Nonfiction > Verse > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works > Poems
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Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. IX. Poems
 
I. Poems
The Sphinx
 
THE SPHINX 1 is drowsy,
  Her wings are furled:
Her ear is heavy,
  She broods on the world.
“Who ’ll tell me my secret,        5
  The ages have kept?—
I awaited the seer
  While they slumbered and slept:—
 
“The fate of the man-child,
  The meaning of man;        10
Known fruit of the unknown;
  Dædalian plan;
Out of sleeping a waking,
  Out of waking a sleep;
Life death overtaking;        15
  Deep underneath deep?
 
“Erect as a sunbeam,
  Upspringeth the palm;
The elephant browses,
  Undaunted and calm;        20
In beautiful motion
  The thrush plies his wings;
Kind leaves of his covert,
  Your silence he sings.
 
“The waves, unashamèd,        25
  In difference sweet,
Play glad with the breezes,
  Old playfellows meet;
The journeying atoms,
  Primordial wholes,        30
Firmly draw, firmly drive,
  By their animate poles.
 
“Sea, earth, air, sound, silence,
  Plant, quadruped, bird,
By one music enchanted,        35
  One deity stirred,—
Each the other adorning,
  Accompany still;
Night veileth the morning,
  The vapor the hill.        40
 
“The babe by its mother
  Lies bathèd in joy;
Glide its hours uncounted,—
  The sun is its toy;
Shines the peace of all being,        45
  Without cloud, in its eyes;
And the sum of the world
  In soft miniature lies.
 
“But man crouches and blushes,
  Absconds and conceals;        50
He creepeth and peepeth,
  He palters and steals;
Infirm, melancholy,
  Jealous glancing around,
An oaf, an accomplice,        55
  He poisons the ground. 2
 
“Out spoke the great mother,
  Beholding his fear;—
At the sound of her accents
  Cold shuddered the sphere:—        60
‘Who has drugged my boy’s cup?
  Who has mixed my boy’s bread?
Who, with sadness and madness,
  Has turned my child’s head?’” 3
 
I heard a poet answer        65
  Aloud and cheerfully,
“Say on, sweet Sphinx! thy dirges
  Are pleasant songs to me.
Deep love lieth under
  These pictures of time;        70
They fade in the light of
  Their meaning sublime.
 
“The fiend that man harries
  Is love of the Best;
Yawns the pit of the Dragon,        75
  Lit by rays from the Blest.
The Lethe of Nature
  Can’t trance him again,
Whose soul sees the perfect,
  Which his eyes seek in vain.        80
 
“To vision profounder,
  Man’s spirit must dive;
His aye-rolling orb
  At no goal will arrive;
The heavens that now draw him        85
  With sweetness untold,
Once found,—for new heavens
  He spurneth the old.
 
“Pride ruined the angels,
  Their shame them restores;        90
Lurks the joy that is sweetest
  In stings of remorse.
Have I a lover
  Who is noble and free?—
I would he were nobler        95
  Than to love me.
 
“Eterne alternation
  Now follows, now flies;
And under pain, pleasure,—
  Under pleasure, pain lies.        100
Love works at the centre,
  Heart-heaving alway;
Forth speed the strong pulses
  To the borders of day.
 
“Dull Sphinx, Jove keep thy five wits;        105
  Thy sight is growing blear;
Rue, myrrh and cummin for the Sphinx,
  Her muddy eyes to clear!”
The old Sphinx bit her thick lip,—
  Said, “Who taught thee me to name?        110
I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow;
  Of thine eye I am eyebeam.
 
“Thou art the unanswered question; 4
  Couldst see thy proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh;        115
  And each answer is a lie.
So take thy quest through nature,
  It through thousand natures ply;
Ask on, thou clothed eternity;
  Time is the false reply.”        120
 
Uprose the merry Sphinx,
  And crouched no more in stone;
She melted into purple cloud,
  She silvered in the moon;
She spired into a yellow flame;        125
  She flowered in blossoms red;
She flowed into a foaming wave:
  She stood Monadnoc’s head.
 
Thorough a thousand voices
  Spoke the universal dame;        130
“Who telleth one of my meanings
  Is master of all I am.” 5
 
Note 1. This poem was published in the Dial of January, 1841. The only important change it has undergone was the substitution by Mr. Emerson, when he published his Poems, of two more pleasing lines for grotesque ones in its first form. The fable is used as an illustration in Nature, Addresses and Lectures (p. 34) and in “History,” in Essays, First Series.
  Mr. Emerson wrote in his note-book in 1859: “I have often been asked the meaning of the ‘Sphinx.’ It is this,—The perception of identity unites all things and explains one by another, and the most rare and strange is equally facile as the most common. But if the mind live only in particulars, and see only differences (wanting the power to see the whole—all in each), then the world addresses to this mind a question it cannot answer, and each new fact tears it in pieces, and it is vanquished by the distracting variety.”
  Journal, September 3, 1838. “The Egyptian Sphinxes are observed to have all a countenance expressive of complacency and tranquillity: an expression of health. There is much history in that fact.” [back]
Note 2. “Let a man then know his worth, and keep things under his feet. Let him not peep or steal, or skulk up and down with the air of a charity-boy, a bastard, or an interloper in the world which exists for him…. Man is timid and apologetic; he is no longer upright; he dares not say ‘I think,’ ‘I am,’ but quotes some saint or sage. He is ashamed before the blade of grass or the blowing rose.”—“Self-Reliance,” Essays, First Series. [back]
Note 3. “Has turned the man-child’s head.”—Dial. [back]
Note 4. “Every man’s condition is a solution in hieroglyphic to those inquiries he would put.”—Nature, Addresses and Lectures, p. 4. [back]
Note 5.
  I am the doubter and the doubt.
“Brahma.”    
  In the latter part of “Nominalist and Realist,” in Essays, Second Series, this thought is more fully expressed. [back]
 
 
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