Looking Westward, to the East: Brahma, by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Remember there was summer? Montenegro 2017

Thinking back to the summer – writing here in the dark at 6.30am that seems a lifetime ago! – when I was reading Emerson (just had a look back at those posts and seem to have forgotten the content of them completely.  They might have been written by someone else. Oh dear. But I  felt excited reading the quotations from Emerson, just as I must have done the first time round.) I don’t know why I didn’t think to look at his poetry but I didn’t. This morning when looking for a short poem to read (short because I need to leave the house early today), I found ‘Brahma’ in  All The Days of My Life, an anthology I’d have said I knew inside out. Yet this is a poem (I believe, but see above, my memory is not good) I have never read before.


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.

Here’s a poem in the voice of Brahma, a  Hindu god about whom I know very little. I looked  him up and found he is a creator god…I wondered how Ralph Waldo Emerson knew about Brahma and thought, I’m going to read a biography of Emerson.  I wonder what Emerson knows of Brahma? I don’t know who or what the ‘red slayer’ is – something from Indian culture I don’t know about? Blood? American Indians? These thoughts are uncomfortable, (the not knowing), and jostle in my mind as I try to get into the poem. I have to do what I always have to do with not knowing and tell myself, it doesn’t matter. Whatever the red slayer is – just say, it is something that kills.

In the opening two lines the root ‘slay’ appears: slayer, slays, slain, slain. Violent death is on Emerson’s mind. ‘Slay’ means to kill with a weapon, and  is connected to slog – it’s a violent battering.

But in those opening lines full of violence and death we  have only two other elements – the connective tissues of syntax and pronouns (if, he, or) and the  twice repeated verb ‘think’.

The poem is setting up a massive opposition between what we think about death  (even when it is based on the bloody and battered evidence at our feet) and what actually is – which comes in the next two lines:

They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.

But 7.00am – time to go. More tomorrow.


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