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  • The Work of Metaphor:Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Circles" and Conceptual Metaphor Theory
  • David Greenham (bio)

Ralph Waldo Emerson's 1844 metaphor, "Language is fossil poetry,"1 implies a loss: fossils are dead, whereas poetic language was once alive. In the journal article from which this metaphor emerged, Emerson wrote, "language is made up of images or poetic tropes which now in their familiar secondary use have quite ceased to remind us of their poetic origin."2 Language, he suggests, consists of "poetic tropes" transferred from some lost origin. As such, language is fundamentally metaphorical. It is remarkable, then, that no one has yet offered a systematic study of how Emerson uses metaphor. This essay will engage with Emerson's "Circles" (1841) using Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT), attempting to remedy that lack and also to inaugurate a reassessment of the work that metaphor accomplishes in Emerson's writing and thinking.

The critical tradition has not ignored metaphor in Emerson; even so, this specific figurative trope has not been central to the interpretive canon. Jonathan Bishop's 1964 Emerson on the Soul addresses the issue briefly, making some significant points. For example, Bishop recognizes that, in bringing two different aspects of experience into a unity, Emerson's metaphors enable a moment of "intellectual [End Page 402] discovery." Bishop also notes metaphor's instability and observes that the "consummation of every metaphor … should be a new opportunity for radical doubt that immediately commences a search for alternative terms." He concludes that metaphor restlessly moves forward in Emerson's prose. However, he regards it as just one aspect of Emerson's literary language, alongside rhythm and tone.3 Julie Ellison's 1984 Emerson's Romantic Style also explores the subject. For Ellison, as for Bishop, the point of Emersonian metaphor is "constant change" and "perpetual transition." Ellison also sees this instability as a point of style, but more particularly as an effort to avoid "literary influence" by using old words in new ways. Ultimately, Emerson's use of metaphor becomes a process of flux, where "everything can stand for everything else" and "where all is symbolic, all symbols are arbitrary."4 That metaphors are not—indeed, cannot be—arbitrary is something I will demonstrate in what follows. Laura Dassow Walls' 2003 book, Emerson's Life in Science, argues that, despite the density of his metaphorical language, "Emerson himself fought against the metaphoricity of language. What he sought was not linguistic play, but truth, the single reality beyond language." Metaphor, Walls maintains, points beyond itself, to something nonlinguistic. Drawing on I. A. Richards' distinction between a metaphor's tenor and vehicle, Walls contends that, for Emerson, metaphors are "merely the vehicle"; the tenor, or "true knowledge," lies elsewhere.5 According to Walls, this belief caused Emerson to turn to science in an attempt to "get beyond the mere succession of apposite metaphors." In other words, metaphor is something Emerson merely passed through on the way to science.6 Bishop, Ellison, and Walls recognize metaphor as an important aspect of Emerson's literary technique and intellectual development, but not, as I will argue here, something that is fundamental to his thought. [End Page 403]

A recent work by David LaRocca, Emerson's English Traits and the Natural History of Metaphor (2013), forms an exception to this partial treatment of metaphor. LaRocca explicitly picks up where Walls leaves off. For LaRocca, rather than passing through metaphor to science, science itself—as "natural history"—becomes the metaphor to understand Emerson: "natural history [is] the primary metaphor that underwrites most, if not all, of his work…. [It] is then not just an area of inquiry but the very condition for thinking."7 LaRocca's deliberately paratactic and idiosyncratic work is fascinating. He offers glimpses into Emerson's practice but does not provide a methodology for understanding Emerson's metaphors or make a case for the applicability of his ideas beyond Emerson's English Traits. Even so, by recognizing Emerson's metaphor use as a "condition for thinking," and therefore at the root of his thought, LaRocca approaches my entry point. LaRocca's use of small capitals for natural history is also important, implying that he uses the term...


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