'The Sphynx' by Ralph Waldo Emerson
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The Sphynx is drowsy,
Her wings are furled,
Her ear is heavy,
She broods on the world.?
"Who'll tell me my secret
The ages have kept?
? I awaited the seer,
While they slumbered and slept;?The fate of the manchild,
The meaning of man;
Known fruit of the unknown,
Out of sleeping a waking,
Out of waking a sleep,
Life death overtaking,
Deep underneath deep.Erect as a sunbeam
Upspringeth the palm;
The elephant browses
Undaunted and calm;
In beautiful motion
The thrush plies his wings;
Kind leaves of his covert!
Your silence he sings.The waves unashamed
In difference sweet,
Play glad with the breezes,
Old playfellows meet.
The journeying atoms,
Firmly draw, firmly drive,
By their animate poles.Sea, earth, air, sound, silence,
Plant, quadruped, bird,
By one music enchanted,
One deity stirred,
Each the other adorning,
Night veileth the morning,
The vapor the hill.The babe by its mother
Lies bathed in joy,
Glide its hours uncounted,
The sun is its toy;
Shines the peace of all being
Without cloud in its eyes,
And the sum of the world
In soft miniature lies.But man crouches and blushes,
Absconds and conceals,
He creepeth and peepeth,
He palters and steals;
Jealous glancing around,
An oaf, an accomplice,
He poisons the ground.Out spoke the great mother
Beholding his fear,
At the sound of her accents
Cold shuddered the sphere;?
Who has drugged my boy's cup,
Who has mixed my boy's bread?
Who with sadness and madness
Has turned the manchild's head?"?I heard a poet answer
Aloud and cheerfully,
"Say on, sweet Sphynx! thy dirges
Are pleasant songs to me.
Deep love lieth under
These pictures of time,
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
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.Profounder, profounder,
Man's spirit must dive;
To his aye-rolling orbit
No goal will arrive.
The heavens that draw him
With sweetness untold,
Once found, ?for new heavens
He spurneth the old.Pride ruined the angels,
Their shame them restores,
And the joy that is sweetest
Lurks in stings of remorse.
Have I a lover
Who is noble and free,?
I would he were nobler
Than to love me.Eterne alternation
Now follows, now flies,
And under pain, pleasure,
Under pleasure, pain lies.
Love works at the centre,
Forth speed the strong pulses
To the borders of day.Dull Sphynx, Jove keep thy five wits!
Thy sight is growing blear,
Rue, myrrh, and cummin for the Sphynx,
Her muddy eyes to clear."
The old Sphynx bit her thick lip,?
"Who taught thee me to name?
I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow!
Of thine eye I am eyebeam.Thou art the unanswered question;
Couldst see thy proper eye,
Alway it asketh, asketh,
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."Uprose the merry Sphynx,
And crouched no more in stone,
She melted into purple cloud,
She silvered in the moon,
She spired into a yellow flame,
She flowered in blossoms red,
She flowed into a foaming wave,
She stood Monadnoc's head.Thorough a thousand voices
Spoke the universal dame,
"Who telleth one of my meanings,
Is master of all I am."
Editor 1 Interpretation
The Sphinx: A Critical Analysis of Emerson's Masterpiece
When talking about American literature, Ralph Waldo Emerson is a name that cannot be omitted. Known for his transcendentalist philosophy and his ability to convey complex ideas through simple language, Emerson is often considered one of the most influential writers of the 19th century. Among his many works, "The Sphinx" stands out as a true masterpiece of poetry. In this essay, we will analyze and interpret Emerson's enigmatic poem, exploring its themes, symbols, and literary devices, and uncovering the hidden meanings that lie beneath its surface.
Before delving into the analysis of "The Sphinx", let us first take a look at the poem itself:
The Sphinx is drowsy, Her wings are furled; Her ear is heavy, She broods on the world. "Who'll tell me my secret, The ages have kept? I awaited the seer, While they slumbered and slept - "The fate of the man-child; The meaning of man; Known fruit of the unknown; Dædalian plan; Out of sleeping a waking, Out of waking a sleep; Life death overtaking; Deep underneath deep?"
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1838
At first glance, "The Sphinx" appears to be a simple dialogue between the titular character and an unnamed narrator. The poem is divided into two stanzas, with the Sphinx asking a question in the first one and the narrator responding in the second. However, as we will see, the poem is much more than that.
One of the most prominent themes in "The Sphinx" is that of knowledge and its limitations. The Sphinx, a symbol of wisdom and mystery, asks for someone to reveal her secret, the knowledge that has been hidden from her for ages. However, despite her immortality and her supposed omniscience, the Sphinx is unable to uncover the truth herself, and must rely on someone else to do it for her. This theme of the limitations of knowledge is central to Emerson's philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of intuition and personal experience over rational thought and empirical evidence.
Another theme that emerges from "The Sphinx" is that of time and eternity. The Sphinx, who has existed for millennia, is trapped in a perpetual state of waiting, unable to move forward or backward in time. She is both timeless and time-bound, a symbol of the eternal present that is the hallmark of Emerson's transcendentalist philosophy. The narrator, on the other hand, represents the fleeting nature of human existence, with his mortal life being but a mere blip in the grand scheme of things. Through this theme, Emerson invites us to contemplate the relationship between the finite and the infinite, the temporal and the eternal.
Finally, "The Sphinx" touches upon the theme of identity and self-discovery. The Sphinx, who embodies the mysteries of the universe, is searching for her own identity, her own secret. The narrator, in turn, is asked to discover the meaning of man, the purpose of his existence. Through this theme, Emerson explores the idea of the individual soul, and the quest for self-knowledge that is at the core of his philosophy.
As with most of Emerson's works, "The Sphinx" is rife with symbols and metaphors that add depth and complexity to the poem. Let us take a look at some of the most significant ones.
The Sphinx: As we have mentioned, the Sphinx is a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, but also of mystery and enigma. In Greek mythology, the Sphinx was a creature with the head of a woman, the body of a lion, and the wings of a bird, who posed a riddle to travelers and devoured those who failed to answer correctly. In "The Sphinx", however, the Sphinx is not a threat, but a seeker of knowledge herself, trapped in her own mystery.
The secret: The Sphinx's secret is a metaphor for the knowledge that has been hidden from humanity, the mysteries of the universe that have yet to be uncovered. It is the ultimate quest for truth, the search for the answers to life's most profound questions.
The man-child: The man-child is a symbol of humanity, the embodiment of the potential and the destiny of our species. The Sphinx is searching for the fate of the man-child, the ultimate purpose of our existence.
Sleeping and waking: The alternating states of sleep and wakefulness are a metaphor for the cyclical nature of life and death, and the continuous process of rebirth and renewal that is at the core of Emerson's philosophy.
Emerson's poetic style is characterized by its simplicity and clarity, yet "The Sphinx" is a poem that is rich in literary devices and techniques. Let us take a look at some of the most prominent ones.
Personification: The Sphinx is personified as a living, breathing creature, with emotions and desires of her own.
Repetition: The repetition of the phrase "Out of sleeping a waking, out of waking a sleep" emphasizes the cyclical nature of life and death, and creates a hypnotic effect that draws the reader into the poem.
Allusion: The reference to Daedalus, the legendary craftsman of Greek mythology, adds a mythic dimension to the poem, and reinforces the theme of knowledge and invention.
Metaphor: The Sphinx's secret is a metaphor for the mysteries of the universe, and the man-child is a metaphor for humanity.
So what does "The Sphinx" mean? What is Emerson trying to convey through his cryptic poem? The beauty of Emerson's work is that it can mean different things to different people, depending on their own experiences and interpretations. However, here is our own interpretation of the poem.
"The Sphinx" is a meditation on the human quest for knowledge and truth, and the limitations that such a quest entails. The Sphinx, who represents the wisdom of the ages, is unable to uncover her own secret, and must rely on someone else to do it for her. This symbolizes the idea that no matter how much we know, there is always more that remains hidden from us. At the same time, the Sphinx's search for her secret is a metaphor for our own search for the answers to life's most profound questions, and the ultimate purpose of our existence.
Through the symbol of the man-child, Emerson reminds us of our own mortality, and the fleeting nature of human life. However, he also suggests that our individual lives are part of a larger, eternal cycle of rebirth and renewal, and that our quest for self-discovery is a fundamental part of this cycle.
Finally, "The Sphinx" is a poem that celebrates the beauty and mystery of the universe, and the human drive to uncover its secrets. It is a reminder that despite our limitations, we are capable of great things, and that the pursuit of knowledge and truth is what gives our lives meaning and purpose.
In conclusion, "The Sphinx" is a poem that is both enigmatic and profound, a true masterpiece of American literature. Through its themes, symbols, and literary devices, Emerson invites us to contemplate the mysteries of the universe, and the human quest for knowledge and truth. It is a poem that speaks to the deepest parts of our souls, and reminds us of the beauty and wonder that surrounds us every day.
Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation
The Sphynx by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a classic poem that has stood the test of time. It is a poem that is both mysterious and thought-provoking, and it has captivated readers for generations. In this analysis, we will take a closer look at the poem and explore its themes, symbolism, and meaning.
The poem begins with the speaker encountering the Sphynx, a mythical creature with the head of a human and the body of a lion. The Sphynx is known for its riddles, and the speaker is immediately challenged by the creature. The Sphynx asks the speaker a series of questions, and the speaker must answer correctly in order to pass.
The first question the Sphynx asks is, "What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" This is a classic riddle that has been used in many different forms throughout history. The answer, of course, is man. Man crawls on all fours as a baby, walks on two feet as an adult, and uses a cane in old age, thus becoming three-footed.
The second question the Sphynx asks is, "What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" This is another classic riddle, and the answer is once again man. The morning represents infancy, when man crawls on all fours. Noon represents adulthood, when man walks on two legs. And the evening represents old age, when man uses a cane and thus has three legs.
The third and final question the Sphynx asks is, "What is it that is always coming but never arrives?" This is a more abstract riddle, and the answer is tomorrow. Tomorrow is always coming, but it never actually arrives.
After answering the Sphynx's questions correctly, the speaker is allowed to pass. However, the poem does not end there. The speaker reflects on the experience and realizes that the Sphynx's questions were not just simple riddles, but rather they were profound questions about the nature of man and the passage of time.
The first question, "What is that which has one voice and yet becomes four-footed and two-footed and three-footed?" is a question about the stages of life. The answer, man, represents the journey from infancy to old age. The second question, "What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?" is a question about the passage of time. The answer, once again man, represents the different stages of life and how they are marked by different physical abilities. The third question, "What is it that is always coming but never arrives?" is a question about the future. The answer, tomorrow, represents the fact that the future is always just out of reach.
The Sphynx, then, is not just a mythical creature, but rather it is a symbol for the mysteries of life. The Sphynx's riddles are not just simple puzzles, but rather they are profound questions about the nature of existence. The Sphynx represents the unknown, the unanswerable, and the mysterious.
The poem also explores the idea of knowledge and wisdom. The speaker is able to answer the Sphynx's questions correctly, which allows him to pass. This suggests that knowledge and wisdom are important for navigating the mysteries of life. However, the poem also suggests that knowledge and wisdom are not enough. The speaker reflects on the fact that even though he was able to answer the Sphynx's questions, he still does not fully understand the mysteries of life. The Sphynx's questions were not just about knowledge, but rather they were about the deeper truths that cannot be fully understood.
The poem also explores the idea of time. The Sphynx's questions are all related to time, and the poem suggests that time is a fundamental aspect of existence. The passage of time is what marks the different stages of life, and it is what makes the future always just out of reach. The poem suggests that time is both a mystery and a challenge, and that it is something that must be reckoned with in order to fully understand the mysteries of life.
In conclusion, The Sphynx by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a classic poem that explores the mysteries of life. The Sphynx's riddles are not just simple puzzles, but rather they are profound questions about the nature of existence. The poem suggests that knowledge and wisdom are important for navigating the mysteries of life, but that they are not enough. The deeper truths of life cannot be fully understood, and they remain a mystery that must be reckoned with. The poem also explores the idea of time, and suggests that it is a fundamental aspect of existence that must be reckoned with in order to fully understand the mysteries of life. The Sphynx, then, is not just a mythical creature, but rather it is a symbol for the mysteries of life, and the poem suggests that these mysteries are both profound and challenging.
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