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The work of metaphor: Ralph waldo emerson's “circles” and conceptual metaphor theory

Greenham, David


David Greenham
School Director (Research & Enterprise) / Professor


There has yet to be a systematic study of Emerson’s use of metaphor. This essay engages with Emerson ‘Circles’ and Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT) in an effort to remedy that lack, and also to inaugurate a reassessment of the work undertaken by metaphor in Emerson’s thought and prose. Emerson critics as diverse as Bishop (1964) and Walls (2002) have thought deeply about Emerson’s metaphors, but their tendency is to see metaphor as illustrative rather than instrumental. In this essay I argue, expanding LaRocca’s (2013) idiosyncratic insights, that metaphor is essential to the way Emerson’s thought and prose work. To demonstrate this I begin by looking at Emerson’s theory of metaphor as it developed in his journals, lectures and essays the 1830s. This theory contended that metaphor was fundamental and ubiquitous in language and also essential for human thought. This correlates with the ideas of CMT, as it has developed over recent decades, which offers evidence that metaphor is fundamental both to language and thought. Putting Emerson and CMT in dialogue has three results. The first is an entirely novel reading of Emerson’s canonical essay, which demonstrates how his originality and his claims for the unity of the human and the divine emerge from foundational ‘conceptual metaphors.’ The second is a presentation of the value of systematic and methodological approach for interpreting a particular metaphorical cluster in Emerson’s canon. The third is that this approach opens up a wholly new way of reading Emerson’s metaphors more broadly that will have a profound significance on the study of his writings in all their forms.


Greenham, D. (2018). The work of metaphor: Ralph waldo emerson's “circles” and conceptual metaphor theory. Esq -Pullman-, 64(3), 402-434.

Journal Article Type Article
Acceptance Date Feb 15, 2018
Publication Date Jul 1, 2018
Deposit Date Feb 20, 2018
Journal ESQ - Journal of the American Renaissance
Print ISSN 0093-8297
Electronic ISSN 1935-021X
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 64
Issue 3
Pages 402-434
Keywords Emerson, metaphor, cognitive poetics, American Romanticism, Transcendentalism, conceptual metaphor theory
Public URL
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