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Uriel

Uriel

“Do let a new generation speak the truth, & let our grandfathers die,” wrote a seemingly exhausted Ralph Waldo Emerson in his journal on July 1st, 1838.1 At this point in his life, the 35-year-old Emerson had fairly recently walked away from a prestigious and comfortable position as a Unitarian preacher in Boston and ventured out as an independent writer and lecturer.

Uriel, Ralph Waldo Emerson Portrait 1859, StudySmarterA portrait of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author of "Uriel," circa 1859. The Library of Congress.

The reaction to his work was mixed. His Nature (1836) had attracted a small but intense group of followers who were even then forming the ideas that would coalesce into the intellectual movement known as Transcendentalism.

Transcendentalism was an early nineteenth-century intellectual movement that emphasized the importance of both the natural world and of individual expression and choice.

His 1837 Phi Beta Kappa address, “The American Scholar,” was warmly received despite its iconoclasm, championing experience and the study of nature as superior forms of education to traditional book learning. But his 1838 “Divinity School Address” caused an outright scandal, his criticism of “historical Christianity” being interpreted as a direct assault on the church that got him effectively banned from speaking at Harvard for some 30 years.

“Uriel,” though published over seven years after this event, is widely considered to be Emerson’s response to the controversy. The poem focuses on the angel Uriel, who is shunned in paradise after uttering a truth that no one is ready to hear. The result is one of Emerson’s most celebrated works, with one astute reader, Robert Frost (1874-1963), dubbing it “the greatest Western poem yet.”2

The Meaning of 'Uriel'

Uriel is the name of an archangel first mentioned in the Book of Ezra (also spelled Esdras) of the Hebrew Talmud. This means it was also a part of the Old Testament in some versions of the Christian Bible, as well. The meaning of Uriel’s name in Hebrew is “God’s fire.”3

Uriel, Stained Glass Chapel Artwork, StudySmarterA stained glass depiction of the Archangel Uriel from a Protestant Chapel. The Library of Congress.

The angel Uriel’s role in the Talmud is to transfer divine knowledge to the chosen people, the Israelites. The “fire” in the angel's name can also be translated as “light” and symbolizes knowledge and enlightenment. Uriel the angel came to be known as a prophet or a divine teacher.3

Uriel, the angel, plays a key role in John Milton’s (1608-1674) epic poem, Paradise Lost (1667), which narrates the events of Satan’s fall from heaven, the creation of hell, and the temptation of Adam and Eve. In Book III, as Satan (himself once an angel) is passing between the earth and the sun, he sees Uriel and disguises himself as a lesser angel before approaching him. Addressing Uriel as

...thou of the seven spirits that stand

In sight of God’s high throne, gloriously bright,

The first art wont his great authentic will

Interpreter through highest heaven to bring,

Where all his sons thy embassy attend… (Book III, lines 654-658).

After this flattering address, Satan inquires where he can find God’s new creation, man. Uriel, though an angel, is not omniscient and is fooled by the disguise and hypocrisy, directing Satan to the spot on Earth where God created Paradise. While Uriel was fooled by Satan, God (being omniscient) already knew that this would happen.

Emerson was a careful and avid reader of both the Bible and of Milton, and this portrait of Uriel as a bringer of enlightenment who is nonetheless duped by evil and hypocrisy certainly influenced his choice to make Uriel the central figure of this poem.

"Uriel" Summary

The poem opens by announcing that it takes place in “ancient periods” before time was organized into “calendar months and days” (lines 1-4). The subject is then announced as the “lapse of Uriel” in “Paradise” (lines 5-6). Paradise seems to be in space among the stars, as events occur “among the Pleiads,” a constellation of stars mythologically linked to Atlas’ daughters (line 7).

Inexplicably walking among the Pleiads is the 13th-century Sufi poet Saadi, whose name Emerson spells “Said” (line 8). While only mentioned once, the events of the poem are presumably related based on his report, and he is perhaps meant as a stand-in for Emerson himself.1 He overhears the “young deities” discussing metaphysical and theological subjects, such as

Laws of form, and metre just

Orb, quintessence, and sunbeams

What subsisteth, and what seems (lines 12-14).

One of these young gods then states an opinion on the existence of lines that had been described as “treason” earlier in the poem (line 9) and is quoted as follows:

‘Line in nature is not found;

Unit and universe are round;

In vain produced, all rays return;

Evil will bless, and ice will burn' (lines 21-24)

This statement comes from Uriel, and it is met with immediate hostility from all of the other gods and angels, who “shook their heads” while “The seraphs frowned from myrtle-beds;” (lines 27-28). At the same time, however, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the power, and perhaps the truth, of Uriel’s statement as it bends “the balance-beam of Fate,” destroys the distinction between “good and ill,” and confuses “Strong Hades,” who no longer knows what the bounds of hell are.

