Printer Friendly

"Terrible simplicity": Emerson's metaleptic style.

Emerson's Nature (1836) is electric, the "transparent eyeball" its shocking core.(1) What Longinus writes of sublime oratory is true of Nature's most rhetorically charged passage. The effect of the "eyeball" passage "is not persuasion but transport," bringing "power and irresistible might to bear, and reign supreme over every hearer," "flashing forth" to scatter "everything before it like a thunderbolt" (43). Examining Emerson's rhetoric of the sublime in Nature, I demonstrate that he learned his stylistic practices from nature. Like Francis Bacon, but with the new scientific information of his period, he located revelation in the book of nature rather than scripture. I argue that metalepsis is Nature's master trope, for it describes linguistic sites that compress numerous revisionary allusions, tropes, and figures. In compressing many currents of signification, metalepsis is the eye of sublime thunderstorms, charging readers with lightning.

Emerson always wanted a highly charged writing style. Whether he was speaking from written notes gathered from his journals or writing essays for publication, he believed that strong language should be active, palpable, electric. The speech of the great orator, he writes, "is not to be distinguished from action. It is the electricity of action" (W 8:115).(2) This powerful orator is "agitated," his words revealing "electricity" charging "from the cloud" and shining "from one part of heaven to the other" (JMN 7:224-25). He wrote to Carlyle in 1838 that his sentences were like electricity, for they were comprised of "infinitely repellent particle[s]" (CEC 185). Eloquence fulfills man's "want of electricity to vitalize" his life (W 8:70); poetry emerges electromagnetically through the "magnetic tenaciousness of an image" (W 8:27), and "shall thrill and agitate mankind" (W 8:73).(3)

Indeed, Emerson desired that his words be as dynamic as nature. He wrote in 1831 that "[i]n good writing words become one with things" (JMN 3:271). Nature, he repeatedly noted, is a book, "a language and every new fact we learn is a new word" (EL 1:26). As Michael Faraday taught Emerson, "'A grain of water is known to have electric relations equivalent to a very powerful flash of lightning'" (W 10:60). So also, a book is to be written in a charged, condensed style, each word/thing a compression of force: "The whole force of the Creation is concentrated upon every point. What agencies of electricity, gravity, light, affinity, combine to make every plant what it is" (EL 1:72).

Grounding his poetics in nature, Emerson believed that the "virtue of rhetoric is compression" (W 12:290): the writer should compose "dense," contracted sentences resembling the human face, "where in a square space of a few inches is found room for every possible variety of expression" (W 12:348). In good writing, "[w]ords are also actions, and actions are a kind of words" (CW 3:6). Nature's writing inspires man, who is "born to write," to record nature in a "new and finer form of the original," in a recording that "is alive, as that [nature] which is recorded is alive" (CW 4:151-52). The live words of this writing of nature are, like nature itself, "waves" that cannot be chained by "hard pedantry" (CW 4:68), "one thing and the other thing, in the same moment," not to be "orbed" in a single thought (CW 3:139).

Emerson's tropes are the conductors. In "The Poet," he declares that "[a]n imaginative book renders us more service at first, by stimulating us through its tropes" (CW 3:18-19). "The value of a trope," he writes in "Poetry and Imagination," "is that the hearer is one: and indeed Nature itself is a vast trope, and all particular natures are tropes. As the bird alights on the bough, then plunges into the air again, so the thoughts of God pause but for a moment in any form" (W 8:15). Tropes are actions. They turn univocal words into multivalent sites. Just as nature is constantly troping as it proceeds in "perpetual inchoation" and "rapid metamorphosis" (CW 1:124), converting "every sensuous fact" into a "double," "quadruple," "centuple," or "much more manifold meaning" (CW 3:3-4), so Emerson's tropes, aspiring to be one with things, "flow" like nature and are "fluxional," "vehicular and transitive," expressions of "manifold" meanings (CW 3:20).(4)

The master trope of Emerson's style is metalepsis. Metalepsis, or "transumption" (the Latin form), describes language in which one trope or figure is added to another "with extreme compression," usually in "rhetorical situations of maximum drama and interest" (Holman and Harmon 297). The use of this trope has been dismissed, most notably by Quintilian, because it resembles catachresis, a confusing, mixed metaphor, and abusio, an unnatural wrenching of the meanings of words (Hollander 133). John Hollander, however, has recently shown that metalepsis is useful in formally describing rhetorically charged passages, such as Milton's similes, that, as Samuel Johnson put it, "'crowd the imagination'" (113-15). Indeed, Angus Fletcher reasons that a metaleptic style is a sublime one, for like the infinity of the cosmos it overtaxes the faculties and inspires awe (Allegory 240-43).

Metalepsis is the key to Emerson's verbal calculus. The trope formally describes Emerson's sublime passages, places where several figures, tropes, and allusions are fused. Indeed, in his discussion of the trope, Hollander pauses to consider Emerson's remark in "The Poet" that "[w]e are far from having exhausted the significance of the few symbols we use. We can come to use them yet with a terrible simplicity" (CW 3:11). Hollander notes that "the beautiful complexity figured in this last phrase is that of revisionary, interpretive transumption" (130). For Hollander, metalepsis refers primarily to "diachronic, allusive figures" (114). He takes a cue from Fletcher's claim that Milton has a "transumptive style" because Milton saw nature, as Dr. Johnson wrote, "through the spectacles of books" (Fletcher, Allegory 241n). Hollander, in turn, resuscitates metalepsis to designate tropes that echo past literary texts. "Metalepsis" derives from metalambano, which covers a wide range of meanings: "to partake in, succeed to, exchange, take in a new way, take in another sense [of words], and even to explain or understand" (Hollander 133). Taken together, these semantic dimensions suggest, Hollander notes, both meanings of the modern "to take after," to mimic and to come after in time. Patristic Greek primarily used the word to mean "to interpret" in the sense of translating or transferring from a literal to a spiritual level. Quintilian translated the word to the Latin transumptio - "to adopt" or "to assume," which is the basis of the English "transumption," which has meant, since the fifteenth century, a "'copy or quotation'; 'transfer or translation'; 'transmutation or conversion'" (134).

Taken in sum, these meanings underline a diachronic relationship between the language of an earlier and a later text. But the relationship, as Hollander observes, is not one of overt literary allusion. The metaleptic relationship is elliptical, covertly echoing the past, "elusive and allusive" at once. Moreover, the metaleptic echoing is interpretive in that the earlier text always revises the later one (114-16). For example, Milton's famous trope of the "blind mouths" in Lycidas alludes to and revises Sophocles's trope of "blind feet" in Oedipus at Colonus (136). On a more complex transumptive level, Satan's spear in Paradise Lost, "to equal which the tallest Pine / Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the Mast / Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand" (1.292-94), echoes the club of Homer's Polyphemous (as rendered by Chapman), "being an Olive tree . . . so vast / That we resembl'd it to some fit Mast / To serve a ship . . ."(9.445-48); the club of Goliath; the Polyphemous of The Aeneid, who holds a "lopped pine" (3.559); the pine tree described in the Golden Age of Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which pine trees still rooted in the earth, unlike Satan's uprooted tree, symbolize unspoiled innocence. This wide and complex range of covert yet "charged" allusion packs maximum meaning. Milton's Satan is not only Goliath, but a rebellious giant who is blind (Virgil's Polyphemous is "a horrid monster, shapeless, huge, bereft of light" [3.558]) and who spoils what is natural (the echo of Ovid suggests that Satan's spear "reeks of implicit technology" [Hollander 120]). In echoing these past texts, Milton's language transcends them by making his tree bigger and richer; Satan's tree makes that of Polyphemous seem like a mere wand and contains a wider range of allusive meanings than do its predecessors (Hollander 117-20).

