Back to top

Emerson(Sphinx)

Page

Emerson: The Sphinx


    The Sphinx

    Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)


    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;
      Daedalion plan;
    Out of sleeping a waking,
      Out of waking a sleep;
    Life death overtaking;
      Deep underneath deep?

    "Erect as a sunbeam,
      Unspringeth the palm;
    The elephant browses,
      Undaunted and calm;
    In beautiful motion
      The thrush plies his wings;
    King 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,
      Primordial wholes,
    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,
      Accompany still;
    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;
    Infirm, melancholy,
      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 my child's head?'"

    I heard a poet answer
      Aloud and cheerfully
    "Say on, sweet Sphinx! 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.

    "To vision profounder,
      Man's spirit must dive;
    His aye-rolling orb
      At no goal will arrive;
    The heavens that now draw him
      With sweetness untold,
    Once found,--for new heavens
      He spurneth the old.

    "Pride ruined the angels,
      Their shame them restores;
    Lurks the joy that is sweetest
      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,
      Heart-heaving alway;
    Forth speed the strong pulses
      To the borders of day.

    "Dull Sphinx, Jove keep thy five wits;
      Thy sight is growing blear;
    Rue, myrrh and cummin for the Sphinx,
      Her muddy eyes to clear!"
    The old Sphinx bit her thick lip,--
      Said, "Who taught thee me to name?
    I am the spirit, yoke-fellow;
      Of thine eye I am eyebeam.

    "Thou art the unanswered question;
      Couldst see thy proper eye,
    Always 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 Sphinx,
      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."


    This poem is one of many published by the EServer, a nonprofit collective.