Dec. 8, 2014: BRAHMA (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

Dear readers,

Shouting out — but not heavenward, as today’s poem insists — toKAY SPEARMAN, 11th-grade English teacher extraordinaire, who shuffled off this mortal coil last week. Consider this week’s edition an apostrophe to her. Yes, she made her students look up vocabulary words and literary terms. Yes, she made her students memorize lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the words of a founding MV member, “She was one of those teachers that was full of passion and had such a yen for poetry. She begged us to think outside the box. In 1988 and in the Deep South, her ideas and philosophies were nothing short of revolutionary for our sheltered minds.”

That’s about the best a teacher could hope to have said about her, no?

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) was the first major American writer (thinker, poet, essayist, critic) to introduce the classical sources of Asia and the middle east to the domestic reading audience. Religion, philosophy, and poetry were his chief concerns, and he incorporated what he found into his own essays (as in, “attempts”) in those fields. In 1857 he published the following lyric in The Atlantic, dramatizing the idea that the temporal world is but a mask of something divine, something resting in all souls, and something that is perhaps undefinable. Though a strong “I”, the speaker of the poem does not name itself. Strong ABAB rhyme and even-footed (though in varying foot-lengths!) tetrameter bring the idea across. -ed.

BRAHMA

If the red slayer think he slays,

Or if the slain think he is slain,

They know not well the subtle ways

I keep, and pass, and turn again.

Far or forgot to me is near;

Shadow and sunlight are the same;

The vanished gods to me appear;

And one to me are shame and fame.

They reckon ill who leave me out;

When me they fly, I am the wings;

I am the doubter and the doubt,

I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.

The strong gods pine for my abode,

And pine in vain the sacred Seven;

But thou, meek lover of the good!

Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.

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