Analysis of “A Nation’s Strength” by Ralph Waldo Emerson in the Context of National Consciousness
Poetry is arguably the most democratized art form. It is written by the common man, for the common man. As a result, it becomes an effective medium to express sentiments of nationalism which lie in the deep consciousness of the ordinary man, but are not directly expressed. Identification with a piece of poetry which is nationalistic in nature brings these sentiments to the forefront, and has the capacity to create a gushing wave of increased awareness and national consciousness. Such ideas can be reflected in A Nation’s Strength, written by Ralph Waldo Emerson. To better understand A Nation’s Strength and how it enables the poetic voice to unify with a national consciousness, it is essential to understand Emerson’s background, as many shades of his ideologies insidiously make their presence felt in the poem. Emerson was educated at the famed Harvard College in Boston and had a long association with the Church, which continued up until the death of his beloved wife, Ellen. After her death, he could no longer get himself to unquestioningly have faith. This seed of doubt sown in his mind preceded his role in creating the transcendentalism movement. Coming to transcendentalism, this was a movement which started in the 1830s, by a group of people who were inspired by Romanticism’s more instinctive and intuitive approach as opposed to hardcore rationalism. The period of religious rationalism in the early 19th century answered a lot of important questions which people had about why the world is the way it is in a logical manner, but left people wondering, what now? What more? They believed that when humans had been blessed with the power of intuition and imagination, why waste those by deeming only rationalism as the correct lens to see the world? The basic principles upon which transcendentalism was based includes fostering a relationship with God and with nature, as well as ensuring human dignity; their belief in human dignity led many transcendentalists to get involved in social reform movements, and fight for the rights of women and slaves. Emerson has multiple works which reflect his ideas as a transcendentalist, most notably, “Nature”. These basic principles of transcendentalism weave themselves into the foundations upon which the poem was built, and these ideas unknowingly enter the reader’s consciousness as well.
The poem is strategically titled “A Nation’s Strength” and this symbolism can be decoded by looking at the word Nation. In any form of colloquial speech outside of academic contexts, the words country, nation and state are used somewhat interchangeably. In reality, there are worlds of differences between the implications of each of these words, and the elements that each one inherently lays emphasis on. The terms Country and State have their foundations in contexts which have been politicized to a great extent. Country has historically been used to refer to land, and has evolved with time to imply a distinct region which is united under the governance of a given political entity. This definition for country can also be used non-problematically to define the term State. State is used to describe the Government in many contexts. Nation, however, is the standout amongst these three seemingly identical terms. Etymologically, it is derived from the Latin term “nation” which can be loosely translated to people, tribe or kin. The Latin term gave rise to the French “nacion” which means birth or place or origin. From French, the word crept into the English vocabulary and sat snugly in the niche carved out for nation and country, though there are certain fundamental differences. In the modern context, we use nation to describe a distinct group of people who are united by a group of factors: namely common descent, culture or language, and who generally tend to inhabit one particular area of land. Therefore, the term uses the similarities between people as its core idea, and builds upon this to enter into the more political realm of these people with similarities coming together in a piece of land to form a group. The implication is political, but the ideology is really not, and has its roots in the more organic relationships between human beings of similar circumstance. The narrative which Emerson weaves throughout the poem is a political one, but he has deliberately titled his work “A Nation’s Strength” when he could have just as easily used State or Country; the former case would have led to some pleasing alliteration as well. However, his usage of Nation acts as a prelude to the central message he attempts to convey through his writing, that people themselves are the only and most reliable source of strength in a Nation, because only those who make up a nation can make it great.
The poem has six stanzas, and is written in the relatively simply abab form. The literary devices have been kept to a minimum to let the power of the message shine through. The very first line is a question is “What makes a nation’s pillars high?” The next line asks a similar question, what makes a nation’s “foundations strong”. The analogy of a building is interesting, considering that Emerson goes on to describe how material conditions cannot make a nation strong. The building itself could be a mere device to symbolize the construction of a structure, and not the end result itself. The next two lines speak of what makes the nation might enough to defeat its enemies. Linking the first stanza together, we can infer that perhaps the poet is trying to create the image of a strong, secluded structure of a nation which cannot be breached by enemies, thereby instilling in the reader a sense of pride and duty towards building a structure.
