Hamatreya is a poem that Emerson wrote in the mid-1800’s.
Its message is well worth contemplation in our day and age as individuals and nations reckon with the forces of nature. Well beyond ideology or opinion, the poem expresses the reality of humankind’s relationship to nature. The core theme of the poem was taken from Emerson’s reading of ancient Hindu writings.
The poem in its entirety appears at the end of this essay.
Emerson guides us to see the futility in our boasting and pride and points towards an awareness of the cycle of life. Earth is given a voice in this poem. This awareness of earth’s living relationship to each of us is essential for any meaningful discussion of humankind’s relationship to nature.
The poem has three voices: the earth, the impartial narrator and a voice that reflects, in the last stanza, on the power of the earth’s song. The poem begins with the narrator speaking for various men of the time and their pride at possessing that which they own: their properties, orchards, dogs and families and their resounding belief in their ownership: “Tis mine, my children’s and my name’s…my trees…my hill…my dog.”
The narrator then ponders: “Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds.” The narrator drives home his point: “Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boys/Earth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;/Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feet/Clear of the grave.” Emerson’s wisdom exposes the vain and fleeting pride of human beings when it comes to their relationship to the earth.
Emerson then ratchets up the poem to another level of intensity with a sub-section that he titles Earth-Song. In it the narrator continues in the theme of exposing the futile vanity of possession and then gives voice to the earth: “They called me theirs,/Who so controlled me;/Yet every one/Wished to stay, and is gone,/How am I theirs, If they cannot hold me, /But I hold them?”
The poem ends with the narrator reflecting on all he has heard and learnt upon hearing the earth speak:
When I heard the Earth-song,
I was no longer brave;
My avarice cooled
Like lust in the chill of the grave.
The entire poem:
Hamatreya by Ralph Waldo EmmersonBulkeley, Hunt, Willard, Hosmer, Meriam, Flint,Possessed the land which rendered to their toilHay, corn, roots, hemp, flax, apples, wool, and wood.Each of these landlords walked amidst his farm,Saying, “’Tis mine, my children’s and my name’s.How sweet the west wind sounds in my own trees!How graceful climb those shadows on my hill!I fancy these pure waters and the flagsKnow me, as does my dog: we sympathize;And, I affirm, my actions smack of the soil.”Where are these men? Asleep beneath their grounds:And strangers, fond as they, their furrows plough.Earth laughs in flowers, to see her boastful boysEarth-proud, proud of the earth which is not theirs;Who steer the plough, but cannot steer their feetClear of the grave.They added ridge to valley, brook to pond,And sighed for all that bounded their domain;“This suits me for a pasture; that’s my park;We must have clay, lime, gravel, granite-ledge,And misty lowland, where to go for peat.The land is well,—lies fairly to the south.’Tis good, when you have crossed the sea and back,To find the sitfast acres where you left them.”Ah! the hot owner sees not Death, who addsHim to his land, a lump of mould the more.Hear what the Earth say:— EARTH-SONG “Mine and yours; Mine, not yours. Earth endures; Stars abide— Shine down in the old sea; Old are the shores; But where are old men? I who have seen much, Such have I never seen. “The lawyer’s deed Ran sure, In tail, To them and to their heirs Who shall succeed, Without fail, Forevermore. “Here is the land, Shaggy with wood, With its old valley, Mound and flood. But the heritors?— Fled like the flood’s foam. The lawyer and the laws, And the kingdom, Clean swept herefrom. “They called me theirs, Who so controlled me; Yet every one Wished to stay, and is gone, How am I theirs, If they cannot hold me, But I hold them?”When I heard the Earth-songI was no longer brave;My avarice cooledLike lust in the chill of the grave.
*Read our other articles on the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: