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Thoreau, Emerson, and Transcendentalism

Emerson's "Hamatreya" Major Themes

"Hamatreya" presents a number of contrasts, each one of which highlights the central, paradoxical turning of the tables on the value traditionally placed by men upon land ownership. In the poem, Emerson opposes materialism and a more spiritual mysticism, reality and illusion, transience and permanence, separateness and unity, and human and universal concepts of history.

Material versus Spiritual

The settlers of Concord who form the subject of the first section of the poem are developed entirely as material men, defined (and defining themselves) solely in terms of their ownership, use, and alteration of the land. Emerson omits to tell the reader anything of them as emotional men, as religious men, or intellectual men, choosing instead to focus on their material orientation. (Significantly, in the 1876 revised version of the poem, in which Peter Bulkeley — Emerson's ancestor and the first minister and a founder of Concord — is placed at the beginning of the list of settlers, there is no hint of the fact that Bulkeley came from England for religious purposes.)

The purely physical nature of the founders' appreciation of their land is emphasized in the listings of their concrete and specific crops and commodities ("Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool, and wood") and of the resources they exploited ("We must have clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge, / And misty lowland, where to go for peat"). Even their enjoyment of their land is expressed in terms of owning features of the landscape, through the use of the possessive "my": "How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees! / How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!" The Earth-Song, by contrast, conveys a more mystical, encompassing, spiritually suggestive vision of the permanence of nature as it exists independently of the claims and actions of these men

Reality versus Illusion

The founders of Concord imagine that their pride in property constitutes a special sympathy with the land: "I fancy these pure waters and the flags [wild irises] / Know me, as does my dog: we sympathize; / And, I affirm, my actions smack of the soil." Ironically, there is more truth than they know in this connection of themselves with the physical world over which they believe they exert control. In the end, death negates the importance they ascribe to material ownership, and serves as a warning to the first-person speaker at the end of the poem. The settlers' misguided belief that they can live on by holding tight to concrete reality proves illusory. Their eventual loss of particulate self into the land is reality. Despite the fact that they think that they can achieve permanence through ownership, their existence and impact are transient. Those who espouse a material approach to the world face an unexpected finality

In "Hamatreya," Emerson overturns a basic assumption not only of the founders of Concord but of his own contemporaries and of the current time as well: the belief that property ownership is a positive goal and a lasting benefit. Emerson owned land in Concord and elsewhere, including the property at Walden Pond where Thoreau lived from 1845 to 1847. Despite his philosophical idealism, Emerson was subject to the same human values that affected the early landowners of Concord. His recognition of his own susceptibility to illusion is indicated in the four-line stanza at the end of the poem, in which the first-person speaker says, "My avarice cooled." The poem is effectively paradoxical, not because the founders of Concord were particularly deluded, but because their delusion is a common trait, promoted by our culture. The paradox results from the contrast between a prevalent value and the less recognized but, from Emerson's point of view, more valid philosophical approach to man's position in the world.

The wrong-headed materialism of Concord's founders is counteracted by the Earth-Song. The personified Earth points out that the men who thought they owned her are gone, whereas the stars, the sea, the shores, and the land, "Shaggy with wood," continue on. Earth responds to those who said of the land "'Tis mine, my children's, and my name's" by mocking their efforts to ensure the permanence of their ownership through lawyers and deeds:

The lawyer's deed
Ran sure,
In tail,
To them, and to their heirs
Who shall succeed,
Without fail,

In the end, the Earth emphasizes, the land owns men, not vice versa: "They called me theirs, / Who so controlled me; / Yet every one / Wished to stay, and is gone. / How am I theirs, / If they cannot hold me, / But I hold them?"

Transience versus Permanence

Human existence is unalterably finite. An attitude that encourages any one man or any one generation of men to believe that human influence can be extended over time through material means is egotistical as well as misguided. A true understanding of the universe and of what is permanent can only come about when egotism is subdued and subordination to a higher, more encompassing power accepted. The first-person speaker at the end of the poem arrives at an understanding of this through the Earth-Song

Separateness versus Unity

In the first section of "Hamatreya," Emerson suggests the tendency of Concord's first settlers to see things in their separateness rather than as part of a unified whole.

The lists of their names in the first line of the poem, of the products of their land in the third line, and of Concord's natural resources near the end of the first section all contribute to the impression that these men viewed the world in particulars rather than in totality. The Earth, on the other hand, sings a broader vision, one that transcends time and specificity of place. The egotism of the founders is connected to the importance they attach to their own particulate existence and their own particulate parcels of land. They are forced to arrive at oneness on the most basic level, the level of physical unity with the earth through death and decay. The speaker in the last stanza reaches the point at which he is ready to recognize a more elemental underlying unity

Human History versus Universal History

In "Hamatreya," Emerson affirms a broader, more spiritual outlook on history than that which emphasizes the individual achievements of particular men. He takes the long view, rather than the sequentially focused view. This outlook is consistent with that expressed in his essay "History" (published in his first series of Essays), in which he writes of the universal mind behind all history in all ages as comprehensible only through history in its entirety, and of each event throughout time as the "application of [the first man's] manifold spirit to the manifold world."

However, in putting the founders of Concord in proper historical perspective in "Hamatreya," Emerson exposes but does not scorn the men of whose fallacy he writes in the first section of the poem. Their efforts, after all, resulted in the development of the town he deeply loved. Moreover, philosophically at odds with their materialism though he was, Emerson admired and respected their steadfastness. In his 1835 discourse at the bicentennial celebration of Concord's incorporation, Emerson had helped to celebrate the accomplishments of these same men. Their efforts formed his personal heritage. In the poem, he presents the speaker's arrival at a stance conducive to true philosophical insight, but, at the same time, he reveals some degree of identification with the founders, even while making their error known. Because Emerson felt a connection to these men, the poem tacitly conveys a sense of how difficult it is to reconcile human experience with the universal and the spiritual, a theme also developed in the essay "Experience" and elsewhere in Emerson's writings.