The American transcendentalist poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote this beautiful poem, ‘Hamatreya’. It explores the permanence of mother earth in comparison to the transience of human beings.
Emerson was fascinated with the Hindu scriptures and mostly the sacred Vedas. This poem, ‘Hamatreya’, is based on a passage of the Vishnu Purana. The title of the poem is a shortened form of “Hail Maitraya”. Here, the poet records what the sage named Parashara taught his disciple Maitreya in response to the disciple’s query regarding the real worth of earthly possessions. The poet talks about the “Earth-Song” along with the story of a few landowners to clarify what the sage told his disciple about the real meaning of life.
Summary of Hamatreya
There are three sections in the poem. In the first section, the poet talks about some men namely Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, and Flint who are boastful about their wealth and well-being. But they are unaware of their mortality. In the second section, the “Earth-Song”, the poet shares what earth thinks about those men. Earth is rather in a sarcastic mood about their foolishness. In the last section, the poetic persona shares his reaction after hearing the story of those men and the song of the earth. In that last stanza, it is the poet who presents his realization.
Meaning of Hamatreya
‘Hamatreya’ is a combination of two Sanskrit words. One is “Hey” and another is “Maitreya”. In Sanskrit, “Hey” is an interjection that is used while a person calls someone by his or her name. It is the same as the English expression, “O Maitreya!” From the title of the poem, one gets a hint that this poem deals with someone named Maitreya. As it is mentioned earlier, this poem is based on the conversation between the sage Parashara and his disciple Maitreya. So, here, Emerson records the guidance of Parashara to Maitreya in a story-like manner.
Structure of Hamatreya
This poem consists of three sections. In the first section, there are three stanzas. Here, the poet presents the themes of greed and mortality. In the next section, named the “Earth-Song”, the poet presents what the earth told to the speaker. In the last stanza of the poem, one can find the realization of the speaker after listening to the song. Moreover, it is a free verse that doesn’t have any specific rhyme scheme. In the “Earth-Song”, there are short lines, packed with internal rhythm. Apart from that, the overall poem doesn’t contain any regular metrical pattern.
Literary Devices in Hamatreya
There are several literary devices in this poem by Emerson, ‘Hamatreya’. There is asyndeton in the first line and third line of the first stanza. The poet uses personification in this line, “How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!” Thereafter, the second stanza begins with a rhetorical question. There is a metaphor in “their furrows plough.” Here, the poet compares furrows in farmland to the graves. There is a palilogy in the repetition of the word “proud” in the fourth line of this stanza. This section also contains irony.
In the “Earth-Song”, one can find an antithesis in the beginning. There is a simile in the line, “Fled like the flood’s foam.” In “flood’s foam” there is an alliteration of the “f” sound. This song ends on an interrogative note, ironically. Lastly, the speaker of the poem uses a simile and refers to the “chill of the grave” that puts an end to one’s lust.
Analysis of Hamatreya
Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,
Possessed the land which rendered to their toil
Hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool, and wood.
Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm,
Saying, “’Tis mine, my children’s and my name’s.
How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees!
How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!
I fancy these pure waters and the flags
Know me, as does my dog: we sympathize;
And, I affirm, my actions smack of the soil.”
In the first stanza of ‘Hamatreya’, the omniscient speaker of the poem refers to Bulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, and Flint who possessed lands rendered to their toil. There those men produced hay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool, and wood. Each of these landlords while walking amidst their farms, expressed their authority over their lands. One of them said by referring to his land that the land belonged to him and his children.
Thereafter, he referred to the west wind and told the speaker to hear the sound the west wind made in his trees. Ironically, those were not his trees. Those belonged to nature. However, he felt pleased to see the shadows on his hill. It seemed to him that the shadows gracefully wandered on the hill. He fancied the pure waters and the flags. His property to him was like a dog to his master, faithful and submissive. In reality, it was just the opposite. At last, the speaker said in a confident tone that his actions “smack of the soil.” It is a reference to the person’s deep relationship with his property.
Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:
And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.
Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys
Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;
Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet
Clear of the grave.
In the second stanza of the poem, the speaker asks where those men are. Once they said they owned the land but now they are beneath their grounds. Strangers like them plowed the furrows, a metaphorical reference to their graves, to bury them. Thereafter, the poet presents the perspective of the earth. According to him, earth laughs at the boastful attitude of her “Earth-proud” boys. They were, once, proud of the earth which is not theirs now. It was as free then as it is now. It is not much different that can be seen on earth. The only difference is those men are no more.
Thereafter, the poet ironically says, human beings can steer their plow but they cannot steer their feet, clear of the grave. In this way, the poet introduces the theme of mortality in this section.
They added ridge to valley, brook to pond,
And sighed for all that bounded their domain;
“This suits me for a pasture; that’s my park;
We must have clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge,
And misty lowland, where to go for peat.
The land is well,—lies fairly to the south.
’Tis good, when you have crossed the sea and back,
To find the sitfast acres where you left them.”
In this section of the second stanza, the poet says that humans created ridge to valley, brook to pond, and thought to redesign nature for the sake of their inner pleasure. Whatsoever, they spent the most of their lives thinking about useless matters such as which part of land best suited for a pasture or a park, where they could find clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge, and misty lowland, and where they could go for peat.
