The Theme Runs Through It
Emerson, as a poet or as a writer of prose, carries common themes throughout his works. In comparing a few of his poems to an essay such as Self Reliance, ideas of conviction, confidence, respect, choice, and a handful of others resonate throughout. Four poems in particular, Give All to Love, Fable, Days, and Terminus relate to Self Reliance in subject and message. From this sample, Emerson’s own thoughts about various aspects of human nature become apparent, and each concept stems from the basic idea of relying on one’s self.
In Give All to Love, the poet stresses not only confidence and respect using terms of love, but also change. “’T is a brave master;/Let it have scope:/follow it utterly,/Hope beyond Hope,” says Emerson, addressing love itself (8-11, 550). The same message is presented in Self Reliance: believe in your own thought; trust yourself. Emerson believes in confidence and expression, following thoughts to their full extent. Trust in one’s self, self reliance, is key for “to believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men,—that is genius” (515). The same is true in Give All to Love. By saying that a person should follow love utterly, Emerson expresses the importance of conviction in action and thought.
At the same time, however, Emerson does not say that such ideas cannot be changed. In fact, he says that “the other terror that scares us from self-trust is our consistency” (519). The same is true, in a different sense, in Give All to Love when the poet states “When half-gods go,/the gods arrive” (48-9, 551). Change, to Emerson, is good, for when one replaces an idea, the idea improves. Half-gods, previous thought, transform into gods, new thought, through change:
Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continuos changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is christianized, it is rich... (529)
Emerson goes so far as to describe consistence as a driving force against self reliance, since then the being is not open to new thought. Tradition, to him, does not validate a concept.
Also in Give All to Love, Emerson reiterates from Self Reliance that a person should respect the beliefs of others, including the changes they make. In Self Reliance, he says, “If you can love me for what I am, we shall be the happier. If you cannot, I will seek to deserve that you should” (525). And, in Give all to Love, “Free be she, fancy-free;/Nor thou detain her vesture’s hem,/Nor the palest rose she flung from her summer diadem” (39-42, 550). The idea that the beliefs of any one person are sacred to that person is present in both quotations. The same is true in the poem Fable. In it, the squirrel declares to the mountain that each is respectable for their qualities, whether the ability to carry forests on their back or to crack a nut. In either poem, the respect for change and acceptance of it, as well as differing thought, is central.
In Days, confidence is again stressed, coupled with action. These Daughters of Time look scornfully at the day wasted, the day without action. In Self Reliance, “a man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best” (516). In both cases, action is placed higher than resolution. The man who resolves to do something is worthless. The man who does what he resolves, as Benjamin Franklin thought, is great:
In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts: they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. (515)
This concept connects too with confidence and conviction. For, in every other man’s thought we see those thoughts we were afraid to believe or speak, or those we dismissed because of tradition and consistency. Each relates back to the theme of Confidence.
Lastly, Terminus exemplifies the idea of the inner voice—a being’s nature. “Obey the voice at eve obeyed at prime” (36, 557). That inner voice, Emerson believes, is the basis for all other action and thought. This intuition, present most prominently in childhood, prime, is that from which all things should be derived:
In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. (522)
By obeying this inner voice, as described in Terminus, any man’s thought is valid, and believing that is true for all men is genius.
Common themes run through any author’s works, especially when the comment on humanity and existence. Here, these themes portray Emerson’s own Self-Reliance in his ability to express and discuss such issues. Since his ideas often seemingly contradict one another, his speech comes across with the same indefinable quality as in the soul and nature itself. One thing is true, however: Emerson believes in what he says, and he says it often in many different contexts, hoping that the reader will only gain understanding from his writing.