Emerson's "Hamatreya" Summary and Analysis


The poem "Hamatreya" was based on a passage from the Vishnu Purana (one of the traditional Vedantic mythologies). Emerson copied the passage into his journal in 1845. "Hamatreya" first appeared in print in Poems, published by Chapman in London and by Munroe in Boston late in 1846 (the title pages dated 1847). The Boston edition of Poems was reprinted many times. (In 1865, Ticknor and Fields issued the title in their famous "Blue and Gold" format.) In 1876, the poem was included in the ninth volume (Selected Poems) of the Little Classic Edition of Emerson's writings, in 1884 in the ninth volume (Poems) of the Riverside Edition, and in 1904 in the ninth volume (Poems) of the Centenary Edition. It has been included in many collected editions of Emerson, among them the 1946 The Portable Emerson (edited by Mark Van Doren), the 1965 Signet Classic Selected Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (edited by William H. Gilman), and the 1994 Library of America Collected Poems and Translations (selected and annotated by Harold Bloom and Paul Kane

Emerson drew on a passage in the Vishnu Purana in writing "Hamatreya." The origin of the poem's title is unclear, because there is no Hindu word or name "Hamatreya." Edward Waldo Emerson noted in his annotations to the poem in the Centenary Edition of his father's writings that "Hamatreya" appears to be an adaptation of "Maitreya," one of the characters in the Hindu text. In the original passage, Maitreya is engaged in a dialogue with the deity Vishnu (who was, to his devotees, the central deity, of whom all the other deities represented aspects). Vishnu tells Maitreya about the Hindu kings who mistakenly believed themselves possessors of the Earth. But the kings have disappeared, while the Earth endures. Vishnu recites the chant of the Earth, who laughs at and pities the egotistical kings and their blindness to their mortality. He tells Maitreya that the Earth's song will cause proud ambition to melt away.

Unlike many of Emerson's poems, "Hamatreya" is metrically varied and unconventional. The first section of the poem (in which Emerson describes the early settlers of Concord) is written primarily in blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), from which Emerson varies in several lines. The second section (the Earth-Song) is metrically irregular and unidentifiable in terms of traditional meter and rhyme scheme. The final four lines (in which the first-person speaker comments on how he has been affected by the Earth-Song) is in an adaptation upon a more traditional verse form, the common meter (iambic heptameter).

Emerson opens "Hamatreya" with a list of some of the first settlers of Concord — "Minott, Lee, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint." (In the version of the poem printed in 1876 in Selected Poems, the first line was changed to begin with the name of the Concord founder who was Emerson's own ancestor and an alternate second name — Hunt — that prevented the repetition of sound that Lee would have created in juxtaposition with Bulkeley: "Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint.") These names are followed closely (in the third line) by a list of the products of the land from which these solid men benefited. The founders took satisfaction in their ownership of the trees and hills, and believed that the land would belong to them and to their descendants forever. They imagined that they shared a special sympathy with the land. Emerson asks where they are now, and answers "Asleep beneath their grounds," suggesting a kinship with the earth quite different from that which the founders thought they possessed. He writes of the Earth laughing at her "boastful boys" (an image borrowed from the Vedantic original), who were so proud of owning what was not actually theirs, but who could not avoid death. Emerson enumerates the ways in which they altered their land. These men appreciated the stability of their property as they sailed back and forth across the ocean, never dreaming that the land that awaited their return would outlast their claims to it. They did not realize that death would transform each of them into "a lump of mould," turning them back into the land they owned.

The "Earth-Song" begins with the lines "Mine and yours; / Mine, not yours," which recall the words of the original passage in the Vishnu Purana — "The words 'I and mine' constitute ignorance." In her song, the Earth points out that she herself endures, whereas men do not. She mocks the legal deeds by which the property of the first settlers was supposedly conveyed to their heirs, and she sings that the inheritors of the land are, like their progenitors, also gone, as are the lawyers and the laws through which ownership was effected. Every one of the men who controlled the land is gone, even though all of them wanted to stay. The Earth underscores her hold over the men who firmly believed that they held her.

In the third section of "Hamatreya," a four-line stanza (quatrain), the speaker of the poem states that the Earth-Song took away his bravery and avarice, "Like lust in the chill of the grave," thus ending the poem on a note of sober awareness