In its "broadest sense," metalepsis is "the process of taking hold of something poetically in order to revise it upward . . . [,] cancelling and transforming" it (Hollander 147). Indeed, Harold Bloom uses metalepsis for his ultimate trope of revision, and applies it to Emerson's relationship to his poetic predecessors: transumption is "a total, final act of taking up a poetic stance in relation to anteriority of poetic language, which means primarily the loved-and-feared poems of the precursors. Properly accomplished, this stance figuratively produces the illusion of having fathered one's own fathers" (Poetry 20).(5) Bloom calls transumption the most powerful revisionary trope; it not only allows the poet using it to hide his influences, but to cancel them as well. It avoids the anxiety of influence. Certainly Satan's spear is, as Hollander observes, an instance of "imaginative crowding" because of its dense pattern of diachronic, historical allusion (117). Yet we find that metalepsis has a related synchronic, ahistorical modality as well. Quintilian writes:

It is the nature of metalepsis to form a kind of intermediate step between the term transferred and the thing to which it is transferred, having no meaning in itself, but merely providing a transition. It is a trope with which to claim acquaintance, rather than one which we are ever likely to require use. The commonest example is the following: cano ["sing" Homerically] is a synonym for canto ["recite," "declaim," "repeat"] and canto for dico ["to write"], therefore cano is a synonym for dico, the intermediate step being provided by canto. (Hollander 135)

Using this definition, Hollander here designates metalepsis a "trope of a trope," a synchronic "combination of figures," that often leads to a catachretic, or thoroughly mixed, metaphor (135). As noted earlier, Quintilian relates transumption to catachresis and abusio in his list of tropes that effect a change of a word's meaning. Milton's celebrated catachresis, "blind mouths," a diachronic transumption of Sophocles, is also synchronic. While Sophocles' "blind feet" is mere synecdoche for a blind man, in "blind mouths" Milton's metaphoric "blind" describes the synecdoche "mouths," with a metalepsis occurring in the unstated middle term of "preachers." "Blind" is synonymous with "preachers"; "preachers", with the "mouths" they use to preach. The classic example of synchronic metalepsis is Virgil's Aeneid 1:60; it occurs in several medieval and Renaissance rhetorics, namely in the sixteenth-century rhetorician Susenbrotus's Epitome tropam et schematum. Drawing from Virgil's line "the father omnipotent hid them in gloomy caverns," Susenbrotus writes that transumption occurs in "gloomy," because "gloomy means black; black, shadowy; and shadowy, deep" (135-38).

Both diachronic and synchronic metalepsis function in the same way and are, as we see with Milton's "blind mouths," often simultaneous. Just as synchronic metalepsis operates on elided middle terms, so does diachronic. Just as one must move from "gloomy" to "deep" by way of the elided middle terms "black" and "shadowy," so one proceeds from Satan's spear to Polyphemous's club by means of the elided allusion to Homer's Odyssey. In his explication of Quintilian's definition of metalepsis, Fletcher suggests this correspondence between synchronic and diachronic metalepsis; he writes that transumption is a device "in which commonly the poet goes from one word to another that sounds like it, to yet another, thus developing a chain of auditory associations getting the poem from one image to another more remote image" (Allegory 241n). If we expand the definition to include visual as well as auditory associations, we realize that metalepsis constructs a chain, with hidden links, by which the poet and the reader get from one image, be it synchronic or diachronic, to another "more remote image."

Hollander notes the synchronic aspect of metalepsis only in passing. A "synchronic treatment of metalepsis - of a trope of a trope, as it were - might merely be a catachresis, or thoroughly mixed metaphor" (114; first italics mine). Indeed, one reason that metalepsis was largely viewed as a minor trope in the classical and medieval rhetorics is that it often leads, as Holman and Harmon note, to such "extreme compression that the literal sense of the statement is eclipsed or reduced to anomaly or nonsense" (297). In comparing the trope to catachresis, which means "misuse" in Greek, Hollander points to this tradition. Though catachresis, like synchronic metalepsis, can be a wrenching abuse of words, the effects of its "misuse" can be powerful. The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics tellingly notes that Milton's "blind mouths" is an example of catachresis (Hollander, remember, used the words as an example of metalepsis). Another example of catachresis in the Princeton comes from Shakespeare's Timon of Athens: "Tis deepest winter in Lord Timon's purse" (3.4.15). In both examples, there is a mixing of metaphors and an inconsistency of modes. The metaphoric association of "deep winter" and an empty purse strikes us with its ostensible incongruity (as does the association of "blind" and "mouth"). Likewise, the line metaleptically mixes tropes; "deepest" metaphorically operates on the metonymic "winter" (associated with empty, bare, cold). Moreover, because the comparison between vast winter and a small purse constitutes the figure of hyperbole, it packs the line with further connotation.(6)

In tracing the use of the trope in Emerson's Nature, I shall focus on both its diachronic and synchronic dimensions to show how the "eyeball" passage is a charged terminal, one crowding the reader's imagination with the rhetorical force of the sublime.(7)

Nature is "our primal book," observes Jonathan Bishop (9). The most highly charged moment in Nature is the famous "transparent eyeball" passage, part of a sequence that Bishop designates as the core of the essay, a microcosm of "everything Emerson publicly said thereafter" (15). Though this passage was caricatured by Emerson's transcendentalist friend Christopher Pearse Cranch (Sealts and Ferguson 9), and though parts of it have been disparaged as "innocently absurd at best" (Bishop 15), Bloom calls it "extraordinary," an instance of the sublime (Agon 158), and Richard Poirier deems it "evidence of Emerson's metaphoric power exerting itself to authenticate an incredible moment of self-transformation" (World 66). The passage is an extreme instance of Emerson's compressed style: "It is abrupt, freaky, unexpected . . . [; it] darts this way and that, and connects the far and the near in every line. . . . [I]t is a leaping thread of light" (Burroughs 192). It is, in short, metalepsis in action.

