‘Brahma’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson was written in 1856 and is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. The lines follow a specific rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABAB CDCD, and so on, changing end sounds as Emerson saw fit.
Repetition is one of the most important techniques used in ‘Brahma’. It can be seen through the use and reuse of words such as “slay” in the first stanza, as well as general use of alliteration. It occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “Shadow,” “sunlight” and “same” in the second stanza and “doubter” and “doubt” in the third.
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that they are wrong about life or earth. Anyone who thinks they have killed or died does not understand how Brahma, the god of creation, works. He also explains how subtle he is in his movements and that he can pass through the world and come back again effortlessly.
In the second stanza, Brahma presents a series of contrasting images that speak to the way he sees the world. Light and dark are the same, as are fame and shame. He can see into the spirit world and know where all the vanished gods are.
Brahma emphasizes how important he should be to worshipers. If one does not adequately appreciate him, they will only have cause to regret it. He concludes by asking the reader to give up worrying about heaven and instead devote their time to him.
The title of the poem, ‘Brahma’ comes from the Hindu god of creation. He is one of the three major gods of the religion, alongside Vishnu and Shiva. It is from his perspective that the poem is written, alluding to his control over everything. The text is an exploration of the universality of the spirit of Brahma and how he moves through time and space.
Analysis of Brahma
If the red slayer think he slays,
Or if the slain think he is slain,
They know not well the subtle ways
I keep, and pass, and turn again.
In the first stanza of ‘Brahma’ the speaker, Brahma, begins by telling the reader that if they have any presumptions about life or death, they’re wrong. He says that if a “red slayer” thinks they have killed someone or if the “slain” think they are dead, then they clearly don’t understand how “he” works. The phrase “red sayer” is a reference to the god of death.
He tells the reader that he is “subtle” and moves through the world without limitations. Emerson creates an additional rhythm in these lines with the repetition of the word “slay” in its various forms.
Brahma is more of a spirit than a physical human being. As seen through the phrase “I keep, and pass, and turn again.” This refers to his ability to move between life and death easily.
Far or forgot to me is near;
Shadow and sunlight are the same;
The vanished gods to me appear;
And one to me are shame and fame.
Through contrasting images and states of being Brahma asserts his dominance in the second stanza. He is attempting to show how different he is from humanity, in the way that he moves through, and sees the world. To do this, he states that “Far” is the same thing to him as “near”. Therefore, distance has no meaning. He can travel to one place as easily as to another.
He goes on, to say that “Shadow and sunlight are the same” to him as well. Plus, he is able to see the “vanished gods” that everyone else thinks have gone away for good. This last statement alludes to his ability to operate on a spiritual plane that is inaccessible to humans.
Last, he adds that “shame and fame” are equally worthless and valuable to him. He does not crave one and avoid the other.
They reckon ill who leave me out;
When me they fly, I am the wings;
I am the doubter and the doubt,
I am the hymn the Brahmin sings.
Now, in the third stanza of ‘Brahma’, he turns away from what he can do on his own, to speak on how he is considered by humanity. He tells the reader that those who “leave me out” are playing a dangerous game. They have made a poor decision to think this way. The reason for this is outlined in the next lines.
Brahma, he states, is the reason that anything and everything happens He is the “doubter and the doubt” and the hymn sung by the faithful. When anyone succeeds, it is also because of him. In the last lines of this section, he refers to the “Brahmin,” the highest social caste. Members of this group are responsible for maintaining sacred knowledge and today make up about 5% of the population of India.
The strong gods pine for my abode,
And pine in vain the sacred Seven;
But thou, meek lover of the good!
Find me, and turn thy back on heaven.
In these last lines Brahma tells the reader that even those deemed most important by humanity, and the other strong gods, want what he has. He has an “abode” that includes all of the world, and it is enviable. He speaks about the “strong gods” such as Agni the god of fire, and Yama, the god of war (mentioned in the first stanza). The speaker also refers to the “sacred Seven,” the highest holy persons in Hinduism. Both groups seek to draw closer to Brahma.
Brahma speaks directly to the reader in the last two lines. He tells “you” to “Find” him and “turn” your back “on heaven”. It is Brahma, the idea and spirit, that one should pursue, not the idealized heavenly end to one’s life. “You” are only a “meek lover of the god” and should do as he says.