Uriel, Mural Library of Congress Henry O. Walker, StudySmarterAn Emerson-inspired mural of Uriel in the Library of Congress by Henry O. Walker, circa 1896. The Library of Congress.

Uriel realizes that his prominence in paradise has come to an end with this pronouncement. He retreats, unsure whether he is now doomed to “long gyration / in the sea of generation,” i.e., to running around in intellectual circles among mankind, or whether his understanding is simply too advanced for anyone to ever understand (lines 39-40).

The other gods try their best to immediately forget Uriel’s pronouncement, but they are not entirely successful: a “fire-seed” of this truth remains buried in their memories, and from time to time, “truth-speaking things” remind them of Uriel such that

...a blush tinged the upper sky,

And the gods shook, they knew not why” (lines 45-55).

Themes in "Uriel"

“Uriel” is a poem about an angel who loses favor with the older gods. Still, Emerson’s philosophical concerns, such as the ultimate nature of truth and reality and good and evil, have central roles in this development.

Truth and Reality

A prevailing concern of many of Emerson’s essays and poems is the nature of truth and reality, or as it's expressed in this poem, "of what subisteth and what seems" (line 14). In “Uriel,” Emerson uses the geometrical figure of the line to represent the rigid, tradition-bound, closed way of thinking that sees truth and reality as black and white, calculable, and absolute. It contrasts with roundness, or the circle, representing a way of seeing reality as interconnected, limitless, and singular. In denying the ultimate reality of lines, Uriel is endorsing the metaphysical unity that would be a hallmark of Emerson’s Transcendentalism.

An important distinction that Emerson broached in Nature (1836) is between Reason and Understanding. Understanding includes the more mechanical processes of the mind, like doing calculations or thinking logically. Reason is a more active, creative process through which we form representations of the outside world.

“Uriel” shows one way that this distinction would recur throughout Emerson’s work. Seeing the world as a series of lines is the work of Understanding, and demonstrates its limitations. Uriel’s endorsement of roundness and circles is a product of Reason.

Good and Evil

As with truth and reality, the non-existence of lines also implies that there are no moral absolutes. As Uriel himself memorably phrases it, “evil will bless, and ice will burn” (line 24). In other words, something that today seems evil may well turn out to be justified or even beneficial in the future. Just as there is nothing inherently cold in ice, which can produce a feeling similar to burning after prolonged contact with human skin, there is nothing inherently evil in the world. And as with ice, a prolonged exposure to evil may result in its becoming the opposite of what it initially seemed.

Genius and Hypocrisy

Uriel, the prophet and bearer of God’s light, is a genius who sees beyond the petty confines of the other gods. He is the first to realize that not only the world and the universe but things, in general, are round. The other gods, however, are not ready to accept this brilliant insight, which threatens their domains and way of doing things. They know deep down that Uriel is right, but would rather preserve the status quo (and their own revered place within it) than acknowledge this. Just as Satan's hypocrisy in Paradise Lost fooled Uriel, the self-serving hypocrisy of the older gods in Emerson's poem results in his downfall from among the most honored gods.

Uriel Analysis

“Uriel” is a poem rich in literary allusion, with references to the Talmud and the Bible, Paradise Lost, Sufi Islam, Greek mythology, and Emerson’s own body of work and thought. While drawing on key figures and ideas from these works, it presents them in a novel way that can be read as a drama of ideas and a reflection of events in Emerson’s life.

Allusion: A reference, explicit or implicit, to another work of literature or art.

The poem is 56 lines of rhyming couplets with a meter and rhythm that varies from the iambic pentameter of classical English poetry to a chant or mantra-like rhythm that would be more at home in eastern religious traditions. “Uriel” demonstrates the potential power of Emerson’s claim that a good poem is led by a “meter-making argument” rather than being shaped by a pre-existing metrical form (e.g. a sonnet or villanelle). In this sense, “Uriel” prefigures the free-verse poetry that would become mainstream in the generation after Emerson.

In dramatizing the difficulty of introducing new ideas into a conservative society, “Uriel” is a philosophical allegory that parallels Emerson’s life and work.

An allegory is a story with at least two meanings. In addition to the surface-level meaning, there is a hidden meaning in which surface-level events correspond to other events, usually of moral or historical importance.

“Uriel” is widely considered to have been written in the wake of the conservative backlash to Emerson’s “Divinity School Address” of 1838. In this allegorical reading, Uriel is Emerson himself. The utterances about the non-existence of lines correspond to Emerson’s criticism of “historical Christianity” as being unsuited to healthy and productive living, and the old gods who shun Uriel correspond to the Harvard Divinity School faculty who essentially banned Emerson from Harvard and attacked him as anti-Christian.