Diachronically, Nature - and the eyeball passage, its epitome - repeatedly echos the Bible. Indeed, the essay can be regarded as Emerson's attempt to make nature itself a bible. Though Emerson left the Christian ministry in 1832, he continued to believe in God. But he held that God reveals his grandeur not only in scripture, but also through nature. Emerson's reading in science soon after leaving the ministry was his effort to interpret God's natural book. As Emerson became increasingly interested in science, he eventually came to believe nature, not scripture, the locus of revelation. His desire to become a naturalist was intimately connected to his yearning to write a new bible of God's revelation in nature. As he walked through the specimen cabinets at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris in 1833, he experienced an insight into nature similar to Paul's vision of Jesus on the road to Damascus:

Here we are impressed with the inexhaustible riches of nature. The Universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms, - the hazy butterflies, the carved shells, the birds, beasts, fishes, insects, snakes, - & the upheaving principle of life everywhere incipient in the very rock aping organized forms. Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer, - an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me cayman, carp, eagle, & fox. I am moved by strange sympathies, I say continually, "I will be a naturalist." (JMN 4:199-200)(8)

After his return from Europe later that year, Emerson became a naturalist in earnest, delivering a series of lectures on science that laid the groundwork for Nature. These early scientific lectures and Nature were attempts to revise religion by locating its revelations in natural process. This revision is reflected in his attitude toward Jesus, whom he thought nearly perfect, but who was limited in scope because he had no love "of Natural Science" (5:71-72). In Nature, Emerson fashions himself as a new prophet of nature, believing with Goethe that "prophetic vision" arises only in "slowpaced experiment" (5:220). Vision arises from observing nature, where, as he writes in Nature, "All things are moral; and in their boundless changes have an unceasing reference to spiritual nature" (CW 1:26). All natural processes, "from the sponge up to Hercules, shall hint or thunder the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments. . . . Nature [is] ever the ally of Religion: lends all her pomp and riches to the religious sentiment" (1:26).

Emerson's mode of diachronic metalepsis is his effort to cancel Biblical revelations while transforming them into the revelations of nature. Alan D. Hodder rephrases the work of several critics when he writes, "Nature grows out of the Bible, recapitulates its structure, and participates in its vision" (6).(9) As Hodder notes, Nature primarily echoes John's Revelation. Like Revelation, as Joseph Wittreich describes it, Nature "draws upon previous prophecy, inverting its patterns, correcting and amplifying its visions" (191). The "eyeball" passage is the visionary basis of Emerson's proclamation that "[w]e too must write Bibles, to unite again the heavenly and the earthly world" (CW 4:166). "[N]o man could be better occupied than in making up his own bible," he asserts, by "hearkening to all those sentences which . . . thrill him like the sound of a trumpet" (JMN 5:476). For Emerson, the revelatory sentences of the Bible weren't sufficiently powerful: "The Hebrew and Greek Scriptures contain immortal sentences, that have been bread of life to millions. But they have no epical integrity; are fragmentary; are not shown in their order to the intellect. I look for the new Teacher that shall follow so far those shining laws that he shall see them come full circle; shall see their rounding complete grace" (CW 1:92-93). This "order," Emerson believed, is the order of nature. The "strange sympathy" he felt in the Jardin results in a marriage of mind and nature. In Nature, Emerson develops several instances in which the mind and nature mutually reflect each other: not only do the laws of physics translate to ethics, but the "whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind" (1:21). Such a relation between mind and matter "stands in the will of God"; thus its unveiling is a revelation of truth, of higher laws shimmering through the universe (1:22). As Lawrence Buell observes, Emerson fashions himself as this new "Teacher" whose sentences will reveal the shining laws connecting matter and mind and also the need for "new and better Bibles written by inspired contemporaries" (31).

The sentences describing Emerson's apocalypse will be transcribed from the "book of Nature," one containing the "[n]atural history of the woods," tying their "astronomy, botany, physiology, meteorology, picturesque, & poetry together" (JMN 5:25). While John wrote the book of God in heaven, Emerson, firmly on earth, copied nature's dynamic, volatile text. Revelation's power derives from symbols that have "an astonishing multiplicity of reference . . . [and endeavour] to be that of which [they] speak, and [imitate] reality by multiplicity of [their] significance" (Farrar 19). John and Emerson both know that whereas "exact prose abstracts from reality, symbol presents it. And for that very reason, symbols have some of the many-sidedness of wild nature" (20). Both writers construct texts that are what they are about. While John's text is about and is Christian revelation, Emerson's is about and is the unveiling of the forces that underlie nature.

Harold Bloom, though he does not praise the overall eloquence of Nature, hails the famous "transparent eyeball" passage as the "most notorious" in Emerson's work. For Bloom, this extraordinary passage is "the mode of negation through which the knower again could stand in the Abyss, the place of original fullness, before the Creation" (Agon 158). Bloom argues that the image of the transparent eyeball emblematizes Emerson's attempt to avoid influence by returning to the primal waters, the void of Genesis, before God created the earth.(10) But not only does Emerson in this famous passage intimate a return to the primal waters, he also alludes to a rich field of Biblical passages and revises them in his effort to copy the volatile, metaleptic tropes of the book of nature. The 1836 version reads:

Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed perfect exhilaration. Almost I fear to think how glad I am. In the woods, too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and a sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befal me in life, - no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (CW 1:10)

Barbara Packer has rightly observed that in Nature the mind's alienation from nature is caused by "an error in vision" (72). When one attains harmony with nature, living by its laws, then one sees the cause, the spirit, the force, generating matter - the world becomes transparent. This passage details such a visionary moment, in which Emerson's speaker sees through the opacity of matter to the currents of universal being, thus becoming transparent himself. Kenneth Burke has used this passage to exemplify Emerson's mode of crossing from matter to spirit, of transcending the natural for the supernatural (157-58). Indeed, the passage is liminal, having to do with crossing boundaries, moving from matter to the cause that generates and emanates through it, of the primal energy present in the first abyss out of which God created the world.

"Crossing a bare common" immediately alerts us to the liminal quality of the passage. "Crossing" serves as a metaleptic trope, the first link in a complex chain of signification moving us from one image to remoter ones and connoting a range of liminal meanings. "Crossing," first of all, is an instance of syllepsis, a figure in which one word is a pun for two different senses. Not only is the "Visionary" (the character in the essay, as distinguished from the historical Emerson) literally moving from one place to another, but he is also at a crossroads, a crux. Cross, deriving from the Latin crux, means not only a physical cross, but a fateful juncture. Among Christians, "crossing" (making a cross sign in the air) is an act of blessing, being as it is a symbol of Christianity. Because Jesus died on the cross in the Gospels, bearing a cross metaphorically suggests the proper Christian life (Matt. 10:38). This complex syllepsis suggests that "crossing" indicates an act of great importance that involves relation to the sacred. The Visionary echoes and revises the Christian act of "crossing" and "bearing a cross," blessing nature in winter, not the altar of a church in spring. He is not burdened by life in an imperfect, fallen world, but enjoys instead perfect exhilaration. Moreover, his act of crossing does not acknowledge the Judeo-Christian God, but moves across a threshold toward an idea of God who circulates through nature as the Universal Being. Emerson does not deny this world to find a greater one, as Jesus teaches, but affirms this world because there is nothing else we can know.

