Emerson’s Circles (in verse)

Fragments from Emerson’s prose essay “Circles” (1841):

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth
that around every circle another
can be drawn. There is no end in nature,
but every end is a beginning.
There is always another dawn risen
on mid-noon, and under every deep
a lower deep opens. The Greek sculpture
is all melted away. The Greek letters
last a little longer, but are already
passing under the same sentence, tumbling
into the inevitable pit which the
creation of new thought opens for all
that is old. The new continents are built
out of the ruins of an old planet.

The man finishes his story, – how good!
how final! how it puts a new face on
all things! He fills the sky. Lo, on the other side
rises also a man and draws a circle
around the circle we had just pronounced
the outline of the sphere. Then already is
our first speaker not man, but only first
speaker. His redress is forthwith to draw
a circle outside of his antagonist.

In common hours, society sits
cold and statuesque. Then cometh the god
and converts the statues into fiery men,
and by a flash of his eye burns up the veil
which shrouded all things, and the meaning of
the very furniture, of cup and saucer,
or chair and clock and tester, is manifest.

The natural world may be conceived of
as a system of concentric circles,
and we now and then detect in nature
slight dislocations which apprize us that
this surface on which we stand is not fixed,
but sliding.

I am gladdened by beholding that no
evil is pure, nor hell itself without
its extreme satisfactions. But let me
remind the reader that I am only
an experimenter. Do not set the least
value on what I do, or the least discredit
on what I do not, as if I pretended
to settle any thing as true or false.
I unsettle all things, an endless seeker
with no Past at my back.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.