Critical Essays Emerson's Use of Metaphor



In both Nature and "The American Scholar," Emerson advances the theory that all language is based on physical images. For him, etymology, the study of the history of words, traces words' meanings back to original concrete pictures and actions. Especially in Nature, he maintains that objects are a kind of language that represents spiritual ideas; objects can be "read" for inspiration and understanding. Hence, it is no surprise to find that Emerson characteristically expresses his ideas in vivid images and metaphors. The most dominant of these include images of water, light and fire, and unity and fragmentation.

Images of Water

Probably the most pervasive metaphor throughout Emerson's writings is the image of water. The fluidity of water, its clarity, and its shapeless character seem to have fascinated him. Water has several meanings, all of which relate to basic concepts associated with independence, transcendence, and spiritual insight. In Nature, Emerson asks, "Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things?" The flowing river not only reminds the thoughtful person of the ongoing flow of time, it is a figure for the passing days of an individual's life. In "The Over-Soul," in which images of water abound, he writes, "Man is a stream whose source is hidden," a statement that emphasizes the mystery he finds in each person.

At other times, he pictures life itself as the river, with the individual person borne along on its current. Such is the idea expressed in "The Over-Soul" when he urges us, "Do not require a description of the countries towards which you sail." This statement, part of a discussion of the impropriety of needing to know what the future will bring, and an exhortation to trust in spiritual guidance, conveys Emerson's sense of life as an adventure. He asks us to take risks and to exercise independent thought and imagination rather than safely follow convention.

If the individual is frequently imagined as moving in or on a river, the universe is pictured as a vast, immeasurable ocean. A key metaphor in Emerson's iconography is the river emptying into the sea and becoming part of it. This figure of speech expresses the fundamental notion of transcendence: the individual uniting with the universal mind — the Over-Soul. Emerson writes in "The Over-Soul" that the soul's apprehension of truth is "an ebb of the individual rivulet before the flowing surges of the sea of life." He emphasizes the union of individual and universal consciousness: "The only mode of obtaining an answer to these questions of the senses is to forego all low curiosity, and, accepting the tide of being which floats us into the secret of nature, work and live, work and live, and all unawares the advancing soul has built and forged for itself a new condition, and the question and the answer are one."

As the great sea of consciousness unites the individual with the mysteries of the universe, it also creates a communion between all of humanity. Thus, in "The Over-Soul," Emerson expresses an almost ecstatic sense of the beautiful union of all people: "The heart in thee is the heart of all; not a valve, not a wall, not an intersection is there anywhere in nature, but one blood rolls uninterruptedly an endless circulation through all men, as the water of the globe is all one sea, and, truly seen, its tide is one." Such participation allows us to partake of the divine life that penetrates and permeates the universe.

Images of Light and Fire

Another favorite source of imagery for Emerson is light and fire. While water images often evoke a sense of time and a calm, blissful union with the universal, images of light and fire are associated with emotional warmth, vigor, and strong, manly feelings. In "The Over-Soul," Emerson describes what it is like to experience a unity with the Over-Soul. His comparison combines a homely household hearth and a more mystical, visionary enlightenment: "The character and duration of this enthusiasm vary with the state of the individual, from an ecstasy and trance and prophetic inspiration, — which is its rarer appearance, — to the faintest glow of virtuous emotion, in which form it warms, like our household fires, all the families and associations of men, and makes society possible. A certain tendency to insanity has always attended the opening of the religious sense in men, as if they had been 'blasted with excess light.' " In the same essay, he offers an image of light and fire in conjunction with an image of water to depict the union of individuals with each other, and within the embrace of the universal: "By the same fire, vital, consecrating, celestial, which burns until it shall dissolve all things into the waves and surges of an ocean of light, we see and know each other and what spirit each is of."

Emerson uses the figure of light to de-emphasize the importance of individual human characteristics and to focus on a transcendent, mystical illumination, as in this passage from 'The Over-Soul": "But the soul that ascends to worship the great God is plain and true; has no rose-color, no fine friends, no chivalry, no adventures; does not want admiration; dwells in the hour that now is, in the earnest experience of the common day, — by reason of the present moment and the mere trifle having become porous to thought and bilulous of the sea of light." Sentiments such as these reinforce his private, ecstatic communion with the divine; they connect the spiritual experience with the responsibilities of moral behavior and independent thought advocated in pieces such as "Self-Reliance" and his more political essays and speeches. The soul's relationship with God becomes, literally, the "guiding light," in contrast to the directives of society, law, tradition, and other mundane and superficial authorities.

Images of Unity and Fragmentation

Not surprisingly in a writer and thinker whose greatest theme is humanity's all-encompassing wholeness, and who celebrates the individual's capacity to achieve union with the animating principle of Nature, images of unity and fragmentation play a major role in Emerson's writings. One aspect of this theme is an opposition of the organic and the mechanical, a concept congenial to a writer who revered nature as the supreme lawgiver and educator. Almost always, the organic is allied with that which is wholesome, good, and desirable; the mechanical is linked with that which is unhealthy, divisive, and destructive. For example, in "The Poet," Emerson advises the aspiring poet to seek themes in nature rather than in human history; his imagery contrasts the natural landscape with constructed and manufactured items like castles and swords: "O poet! a new nobility is conferred in groves and pastures, and not in castles or by the swordblade any longer."

Many times Emerson presents only the natural image, and the contrast is left to the reader's inference. Thus, in "The Over-Soul," the moral authority of the heart and feelings is implicitly opposed to mental or intellectual rules, which must have a divine spark of feeling in order to be worthwhile: "Speak to his heart and the man becomes suddenly virtuous. Within the same sentiment is the germ of intellectual growth, which obeys the same law." Occasionally, he departs from rigid application of the organic-versus-manufactured dichotomy to make comparisons in which a good or desirable element is paralleled with a constructed item. This often happens when the subject is related to science, a branch of learning he admires — conditionally — because it allows us a keener understanding of nature.

More commonly, Emerson refers positively to man-made items with a spiritual or emotional connection. Such is the case in "The Over-Soul" when he compares the human being with a religious building, a temple: "A man is the facade of a temple wherein all wisdom and all good abide." This is a rewriting of a familiar Christian figure of speech: the human person as a "temple" of the Holy Spirit. Although Emerson's Unitarianism precluded belief in a divine "Holy Spirit," his transcendentalism tended to transfer the spirit's divinity to the animating "Over-Soul" of all nature.

Among some of Emerson's most arresting images of fragmentation are those pertaining to clothes and textiles. Many times these images admonish us to question old, or accepted rules, and to "try on" new ways of thinking. His conclusion in "The Over-Soul" proposes an optimistic forecast of the future, as most of his writings tend to end on an optimistic note. He is confident that, in the future, the ideal human "will weave no longer a spotted life of shreds and patches, but he will live with a divine unity."

The metaphor of clothing and rags also appears frequently in Emerson's statements about writing and style. In a long and elaborately developed comparison in Nature, he contrasts the artificial style of imitative writers with the natural style of true poets. Imitative writers are those who "do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature." Contrasted to these imitators are the true poets, who "pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things . . . The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images." In addition to using images that promote a more natural, and hence preferable, style of writing, Emerson asserts a few paragraphs later that nature itself provides the best images — that is, the most appropriate dress — for writing: "[Because nature] always stands ready to clothe what we would say, we cannot avoid the question whether the characters are not significant of themselves."