Mithridates

I cannot spare water or wine,
Tobacco-leaf, or poppy, or rose;
From the earth-poles to the Line,
All between that works or grows,
Everything is kin of mine.

Give me agates for my meat;
Give me cantharids to eat;
From air and ocean bring me foods,
From all zones and altitudes; –

From all natures, sharp and slimy,
Salt and basalt, wild and tame:
Tree and lichen, ape, sea-lion,
Bird, and reptile, be my game.

Ivy for my fillet band;
Blinding dog-wood in my hand;
Hemlock for my sherbet cull me,
And the prussic juice to lull me;
Swing me in the upas boughs,
Vampyre-fanned, when I carouse.

Too long shut in strait and few,
Thinly dieted on dew,
I will use the world, and sift it,
To a thousand humors shift it,
As you spin a cherry.
O doleful ghosts, and goblins merry!
O all you virtues, methods, mights,
Means, appliances, delights,
Reputed wrongs and braggart rights,
Smug routine, and things allowed,
Minorities, things under cloud!
Hither! take me, use me, fill me,
Vein and artery, though ye kill me!

*


“Mithridates,” written in 1846, is found in The Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson (Volume 9 of the Complete Works published in 1904). The setting of the poem is Ancient Rome and the protagonist is the emperor Mithridates.

The original poem included two more lines at the end––“God! I will not be an owl, / But sun me in the Capitol”––that Emerson removed after the first version was published. The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-a and c-d-c-d-c. The imagery of the poem illustrates the creation of a potion.The first lines “I cannot spare water or wine, / Tobacco-leaf, or poppy or rose.” These ingredients may be used for an assortment of potions. For example, wine (alcohol) and poppy can be combined in a sleep potion that will put the drinker into a deep sleep. “I will use the world, and sift it, / To a thousand humors shift it.” These lines, located near the end of the poem, speak of the world getting rid of the lumps and bumps that stop it from being smooth. The second is about using a thousand people to shift it, to change the world. It’s a ruler that is trying to change the world for his liking and is using a thousand people to do it.

Mithridates was a legendary king who ruled Pontus. Known as Mithridates VI, or Mithridates VI Eupator Dionysius of Pontus, the prince was of Persian and Greek descent. His father died from poison and his mother was regent of the kingdom until His father died from being poisoned and his mother was regent of the kingdom until Mithridates was of age. Mithridates left his home and returned as a seasoned warrior; and during his time away, he experimented with several poisons to build immunity and avoid the same fate as his father. He is said to have created a universal antidote, “Mithridates’ antidote,” made up of fifty-four ingredients.

The poem holds an interest because it is about an ancient world that existed thousands of years ago. Myths from that period have always held an interest. The poem was intriguing with its subtle descriptions and images.

Bibliography and Further Readings Robert D. Richardson, Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995); James Grout, Mithridatum, Encyclopaedia Romana.

Credits Composed by Patricia Poitras, Fall 2018. Reading by Patricia Poitras.

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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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