A Tour through the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Gösta Ågren

History

History is thought, a
pattern that conceals the
true story, where
the swallow grows bloody
from flying through the
murky bombast and
facts stand like a higher
race above the souls’
morasses, and the annals
challenge in vain. The object
of this wild conversation is
the community, a magic behemoth,
a togetherness with no other shield
against the fire than ashes.

 

Self-Reliance

The sunrise resembles
a religious idea; so
helpless is our existence.
Sometimes the sparse death
thickens to war. Then
the names sink away in
their own mass. Outside
society awaits bondage,
where the slaves’ sick hearts
at last pound themselves
apart. But in here the freedom has shrunk to
decrees, and words are now so
clear, they signify only
sound. The silence is silenced
by music, but here
too you must
decide.

 

Compensation

God is a simplification
and the word soul says plainly
that human beings are only
symbolic, as if
there were houses without
emptiness. Alas,
nothing is compensated
in the eternal accounts. The
murdered are chosen,
the whipped still
burn. A rival overturned
Theagenes’ victory statue, and came
finally first to the finish, crushed
beneath its weight.

 

Spiritual Laws

That which is limitless cannot
be seen. It surrounds you
with its emptiness, which
slowly dissolves you like
a carnivorous flower
its prey. Only the quest
sustains you. Without
ideals no one can keep

their memories pure. Without
certainty and actions
the laws of matter take
over and turn
this wild event
into something lost.

 

Love

Love is a message
from the skin. Hands
begin to long for their meaning.
A story awaits, but
the one who has nothing
to lose does not dare
to losing that,
too. Only the one who has everything
to gain, is not afraid
of his courage. He has been
pitiable. Now
he turns
against himself. The heart pounds
like a helpless child,
but he writes his
bad poems. They cry
as wordless
cranes cry
in spring.

 

Friendship

Words of command
remain like a direction
in the silence. We must
obey or refuse
to obey. There is
no choice.
When words are clumsy
and hesitant like unfamiliar
footsteps on parquet,
they say something. When
they are handsome as enemies
they hide something. Do not
play with them: they are
laden. Only
friendly words say
nothing special.
They contain only
friendly words.

 

Prudence

Between the high years we glimpse
the ocean. Yet we must
arrange our life in a line,
for the present is merely something
constant; everything else
changes. We have control
of memories and plans,
two branches without a trunk,
but both require courage, great
as fear, and the steady
rhythm of the heart, that does not
constitute a symbol but is
a gymnast in the world of
the senses, whose only routine
consists in keeping the powerful
tree running.

 

Heroism

Heroism is a state
of cruelty, the hawk’s sudden
line towards earth. Then all
that is cowardly risks fading, as though
history were something different
from life, and the days merely
sand beneath the weight of years.
But when the hero flees to the deed,
beside himself with contempt, trembling
like an engine with fear,
cowardice protects the seed as though
it were a sensitive emotion
in the sea of weeds, and thereby
keeps the escape route open for
the true route.

 

The Oversoul

The soul is a daydream
outside our name, a garden
for the god, where mind
and will hysterically
degrade. Afterwards, the present
is too big; we dare not
fall asleep. Who can sleep
with a god in his soul,
an oversoul, that uses
us to be, and is itself
free? We should be operated on,
but no knife cuts him
apart, and never will
the spiritual heal
its victims. We ourselves
must
wake.

 

Circles

The circle has no centre:
it is a demented cell
that swallows everything, even
the emptiness that assails
feelings and days,
and the forgetfulness that
preserves everything. For
the essayist the circle is

life, but for the poet only
a horizon without habitations,
where people conceal themselves
by being, and the everyday
is inscrutable as a ritual,
the meaninglessness
a strange
freedom.

 

The Intellect

The intellect is a room without
years and walls. You have to imagine
them. Well-worn footprints
point to principles, but
they are old now, prisons
waiting for their prey.
You have to go as
a stranger would go
into your brain and there
declare all the accumulated
commands invalid and expand
it to a lifetime without
the altar, a chapel where
you can think as though
everything was sacred.