Moreover, "crossing" suggests chiasmus, "placing crosswise" in Greek. Chiasmus describes "any structure in which elements are repeated in reverse, so giving the pattern ABBA" (New Princeton Encyclopedia). Emerson's diachronic metalepses mimic this structure. As he repeats the Bible in alluding to it, he reverses its meaning in revising it to fit his intuitions of nature. Likewise, his sylleptic puns are chiastic. As Philip Kuberski suggests in his study of Joyce, puns are sometimes instances of chiasmus in that they are sites that cross opposing meanings (71-72). The pun on "crossing" crosses a spiritual act and symbol in Christianity with the act of making way toward a vision in nature. Several other puns throughout this passage also embody this chiastic structure. Indeed, the entire structure of Nature could be characterized as chiastic, as Emerson crosses nature and scripture, words and things, mind and matter throughout the essay.

The entire first sentence figuratively reinforces liminality. As the Visionary crosses the common, the universal threshold between matter and the spirit of Universal Being, he catalogues several transitional events. He walks through "snow puddles," a synecdoche for the state of both the speaker and nature. Like the Visionary - who is between fear and gladness, adulthood and childhood - and like the natural environment - which is in "twilight," a border between day and night and covered with a "clouded sky," a sky in a transitional state between gas and liquid - the snow puddles are also liminal, as they are ice on the verge of becoming water. This synecdoche is also an oxymoronic figure, for it yokes together water and ice, fluidity and stasis. As readers move through such elided terms as "ice" and "water," they are not only moved to more remote images of solidity and liquidity, but also prepared for the Visionary's impending transition from solid to liquid, as it were, when he is transformed from a person to a conduit through which Being flows. Moreover, "twilight" and "clouded sky" can be read metaleptically; they are versions of the synecdochal "snow puddles," parts standing for an entire liminal scene. "Twilight" is not only the liminal point between day and night, dark and light, but also metaphorically signals a move from the life of the sun to the moon's deathly glow, anticipating the Visionary's annihilation into "nothing." "Twilight" also establishes an irony that pervades the remainder of the passage: in darkness, the Visionary sees all. Clouds are, again, both gas and liquid, moving toward liquid, but also, by virtue of the elided term "obscure," suggesting "gloom," thereby also reinforcing the irony of this ecstatic passage that celebrates transparency. The first sentence, then, institutes the structure of the passage, not only by delineating the poles between which the Visionary moves and establishing chiastic reversals of scripture and nature, but also by setting a metaleptic precedent that will reach a vertiginous pitch at the core of the passage.

Emerson suggests these complex relationships through his arabesque imagery, a pattern woven with the many-textured threads of metaleptic troping. Rendering abstract relationships in concrete imagery contributes, Longinus observes, to the sublime (85). In placing paradox, irony, liminality before the eyes of readers, Emerson's vivid descriptions work to enthrall them, carrying them along on his trek through the slush, transporting them, with the Visionary, from the liminal to the sublime.

Diachronic echoes further charge Emerson's language. He metaleptically revises the Biblical notion of innocence by comparing the return to innocence to a snake casting off its slough. In Genesis 3:1, the serpent is associated with subtlety and is the cause of the fall of man from innocence to experience, from perfection to imperfection. Emerson reverses the Biblical imagery; the snake is part of nature and therefore innocent. To eat from the tree of knowledge is to understand Being, not to offend God. Emerson writes in a journal entry in 1840, "I dreamed that I floated at will in the great Ether, and I saw this world floating also not far off, but diminished to the size of an apple. Then the angel took it in his hand & brought it to me and said 'This must thou eat.' And I ate the world" (JMN 7:525). Among the many readings of this provocative dream,(11) one is that Emerson revises Genesis in light of his celebration of nature, not scripture, as the locus for revelation. Knowledge does not lead to imperfection, but to perfection, to power, to vision. Indeed, the world is not fallen out of grace, but is the site of grace, redemption. "Nothing" can "befal" the speaker, no "disgrace" that nature itself cannot "repair" or redeem.

Emerson questions this great confidence in the grace of nature, however, in the parenthetical "leaving me my eyes." He writes that "nothing can befal me in life, - no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair." The Visionary feels that nature can mend any disgrace or calamity as long as he has eyes. This aside reinforces the physical nature of vision in the passage. Unlike John, whose vision struck the inner eye of dream, this Visionary's revelation is dependent on physical sight. Still, another reading of the parenthesis undercuts the necessity of physical sight. "Leaving me my eyes" could indeed be a calamity that nature can repair. The disgrace or calamity could well be "my eyes" "leaving me," the loss of sight. In this case, nature could repair the problem, inspiring even the blind man with exhilaration.

This parenthetical aside is a chiasmus, crossing the necessity and superfluity of sight. As such, it is a proleptic version of the core of the passage in which the Visionary becomes the transparent eyeball, a site that crosses nothing and all, full sight and the annihilation of sight. This paradox points to a Blakean act of seeing, in which the Visionary sees not with the eye, but through it. Physical sight is necessary for closely observing nature, as the Visionary does in cataloging the details of the scene in minute detail, noticing the landscape, the weather, the time. This close observation leads to an insight to the invisible energy generating and animating the visible, an insight that makes sight superfluous. Insight is the goal of sight; sight, the catalyst of insight. Inductive observation leads to vision. Emerson is closer to Francis Bacon than he is to St. John.

Emerson structurally mimics his upsetting of traditional Christianity and prepares the reader for the Visionary's becoming "nothing" and seeing "all" by employing the figure of hyperbaton, inverting normal syntax. In "Almost I fear to think how glad I am," Emerson transposes the normal pattern of "I almost fear." This reversal not only highlights the word "almost," thus reinforcing the fact that the Visionary is at a threshold, but also corresponds to Emerson's reversals of darkness and light, imperfection and perfection, nothing and all. A second hyperbaton occurring in the phrase "at what period soever of life," which reverses the normal order of "at whatsoever period of life," further underpins these transpositions. Hyperbaton, Longinus observes, contributes to a sublime style, for it is a departure "in the order of expressions or ideas from the natural sequence." As such, it is "the stamp or impress of vehement emotion" (103). Its inversion, Longinus adds, resembles the force of a veering wind (103). Just as Emerson's use of vivid imagery both reinforces abstract notions and moves readers, his employment of hyperbaton not only supports the paradoxes charging the passage, but also agitates the reader.

Through the figure anaphora, Emerson further subverts Christianity. In the three phrases beginning with "In the woods," he suggests that nature is a site not only of innocence and youth, but also of "reason," or knowledge, and "faith," or religion. Emerson supports this suggestion by echoing and revising Revelation. In nature, a "perennial festival is dressed." This festival revises the marriage festival for the Lamb and New Jerusalem in Revelation 19:9: "And he said unto me, Write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb." This festival, M. H. Abrams observes, symbolizes the marriage between God and man in heaven after the world-ending apocalypse (42-43). For Emerson, the marriage festival of God and man takes place not in heaven in the future, but in nature in the present.