Moreover, they desired to own the lands which were well-maintained and faced a specific direction. One of them said, “It is good when you have crossed the sea and back to find the sitfast acres where you left them.” The last few lines of this section throw light on the possessive nature of humankind.
Ah! the hot owner sees not Death, who adds
Him to his land, a lump of mould the more.
Hear what the Earth say:—
In this stanza of ‘Hamatreya’, the poet says that the “hot owner” cannot see “Death”. Death adds him to land like a “lump of mould.” Here, the poet uses a metaphor in the “hot owner”. This phrase refers to the greedy men. Thereafter, the poet makes a comparison between those men and the lump of mould. It is true that when human beings die they turn into a mere lump of mould. However, in the last line of this section, the poet tells the readers to listen to what the Earth says about those people.
Earth-Song – Stanza Four
“Mine and yours;
Mine, not yours.
Shine down in the old sea;
Old are the shores;
But where are old men?
I who have seen much,
Such have I never seen.
In the first stanza of the “Earth-Song”, the earth says that everyone belongs to her. It is the foolishness of humans to believe the lands are theirs. In reality, they belonged to mother earth. Earth endures and stars abide her plan. They shine down in the old sea. The shores of the sea are also old. But the old men are no more. Lastly, the earth ironically says she has seen much but she has never seen such foolishness of men.
Earth-Song – Stanza Five
“The lawyer’s deed
To them and to their heirs
Who shall succeed,
In this section of the song, the poetic persona or the earth says those landlords had the lawyer’s deed to transfer their possession to their next generation. Apart from that, they think by documenting how much they had, they are securing the rights of their future generation. However, this statement also reveals their stupidity. As they are ignorant kind of men, they think a mere deed or will could give them the right to own the land as long as they can.
Earth-Song – Stanza Six
“Here is the land,
Shaggy with wood,
With its old valley,
Mound and flood.
But the heritors?—
Fled like the flood’s foam.
The lawyer and the laws,
And the kingdom,
Clean swept herefrom.
The third stanza of the “Earth-Song” in ‘Hamatreya’ similarly talks about those men. The earth points at the land, shaggy with wood. The old valley, mound, and flood are there. But the heritors could not. In the following line, the poet uses a smile. Here, he compares death to the “flood’s foam.” Lastly, the earth refers to the lawyer, the laws, and the kingdom which will be swept from the earth. As men are mortal, their possessions are also swept away after their death. One cannot carry one’s property after their death in heaven.
Earth-Song – Stanza Seven
“They called me theirs,
Who so controlled me;
Yet every one
Wished to stay, and is gone,
How am I theirs,
If they cannot hold me,
But I hold them?”
The earth says that they called her theirs and controlled her. Every one of them wished to stay on earth as long as they could. They wanted to stay alive not for the love of either nature or earth. Greed and lust controlled their thinking pattern. But, at last, they are gone. Thereafter, the earth asks how she can be theirs if they cannot hold her. Moreover, the earth says she holds them. So, it is mere foolishness to think about how much one can acquire. At the end of the day, everything belongs to mother nature. And she is the sole owner of the lands about which those men boasted.
When I heard the Earth-song
I was no longer brave;
My avarice cooled
Like lust in the chill of the grave.
In the last stanza of the poem, ‘Hamatreya’, the speaker of the poem says when he heard this song, he was no longer brave. His “avarice cooled/ Like lust in the chill of the grave.” In this way, the poet highlights that humans being mortal cannot possess anything forever. They are the tenants of mother nature. She allows them to own a meager part of her property. And men, after acquiring it, boast about that. However, at the end of the poem, Emerson highlights the importance of spirituality. Materialistic life leaves a person with a temporary illusion. At last, it robs the person of his borrowed robes.
Historical Context of Hamatreya
The lyric, ‘Hamatreya’ was first published in 1847. It was included later in the “Selected Poems 1876.” Emerson took interest in the Hindu scriptures in his Harvard days. He studied Manu, Vishnu Purana, the Bhagavad Gita, and Katha Upanishad. This poem was based on an episode of the Vishnu Purana that Emerson copied into his journal in 1845. Later, he wrote this poem describing the essence of the episode. In that passage, Maitreya asked Vishnu a few questions about human ambition and greed. In response to his questions, the deity, Vishnu told him about the kings who mistakenly believed themselves to be lords of the earth. Then he recited the “Earth-Song”, in which the earth laughs at the egotism of the kings. He told Maitreya that this song would melt his avarice.
Here is a list of a few poems that are similar to the themes present in ‘Hamatreya’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson.
- The Cremation of Sam McGee by Robert Service – In this poem, Service talks about Sam McGee who froze to death for his greed for gold. It is one of the famous Robert Service poems.
- Poverty by Marinela Reka – It is a poem that revolves around the poet’s young age. Here, the poet talks about greed, riches, and poverty.
- Ballad of Worldly Wealth by Andrew Lang – In this ballad, Land describes how humans perceive the power of wealth as well as its true value and usefulness.
- The Vanity Of Wealth by Samuel Johnson – Here, in this poem, the poet explores the themes of wealth, the purpose of life, love, and friendship. The poem contrasts what is important and what is not, in one’s life.
You can read about 10 of the Best Ralph Waldo Emerson Poems here.