 

Art

How could decorative
messages compete with
Altmira’s bulls? They stand
in the darkness, sketches

of the body’s drama. Art
is magic, but the light
in the museums glows as if
they had nothing

to hide, and the young
rebel against rules
as if form possessed
meaning. When the artist

fought the pictorial creature
in faltering torchlight
he was wild and pure
as arrogance. The journey

was towards the inner creature,
his real strength.,
that waited for him,
patient as his shadow.

 

The Poet

The seventeenth century was everywhere
but some still escaped
as though they were
in disguise, and only
needed to think in a
hitherto unknown way
in order to become empty
and pure as strangers.

In their poems form protected
many weak
lines, but suddenly
a verse could vibrate,
desperate as a wing
seeking its bird.

 

Experience

What we leave undone
is a part of our action.
Without the dreamed ship
the bark boat would capsize.
Without all that we merely
pass by we would never
get there. Even
the boredom is laden

with existence. Its emptiness
is only a form of
patience. The work
waits like an adversary,
and the footsteps begin
to point again.

 

Character

The events are small, but
the chains endless. There is
a wildness in every name,
an I that wants to go and leave
the shackles behind. But flight

too is only a link:
the chain cannot be broken.
Where you go, into the latent,
you always meet
the same figure.

 

Manners

Long ago people saw
that seriousness threatens small talk,
and began to smile the silence
away. Many

also sought protection in
phrases, but phrases
are words, and cannot
be revoked. At last

fellowship became sheer
politeness. They understood
finally how important
it is.

 

Gifts

A giver tries to grow
greater, not with the help of
the recipients’ gratitude
but by diminishing them

with his gifts. Fame
or beauty work in the same
way, even if all they give
is their aura! When

a gift has permeated
the inscrutable defence
and reached the entrails’ warm
hatred, the recipient

convinces only by making
his face and voice
manage on their own.
He himself goes. His back

is stiff as a shield
and his clothes do not hide him,
they reveal him. At
the roadside another back

sprouts when wings unfold.
It shimmers like blue
metal. Only the beetle is
its own present.

 

Nature

The cattle’s language has only
one word. They think with its
meaning, an older and
wilder pilgrimage than ours:
it can only continue
and the goal is the beginning.

October burns like
a palace. Fate is larger
than in May, all darkness
higher. We approach
the lower, ruling
layers, where conversations

are dark chambers,
the arguments without other logic
than their existence, and the bodies
simplified to pilgrims while
the cries merge to become
a single word.

 

Politics

The word power means
violence. The words of the laws
are not symbols but
real. In the ruins of Ctesiphon
the state remains, a rainbow
of concrete. We are

masses; we have no
other choice. When we seekingly
look around us, we meet
only Medusa’s poor,
cold gaze, but turned to stone

we still manage to think
our dream, the only finished thing
in the crude sketch
in which we live.

 

Nominalist and Realist

Whoever denies the real
confirms its power. Revolt
is hard. Whoever affirms
reality drains it
if death encounters no resistance
it is merely a clump of dust
where we slowly gather.
With theories as wings
we fly with no other
direction than away. But here
on the tenth line I begin
to hesitate. The denier has
perceived that if everything exists,
nothing else exists;
the affirmer says deep withiin
that perbaps everything
is something else.

 

New England Reformers

There is an indifference,
empty and dead as strict
demeanour. It surrounds us,
a pain relief, which those
people who fight apparently
refuse. Yet they are
totally dependent on this
poverty. Without it

reality would
conquer them with its
limitless masses, where
the individual is only
a throat, turned
towards their teeth.

 

A Resumé

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote
his two volumes of essays
in order to become calm. Thoughts
are an unease that seeks rhythm.
They must be turned into waves
through the opinions; if
they harden to principles
they will be broken
apart on the shore’s
reality. They are not
incorporeal: the metaphors
make them visible, brutal
as walls or gentle
as sleepy hands,
but every time we sense
that the description
is incomplete.

 

this translation copyright ©  David McDuff 2017

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2 comments on “A Tour through the Essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by Gösta Ågren

  1. Great to see these.
    I had dug out his Bloodaxe volumes the other day, and wondered about him now.

  2. David McDuff says:

    The cycle is from Dikter utan land (2015).

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