The Poem (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Rhodora” consists of sixteen lines, the basic rhythm of which is iambic pentameter. Some critics call the poem an “extended sonnet,” in part because of its meter, in part because it is a kind of song in praise of the shrub named in the title, and in part because of its having sixteen rather than the fourteen lines of the traditional sonnet.
The rhodora is a shrub found in eastern North America; it has purple or rose-purple flowers that often bloom before the leaves appear. In the poem, Emerson accordingly writes of its “leafless blooms” and “purple petals.” However, the poem is not just about the shrub; it is also a philosophical statement about the relationship between the viewer of the shrub, the rhodora, and the “Power” that is the driving force behind the workings of the universe.
At the same time, it is a statement about the superiority of what the poet calls “simple ignorance,” which is a kind of instinctual knowledge, to the wisdom of the people Emerson in the poem calls “sages.” In Emerson’s philosophical vocabulary, “simple ignorance” is equated with what he calls “Reason,” a kind of knowledge that comes to people intuitively from the realm of spirit or divinity; the sages’ wisdom is connected with what Emerson calls “Understanding,” a kind of knowledge that comes from perception of things of this world. Typically for Emerson, Reason is superior to...
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Forms and Devices (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Rhodora” involves a process by which the poet comes to a larger understanding of the workings of the universe. The interaction between poet and flower produces in the speaker a kind of wisdom that transcends that of the sages, people who, at least in this poem, consider themselves wise. Yet the speaker immediately undercuts the idea that they are wise by having them ask a question of the flower, an act that their so-called wisdom would tell them is a waste of time.
The sixteen-line poem is written in fairly regular iambic pentameter. If one reads “flower” in line 8 and “Power” in line 16 as monosyllabic, the exceptions to the pentameter are lines 3, 11, and 12. Lines 11 and 12 form what some critics call a gnomic couplet or an epigram, that is, a pair of rhymed lines that give a concise statement of principle in carefully chosen, effective words. Unlike any other part of the poem, they have feminine rhyme, that is, rhyme involving two words each with two syllables, the first of which is stressed and the second of which is unstressed and identical in both words; in “The Rhodora,” the words are “seeing” and “being.” Their having eleven rather than the usual ten syllables as well as feminine rhyme adds great emphasis to these two important lines by creating a surprise for the reader, who expects regular iambs with masculine rhymes.
The rhyme scheme of the poem varies from rhymed couplets to alternating rhymed lines....
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Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement in Europe, based heavily on the writings of Immanuel Kant. When it reached the United States, however, the movement grew to encompass literature. Most scholars acknowledge Emerson as the writer who had the strongest influence on the movement’s development in New England. Its early formation came from meetings of a small group of people interested in discussing new philosophies. Central to their discussions was the idea that there was a personal and intuitive force that transcended the material world. This force revealed itself to people under certain circumstances, making it possible to learn from nature and to acquire wisdom.
Transcendentalism claims that nature has a wealth of knowledge and wisdom available to those committed to learning from it. Henry David Thoreau took this belief very seriously, and his Walden is the result of his commitment to live alone in nature to learn what it had to teach him. Transcendentalists also praised manual labor and intellectual fellowship. They strove to support one another’s spiritual lives, which focused on personal growth through individual relationships with God rather than membership in an organized church. Their adherence to the values of democracy, individualism, and self-reliance explains why so many transcendentalists were involved in social reform. They were especially interested in abolishing slavery and gaining...
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In “The Rhodora,” Emerson uses a familiar rhyme scheme of two paired couplets, followed by four lines of alternating rhymes. For instance, lines 9–16 end with the following sounds: why—sky / seeing—being / rose—knew suppose— you.
Each eight-line section constitutes one half of the sixteen-line poem, resulting in a unified and balanced feel to the piece. The rhyme scheme provides an additional surrounding structure to the iambic pentameter Emerson uses for this poem. “Iambic” refers to a segment of two syllables where the emphasis, or stress, falls on the second syllable. It is “pentameter” (penta meaning five) because each line has five two-syllable pairs. An example of this is in line 5:
The pur / ple pet / als fal / len in / the pool.
The stresses on the second syllables emphasize the alliteration of purple, petals, and pool by falling on the “P’s.”
The observant reader might note that the final line of the poem, line 16, has eleven syllables, not ten. Whenever an iambic line has an extra unstressed syllable, it is said to have a “female ending,” because it ends softly. Emerson’s use of this device only at the end of the poem is similar to a soft final chord in a song, as opposed to a heavy or abrupt one, that gently fades away. In addition, because the last unstressed syllable is the word “you,” meaning the rhodora, it creates an open and lingering sound that both...
