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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Conversation August 5, 2016, 12:08 pm

Lincoln’s Party

Sidney Blumenthal on the origins of the Republican Party, the fallout from Clinton’s emails, and his new biography of Abraham Lincoln

Conversation March 30, 2016, 3:44 pm

Burn Pits

Joseph Hickman discusses his new book, The Burn Pits, which tells the story of thousands of U.S. soldiers who, after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, have developed rare cancers and respiratory diseases.

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

January 2017

The Monument Wars

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Defectors

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Over the River

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

House Hunters Transnational

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Lords of Lambeau

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Window To The World

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Post
Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Over the River·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Brian Frank
Article
A Window To The World·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Artwork by Imre Kinszki © Imre Kinszki Estate
Article
The Lords of Lambeau·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
Article
With Child·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
Photograph (detail) by Lara Shipley

Months after Martin Luther King Jr. publicly called the U.S. the “world’s greatest purveyor of violence ‚” that he was killed:

2

Temporary, self-absorbed sadness makes people spend money extravagantly.

In Colombia, U.N. delegates sent to serve as impartial observers of the peace process aimed at ending the half-century-long war between the FARC and the Colombian government were chastised after they were filmed dancing and getting drunk with FARC fighters at a New Year’s Eve party.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Who Goes Nazi?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"It is an interesting and somewhat macabre parlor game to play at a large gathering of one’s acquaintances: to speculate who in a showdown would go Nazi. By now, I think I know. I have gone through the experience many times—in Germany, in Austria, and in France. I have come to know the types: the born Nazis, the Nazis whom democracy itself has created, the certain-to-be fellow-travelers. And I also know those who never, under any conceivable circumstances, would become Nazis."

Subscribe Today