Uriel, Harvard University Campus Cambridge, StudySmarterHarvard University, whose Divinity School faculty are often interpreted as corresponding to the old gods in "Uriel." Pixabay.

While this is a valid allegorical reading of the poem, it is perhaps too narrow in scope to do justice to the message in “Uriel.” Uriel’s pronouncement against lines has a strong affinity with Emerson’s thought in essays such as Nature and "Circles," among others. But it is, even more broadly, a poem about the difficulty of introducing new ideas, no matter how good or truthful they may be. Uriel’s experience suggests that truth and goodness will inevitably be resisted and suppressed since their expression will threaten an older, established order whose only concern is maintaining the status quo.

Uriel - Key takeaways

  • "Uriel" is a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, first published in 1847 but written years earlier.
  • It tells the story of a god named Uriel, whose pronouncement that lines do not really exist and that reality is essentially round causes him to fall foul of the other gods and lose his privileged position in paradise.
  • 'Uriel,' meaning 'God's fire or light,' is the name of an angel in the Talmud who also makes an important appearance in Paradise Lost.
  • "Uriel" is widely interpreted as Emerson's response to the controversy surrounding his 1838 "Divinity School Address," where his criticism of Christianity was interpreted as an atheistic attack on religion that got him effectively banned from speaking at Harvard for nearly 30 years.
  • "Uriel" is, more generally, a poem about the difficulty of speaking the truth in a conservative society.

References

1. Emerson, R.W. and Albert J. von Frank (editor). Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Major Poetry. 2015.

2. Witemeyer, H. "'Line' and 'Round' in Emerson's 'Uriel.'" PMLA. 1967.

3. Malloy, C. "The Poems of Emerson: Uriel." The Arena. 1904.

Frequently Asked Questions about Uriel

Long ago in paradise, a young god named Uriel proclaims that reality is round and that there are no truly straight lines. This results in the loss of his privileged place in paradise, as the older gods both recognize the truth of what Uriel says and feel threatened by it. They manage to suppress this truth, though from time to time they are reminded of it by brave people who dare to speak up.

"Uriel" deals with the nature of genius, with hypocrisy, and with philosophical themes such as truth, reality, good, and evil.

"Uriel" was written by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) and published in 1847.

One central message of "Uriel" is that nothing in reality is simple, straight, black, or white, but that everything is complex, interconnected, and gradational. Another important message of the poem is the difficulty of communicating this truth (or any new, revolutionary truth) in a conservative society.

The poem "Uriel" is about an angel, Uriel, who loses his favored place in paradise for proclaiming that there is no such thing as a truly straight line and that everything in reality is round. More broadly, it is about the difficulty of communicating new and revolutionary truths in a conservative society.

Final Uriel Quiz

Question

Who is the author of "Uriel"?

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Answer

Ralph Waldo Emerson

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What was "Uriel" likely written as a response to?

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Answer

The hostile reception of Emerson's "Divinity School Address"

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Question

In the poem, the Archangel Uriel is mainly depicted as

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Answer

visionary and outspoken

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Question

Lines 1-4 (It fell in the ancient periods /  Which the brooding soul surveys, / 
Or ever the wild Time coined itself / 
   Into calendar months and days.) incorporate all of the following EXCEPT

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Answer

visual imagery

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Question

Lines 7-8 (Once, among the Pleiads walking, / Seyd overheard the young gods talking;) contain which of the following?

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Answer

allusion

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The effect of the allusion in line 7 (Once among the Pleiads walking) is to

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establish the mythical setting of the poem's events

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Lines 35-36 ( A sad self-knowledge, withering, fell / On the beauty of Uriel;) suggest that Uriel

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fully understood the consequences of his statement only after making it

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The last two lines (And a blush tinged the upper sky, / And the gods shook, they knew not why.) suggest that

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the truth of Uriel's statement will ultimately prevail

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Question

The poem makes use of which of the following? 

I. Couplets

II. Tercet Stanzas

III. Refrain

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I. only

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In the poem, the speaker is most concerned with representing the

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difficulty of communicating revolutionary new truths

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Which of the following best explains what "line" represents in the poem?

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a traditional and uncomplicated worldview

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Which of the following is not a major theme addressed in the poem?

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Answer

mortality

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Which of the following is the best paraphrase of Uriel's statement that "Unit and universe are round" (line 22)?

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Answer

reality is complex, changing, and interconnected

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When was "Uriel" first published?

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Answer

1847

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Question

Which intellectual movement is "Uriel" and its author associated with?

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Answer

Transcendentalism

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