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Metaphor in Friendship

Nature-based Metaphors and Similes: Emerson is known for including a significant amount of nature-based images, metaphors, and similes in his essays and lectures in order to convey his message. He compares the process of building a friendship to the process of naturlangsamkeit, the slow-moving growth of nature, to illustrate how friendships should develop at the same speed. He further explains that while a friendship must be delicate, it must also be solid. Once a friendship has undergone this long, time-consuming process, it should be as rigid as a diamond. Finally, Emerson uses natural imagery to demonstrate what a friend should be: a nettle instead of an echo. Friendship succeeds when two friends do not imitate one another, but have their own set of convictions and sense of autonomy.

Metaphor Examples in Friendship:


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"It never troubles the sun that some of his rays fall wide and vain into ungrateful space, and only a small part on the reflecting planet...."   ("Friendship")

Emerson claims that like the sun, who casts his rays all over the universe but only a small portion reaches Earth, an individual can cast his greatness beyond an isolated realm. When a friend displays their greatness, those who do not accept it will disappear, while those who are “enlarged by thy own shining” will reciprocate that love and friendship.

"whisper of the gods..."   ("Friendship")

Through this figurative phrase, Emerson intimates the sacrosanct nature of friendship. He urges readers to allow friendship to run its course or to develop as naturally as possible, without interference. Friends must not act too forward; instead they should “be silent” in order to hear “the whisper of the gods.” Emerson doesn’t necessarily mean that friends should not talk; rather, he states that friendship is a quiet, reflective process, one of holy and sacred importance and worthy of reflection.

"perfect flower..."   ("Friendship")

Equating once more the laws of friendship with the laws of nature, or naturlangsamkeit, Emerson urges readers to treat friendship as the “perfect flower” that takes time to bloom. Further, he builds of this idea by claiming that patience is not only vital in friendships, but also it is also vital in developing oneself. Friendship cannot take root without two people standing “for the whole world,” having developed their own characters and autonomy.

"The hues of the opal, the light of the diamond, are not to be seen if the eye is too near...."   ("Friendship")

Through this metaphor, Emerson states the importance of estrangement in a friendship. One must never become too attached to another, because then the “hues of the opal” and the “light of the diamond” can no longer be seen. In other words, friends should revere one another with slight detachment. If they become too intimate, then a friend’s character and personality may be obscured by another’s.

"Leave to the diamond its ages to grow, nor expect to accelerate the births of the eternal..."   ("Friendship")

Emerson returns again to to the notion of naturlangsamkeit, or the time-consuming, deliberate ways in which nature changes. The metaphor of diamonds taking eons to grow furthers the claim that only the patient and even-tempered are capable of allowing friendships bloom. Those who are impetuous and rash will never make the same sort of long-lasting, meaningful connections.

"Better be a nettle in the side of your friend than his echo...."   ("Friendship")

Emerson provides a metaphor to explain that two members united in friendship must each have their own personalities and convictions. A friend must be autonomous and independent, like a “nettle” or a prickly plant with stinging hair, instead of imitative, like an “echo.” Friends must never concede themselves for the other, nor should they allow the other to be someone he is not.

"dial in the shade. In the sun it will mark the hour...."   ("Friendship")

Holding a conversation with a relative, according to Emerson, is as useless and insignificant as “a dial in the shade.” This metaphor suggests that only through meaningful conversations with distant, like minded friends, someone can “regain his tongue” and converse productively.

"Do not mix waters too much...."   ("Friendship")

Through this nature-based metaphor, Emerson encourages readers not to disturb the laws of friendship by holding conversations with more than one other person. To him, three or more people holding a conversation does not lend itself to sincere dialogue.

"we cannot forgive the poet if he spins his thread too fine..."   ("Friendship")

Through this analogy, Emerson criticizes the poet who writes about romance and friendship without rooting themselves in reality. By spinning “his thread too fine,” the poet writes about romance with a saccharine touch. Emerson claims that similar to how the divine cannot be found with the sutler, nor can it be found with the poet who makes superficial content.

"It must plant itself on the ground, before it vaults over the moon...."   ("Friendship")

Emerson claims that friendship must be rooted in all parts of society, including the political and social dimension. Friendship, when planted “on the ground,” serves as an “exchange of gifts,” “a good neighborhood,” and watcher of the sick. When friendship becomes an integral part of society, it can foster positive relationships between individuals on a personal and political level.

"But to most of us society shows not its face and eye, but its side and its back. ..."   ("Friendship")

Emerson personifies society as a person prone to concealment. In so doing, he constructs an image of society that suggests a sense of dishonesty about its true nature.

