmetry.
Different from the otherworldly spirit in Hinduism, however, the transcendental spirit represented by Brahma in this poem leads the follower not to Heaven but to this world. By using the conjunction “but” in the last stanza, Emerson prepares his reader for his own interpretation of the universal spirit. The concluding statement that justifies self-sufficient existence in this world, “But thou, meek lover of the good!/ Find me, and turn thy back on heaven,” makes this poem characteristically Emersonian.