Ralph Waldo Emerson Commentary

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.                        


In 1867 Ralph Waldo Emerson published “The Past” as a part of his collection of poems titled: May-Day and Other Poems. Emerson composes the “The Past” using a simple line by line rhyme scheme accompanied by an iambic pentameter to create a fluidity to the twenty-one line poem, and creating a story-like structure to the piece.  

In this poem Emerson 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 past the door on those moments are inaccessible, here Emerson is essentially advising the reader that was has been done in the past shall live in the past, for you cannot change what has already been done. After his initial assertion that the past is an unchangeable entity that God’s cannot even escape Emerson draws humor into the closing few lines by offering 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 his book, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers, Emerson addresses “The Past”, in his the section titled Memory. In this section Emerson 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.” In this text Emerson solidifies the views of the past he has made in his poem, 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 emphasis the importance of one’s own past as it is a matter of fact that cannot be change without completely restarting.

Fletcher Rice

Bibliography & Other Readings Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “The Past by Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Web.; “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, Web. Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. 12 (Natural History of Intellect and Other Papers) 1909. Print. 

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