A Closer Look At Emerson's Forbearance
To Strive To Be Better
Hast thou named all the birds without a gun;
Loved the wood-rose, and left it on its stalk;
At rich men's tables eaten bread and pulse;
Unarmed, faced danger with a heart of trust;
And loved so well a high behavior
In man or maid, that thou from speech refrained,
Nobility more nobly to repay?
O be my friend, and teach me to be thine!
-Ralph Waldo Emerson-
The above poem, Forbearance, was written by the American essayist, philosopher, leader of the Transcendentalist movement and poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson. The poem is essentially about nature and a selfish need to make it ours. It is also about a desire to be more self-aware.
In the first line, he touches upon hunting. Hunters not only hunt for food, but they also hunt for sport/the desire to capture beautiful creatures, dissect them and preserve them. By killing an animal, you end their life, but are given the opportunity to find out more about them. While observing an animal teaches you about their behavior, you don’t know what they are made of until you takes the steps (kill, dissect, learn) to find out. Though I am an animal lover who is against hunting, this line forces someone like me to stop and think.
When you see a pretty flower, do you pick it or do you leave it alone? For many of us, flowers are meant to be enjoyed, even for the shortest amount of time. If flowers were no longer cut, florists would be out of work. By cutting down flowers, we end their lives. Yet, ignoring the impulse to pick a flower is often too hard to control. Though a flower will grow in the picked one’s place, Emerson suggests that we are selfish people for picking the flower. The flower would’ve thrived (until the cold weather of course) if it had been left alone.
This next line is a bit harder to understand. In my opinion, he is referring to Transcendentalist values. A Transcendentalist believed in living for your basic needs. For example, you grow crops not for profit, but to feed your family. You live a simple, spiritual life and are close to nature. You live by your own values not by a system of rules. You live for yourself and don’t depend on others to help you along. For you to be able to eat the food of a rich man and dine with a rich man in the first place, you are going against these values. Not only are you eating another’s food that you didn’t work to produce, you are also condoning this man’s lifestyle (Money is power. Money is good. Money is what makes a life worth living.) by seeing him worthy enough to eat with you. You are so controlled by society and by your own needs that you ate at his table without a second thought.
Line four speaks of going into a dangerous situation with only your courage and the belief that all people are good to protect you. You didn’t give in to the urge to bring a weapon. Come what may, you will go down with your morals intact.
The following line is for all of the people who don't say something bad when they are given the chance to. They can easily keep a rumor going. They could verbally cut an annoying person down to size. Instead, they remain silent, deciding that their opinion of themselves matters more than any passing criticism they could deal. They think before they speak and decide not to speak. They too good and too “noble” to stop being as they are.
Emerson closes with a plea for the person possessing all of these qualities to teach him how to live so well. How can he, considered by many to be a great thinker, overcome his urge to capture an animal or pluck a flower? How can he set aside his opinions for one night to dine with someone who, though rich and aware of their social standings, may end up being a good person? How can he shut his mouth before saying another mean spirited thing? For someone as great as Emerson to admit he is flawed and to seek out someone to further improve him only says to me how truly great he was. After reading this poem, I respect Emerson even more.
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