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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 254

This poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson is written from the perspective of the Hindu spirit, Brahma, as indicated by the title. Brahma is a sort of universal energy, and in this poem, he addresses the lack of understanding humans have of what he is and can do.

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He begins by stating that any "slayer" who really believes that he is killing, and equally any "slain" person who truly believes he is dead, does not understand the "subtle ways" of Brahma, who stays, turns, and returns continually.

Brahma goes on to explain his universality in terms of opposites. To him, "shadow and sunlight" are the same thing, and gods thought "vanished" by others are visible to him.

Those who do not pause to consider Brahma have thought poorly and made bad decisions. Brahma explains that he is everything—he is doubt, and he is the one who doubts; he is the hymn sung by the Brahmins. It is Brahma who is encapsulated by every human experience, and Brahma who is praised by those who are seeking spirits.

The "strong gods," Brahma says, yearn to live where Brahma lives—which is to say, everywhere. At the end of the poem, Brahma urges the reader, a person who loves "the good," to seek out Brahma and pursue him, rather than "heaven." We can recognize the sentiment here from other transcendentalist poetry of Emerson's—he is urging the reader to seek satisfaction and, indeed, self-reliance on earth, in this life, rather than living for some far-off spiritual future.

Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 388

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.

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