American Transcendentalism Web
Authors & Texts Roots & Influences Ideas & Thought Criticism
Resources Search Communication Center
Default text size Big text size Bigger text size Biggest text size

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Explication of Passage from "Language" in Nature

from Eric Wilson, Emerson's Sublime Science


"Now we can turn to a metaleptic passage in Nature. The sequence, in the 'Language' section, functions on two levels. First, it exhibits a speaker undergoing the tripartite process of the sublime moment. [121] Overwhelmed by sublime energy, he employs tropes to restore calm. Second, the stylistic density of the passage works to inspire a sublime moment in readers, urging them to perform interpretive activities like those of the speaker. In other words, Emerson depicts a speaker initially in a habitual, ordinary relation to his environment; suddenly, he is overwhelmed by the sublime; after, by making his own tropes, he fashions a new way of relating to his environment. The same threefold process is likely to take place in readers attending actively to Emerson's own language.

After lamenting the recent decay of language into meaningless abstraction, Emerson asserts that wise men can again fasten words to visible things, so that 'picturesque language' shows that one is 'in alliance with truth and God'. He continues, detailing the process by which good writing and brilliant discourse are made.

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. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that always a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, cotemperaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation. It is the working of the Original Cause through the instruments he has already made. (N 39)

The passage features a speaking experiencing a sublime moment. His habitual relation to the world is disrupted. He is elevated above the ground line, overtaxed by thought and emotion. Immediately, he 'clothes his thought in images', or transmutes the indeterminate energy of his mind and heart into images, or tropes.

These lines work to stimulate similar activities in readers. Through intertextual metalepsis, tropes acting on tropes, Emerson's language is agitated, imitating the fiery passion and expanding thought of the discourser. Emerson tries to cast readers as good writers and brilliant discoursers. His language, like that of this poet, swells with excitement, rises above the ground line of familiar facts. 'Ground' is a pun, signifying the earth, a foundation, and a zero charge of electricity. When language rises above the ground, it is charged, electrified, becoming both volatile, 'enflamed', and increased in power and size, [122] 'exalted.' It is sublime, above the ground, lofty, extraordinary, not 'grounded' in the habitual.

This energy arising from the ground must be 'clothed' in images. The 'clothing' is a catachretic metaphor, as the idea of fire being clothed strains logic. Expanding fire and electricity will be 'clothed' only momentarily by images, for the cloth will be consumed or ripped by the flames. The energy of the discourse, then, will and will not be clothed; words will and will not express. This strained metaphor is a paradox. It taxes logic.

This Emersonian vector stimulates readers with auditory effects as well. Emerson uses subtle repetitions of sounds to reinforce his more overt message, wishing to get 'under the skin' of readers, to pierce their unconscious. FN 'The moment our discourses rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images.' The key word in the passages is 'rises', for it details the direction of inflamed passion, exalted thought, and brilliant language. The word itself seems to rise, as the long 'i' sound rhymes with 'high'. Several 'i' sounds through the passage, primarily short ones, sustain this echoing. Each of these 'i' words is key in the semantics of the sentence. The 'line' is the monotony of habit that the sublime 'rises' above. 'Inflamed', connected to rising discourse by 'is', figures the energy of the sublime. '[I]t' and 'itself' refer to 'rising' discourse that is clothed in 'images' by one experiencing the sublime.

'S' sounds, prominent in 'rises', likewise pervade the passage. These sounds cause the passage to hiss with the smoke of the flames as the inflamed 'i's' rise. Also, just as 'i' rhymes with 'high', 's' rhymes with esse, Latin for 'to be'. For Emerson, 'to be' truly is 'to rise', to feel the upwelling of sublime energy. Likewise, 'to be' is to 'essay', to write, to clothe fiery thought in images. Taking a cue from Emerson's claim that he would 'essay to be', Joel Porte has shown that Emerson, in his essays, 'dares, endeavors, tries, create himself'. FN Indeed, throughout the passage we hear a faint rhythm if I-esse, a nexus expressing the heart of the passage and Emerson's overall project: the I is by essaying the sublime.

The next sentence in the passage proceeds to describe this complex process by which one experiences the sublime: 'A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, cotemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of that thought'. A man 'conversing' finds that a 'material' image -- a visible [123] furnishing, a massy vestment -- rises in his mind along with thought -- invisible and weightless -- to provide the clothing of that thought. Another paradoxical, catachretic metaphor appears: a material image is made to rise as if it were invisible and weightless like thought.This material image 'furnishes' the vestment for thought. 'To furnish' is a catachretic metaphor as well; it means to provide, but also to furnish, to place furniture in a house. Does the material image then provide a perfectly fitting garment for thought or does it clutter the mind with unnecessary furniture? Other questions riddle us: why is the image more or less luminous? Is it more or less consumed by the flames of fiery thought?

In calling the material image that arises with thought 'luminous', Emerson practices diachronic metalepsis. He elliptically alludes to the Bible. The brilliant discourser is in a position similar to God in the first chapter of John, where God's creative Word is made flesh. God's logos, his Son, is his Word clothed in material" 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God'. In him 'was life; and the life was the light of men' (1:1-4, italics mine). Like God's logos, the words of this speaker clothe the invisible and are luminous. However, unlike the logos, which fully embodies and represents God on earth, the words of the brilliant discourser do not fully incarnate and depict their meaning. Indeed, their meaning consumes and destroys them, burning them with fiery passion, ripping them with expanding thought. Ironically, the words are 'vestments', robes worn by priests in celebrating the Eucharist, a festival that commemorates the relationship between logos and God, a communion of symbol and meaning. But the discourser's 'vestments' do not symbolize union between word and meaning, visible and invisible. The discourser's words are really anti-vestments. They suggest a problematic logos. Emerson has revised the logos in light of his idea of the scientific sublime. The book of nature is not comprised of univocal signs but by electrical forces.

This process of clothing thought is spontaneous, as fiery and exalted discourse 'clothes itself'. However, Emerson seems to contradict this statement in claiming that if a man 'watch his intellectual process' (italics mine), he will find that the image rises with the thought. The process is paradoxical, both spontaneous and conscious.

At this point, the language has become indeterminate, bewildering. It seems as if Emerson senses this indeterminacy in his own language, for the remainder of the passage is comprised of simple [124] sentences meant to clarify the baffling process of turning fiery thought into words. He calls this complex process an act of 'conversing'. He then follows 'conversing' with a series of seven metonymic displacements that associate 'conversing' with 'good writing', 'brilliant discourse', 'perpetual allegory', 'spontaneous imagery', 'blending of experience with present action of the mind', 'proper creation', 'working of the Original Cause'.

The seven metonymies restore a balance between dissolution and solution, centrifugal and centripetal, solve et coagula. Emerson has moved from the indeterminacy of his own language by troping; he has substituted the metaphor of 'conversing' for the process of sublime composition and displaced his surplus of meaning with a litany of metonymies. The metonymies literally 'slow down' the quite turnings of the agitated site, as each of the seven sentences is monotonously patterned with 'subject-copula-complement' structures. This syntactic parallelism itself is slowed down by the anaphora of the last three sentences, each of which begins with 'It is...', further reinforcing the return to stasis. Emerson like an alchemist has turned down the flame under the alembic of his essay, settling the fluid after the vigorous sublimations of language.

Attentive readers would be in the same position as the brilliant discourser and Emerson. They would be overwhelmed by linguistic force. Emerson has compressed several tropes and figures into this brief passage, essaying to affect readers on semantic, syntactic, and auditory levels, his sentences constituting a voltaic pile or an alembic. In embodying sublimation, his tropes have worked to sublimate -- to dissolve and diffuse -- the habits of readers. He would urge his readers to refigure fresh hermeneutic practices, to create new tropes by which to pattern his style."

Copied by permission of author. See also the Introduction to his book. and his explication of the transparent eyeball passage in Nature.

Need some help with the terms? Try these sites on Tropes and Poetic schemas.