Again, Emerson's syntax strengthens the semantic aspect of his rhetoric. Anaphora, Longinus notes, advances sublimity by "striking the mind" of the reader, "by the swift succession of blow on blow" (101). Like a series of gusts of wind, anaphora, working in conjunction with other figures, stirs "the blood," continually assailing the auditor (101). Emerson, then, hammers his inversion of Christianity home: "In the woods, . . . a man . . . is a child," "In the woods, is perpetual youth," "In the woods, we return to reason and faith." Though humans have been cast from the garden of Eden into the forest, they retain their innocence, knowledge, faith. The syntactic rhymes of anaphora not only reinforce this idea through repetition, but signal an intensified praise of nature. A second element of the anaphora designates the woods as a site not merely of childhood, but of perpetual or eternal youth. A third element announces that the woods are not only a site of eternal innocence, but of knowledge and faith. The increased energy in praising the woods structurally mimics the gusts of wind that signal a coming storm. Just as each gust leading to a storm is stronger than the last, until finally the sky explodes, so these repeated prepositional phrases signal an increase in verbal energy that will break into a rhetorical storm in the transparent eye-ball sentence that gathers each element of the anaphora into unity as the Visionary becomes one with God, in perfect innocence, faith, and knowledge. Both the Visionary and the readers are part of the tension as they experience the gathering of these forces, anticipating an unleashing of lightning.

In its most shocking moment, the eye of the passage begins with the participial phrase "Standing on the bare ground." The phrase conceptually and syntactically "rhymes" with the liminal opening phrase of the passage, "Crossing a bare common." The "off-rhyme" of these phrases signals the Visionary's move from the liminal into the world of Universal Being, the sublime. Between the time the Visionary crosses the common and finds himself standing on bare ground, he, like Dante's Pilgrim, has crossed Lethe and Eunoe and entered into earthly paradise, the realm where one is prepared for a vision of the absolute. The "bare ground" is yet another in a series of sylleptic puns: it is literally the winter earth, but also the absolute foundation, the basis underlying everything. Emerson has troped the "bare common" into the site where the universal principle of life will emerge in a sublime moment. Moreover, "ground" is a primary term used in speaking of electricity. A ground is a large conducting body, such as the earth, whose potential or voltage is zero. "Ground" also refers to an electric circuit connected to the earth and thus grounded, or rendered impotent. The ground, like the Visionary, is still, empty, waiting to be filled and charged by Being. Contained in a participial phrase modifying a subject, this sylleptic figure will operate on a noun by metaphorically "grounding" it, emptying it of voltage.

But Emerson provides no subject. Bloom has rightly called this passage a "triumph of the Negative Way" (Agon 30), as the Visionary empties himself of selfhood to become one with the primal Abyss. The "I" in the opening sentence of the passage is lost, as Emerson uses the figure of anacoluthon, a mode of expression that, because the writer or speaker changes constructions mid-sentence, leaves its beginning uncompleted. Quite simply, Emerson employs a dangling modifier, as "Standing on the bare ground" clearly should refer to an absent "I," not "egotism." This change suggests that the speaker has lost his particularity and become one with the universal principle. Metaleptically, syllepsis indirectly tropes the absent speaker into an electric circuit whose energy has merged with the earth's, a circuit empty of its own energy.

Alternatively, one could surmise that "Standing on the bare ground" modifies "head." This would do away with anacoluthon and present a catachretic metaphor in which a head "stands." This alternative holds as well. "Head" is a metaleptic site, compressing metonymy, synecdoche, and metaphor. "Head" is a metonymy for mind. Or, it could be read as a whole substituted for the part of the eye, as the head will be metaphorized into an eye in the next sentence. Yet further, if "head" is interpreted as the subject of the sentence, then it is metaphorized into a circuit grounded in the earth. Emerson's grammar is in conflict with itself. The reader is caught between two possibilities, each of which is equally valid. Like the Visionary, the reader is placed in a liminal state, on the verge of transcendence, at the brink of creation.

At this juncture, both the Visionary and the readers find themselves anxious, throbbing with both gladness and fear. The Visionary is about to cross a liminal threshold between what Angus Fletcher calls labyrinth and temple. These represent the dialectical opposition between "sacred stillness" and "profane movement"; the transition between these antinomies is epitomized by "Homer's Cave of the Nymphs, Vergil's twin Gates of Horn and Ivory, Dante's Limbo . . ." ("Positive Negation" 135). The Visionary is at the anxious moment of "in between," edging toward union with the sacred force of God. He will not reach "stillness" in this temple, but will become in his visionary moment a site of crossing between the holy motion of a circulating God and the stationary pattern of the transparent eyeball. Emerson's Visionary experiences a synthesis of the temple and labyrinth in his sublime experience: the labyrinth of the woods is momentarily transformed into a temple of God. The attentive readers are anxious as well. The indeterminacy caused by the slippages in language makes them anxious, while the richness of signification leads to joy. In a labyrinth of words, readers, in the next sentence, will see the words undulate in a periodic harmony of Universal Being, gathering, like the logos of Heraclitus, the many into the one, strife into unity. As this semantic transformation occurs, the readers, like the Visionary, experience the labyrinth transfigured into the temple, the aesthetic moment when contraries are woven into a dynamic synthesis.

A metaleptic echo of Jesus's baptism in Matthew 3:16-17 confirms that the Visionary and the reader are on the brink of transformation. The Biblical passage describes John's baptism of Jesus:

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Like Jesus, Emerson's Visionary is bathed in the joyous air, which is troped into "the currents of Universal Being" in the next sentence, suggesting water, air, and electricity. Like Jesus, the Visionary looks to the heavens, as he is "uplifted into infinite space." In the next sentences, he will indirectly be "blessed" by God by becoming "part or particle" of Him, losing his self, seeing all. The Visionary is a new Jesus, blessed by the forces of the universe, ready to proclaim the revelation of nature.

"Bathed in the blithe air," air that will become a "current" of God, suggests not only baptism, but also the Pentecostal glossolalia. In Acts 2:1-4, on the day of the Pentecost, the Holy Ghost rushes from the heavens in the form of a mighty wind, filling the followers of Jesus with spirit, turning their tongues to fire, making them speak in other languages. Their ecstatic speech is not drunkenness, Peter claims, but a consummation of God's power and glory that was forecast by the prophet Joel (2:14-21). Emerson's Visionary undergoes his own Pentecost, being filled with the wind of the spirit, describing his vision in ecstatic speech. Indeed, Nature's metaleptic moments resemble the glossolalia of Jesus's early followers. Like their ecstatic speech, Emerson's intoxicated language reveals the force of God in nature.

This transformation, simultaneously baptismal and Pentecostal, takes place in the next sentence, the essay's eye. The sentence diachronically echoes and revises several revelatory scenes in the Bible, as Emerson tropes his Visionary into a figure of pure vision, energized by the spirit. "Eye" is often associated with a true sight of God's revelation, as it is when Job proclaims his intimate knowledge of God after he sees Him in the whirlwind: "I have heard of thee by the hearing of the ear: but now mine eye seeth thee" (42:5). Moreover, in Proverbs, the eye is linked to blessedness and generosity: "He that hath a bountiful eye shall be blessed; for he giveth of his bread to the poor" (22:9). Emerson's revisions of Genesis are further apparent in this sentence as well. When Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, "the eyes of them were both opened" (3:7). While in Genesis knowledge and sight are related to imperfection and despair, the sight of Emerson's Visionary is one of perfection and joy. Perhaps the passage most directly connected to Emerson's sentence are Jesus's words in Matthew 6:22: "The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light." Emerson literalizes this passage, troping his speaker's body into a single eye so full of light that it (ironically) sees all (in the twilight). Still another passage that faintly reverberates when we hear "transparent" is Revelation 21:21, the only place where the word "transparent" appears in the King James Bible. The street of the heavenly city is "pure gold, as it were transparent glass." Likewise, in the sublime moment for Emerson, when the axis of vision is coincident with the axis of things, the world is transparent (CW 1:43), and "causes and spirits are seen through [things]" (CW 1: 30). During this revelation of nature's cause, both the beholder and nature become transparent: the Visionary sees through things because he is part of the energy generating them.

The sentence is charged not only by diachronic metalepsis, but by synchronic as well. The sentence is epiphanic not only for the Visionary as it describes his move from the liminal to the sublime, but also for readers as it resolves semantic and syntactic indeterminacy into an aesthetic whole. The sentence is a warp onto which are woven three separate wefts of imagery. The liminal tropes are now sublimed, as the Visionary has ironically moved from twilight to pure light, from crossing the threshold to the shore of vision, from the world of matter to spirit. The baptismal tropes are woven into the text as well. The Visionary has been transformed by the spirit into a state of perfect knowledge and oneness with God. Further, the tropes suggesting electricity have been transformed. The "grounded," impotent Visionary has now become an open circuit through which the powerful charges of the universal being will flow. As Emerson later writes, in composing the writer is "the conductor of a whole river of electricity" (3:23). Here, the Visionary, ideal seer and sayer, is truly a conduit for the force of life. For a moment, all the disparate currents of the cosmos and of words in conflict are harmonized and are concentrated in the Visionary's eye.

Kenneth Burke has elaborated on Emerson's punning on "eye," "I" and the affirmative "ay." The sentence sets off a series of paranomastic puns, where a substitution can be made for every "I," "eye," or "ay." "Transparent eyeball," like "head" earlier, also is a synchronic metalepsis of three tropes. It could be a synecdoche of part for whole, if the eyeball stands for the head, the perceiving mind. Likewise, it is perhaps a metonymy, in which cause is substituted for effect, if the instrument of vision, the eye, stands for the moment of vision. Further, it is, of course, catachresis: to visualize a man as an eyeball strains the faculties. Likewise, the figures of irony, hyperbole, and oxymoron are condensed in the "eyeball," as it is ironic to see all at twilight, hyperbolic for a man to turn into an eye, and oxymoronic to be nothing while seeing all. Emerson also utilizes the figure of asyndeton, the omission of conjunctions between a series of clauses. He provides no conjunctions between "I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing. I see all." This figure renders the effect of "a hurried rhythm in [a] sentence," appropriate for stirring the emotions at the end of a discourse" (Corbett 433). Longinus includes asyndeton in a list of figures that loosen the links that stifle the energy of language, emitting energy and passion at great speed (101). This compression of sentences indeed delivers the apt effect of excitement, for it is also paratactic. As Emerson supplies no connections between the sentences, the reader must piece them together, working out a new logic that permits becoming an eyeball, being nothing, and seeing all.

The Visionary has been troped into something like Faraday's grain of water containing electrical relations equivalent to a flash of lightning (W 10:60). This highly charged passage itself, like the Visionary, is simultaneously matter and energy; like an atom, it is a pattern of energy, its tropes like electrons turning around a highly charged nucleus. The passage and the Visionary are transparent eyeballs, structures through which the energy of "the Universal Being" is revealed. Emerson rehearses this relationship between matter and energy in his journal:

A fact is only a fulcrum of the spirit. . . . A man, I am the remote circumference, the skirt, the thin suburb or frontier post of God but go inward & I find the ocean; I lose my individuality in its waves. God is Unity, but always works in variety. I go inward until I find Unity universal, that Is before the World was; I come outward to this body a point of variety. (JMN 5:177)

The "I" and the language, like facts, are both themselves and not themselves, discrete entities and patterns of linguistic circulations.

Struck by the forces unleashed by the passage and by the Visionary, the readers are transported from the liminal to the sublime. Emerson's language unrolls a vast texture of signification, both semantic and syntactic. His meanings do not comfort, but overwhelm. They mix pleasure with pain; with order, disorder. Indeed, Emerson's metaleptic passage overwhelms readers like a force of nature, one that Longinus likens to the rhetoric of the sublime. The sublime is not system, but oceanic, celestial, volcanic, striking the auditors or readers with powers they can barely withstand (135). Emerson agrees with Longinus, asserting that powerful language should stimulate the audience like a natural force, in Emerson's case, electricity:

The orator must be, to a certain extent, a poet. We are such imaginative creatures that nothing so works on the human mind, barbarous or civil, as a trope. Condense some daily experience into a glowing symbol, and an audience is electrified. . . . Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, - some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry with them, - and the course is half won. (W 7:90)

Emerson condenses arguments into tropes, thus charging his readers, converting them to his view of nature as sublime. He transports them not only through semantic indeterminacy and syntactic twists, but also with auditory rhythms. Anne Kibbey has reminded us of how the Puritan conversion sermon employed figures of speech not only as manipulations of the meanings of words, but as palpable figures that would affect the hearer bodily. She shows, for example, how John Cotton used paronomasia to construct subtle, subliminal meanings that got under the skin of his listeners, reinforcing his overt message by influencing the senses of his hearers. Cotton defines paronomasia as "the repetition of like sounds, yet somewhat differing" (Kibbey 13). For him, paronomasia includes repetitions not only of complete words, but also of letters and syllables. With his expanded definition in mind, he constructs sermons in which phonic patterns of meaning emerge to reinforce the semantic meaning. For example, as Kibbey demonstrates in the following passage from a sermon, he uses /s/ and /p/ sounds to emphasize the relationship between spirit and prayer. The graphics below, which are Kibbey's, indicate the acoustic patterns.

The Spirit of Grace is a Spirit of Supplication.

A spirit of Prayer;

so God describes the spirit he promiseth to give his people:

a spirit of Supplication,

that is,

humble Prayer. (14)

Kibbey suggests that the sound patterns reflect the overall emphasis of the sermon, "the experience of the 'spirit' as it leads to articulation in 'prayer,' a transposition from /s/ to /p/" (13-25).

Like Cotton, Emerson employs paronomasia to convert his readers. In the "eyeball" passage, beginning with "Standing on the bare ground" and ending with "part or particle of God," Emerson employs paronomasia to reify the relationship between matter and spirit, particularly between the visionary's "I" and "eye" and "Universal Being." Appropriately, the primary recurring sounds are "b" and "i" sounds, as the passage is about Emerson's "I" and "eye" becoming one with "Being." "Bathed" and "blithe" alliterate with "bare," but also support each other's connotations. "Bathed" connotes baptism, and is thus connected with the blitheness of conversion, of becoming one with the unifying force. "Blithe" contains the long "i" sound that echoes "eye" and "I." The "I" is blithe. Moreover, it is "uplifted" into the "infinite." Both of these words contain further long "i" sounds. Remember, this is the sentence in which the "I" falls out as egotism vanishes. Emerson has spread the "I" throughout this sentence, mixing it with the "b." This mixing prepares the reader for and reinforces the ultimate union with the "I/eye" and being. The next sentence supports this blending with further "b" and long "i" sounds in "I," "become," and in the all-important union of the two in "eye-ball," which translates to "I-being" when we remember that the "eye" is the "I" and for Emerson "being" is a circle, a sphere, a ball. These subtle uses of paronomasia have auditorily prepared the reader for the more overt connotations in the rest of the passage, in that the "I/eye" becomes one with "Universal Being," part or particle of God.

Certainly Emerson's sublime sentences affected his readers physically, emotionally, and intellectually. In Emerson on the Soul, Jonathan Bishop shows the concrete effect Emerson's sentences had on his attentive readers. Moncure Conway recalls a kind of conversion experience he had while reading Emerson. After lamenting over his lack of prospects, the young Conway gives in to depression by going alone into the woods.

Utterly miserable, self-accused amid sorrowful faces, with no outlook but to be a fettered master of slaves, I was then wont to shun the world, with gun for apology, and pass the hours in this retreat. So came I on a day, and reclined on the grass, reading a magazine casually brought. . . . Nature had no meaning, life no promise and no aim. Listlessly turning the printed pages, one sentence caught my eye and held it; one sentence quoted from Emerson, which changed my world and me.

A sentence only! I do not repeat it: it might not bear to others what it bore to me: its searching subtle revelation defies any analysis I can make of its words. All I knew is that it was the touch of flame I needed. That day my gun was laid aside to be resumed no more. (qtd. in Bishop 145-46)

While Conway feels the flames of Emerson's words in his conversion, John Albee undergoes agitation and satiation. He recalls that upon picking up Representative Men in a book store,

I . . . read a few pages, becoming more and more agitated, until I could read no more there. It was if I had looked in a mirror for the first time. I turned around, fearful lest someone had observed what had happened to me; for a complete revelation was opened in those few pages, and I was no longer the same being that had entered the shop. These were words for which I had been hungering and waiting. (qtd. in Bishop 145-46)

John Jay Chapman's experience of reading Emerson was even more concrete: "His words," says Chapman, "sparkle in the mind, or you may carry them off in your pocket. They get driven into your mind like nails, and on them catch and hang your own experiences, till what was once his thought has become your character" (qtd. in Konvitz 108).

The reader of Nature becomes Nature's Visionary. As the Seer is struck by the forces of nature, the reader, like Conway, Albee, and Chapman, is impressed by an effusion of palpable shapes - semantic, syntactic, and auditory. Both Visionary and reader are bathed in signification, both becoming conduits through which forces flow, converted from sight to insight. Just as Emerson's tropes, figures, and syntax work to turn the energy of nature into the force of language, so his auditory shapes, strengthening the lexical dimensions of his words, function to convert his readers into naturalists. If readers attend to the elements of Nature as Emerson examined the specimens in the Jardin des Plantes, they will be struck by the "amazing puzzle" of the universe generated by the "upheaving principle of life" everywhere "incipient." The awe Emerson felt before the specimens, readers apprehend before the multitudinous force of Emerson's prose. Like nature, Nature places heavy demands on readers, who should not read Nature passively. Just as a biologist scrutinizes organisms to discover their laws, readers of Nature must actively engage Emerson's words to feel the tingle of their charge. Like the nature on which he modelled his prose, his words indeed are patterns of energy and spirit; his metaleptic tropes, electrons; his sentences, atoms. The essay is a world, sub-lime and subliming.


1 I would like to thank Professor Joan Richardson for her assistance and inspiration. Her acute critical and editorial senses were indispensable to me as I drafted this essay.

2 I shall use the following abbreviations in citing Emerson's work: CW for The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson; CEC for The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle; EL for The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson; JMN for The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and W for The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Biblical passages are likewise cited with abbreviations of the books from which the passages come.

3 Several acute readers of Emerson have felt the exuberance, the charge of his language. John Burroughs, in Birds and Poets, with Other Papers, claimed that Emerson's style is "akin to that elusive but potent something we call electricity" (192). William James said in 1903 that Emerson's "matchless eloquence" "electrified and emancipated his generation" (20). More recently, in Emerson's Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays, Barbara Packer has observed that the "ambiguities, lacunae, paradoxes, and understatements" in Emerson's essays are so "generously" placed that the sentences in his essays are "charged terminals that the reader must take the risk of connecting," the reward being "a certain electric tingle" (20). The "multiplicity of . . . conflicting statements" that F. O. Matthiessen has located in Emerson (3), and the "volatility" that Eric Cheyfitz has found (xii) are Emerson's attempts to pack his sentences with maximum force. His rhetoric, Leonard Neufeldt and Christopher Barr assert, is "pulsating" (92); his style, Lawrence Buell claims, exudes an "unpredictable, vigorous fecundity" (161). Moreover, in Emerson's Romantic Style, Julie Ellison shows that Emerson's style is not linear and continuous, but parallel and discontinuous, structured as it is on active antagonism, driven as it is by a slippery play between irony and sublimity (8-10). But none of these readers describes Emerson's style as metaleptic.

4 Three of the most insightful readers of Emerson have focused on the dynamic, unsettling, shocking nature of Emerson's tropes. Stanley Cavell suggests that Emerson's troping keeps his writing alive and active, and thus turns his readers from conformity and toward self-reliant thinking (134). According to Harold Bloom, Emerson's tropes are "life-enhancing" defenses that "burn away context," the anxiety of influence, and generate "a pragmatic fresh center" (Kabbalah 118, 120). Richard Poirier calls Emerson's tropes vehicles for "life, transition, and the energizing spirit" that "turn" his readers to activity and reflection (Renewal 16-17). His essays, Poirier observes, work against reaching comfortable conclusions by "continuous acts of troping, syntactical shiftings, rhetorical fracturings" (33). Extending this prestigious tradition of Emerson criticism, Ellison observes that his tropes are not driven by a desire to tie word to referent but "motivated by his joy in conversions of meaning" (9).

5 In The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, in the entry on metalepsis Hollander and Fletcher extend Bloom's work on the trope in describing it primarily in terms of this diachronic mode of allusion. Reviewing Harold Bloom's work on the trope, while taking into account their own, they describe metalepsis as "a range of allusive devices at a number of rhetorical or textual levels, whether of a particular word or phrase, trope, formal mode, or genre" that exhibits "a transcendental (in Schlegel's sense) or subversively analytic quality which is so much deeper than mere elegant exemplification of a genre or mode [traditional allusion]" (760). Metalepsis both subverts and transcends the text to which it alludes. Like Hegel's Aufhebung, the double movement by which something is simultaneously negated and preserved, metalepsis cancels prior textual moments by surpassing them even as it retains them by virtue of covert reference.

6 Catachresis is often, though not necessarily, metaleptic. Contrary to instances of misuse or abuse, both can be highly charged, powerful tropes. The fact that both Hollander and Holman and Harmon (who follow Hollander) use one of the most famous and dense lines in all English poetry to exemplify metalepsis illustrates that the trope is the only one expansive enough to show how complex, compressed language functions. Marlowe's line from Dr. Faustus is the example in question: "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?" Hollander analyzes this line as a synchronic metalepsis, a trope that combines tropes; the synecdoche of Helen (face) operates on the metaphor of launching ships as the cause of war (136). In their entry on metalepsis, Holman and Harmon locate a dozen figures or tropes in the line, including rhetorical question, metonymy, metaphor, hyperbole, and paradox, and they emphasize the further compression of meaning in its "elementary reference to water and fire, a deletion of all human elements, and emphatic alliteration and megaphonic lambs with very short syllables and long ones."

7 Indeed, critics have discussed Emerson's volatile style in Nature (1836) in remarks that suggest metalepsis. In A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature, Richard Poirier finds that the "eyeball" passage itself is a site of contradictory voices and activities, one whose overt visionary purpose is problematized by an apologetic tone (56-65). Barbara Packer detects "layers of purpose" in the essay similar to those in complex Old Testament narratives composed by several different stylists. She finds that Nature seems to be written by three different, conflicting figures: the "supernatural rationalist," the "antinomian," and the "redactor" (27). Likewise exposing several conflicting voices in the essay, Alan D. Hodder, in Emerson's Rhetoric of Revelation, likens Emerson's style to the "voice of many waters" in the revelations of John and Jeremiah (10912). Metalepsis formally describes these layers of purpose, voice, and activity.

8 For a discussion of how Emerson's experience in the Jardin des Plantes affected his theory of composition, see Lee Rust Brown, "The Emerson Museum."

9 Several critics have shown how Nature was influenced by the Bible. As Hodder notes, F.O. Matthiessen, Warner Berthoff, and Laurence Buell show links between the rhetoric of Nature and Bible-based sermon styles (19). Readers as far back as Thomas Carlyle have noted apocalyptic aspects in Nature, and have related the essay to John's Revelation (CEC 157). Hodder's book is an extended musing on the remarks of Carlyle, O.W. Holmes (Ralph Waldo Emerson), Joel Porte (Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time), R. A. Yoder (Emerson and the Orphic Poet in America), and Harold Bloom (who develops, directly or indirectly, Emerson's apocalyptic vision in a number of places, especially in Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism and Poetry and Repression. Each of these critics places Emerson in the apocalyptic tradition by asserting that Nature is a new revelation based on nature or the mind of man.

10 Bloom equates diachronic metalepsis with the American Sublime. Located, Bloom says, in Emerson's "transparent eyeball" passage, the American Sublime emerges in a diachronic, transumptive relationship between an earlier and later text, in which the poet of the later text intends "to forget the father [poetic predecessor] in order to present the son or daughter [one's own work] (Poetry 244). Bloom shows how Emerson in the eyeball passage represses all influence by becoming "nothing," and yet through this negation is able by seeing "all" to return to the primal, fathering force of "anteriority," the source of the creativity of all of his predecessors (247).

11 For a provocative reading of the dream as reflecting Emerson's anxieties over his prophetic vocation, see Joel Porte, Representative Man (80-82).

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H. Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature. New York: Norton, 1971.

Bishop, Jonathan. Emerson on the Soul. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964.

Bloom, Harold. Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1982.

-----. Kabbalah and Criticism. New York: Seabury P, 1975.

-----. Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens. New Haven: Yale UP, 1973.

Brown, Lee Rust. "The Emerson Museum." Representations 40 (1992): 57-80.

Buell, Lawrence. Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1975.

Burke, Kenneth. "I, Eye, Ay - Emerson's Early Essay 'Nature': Thoughts on the Machinery of Transcendence." Emerson's Nature: Origin, Growth, Meaning. Ed. Merton M. Sealts, Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969. 150-63.

Burroughs, John. Birds and Poets, with Other Papers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1895.

Cavell, Stanley. The Senses of Walden. Expanded ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1981.

Cheyfitz, Eric. The Trans-parent: Sexual Politics in the Language of Emerson. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1981.

Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.

Ellison, Julie. Emerson's Romantic Style. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1984.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 5 vols. to date. Ed. Robert Spiller, Joseph Slater, et al. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1971-.

-----. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Edward Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-04.

-----. The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle. Ed. Joseph Slater. New York: Columbia UP, 1964.

-----. The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 3 vols. Ed. Stephen Whicher, Robert Spiller, and Wallace E. Williams. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1966-72.

-----. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 16 vols. Ed. William H. Gilman, et al. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard UP, 1960-84.

Farrar, Austin. A Rebirth of Images: The Making of St. John's Apocalypse. Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1970.

Fletcher, Angus. Allegory: The Theory of a Symbolic Mode. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1964.

-----. "'Positive Negation': Threshold, Sequence, and Personification in Coleridge." New Perspectives on Coleridge and Wordsworth. Ed. Geoffrey H. Hartman. New York: Columbia UP, 1972. 133-64.

Hodder, Alan D. Emerson's Rhetoric of Revelation. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP, 1989.

Hollander, John. The Figure of Echo: A Mode of Allusion in Milton and After. Berkeley: U of California P, 1981.

Holman, C. Hugh, and William Harmon. A Handbook to Literature. 5th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1986.

James, William. "Address at the Emerson Centenary in Concord." Emerson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Milton R. Konvitz and Stephen E. Whicher. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1962. 19-23.

Kibbey, Ann. The Interpretation of Material Shapes in Puritanism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986.

Konvitz, M.R. The Recognition of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Selected Criticism Since 1837. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1972.

Kuberski, Philip. Chaosmos: Literature, Science, Theory. Albany: State U of New York P, 1994.

Longinus. Longinus on the Sublime. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1907.

Matthiessen, F.O. American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age Emerson and Whitman. New York: Oxford UP, 1941.

Neufeldt, Leonard N., and Christopher Barr. "'I Shall Write Like a Latin Father': Emerson's 'Circles.'" New England Quarterly 59 (1986): 92-108.

The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics. Ed. Alex Preminger and T.V.F. Brogan. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1993.

Packer, B.L. Emerson's Fall: A New Interpretation of the Major Essays. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Poirier, Richard. The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987.

-----. A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

Porte, Joel. Representative Man: Ralph Waldo Emerson in His Time. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Sealts, Merton M., Jr., and Alfred R. Ferguson. Emerson's Nature: Origin, Growth, Meaning. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1969.

Wittreich, Joseph Anthony. Angel of Apocalypse: Blake's Idea of Milton. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1975.

Eric Wilson is assistant professor of English at St. John's University. He is currently completing Emerson's Sublime Science: Electricity, Nature, Language for the series Romanticism in Perspective, published by Macmillan Press. His work has appeared in ESQ and ATQ.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

 Reader Opinion




Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:19th-century poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson
Author:Wilson, Eric
Date:Mar 22, 1997
Previous Article:Douglas Hodge reading Keats's Elgin Marbles sonnet.
Next Article:By whose authority? Point of view in the first chapter of Harold Frederic's 'The Damnation of Theron Ware.'

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters