The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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.