"undermost garments of dissimulation, courtesy, and second thought, which men never put off, and may deal with him with the simplicity and wholeness with which one chemical atom meets another...."   ("Friendship")

Through a sartorial metaphor, Emerson claims that good friendships foster sincerity, which allows one to drop the garments of concealment and pretense. This suggests that once these layers are removed, people may communicate with “simplicity and wholeness.” In the subsequent metaphor, Emerson builds on this notion by stating that dropping any pretenses allows us to meet face to face without any sort of interference, as when atoms unite.

"bower..."   ("Friendship")

The word “bower” describes a walkway covered in trees and vines. Emerson claims that a house built of trees and vines might “entertain [a friend] for a single day”; however, a house built on “solemnity” and respect makes for the most successful infrastructure for maintaining strong bonds.

"glass threads or frostwork..."   ("Friendship")

Emerson approaches friendship from a contradictory perspective. To him, friendship is oxymoronic; it is both “delicate” and “solid.” He emphasizes that it must be formed with the utmost respect, but once formed, it is not like the dainty, glass-like patterns of “frostwork.” Instead, once a friendship has formed, it should be as rigid as a diamond created by nature’s slow, unyielding process of growth.

"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.

"tough husk..."   ("Friendship")

The word “husk” refers to a dry outer shell of various seeds and fruit. In this metaphor, Emerson equates “bashfulness and apathy” to a tough husk, whereas friendship is associated with words like “delicate” and “premature.” The contrast between the coarseness of a husk and the fragility of an unripened bud demonstrates the extremities between these two polarities.

"the very flower and aroma of the flower of each of the beautiful natures disappears as they approach each other...."   ("Friendship")

Emerson objects to how most people impetuously form friendships with whomever they meet. Phrases like “adulterate passion” illustrate how Emerson condemns those who do not seek friends “sacredly.” To him, friendship is a process one must take seriously. Here, Emerson employs a metaphor to show how friendships are a compromise—the closer flowers stand to one another, the more their aromas disappear. By comparing participants in a friendship to the aroma of flowers, Emerson claims that the admiration we bestow on new friends begins to fade as these friends become old acquaintances; we are less able to distinguish the “aroma” of a meaningful friend among others.

"We snatch at the slowest fruit in the whole garden of God, which many summers and many winters must ripen. ..."   ("Friendship")

With delicate natural imagery, Emerson suggests that friendships take time and patience to grow and mature. In this metaphor, he claims that we reach too soon for the “slow fruit.” Instead we should wait for the slow fruit to ripen, allowing the fruit time to grow and flourish, before we “snatch” it. Analogously, we should find favorable friends and tend to those friendships with the same care and patience as one waits for fruit to ripen.

"a texture of wine and dreams, instead of the tough fibre of the human heart...."   ("Friendship")

Through this metaphor, Emerson denounces the careless approach to choosing friends. He claims that friendships are so often unsuccessful because we take the laws of friendship so flippantly. The laws of friendship are not ephemeral and malleable like “a texture of wine and dreams”; instead they are made of the “tough fibre of the human heart.” This image suggests earthly, strong, and unbreakable bonds which stem from within ourselves.

"Only the star dazzles; the planet has a faint, moon-like ray...."   ("Friendship")

Switching into second person, Emerson speaks directly to readers. The tone becomes accusatory as he states that readers’ “wealth” cannot compare to his “poverty,” because of his heightened “consciousness.” By comparing himself to a bright star, and the reader to a faint planet, he claims that intellectual strength is far greater than superficial or material wealth.

"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.”

"Yet the systole and diastole of the heart are not without their analogy in the ebb and flow of love...."   ("Friendship")

Continuing his use of love metaphors to characterize friendship, Emerson likens the movement of heart muscles—specifically the contraction or “systole,” which moves the blood out into the arteries, and the relaxation or “diastole,” which draws the blood inward—to the “ebb and flow of love.” In Emerson’s opinion, love and friendship are synonymous; his friends are akin to “excellent lovers.” However, friendships, like romantic relationships, are ever-evolving and change from day to day. At times, friends and lovers may be distant; at other times, they may be excessively sentimental.

"the joy ends in the day; it yields no fruit..."   ("Friendship")

Through the use of this metaphor, Emerson explains the pitfalls of friendship. While in the moment, friendship may be euphoric, it is also fleeting. The danger of friendship occurs after this sense of delight subsides. When the day is over, the “fruits” of friendship do not flourish.

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