The Past


The debt is paid,
The verdict said,
The Furies laid,
The plague is stayed,
All fortunes made;
Turn the key and bolt the door,
Sweet is death forevermore.
Nor haughty hope, nor swart chagrin,
Nor murdering hate, can enter in.
All is now secure and fast;
Not the gods can shake the Past;
Flies-to the adamantine door
Bolted down forevermore.
None can re-enter there,—
No thief so politic,
No Satan with a royal trick
Steal in by window, chink, or hole,
To bind or unbind, add what lacked,
Insert a leaf, or forge a name,
New-face or finish what is packed,
Alter or mend eternal Fact.

*

Three drafts of the poem “The Past” appear in one of Emerson’s notebooks titled EL. Using the journal a reader may estimate that the poem was composed between 1849 (when the notebook was first used), and before its publication, in 1867, in May-Day and Other Poems.

The twenty-one line poem, written in rhymed couplets, uses past tense words such as “paid, said, and laid.” The past tense reinforces that the judgment of the dead is finished and put to rest. The poem goes on to explain that everything in a person’s life while they were living is can no longer reach them. “Nor haughty hope, nor swart chargin,” suggests that hope or hate cannot reach the dead. The poem continues talking about how nothing can disturb whoever has passed on.

The poem characterizes the idea of time past as a physical entity. “The plague is stayed, / All fortunes made; / Turn the key and bolt the door.” Once time has passed, the door on those moments are inaccessible, Emerson suggests, advising the reader that was has been done in the past shall live in the past––for you cannot change it. After his initial assertion that the past is an unchangeable entity that even God cannot even escape, Emerson offers a solution for the reader. In the closing few lines, he offers an escape. “New-face or finish what is packed, / Alter or mend eternal Fact.” There seems to be one escape in Emerson’s eyes: altering one’s identity to escape their past.

In a lecture entitled “Memory” from the “University Courses” on philosophy Emerson delivered at Harvard College in 1870, Emerson addresses “The Past.” He claims the past “is the police of the Universe: the angels are set to punish you, so long as you are capable of such crime.” Here Emerson echoes his view of the past in this poem, arguing that the past is simply cannot be reworked by any entity, but is rather a moment that has come and gone and one must live with the effects of their actions.

“The Past” addresses the ideas of the structure of time and how each and every being is responsible for their previous actions, for they must live with either the repercussions or the benefits of their decisions. The poem emphasizes the importance of one’s own past as it cannot be changed.

Bibliography and Further Reading Ralph H. Orth, et al., eds. “Notebook EL.” The Poetry Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1986), pp. 337–892; Albert J. Von Frank, ed. The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Poems: a Variorum Edition (2011); Melville’s Reflections,” The Life and Works of Herman Melville (2000); “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers, vol. 12 (1909.

Credits Composed by Fletcher Rice and Asia Hill, Fall 2018. Readings by Fletcher Rice and Asia Hill.

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American Poetry and Poetics by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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