The next three stanzas provide a crescendo like build up to the crux of the poem They describe everything which does not make a nation great, and each stanza addresses one particular element which most consider as either highly important or the most important factor towards building a successful nation. Flashes of Emerson’s own ideologies appear, with transcendentalism’s views on nature and human dignity making their presence felt. The second stanza opens with a proclamation that “It is not gold”, with it being the nation’s strength. The significance of gold can be debated here. On the surface, gold represent luxury, the ultimate status symbol. If status is in consideration, gold could be a reference to the olden day monarchies where Kings reigned supreme, enjoyed lavish lifestyles and unquestionable authority. In such a context, this is a blatant criticism of the social structure that glorified and shone the spotlight on a few, while the majority of the population remained hidden form view. The line mentioned “kingdoms grand” and this supports the theory that this stanza could quite possible be a critique of the ancient system of highly undistributed development fuelled by the monarchy. Another way to look at gold could be material wealth and the accumulation of possession. Material progress: the building of higher and more opulent structures and a more advanced consumer culture reflect development on a superficial level. They may seem shiny, golden and perfect, but all it takes is a “battle shock” for this carefully constructed aura of grandeur to shatter. The penultimate line to the stanza speaks of the shafts of such kingdoms decked out in guild having their shafts laid on “sinking sand” as opposed to “abiding rock”. The difference in the qualities of these materials drives across a very powerful, multidimensional point. Sand cannot hold any solid structure of worth, as its own nature is neither smooth nor stable, and the possibility of the structure sinking into and being enveloped by the sand, leaving it in a state of nothingness is rather high. Rock, on the other hand, is dependable and tough to weather regardless of the conditions it faces. The poet uses the term “abiding” to reflect this quality. In short, “gold” in all its flashy, high status glory is a mere sham when it comes to true greatness, because the very foundations upon which it seeks to grow development from, are not solid. The first shade of transcendentalism comes through here, with nature being used as a reference point for a solid foundation. Emerson believed that Man’s relationship with nature was of critical importance; his book “Nature” stands testament to this. The dependence on nature for a foundation conveys that ultimately, our foundation for a successful system must be of an organic origin, and not through the material conditions we create. Here, the poet begins to embed a hidden commentary which is linked to national consciousness. He begins to tell the common man that all the factors which he believes to be linked to greatness of a nation, are actually mere shams. With this, he instills a sense of hope in them that the greatness of a nation can be defined by them, and not factors beyond their control. In this particular stanza, some of the biggest conceptions of national greatness: material wealth and monarchial power, are smashed.
The third stanza’s element of focus is “the sword.” The sword as a symbol is a rather obvious one, it depicts violence and bloodshed, and power seized through these means. The phrase “red dust” holds important significance here, and is arguably the backbone of the whole stanza. The poet describes how blood has turned stones to rust, and “glory to decay.” The stones referred to could be the stones upon which the building called the nation was built. As the stones stained with blood rust over the ages, the red dust begins to gather. The red of the blood in the dust is the only sign that the empire ever existed. The term “dust” is powerful. Dust is irrelevant, an irritant and brushed away in a hurry. It gathers on old objects that are no longer cared for or worth anything. There could again be a reference to nature here. All the violence which people inflict upon each other, all the meticulous planning and strategy to win battle after battle, has no use. The stanza does not refer to a mere kingdom, but an Empire, which means its rulers clearly had considerable success with their tyrannical approach, and were able to conquer a lot of land by shedding more and more blood with every fight. But, in the end, their empire “passed away” and it was defeated in the battle of life itself. All that remained in the end were traces of the blood in the dust that had gathered on the empire long gone. The false glory which we waste our time trying to attain has no usage, because empires eventually turn into mere dust. The selection of dust to represent that something as inconsequential to dust during the conception and formation of an empire can be the one thing which conquers what is remaining of it. Dust, is a natural element, so the message here is that nature will eventually take back whatever is claimed by violent means, and nothing can be done to stop this. The poet continues the underlying commentary of telling the larger population what does not make an empire great while, till now, he is wordlessly telling them that they can. A great number of empires have been formed by violence over history. There is not one of them which has lasted till date. The ancient ones, such as the Mongol Empire and even rising modern ones, always had their expiry date all set. By giving the people food for thought by making them understand that even if they are subjected to violence and atrocities by a tyrant of a leader, he is grossly misguided and will ultimately fall. The second seed of doubt with the traditional notion of greatness is planted in the minds of the readers.
Stanza four is the last one in the trio that explains what cannot make a nation great. The poet chooses not to deal with tangible things such as gold or a tangible symbol which has devastating effects in its usage such as the sword, but chooses something intangible. Ironically, the intangible item selected may seem rather small and irrelevant when compared to gold and swashbucklers with swords, but upon closer examination, it is the ideas in the mind which do not physically express themselves but are the root cause for every other ill deed. These ideas poison the mind, and tell it that in order to be great as a nation, the only way to do is to progress materialistically and kill all its enemies. The idea selected here, is pride. Pride is the “bright crown” which appeals to nations so great and “sweet”; but ultimately, God will strike down on the luster of the crown of pride, and it will lie “In ashes at his feet.” This stanza delivers a huge blow to what populations across the globe have been told for centuries to have. Those in power hide behind the veil of pride when telling their subjects to fight wars, and exploit nature for resources. Pride is a powerful drug, and when one convinces a group of people that having a nation they are proud to a part of is the single most important thing, you have yourself a generation of addicts. Pride has been referred to as a Crown for a couple of reasons, both unrelated. Firstly, the bright crown which has seemed so appealing to nations could literally be a Crown, and represent the monarchy. Monarchies were built on the foundation of convincing people that having a King or a Queen to represent them would ensure that a nation which they were proud to belong to was built. This journey to building a nation that everyone is proud of could be as violent or exploitative as possible, but in the name of preserving or building one’s pride, all was forgiven. Secondly, the crown could mean that this particular virtue of pride takes precedence over both gold and the sword. That this truly is the crowning glory of what does not make a nation great. Ultimately, God does strike down, and the empire built on pride assumes its place at God’s feet as humbled ashes. The reference to God here is again a transcendentalist one, as they believed God was the superior power, and fostering a good relationship with God was crucial. The poet here tells people that if they are victims of the pride trap, if not nature, God himself will ensure that these empires fall. This also serves as a warning to them to not use pride as a guiding light when considering actions that will make them great.
The last two stanzas finally reveal what it is that makes a nation great. As he begun the very first stanza, he begins the penultimate one saying “Not gold” but rather, it is “only men” who can make a people or a nation great and strong. The values which are emphasized are truth, honor and standing fast to “suffer long” in the name of these values. The last stanza further details the nature of the men who make a nation great. The are brave and hardworking, even “while others sleep” and “dare while others fly.” According to Emerson, the foundations of a strong nation can only be built by these people, as they will build “pillars deep” and take the nation to greater heights, even as far as “the sky.”
The metaphor of a building comes up again, with reference to pillars in the last stanza. The men who Emerson refers are solid, well rounded and hardworking people. The crux of the poem is actually revealed in his last stanzas. One also sees a culmination of the narrative he has been building up over the second, third and fourth stanzas where he discusses what cannot make a nation great. In those stanzas, the idea that money or wealth, violence and pride, all three being ingredients to a certain extent in our mental picture of a great nation, was broken. Ironically, all these are factors which man has very little control over. The last two stanzas however, inject the poem with a dose of optimism, and assures people that the only ingredient required to create a strong nation is strong people. Every human being is faced with a choice as to what kind of person they wish to mold themselves into, and if they mold themselves into the hardworking, honest and strong men that Emerson refers to, they can become a vital cog in the wheel spinning towards national greatness. These are factors people can actively control, and not only are these controllable factors, they are motivating ones too. Building a strong and great nation is excellent incentive for even the most demotivated of men to step up and make something of himself.
A national consciousness can only become a universal one if there are unfalteringly strong ideas which are shared among those who hold it. Emerson, through “A Nation’s Strength” facilitates the development of such an idea, through the notion of a great nation. By dismissing wealth, violence and pride, factors which divide people’s opinions greatly, and providing the image of a recipe for greatness which requires only the relentless human sprit, he is not only uniting the consciousness of a nation, but also paving the way for tangible development. A Nation’s Strength is a powerful example of how the poetic voice can make its way into, unite and even work for the betterment of the national consciousness.
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