‘Days’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is an allegorical poem reflecting on the passage of time and human desires. As is common with Emerson’s poems, ‘Days’ is packed with transcendental references and mystery. It is also one of Emerson’s shorter poems and a notable one for the Transcendentalism Movement of the 19th century.
Days Ralph Waldo EmersonDaughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,And marching single in an endless file,Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.To each they offer gifts after his will,Bread, kingdoms, stars, or sky that holds them all.I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,Forgot my morning wishes, hastilyTook a few herbs and apples, and the DayTurned and departed silent. I, too late,Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
‘Days’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a short poem relating the passage of time with man’s endless desires.
The poet persona begins ‘Days’ by introducing the subject of their poem: days. They personify the titular subject throughout the poem, using it to symbolize the passage of time. At the beginning of the poem, the persona shows that the “days” and, by extension, time passes by fast but also silently. More so, the speaker reveals that with time, the ever-growing desires of man are granted. However, the persona notes that time seems to grant man’s desires out of obligation, even pity because the men from the poem easily fall apart if their wishes are not fulfilled.
Towards the end, the persona distinguishes themselves from these men, telling of their contentment in their “pleached garden.” The speaker does not have grand desires and takes the simplest things the “Days” have to offer. However, the titular subject sees the speaker’s contentment as indifference and silently rebukes them for it. Marking the end of the poem, the poet persona notices the Day’s scorn only after it leaves.
‘Days’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a single stanza poem comprising eleven lines. The poet uses enjambment; punctuations separate the sentences and split them across several lines. The poet also uses a stream-of-consciousness narrative technique, where their thoughts flow uninterrupted. Furthermore, ‘Days’ does not have a rhyme scheme or meter, thereby making it a free verse.
- Allegory: This is the dominant literary device in the poem. ‘Days’ in itself is entirely allegorical. The poet presents a common narrative with an underlying philosophical meaning.
- Symbolism: There is no allegory without a fair amount of symbolism. A notable instance of this literary device appears in line 7. The phrase in this line, “my pleached garden,” symbolizes contentment.
- Personification: The allegory in ‘Days’ could not have been executed without personifying the titular subject. Throughout the poem, the poet ascribes human qualities like walking and even making facial expressions to ‘Days.’ In fact, the poet tells their story such that one can hardly imagine the ‘days’ as anything other than human.
- Enjambment: Given the poet’s narrative technique, finding enjambment in the poem is unsurprising. The stream-of-consciousness technique entails that thoughts flow unhindered, but seeing as the speaker is writing a poem, those thoughts cum sentences are split across several lines.
- Inversion: This is the rearrangement of the normative sentence structure, which is subject-verb-predicate. A notable example of this appears in line 5, where one sees the predicate-subject-verb arrangement. In line 7, the speaker uses a subject-predicate-verb arrangement. Others examples exist within the poem, all serving to elevate the language.
- Caesura: This is a pause, often in the middle of a line of poetry. This literary device appears in the first line of ‘Days,’ where the poet uses a comma after “Daughters of Time.” One can further say this is a masculine caesura because the pause comes after a stressed syllable, “time.” As is common with masculine caesuras, this pause creates a dramatic effect in the poem’s introduction.
- Simile: A simile appears in line two of ‘Days.’ Here, the poet compares the titular subject to “dervishes,” Muslims sworn to an ascetic lifestyle. This further enhances the appearance of the “days” as humans.
- Metaphor: An example of the implied metaphor appears in line 1. By referring to the days as the “daughters” of time, Emerson uses a metaphor to imply a universal truth: counting the days is one way of marking time.
Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
The opening lines of ‘Days’ introduces its titular subject, days. The speaker so expertly weaves personification into the poem that from the beginning, the “days” are seen as humans. The image of “days” as not just humans but also women further cements itself in a reader’s mind when the speaker compares them to “dervishes.” Dervishes are a group of Muslims who, like monks, swear to live ascetic lifestyles. This is how the speaker derives the attributes of “days” in line 2. This spiritual reference is to be expected, considering Emerson was known for exploring transcendental themes in his poetry.
