The Awakening of the Modernist Era

Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "The Sphinx" is about the re-awakening of the Sphinx. From The Sphinx's perspective, she describes the many changes that have taken place around her. Eventually, the Sphinx is met by a man who invites the her to come out of her, as the author William James claims, "saltatory" ways and become more "ambulatory" (James "A Word About Truth" Xerox Package). This awakening of the Sphinx is a method of viewing the transition from the classical era to the modernist era. There are areas of Emerson's poem "The Sphinx" that accurately describes this process of transition from the classical to the modern ways of thought.
The beginning of the modernist era is a time of change in the terms of literature. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in "The Sphinx", describes this process of awakening as "out of sleeping a waking" (Emerson "The Sphinx" Xerox Package). The process of "awakening" is similar to that of Emerson's Sphinx awakening. The Sphinx, as mentioned before, awakens to realize the world has changed into a beautiful array of sites to see. The Sphinx's attention is diverted several times from the sight of the "The waves, unashamed" (Emerson "The Sphinx" Xerox Package) to "the babe by its mother" (Emerson "The Sphinx" Xerox Package). This process jumping from one thing to another is similar to that of modernist thinking. Modernists tend to think on a ambulatory level. Therefore, the modernist author must, as William James writes, "[the reader] is guided from the one [idea] towards the other" (James "A Word More About Truth" Syllabus, 901). This type of thinking is different from the classical ideology because pre-modern writers "jump from one term to another" (James "A Word More About Truth" Syllabus, 898). In other words classical writers tend to think in a vertical way, whereas, the modernist writer thinks in a horizontally.
The modernist awakening is also the removal of the shackles of the expectations from the others and a movement towards a more freedom of writing. This is best characterized in "The Sphinx", when Emerson writes, "the babe by its mother lies bathed in joy; glide its hours uncounted, -- the sun is its toy" (Emerson "The Sphinx" Xerox Package). The babe does not have a care in the world, because he is free to do as his pleases. This is similar to Emerson's writing from his essay the "Self-Reliance", when Emerson writes "...the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude" (Emerson "Self-Reliance" Norton Anthology, 495). The baby has been born into the crowd of humanity and already knows to do as he pleases in the solitude in which he has been placed. By being independent, Emerson continues in his essay "Self-Reliance", you can avoid being a contributor towards a "dead Bible-society" (Emerson "Self Reliance" Norton Anthology 495). Emerson refers to this because it is in the Bible. And Emerson views the Bible as being the reason for conformity. Christians, throughout history, have been forced to believe in the teachings of the preacher, as Emerson writes, "who announced for his text and topic the expediency of one of the institutions of his church" (Emerson "Self Reliance" Norton Anthology 495). Emerson provides a good response to this by noting that the preacher may have "pledged to himself not o look but at one side; the permitted side, not as a man but as a parish minister" (Emerson "Self Reliance" Norton Anthology 495). This type of conformity needs to be changed to a more individualistic approach in which several conflicting ideas of the church and its doctrine are permitted.
The end of the classical era can also be found in Emerson's poem "The Sphinx". Near the end of the poem, Emerson writes, "Uprose the merry Sphinx, and crouched no more in stone; she melted into purple cloud, she silvered in the moon; she spired into a yellow flame; she flowered in blossoms red; she flowed into a foaming wave" (Emerson "The Sphinx" Xerox Package). The shedding of the stone is The Sphinx's way of removing herself from the conformity found in classicism. The changing physical features that the Sphinx exudes is her birth into the individualistic era.

The movement from the conformity of classical era and into the modernist era is found in the concepts of Emerson's poem "The Sphinx". This can be seen today when we study the movement from the conformity of the classical era and into the independence of the modernist era. This transition can also be found today throughout society because of our encouragement to be individuals within the crowd of humanity. For example, the
United Church of Canada allows its members to have differing views of the religious beliefs of the church. Perhaps the best example of this is from the United Church of Canada's own Moderator, Bill Phipps, who expressed his own personal beliefs during a meeting with the editorial staff of The Ottawa Citizen.1 These personal beliefs, after explanation that they were his own and not the United Church of Canada's, were accepted. Perhaps if Phipps had made these comments public in the classical era, he would have been excommunicated immediately from the church because he failed to conform to the church's doctrine and it's teachings. This is only one example of how we have benefited from the death of the conformity in the classical era and the birth of the individualistic society of the modernist era.
Duncan, Muriel. "The Moderator: plain-speaking his faith." The United Church Observer. On-line. Internet. 18 Oct. 1999. Available:

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "The Sphinx." The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Centenary Edition. ed. E. W. Emerson, vol. 9 of 12.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "A Word More About Truth." The Norton Anthology of America. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 4th ed.
New York: W.W. Norton &Company, Inc. , 1995.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Self-Reliance." The Norton Anthology of America. Ed. Nina Baym, et al. 4th ed.
New York: W.W. Norton &Company, Inc. , 1995.

James, William. The Meaning of Turth: A Sequal to Pragmatism, in Writings,1902-1910.
New York: Library of America, 1987

1 See Muriel Duncan's article in the December 1997 issue of
The United Church Observer titled "The Moderator: plain-speaking his faith" or online at: