Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Days"

Updated on July 31, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Source

Introduction and Text of "Days"

Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Days" offers eleven lines, an American Innovative Near-Sonnet, a term I coined. Near-Sonnets offer even more intensity than the traditional sonnet, while delivering the beauty of the traditional form.

This poem has gathered quite a few pages of ink from scholars and critics arguing about the meaning of the term "hypocritic" from the first line, "Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days." Some have argued that the term should be thought of as "deceivers" while other insist that hypocritic merely means "actors." The controlling literary device is personification and thus both "actors" and "deceivers" offer a meaningful choice to those who wish to opine.

Days

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.
To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.
I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples, and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.

Commentary

Critics and scholars have a history of choosing sides in the discussion of this poem based on the usage of the phrase, "hypocritic days." Some insist that that the days represent "actors"; while the others asserts that the hypocritic days refer to "deceivers."

First Movement: Time Marches on

Daughters of Time, the hypocritic Days,
Muffled and dumb like barefoot dervishes,
And marching single in an endless file,
Bring diadems and fagots in their hands.

The speaker has observed that the procession of days resembles a long line of women, colorfully labeled "barefoot dervishes," who are "marching single" endlessly as they fetch various things and events to the human beings experiencing the mesh of time.

The speaker makes it clear the what the "Daughters of Time" bring depends upon the human mind that becomes the receptacle: for some they may bring precious gems and to other mere bundles of sticks.

Second Movement: Varied Gifts

To each they offer gifts after his will,
Bread, kingdoms, stars, and sky that holds them all.

Time fetches to each human mind and heart that which it expects or needs. The "sky" contains everything in existence, as each day brings those varied "gifts" to humankind.

Third Movement: Admission of Guilt

I, in my pleached garden, watched the pomp,
Forgot my morning wishes, hastily
Took a few herbs and apples

The speaker admits to having merely observed the passing of days without using the time to the best of his ability. He has allowed his garden become entwined with vines and branches. He has become forgetful of his "morning wishes," and he has settled for grabbing a few "herbs and apples."

Fourth Movement: The Scornful Day

and the Day
Turned and departed silent. I, too late,
Under her solemn fillet saw the scorn.

With the speaker's placid observance, the day has become somewhat irritated because the speaker has not tried to get as much out of his precious time as he should have. The day has thus become scornful of the oblivious human who should know better.

Ambiguity and Meaning

The resonating quality of poetic language allows terms to function with more than one layer of meaning. This the term "hypocritic" may be understood to resonate with both meanings of "actors" and "deceivers."

The terms are not opposites, that is, they are not mutually exclusive. One might think of actors as deceivers as they perform in a role to be other then they are. In this poem, it is the human mind of each reader, that is human perception, that accounts for the true impact of the poem. The human mind conceives of the personification of time as "daughters." And thus it is the human perception that also conceives of the meaning of "actor" vs "deceiver."

The speaker of the poem, who is offering his own view after having observed these "Daughters of Time" and determined that they are "hypocritic Days," demonstrates that he has learned something important and profound from these personified days. Although it may have taken him his entire life to learn this important lesson, he demonstrates that he now understands the each day offers each human being what s/he needs/wants according to "his own will."

The speaker then offers his perspective so that others may benefit from his experience. He knows that those "days" are actors and thus has placed them in a definite role as personified "daughters." They also resemble "barefoot dervishes" as they march in that endless parade.

In their role as actors, the daughter days seem to play no role in hypocrisy, but then the human mind will reason that if the human being could choose the good as easily as the worthless then why did not those days nudge one in the proper direction: a clear indication that some deceiving might be going on here.

Thus the human mind has easily synthesized the meaning of "hypocritic" to accuse those "days" both acting and deceiving. The human mind can project the actions onto the "daughters of Time" and is able to determine the true identify and purpose of those "dervishes" that keep marching, marching in the long line.

As time streams by the human being who has become an avid observer, the human mind becomes aware of itself as holding the ideas of acting and deceiving. It is, after all, the human mind that has perceived and labeled each action. And it is the human mind that has determined that it has the ability to share experience, even as those deceiving "actors" move on in steady beat day after day.

The Explicator and ESQ Battle

In the November 1945 issue of The Explicator, the time honored publication devoted solely to short explications of works, the editors explained their reasoning for arguing that the term "hypocritic" in the first line of Emerson's "Days" meant "deceivers." Then five months later, Joseph Jones, in the April 1946 issue, argued that the term meant "actors." Then one year later in the April 1947 issue, Edward G. Fletcher returned the argument back to "deceivers. After almost two decades, James E. White had swung back to "actors" as he presented his thoughts in the 1963 issue of ESQ.

Part of this article appeared in the Fall 1986 issue of The Explictor, where I argue that the meaning of the term is merely ambiguous and can be understood to embrace both the meanings of "actors" and deceivers."

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Linda Sue Grimes

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