Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 220

Emerson uses paradox to convey the ideas that the human soul is immortal and the physical world is illusory. How can "far or forgot" be "near" to the speaker? How can "Shadow and sunlight" be "the same"? How can gods who have "vanished" then "appear" to him? How can "shame and fame" be "one" to him? These statements, in lines 4-8, are paradoxical, meaning that they each seem to be contradictory, but they are somehow nevertheless true. All of these opposites can exist at once, for Brahma (the Hindu deity who narrates the poem), because he is immortal, as is the human soul. This is why the "red slayer" does not truly kill or the "slain" is not really killed. Terms like "slain" describe the physical body only, not the spiritual soul. Brahma also says that when we fly, he is "the wings"; he is somehow both "the doubter and the doubt." This statement presents yet another paradox, and it helps to convey the idea that language and concepts that humans have created to order and understand the physical world are not real; the immortal does not recognize divisions like near and far, light and dark, or doubter and doubt. We simply create this distinctions in order to better understand the physical world which will, unlike our souls, pass away.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677

“Brahma” is an excellent reflection and representation of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work as a whole. Though he is more widely known as a writer of essays, several of his poems may be seen as keys to his use of style and theme in all of his work, and this is one of those poems. Stylistically, he uses the same spiral or circular method that he does in his prose, rather than the more straightforward linear development used by most poets of his time. Thematically, he insists on the same spiritual and physical unity and harmony in the universe, expressed in a similarly intensive and dense language, as he does in his essays. These qualities demand much from the reader.

“Brahma” is a poem of sixteen lines, divided into four quatrains. In order to understand and appreciate this poem fully, one must know something about Eastern religion, especially Hinduism. In Hindu theology, Brahma (or, more commonly, Brahman) is the supreme spirit or divine reality in the universe, the eternal spirit from which all has come and to which all shall return (similar to what Emerson more commonly called the Over-Soul). The “strong gods” (line 13) are secondary gods who, like all mortals, seek ultimate union with the supreme god, Brahma: They include Indra, the god of the sky; Agni, the god of fire; and Yama, “the red slayer” (line 1), or god of death. The “sacred Seven” (line 14) are the highest holy persons or saints in Hinduism, who also seek union (or reunion) with Brahma.

In stanza 1, Emerson insists that in the creative spirit of the universe, nothing dies; if death thinks that in fact it kills, or if those who are killed think that they are really dead, they are wrong, for death is maya, or illusion. Brahma is subtle; the patterns of life and death, of eternal return, are not always obvious to the human eye or mind. Through the intuition, however, a person can see and understand his or her role in these patterns and can accept and learn from them.

In the second stanza the reader discovers the essential unity of opposites—what Emerson called polarity. The physical and spiritual are intimately intertwined, with the physical being the concrete representation in the material world of the spiritual, which alone is real. In Emerson’s terms, “both shadow and sunlight are the same” (line 6); in other words, light and dark, good and evil, life and death, happiness and sadness, and “shame and fame” (line 8) are all the same. They are illusions which mortals believe to be real but which are not. In the same way, all human experience is one and is eternally present; what is “far or forgot” (line 5) is in fact near, and both past and future are encapsulated in the present moment.

Stanza 3 suggests that one can never escape this creative energy, since it is present everywhere in the universe. Humans ignore it at their own peril, since it alone is real, and it encompasses both “the doubter and the doubt” (line 11). It is the song of creative joy sung by the Brahmin, the highest caste in Hinduism. Fortunately, however, even if one does ignore the creative spirit, it remains present in one’s life, and eventually one’s spiritual eyes will open and one will recognize it. Both the person who doubts and the doubts themselves are essential parts of the universal plan.

Stanza 4 states that all seek union with this eternal spirit—whether lesser gods, saints, or those persons who are considerably farther down on the spiral of spiritual enlightenment. If one loves the good, regardless of one’s faults, one shall find it. Even if one is insecure or “meek” in one’s beliefs, one should turn away from the illusion of the Calvinist Christian heaven, where entrance is limited to the very few elect, and all others are rejected and damned. One should seek the Brahma, or Over-Soul, the eternal spirit of creativity and life in the universe, from which all have come and to which all will return.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 259

“Brahma” reflects Emerson’s periodic use of the standard poetic meter and rhyme of his time: The four quatrains are in iambic tetrameter, and his use of coupled rhymes (abab) is a reflection of his thematic sense of the inescapable polarity in the universe.

The central figure in the poem is the speaker, who is Brahma, or the Over-Soul, the creative spirit in the universe. Having the Brahma as the speaker allows Emerson to posit the unity within the world’s polaric structure; though contradictions seem to exist, he suggests, they are in fact meaningful paradoxes and not meaningless contradictions. Emerson makes extensive use of irony in his poetic strategy; he indicates that death is not really death, that shadow and sunlight are the same, and that both the doubter and doubt are contained within the Brahma, to which all persons aspire to return. There are other ironies as well: It is clearly implied that it is the abode of Brahma (line 13) which is to be sought rather than a Christian heaven and that those who adopt the Darwinian perspective of the survival of the fittest miss the realization that, in reality, all survive.

Emerson has, in “Brahma,” used a series of images borrowed from Hindu scriptures (many of which he translated in the issues of the Transcendentalist magazine The Dial, which he co-edited with Margaret Fuller for two years and then edited himself) to reflect the coordinated pattern and unity in the physical universe, which is itself a reflected pattern of the same unity in the spiritual universe.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 199

Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.

Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.

Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.

Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Robinson, David M. Emerson and the Conduct of Life: Pragmatism and Ethical Purpose in the Later Work. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Sacks, Kenneth S. Understanding Emerson: “The American Scholar” and His Struggle for Self-Reliance. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.

Yanella, Donald. Ralph Waldo Emerson. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

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