Ralph Waldo Emerson


Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is now remembered as one of the most important transcendental writers.

Some of his best-known works are "Nature" and "Self-Reliance."

Emerson published ‘Terminus’ in his second collection of poetry, May-Day and Other Pieces. It speaks on themes of death, time, and fate. The tone is serious and contemplative as the poet explores these very serious themes and the universal application they have for all those who might read the words. Despite the nature of these themes though, the mood is uplighting and determined. A reader should walk away from this poem with a renewed understanding of what old age and death should and can be. 

Terminus by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Summary of Terminus 

Terminus’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a depiction of the changes one goes through as they age and reach the threshold of death. 

This poem features the words of Terminus, the Greek god of endings and boundaries. He addresses the speaker, an older man, and tells him that the time has come for him to curtail his youthful ambitions. He has to take care of the life he has. The old man should no longer seek to grow new fruits, as a young tree would. Rather, he should take care of the fruits he has. Then, when the time comes, embrace death.


Structure of Terminus 

Terminus’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a two stanza poem that’s separated into one set of thirty-two lines and another set of eight. The lines do not follow a specific rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. They also vary in length, with the first ten or so lines appear noticeably visually shorter than those which follow them. 



Transcendentalism focused on the internal spirit and the importance of intuition as a source of knowledge, in this case, the importance of love. This was made all the more necessary as it pushed back against a rise in dependence on logic and black-and-white morality. These ideas came to be a spiritual way of understanding and relating to one’s life.

Perhaps the most important aspect of Transcendentalism is the focus on nature. The participants in the movement were opposed to industrialism as it was a distraction from the pleasure an individual can receive from nature. They believed that nature was the only place in which they could learn who they were at the deepest level. Transcendentalists believed that the institutions of a society corrupted this pure self. 


Poetic Techniques in Terminus 

Emerson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Terminus’. These include, but are not limited to, anaphora, alliteration, and enjambment. The first, anaphora, is the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For instance, Emerson starts the last two lines of the first stanza with the word “Amid”. 

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “sets to seas a shore” in line four of the first stanza and “deaf” and “dumb” in line thirty-one of the first stanza. 

Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transitions between lines seven and eight and lines ten and eleven of the first stanza.


Analysis of Terminus

Stanza One 

Lines 1-11 

It is time to be old, 

To take in sail:— 

The god of bounds, 

Who sets to seas a shore, 

Came to me in his fatal rounds, 

And said: “No more! 

No farther shoot 

Thy broad ambitious branches, and thy root. 

Fancy departs: no more invent; 

Contract thy firmament 

To compass of a tent. 

In the first lines of ‘Terminus’, the speaker begins by acknowledging that it is “time to be old” and to “take in sail”. Life changes as one grow older. “The god of bounds,” a reference to the Greek god Terminus, is there. He came to the speaker to say “No more!” He tells him that he should curtail his ambitions and roots. Emerson uses the extended metaphor of a tree to depict one’s physical body and less physical goals. 

Terminus, or the entire process of aging and the restrictions it brings with it, informs the speaker that it is time to “Contract [his] firmament”. He should protect what he has left and not overreach. 


Lines 12-22 

There’s not enough for this and that, 

Make thy option which of two; 

Economize the failing river, 

Not the less revere the Giver, 

Leave the many and hold the few. 

Timely wise accept the terms, 

Soften the fall with wary foot; 

A little while 

Still plan and smile, 

And,—fault of novel germs,— 

Mature the unfallen fruit. 

In the next lines the speaker, who is at this point still Terminus, tells the aging man that there is not enough time, energy or strength left for “this and that”. There’s nothing left to waste. He should “Economize the failing river” and hold on to “the few” (people, joys, pursuits) that mean the most. 

If the listener is wise and pays attention to Terminus’ words, he will “accept the terms” of aging and be “wary” as he moves forward. Life is not what it used to be. Like a tree, he should “Mature” his “unfallen fruit” rather than trying to grow new fruit. 


Lines 23-32 

Curse, if thou wilt, thy sires, 

Bad husbands of their fires, 

Who, when they gave thee breath, 

Failed to bequeath 

The needful sinew stark as once, 

The Baresark marrow to thy bones, 

But left a legacy of ebbing veins, 

Inconstant heat and nerveless reins,— 

Amid the Muses, left thee deaf and dumb, 

Amid the gladiators, halt and numb.” 

In the also lines of this stanza, he adds that the listener can if he chooses “Curse…they sires” who “gave thee breadth”. One can rant and rage at the end of life and the degradation of one’s body. You can yell at your ancestors, your children, those you’ve met all your life but it not make a difference. “You” have been left as “you” are and it is best to accept your position among “the muses” and the “gladiators, halt and numb”. 


Stanza Two 

As the bird trims her to the gale, 

I trim myself to the storm of time, 

I man the rudder, reef the sail, 

Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime: 

“Lowly faithful, banish fear, 

Right onward drive unharmed; 

The port, well worth the cruise, is near, 

And every wave is charmed.”

The second stanza is only eight lines long. In it, the old man picks up the description of his aging form. The extended metaphor of the tree is continued. Now, he addresses his trimming of himself “to the storm of time”. He mans the “rudder, reef the sail” and obeys the voice of time that tells him to prepare. 

The final lines of the poem are the “voice at eve,” likely again the words of Terminus. He speaks to the old man, telling him and all those in the world aging alongside him, to drive “onward…unharmed” and embrace what comes next. One should “banish fear”. The destination is not a painful one. It is a “port, well worth the curse”. Along the way, the journey towards death,  “every wave is charmed”. 

Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.

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