Like “dervishes,” the speaker chooses words rarely used in modern-day conversation. “Fagots,” for one, can be quickly misunderstood, but it means a bundle of sticks burnt for fuel. This language tells us more than anything that ‘Days’ is not a contemporary poem. By extension, it hints at the fact that the poem has a figurative meaning.
“Endless” in line 3 is noteworthy. Earlier, the poet persona refers to the “days” as daughters of time, meaning they indicate the passage of time. With that said, line 3 gives readers a picture of the endlessness of time. The line alone tells readers that although the days begin and end, time itself is interminable.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, or sky that holds them all.
In continuation with line 4, these lines reveal the work of our subject. While narrating what the days do, the persona transitions into the topic of human desire. In a few lines, the speaker hammers down on man’s routine of expecting daily, often good things. It is a universal truth powerfully expressed that people, subconsciously or consciously, always hope for something good with a new day.
The speaker lists examples of such things with the image of the days giving them to man. “Bread” in line 6 can be interpreted in two ways. From a spiritual perspective, it means the “daily bread” from The Lord’s Prayer, which symbolizes man’s every need. It also simply means food, which is one of man’s basic needs.
Listing other needs like “kingdom,” “stars,” and “sky” right next to something as basic as food reveals yet another truth about man’s desires: they vary based on class. Anyone desiring a basic need is not necessarily looking to rule a kingdom. As unexpected as it is, the persona uses these men’s needs to point out a division of class, even though all men look forward to the same day.
Furthermore, the order of listings reveals one last thing about people’s desires: they are endless. In line 6, the speaker indirectly tells the audience that a man who has one need satisfied will always desire something better. Although the speaker depicts the days of offering man’s desires to man, in reality, not all of man’s desires are granted.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.
The last lines of ‘Days’ center on the speaker. Although they have classified men based on their desires, the persona distinguishes himself from these classes. The imagery between lines 7-9 informs readers that the speaker walks a fine line between contentment and indifference. By extension, the speaker represents a group of people who do not expect much, or even anything at all, from their day. On the one hand, the speaker (and people like them) call this contentment. On the other hand, others, like the “Day” from whom the speaker takes his items, say the content is indifferent, hence the “scorn” in line 11.
The interpretation of the last lines gives insight into the meaning of “hypocritic” in line 1. The days offer things to man without desiring any for themselves. Following the comparison with “dervishes,” even though they do not desire anything and do not encourage a desire for themselves, they encourage men to do the opposite. This explains the scorn they show when the speaker refusing their offers shows contentment. Pulling on this reference from line one, in this sense, one can see the poem comes full circle.
Allegorical poetry is a type of poetry that explores broad, often philosophical concepts using symbolic narratives. Poetry like this usually takes the form of simple storytelling with a literal meaning. However, it also has a figurative meaning which is the message of the poem.
‘Days’ was published in November 1857 in the first issue of The Atlantic. However, Emerson wrote the poem sometime between 1851 and 1852.
In ‘Days,’ the speaker explores themes of time and human desire. Through a short narrative, the speaker tells of the seemingly never-ending passage of time. Also, the speaker classifies mankind based on the way their desires, or lack thereof, change with time.
The speaker, in the nature of storytelling, is relaxed throughout the poem. They observe the display before them and relate it to an unseen audience calmly.
There is no hard and fast definition for transcendental poetry, as the very concept of transcendentalism rejects constraining definitions and labels. Regardless, one can expect a transcendental poem to explore spiritual and/or philosophical themes like divinity, death, and so on through contemplations of natural things. The Transcendentalism Movement of the early 19th century often weaved details of nature, deity, and human divinity into its literature.
If you enjoyed reading ‘Days’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson, you should check out similar poems:
- ‘Terminus‘ by Ralph Waldo Emerson: a poem exploring the changes people go through physically and otherwise as they age.
- ‘Days‘ by Philip Larkin: a poem depicting a speaker who ponders on the purpose of time and life.
- ‘Past Days‘ by Anne Brontë: a poem in which Anne Brontë reflects on happy memories from the past while comparing it to her current life, which is not as happy.