Analysis Pages

Allusion in Friendship

Biblical, Mythical, and Literary Allusions: Emerson infuses his essays with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, the biblical book of Genesis, and various authors like Milton, Plutarch, Shakespeare, and Montaigne. These allusions, paired with the nature-based metaphors and similes, elucidate many of the themes Emerson touches on, including the virtue of friendship—highlighted in references to Greek and Roman mythology—and the paradoxical nature of friendship—made clear in references to Milton and Shakespeare.

Allusion Examples in Friendship:


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"Janus-faced..."   ("Friendship")

The notion of a friend being “Janus-faced” also suggests the two-sided dimensions of friendship. Duality persists in the tension between hostility and generosity as well as distance and closeness. Furthermore, Emerson claims that a friend may, like Janus, have a duplicitous, meaning deceptive, nature.

"Janus-faced..."   ("Friendship")

“Janus,” the Roman god of gates, doorways, beginnings, and endings, is depicted as having two faces looking in opposite directions. Here, Emerson uses the phrase “Janus-faced” to indicate that a friend looks back to the past and forward to the future. Throughout this paragraph, Emerson provides a revolutionary stance on friendship. He decries the superficiality of European idolatry and urges readers to drop shallow friendships. In so doing, he suggests that we will meet true friends on a more spiritual, transcendental level, when we unite with them on a “higher platform” where friends persist timelessly.

"first-born of the world..."   ("Friendship")

In this paragraph, Emerson summarizes his belief that we are ultimately “alone in the world.” Friends, he writes, are “dreams and fables.” Finding friends is akin to finding the “first-born of the world,” of which there are “only one or two [who] wander in nature at once.” The notion of the “first-born,” perhaps referring to Adam and Eve, suggests an Edenic purity and impossibility.

"Crimen quos inquinat, aequat...."   ("Friendship")

Translated from Latin, this phrase means “those whom crime pollutes, it makes equal.” By drawing on this phrase, Emerson claims that friends must be independent and self-possessed before they can enter into meaningful friendship.

"pottage..."   ("Friendship")

Referring to the biblical story in Genesis 25 about the stew for which Esau sold his birthright to younger brother Jacob, the term “pottage” describes an exchange of something trivial for something of greater value. With this allusion, Emerson states that from a friendship, he would rather receive something insignificant, such as “a message, a thought, a sincerity,” instead of something superficial of greater value.

""I offer myself faintly and bluntly to those whose I effectually am, and tender myself least to him to whom I am the most devoted."..."   ("Friendship")

Here, Emerson alludes to a quote from Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (1533–1592), a philosopher and writer of the French Renaissance. In this quote, Montaigne describes the peculiarity of friendship: with those whom he is close, he offers himself “faintly and bluntly;” while with those he is distant, he offers his most devoted self.

"naturlangsamkeit..."   ("Friendship")

In an 1839 letter to Margaret Fuller, Emerson writes, “We are strangely impatient of the secular crystallizations of nature in cavern or in man, of that which Goethe distinguishes by the grand word naturlangsamkeit.” This German word, which denotes the slowness of nature, comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Nachgelassene Werke: Zwoelfter Band. Here, Emerson employs the word to speak to the importance of patience in tending to friendships. Much like how it takes nature millions of years to harden diamonds, so too must friendships form. He urges readers to heed from rash and hasty friendships and to take advice from the ways in which nature slowly and cautiously evolves.

""The valiant warrior famoused for fight,            After a hundred victories, once foiled,            Is from the book of honor razed quite,            And all the rest forgot for which he toiled."..."   ("Friendship")

Here, Emerson alludes to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 26, lines 9-12 in order to claim that one meaningful, productive friendship is greater than many unfulfilling ones. In Sonnet 26, an unnamed warrior loses his honor after one defeat, despite his hundreds of victories. For Emerson, one sour friendship is akin to a loss of honor because it demonstrates that his relationships have become “mean and cowardly.”

"Egyptian skull at our banquet..."   ("Friendship")

Here, Emerson alludes to the short story “The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men” by first-century Greek scholar Plutarch. In the story, Egyptians place a skeleton at the dinner table in order to remind their guests “what they soon shall be” and to deter them from engaging in menacing behavior. Emerson uses this allusion metaphorically to show how he will present the Egyptian skeleton, or an unequivocal truth, to his readers.

"Shall we fear to cool our love by mining for the metaphysical foundation of this Elysian temple?..."   ("Friendship")

The adjective “Elysian” comes from the Greek word “Elysium,” or an area of the Greek underworld reserved for heroes. Here, the adjective refers to something that is heavenly. Through this rhetorical question, Emerson suggests that friendship is akin to an “Elysian,” or ideal, temple. He argues that we should not seek the fundamental structure of the temple of friendship in order to understand it for fear that our love might “cool.”

""crush the sweet poison of misused wine"..."   ("Friendship")

In an allusion to line 47 of John Milton’s Comus (1637), Emerson likens the joy of friendship to a “sweet poison of misused wine.” The oxymoron “sweet poison” speaks to Emerson’s perspective that although friendship can become rapturous, it can also become excessive.

"Apollo and the Muses..."   ("Friendship")

As he praises his friends for allowing him to think more intellectually and more open-mindedly, Emerson alludes to “Apollo and the Muses.” According to ancient Greek mythology, Apollo is the god of the sun, poetry, light, music, and truth; the Muses are the nine goddesses of artistic inspiration. Emerson’s friendships and the social aspects of his life enabled his “Genius,” allowing him to think creatively, as if bestowed with divine inspiration.

"eye-beams..."   ("Friendship")

Although later rejected, Platonian physics claimed that the “eye-beam” generated sight from the eye. Here, Emerson speaks to the shared desire for unity within a community. He calls on readers to observe “these wandering eye-beams” who rejoice and find pleasure in human connectedness.

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