No Comment, Quotation — June 7, 2009, 7:51 am

Emerson’s World-Soul

800px-morning_in_the_tropics-1877-frederic_edwin_church

Thanks to the morning light,
Thanks to the seething sea,
To the uplands of New Hampshire,
To the green-haired forest free;
Thanks to each man of courage,
To the maids of holy mind,
To the boy with his games undaunted,
Who never looks behind.
Cities of proud hotels,
Houses of rich and great,
Vice nestles in your chambers,
Beneath your roofs of slate.
It cannot conquer folly,
Time-and-space-conquering steam,—
And the light-outspeeding telegraph
Bears nothing on its beam.
The politics are base,
The letters do not cheer,
And ’tis far in the deeps of history—
The voice that speaketh clear.
Trade and the streets ensnare us,
Our bodies are weak and worn,
We plot and corrupt each other,
And we despoil the unborn.

Yet there in the parlor sits
Some figure of noble guise,
Our angel in a stranger’s form,
Or woman’s pleading eyes;
Or only a flashing sunbeam
In at the window pane;
Or music pours on mortals
Its beautiful disdain.

The inevitable morning
Finds them who in cellars be,
And be sure the all-loving Nature
Will smile in a factory.
Yon ridge of purple landscape,
Yon sky between the walls,
Hold all the hidden wonders
In scanty intervals.

Alas, the sprite that haunts us
Deceives our rash desire,
It whispers of the glorious gods,
And leaves us in the mire:
We cannot learn the cipher
That’s writ upon our cell,
Stars help us by a mystery
Which we could never spell.

Finish reading the poem here

Ralph Waldo Emerson, The World-Soul first published in Poems (1847), contained in: Complete Works, vol. 9, pp. 30-33 (Riverside ed. 1910)

Emerson’s transcendentalism has a number of sources—most immediately, perhaps, the thinking of the German Romanticists and the influence of Carlyle, also studies of the religious systems of the subcontinent, Buddhism and Hinduism in particular, and the gloss placed on them by German philosophers like Schopenhauer. But at the heart of Emerson’s transcendentalism can be found Plato and the Neoplatonists, especially Plotinus. Nothing exhibits this quite as well as “The World-Soul,” one of his earlier poems, which draws explicitly on the passage posted yesterday from Plato’s Timaeus. In Emerson’s writings the term “soul,” and variants like “Over-Soul” or “World-Soul” reference less the immortal aspect of man in a Christian theological sense, and more god or rather the divine aspect reposed in a human being. That is to say that Emerson’s use is sometimes Platonic and sometimes Neoplatonic, but very rarely the sort of use one would have expected of a Protestant minister. In his essay “The Over-Soul” he puts it this way:

All goes to show that the soul in man is not an organ, but animates and exercises all the organs; is not a function, like the power of memory, of calculation, of comparison, but uses these as hands and feet; is not a faculty, but a light; is not the intellect or the will, but the master of the intellect or the will; is the background of our being, in which they lie—an immensity not possessed and cannot be possessed. From within or from behind, a light shines through us upon things and makes us aware that we are nothing, but the light is all.

Each of the images that Emerson uses here was also used by Plato in Timaeus, a fact which is hardly coincidental. The poem “The World-Soul” rests on the idea of a single soul which is the creator of all things, including of the earth as a separate creation, which houses humanity and the other creatures known to it. This animating force is relentless and positive—for all the miseries and horrors of human existence, for all the catastrophes that nature brings in its periodic acts of catharsis, the world-soul drives forward producing an inevitable logic of progress, development and improvement: “The patient Daemon sits,/With roses and a shroud;/He has his way, and deals his gifts/But ours is not allowed.” This progress proceeds in a manner so slow that it hardly can be understood in a single human lifetime. On this point, Emerson begins to sound and think like a Kantian, which he probably was: “He will from wrecks and sediment/The fairer world complete.”

Frederic Edwin Church’s painting El Rio de Luz (The River of Light, also called, in contemporary press reviews, A Morning in the Tropics and Morning Light on the River) is a massive seven-foot-wide canvas which was premiered in May 1877 at the Century Association in New York. It’s plainly a composite painting drawn from several scenes that Church recorded in a visit to Latin America several years earlier, but it appears intended to express the concept that Emerson described in “The Over-Soul” (“a light shines through us upon things…”) in a primordial context.

In The Dial of July 1841, close to the time of this poem’s composition, Emerson writes: “Music is the aspiration, the yearnings of the heart to the Infinite. It is the prayer of faith, which has no fear, no weakness in it. It delivers us from our actual bondage; it buoys us up above our accidents, and wafts us on waves of melody to the heart’s ideal home.” He has been to a concert performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s sixth symphony, the Pastoral. “Whoever has studied the Pastoral Symphony… will feel the difference between music which flows from an inward feeling of nature, from a common consciousness (as it were) with nature, and the music which only copies, from without, her single features. These pieces bring all summer sensations over you, but they do not let you identify a note or a passage as standing for a stream, or a bird. They do not say; look at this or that, now imagine nightingales, now thunder, now mountains, and now sunspots chasing shadows; but they make you feel as you would if you were lying on a grassy slope in a summer’s afternoon, with the melancholy leisure of a shepherd swain, and these things all around you without your noticing them.” That is, they are an expression of the world-soul, one particularly attuned to the approach of Midsummer’s Eve.

Listen to a performance of the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony by Carlo Maria Giulini and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. The performance is accompanied by a collection of photographs taken of the land surrounding Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, a site where Emerson walked to enjoy the beauty of nature and which then was made immortal by Henry David Thoreau.

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