The Sphinx By Ralph Waldo Emerson

1081 words - 4 pages

What one believes and does it in the world, has to do with what has happened in the past. History effects what happens today and it never ends. Understanding what someone does can only occur by looking at their past. This very controversial poem, "The Sphinx" written by Ralph Waldo Emerson, displays the religious aspects of his life, but also the mystery and sorrow of his life. Throughout the poem, the reader sees that the all knowing Sphinx has seen history past, yet still struggles to understand. Ralph Waldo Emerson writes "The Sphinx" and reflects this theme within his work through symbolism and figurative language.
First, the symbolism in "The Sphinx" allows the reader to understand the poem. The main symbol is the sphinx herself. The sphinx, an allusion, comes from Greek mythology and is portrayed as a lion with the head of a woman and wings at her sides. She has a riddle which travelers attempt to solve to gain passage. The sphinx symbolizes the knowledge, the age, and the unchanging aspect of history. As she sits for centuries, the sphinx accumulates knowledge and only she knows the answer to the riddle, or the answer to history over the ages. But at the same time the sphinx, stuck in her ways, cannot accept a traveler solving her riddle and kills herself after this happens. This symbolism, shown throughout the poem, begins when the Sphinx talks about nature as if she has seen everything happen. But when a man comes and changes the ways, she disappears into the sky. With this symbol, the poem ties together why the author begins with a narrative about nature and why the Sphinx states, "Who taught thee me to name?/I am thy spirit, yoke-fellow;/Of thine eye I am eyebeam" which represents her puzzlement when someone has solved her riddle or changed her ways. Another symbol which ties into the sphinx's position to the unwilling change in history occurs when the poet speaks, "Dull Sphinx, Jove keep thy five wits;/They sight is growing blear." Sight in this sense symbolizes seeing, not only visually, but seeing the truth. The poet declares this when telling the Sphinx of all of the changes missed by remaining in her ways. Symbolism in the poem does not only take on a form through references to greek mythology, but as a way to see and understand the theme.
Second, figurative language and the overall language of the poem helps the reader understand and analyze the poem. Allusions to Greek mythology occur the most throughout "The Sphinx" beginning with the title. "Daedalian plan" and "The Lethe of Nature" both refer to myths in Greek mythology. These bring understanding to why the poem revolves around the sphinx, tying in multiple aspects of Greek mythology. Personification occurs frequently throughout the poem, mostly when describing nature. For example, when Emerson describes the waves in the wind, the night, and the earth. The figurative language, specifically personification, brings imagery to the poem. Seeing the waves move lightly in...

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