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Compare and Contrast
1800s: A growing women’s movement is working for equal rights, including the right to vote. Activist and social reformer Sarah Grimke publishes her Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Conditions of Woman. Margaret Fuller establishes discussion groups for women in Boston. Activists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton praise Fuller for supporting women’s right to full participation in society.
Today: As a result of the tireless efforts of early advocates for women’s rights, women today have the right to vote, own property independently, own and operate businesses, hold public office, and advance in the work place. While there are still areas of disparity (such as national pay averages), women have strong legal foundations for asserting their rights.
1800s: Transcendentalism, which borrows some elements of Eastern philosophies and religions, takes hold in Massachusetts and influences many American intellectuals and writers.
Today: Yoga is increasingly popular throughout the United States. Yoga, the Sanskrit word for “union,” is a philosophy that was first systematized by the Indian sage Patanjali. The various schools of yoga taught today have some commonalities with transcendentalism, such as the beliefs that each individual soul is directly linked to God and that truth is everywhere present in creation and that truth can be experienced intuitively, rather than rationally. While...
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Topics for Further Study
Many scholars consider the poet e. e. cummings a transcendentalist, even though he is a more modern poet than Emerson and his contemporaries. Review cummings’s work, along with his background, his views on poetry, and criticism of his work. Stage a debate with a classmate in which one of you claims that cummings is a transcendentalist and the other claims that he is not.
The English poet Matthew Arnold accused Emerson of being overly vague in his poetry. He claimed that Emerson left too much to the reader, forcing him or her to guess at the meanings of symbols and allusions. Write a position paper in which you use “The Rhodora” either to support or to counter Arnold’s criticism.
The rhodora is a native shrub in New England. Choose a plant or flower native to your part of the country and compose a poem about it. You may adopt the transcendentalist point of view or you may choose another way of interpreting the plant’s significance.
Examine Emerson’s use of color in the poem. Find a work of art that you would use in a textbook to illustrate the poem. Create a one-page layout, including the poem and its title, the illustration, and a caption.
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What Do I Read Next?
Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in his Essays (1841) is considered one of the most important works to come out of the transcendentalist movement. In this essay, Emerson extols the virtues of solitude and independent thinking.
Richard Geldard’s God in Concord: Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Awakening to the Infinite (1998) presents Emerson’s spiritual journals to demonstrate how his understanding of God and spirituality changed as he matured. Geldard sets out to show how Emerson came to be regarded as a spiritual leader.
Edited by Joel Myerson, Transcendentalism: A Reader (2000), is an anthology of key transcendentalist writings reflecting the ideology of the movement and its presence in New England society. Readers will find essays, poems, correspondence, and book excerpts by well-known and lesser-known writers.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854) is a classic transcendentalist work. This book records the author’s time at Walden Pond, where he went to be alone and to live simply and deliberately. The book includes both philosophical writing and minute details about Thoreau’s daily life.
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Arnold, Matthew, “Emerson,” in Discourses in America, Macmillan, 1924, pp. 138–208, originally published in Macmillan’s Magazine, Vol. L, No. 295, May 1884.
Avery, Donald, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 73: American Magazine Journalists, 1741–1850, edited by Sam G. Riley, Gale Research, 1988, pp. 85–92.
Chapman, John Jay, “Emerson,” in Emerson: And Other Essays, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1898, pp. 3–108, originally published as “Emerson, Sixty Years After,” in the Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 79, January–February 1897.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature, James Munroe, 1836.
McClay, Wilfred M., “Mr. Emerson’s Tombstone,” in First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, No. 83, Institute on Religion and Public Life, May 1998, pp. 16–22.
Mollison, Char, and Charles C. Walcutt, “The Emersonian Key to Whitman’s ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,’” in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 1, Spring 1981, pp. 5–9.
Perry, Bliss, “The Mystic and Poet,” in Emerson Today, Princeton University Press, 1931, pp. 85–97.
Richardson, Robert D., Jr., University of Colorado, “Ralph Waldo Emerson,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 59: American Literary Critics and Scholars, 1800–1850, edited by John W. Rathburn and Monica M....
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
Allen, Gay Wilson. Waldo Emerson: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1981.
Bosco, Ronald A., and Joel Myerson, eds. Emerson in His Own Time: A Biographical Chronicle of His Life, Drawn from Recollections, Interviews, and Memoirs by Family, Friends, and Associates. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2003.
Buell, Lawrence. Emerson. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.
Goodman, Russell B. American Philosophy and the Romantic Tradition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Jacobson, David. Emerson’s Pragmatic Vision: The Dance of the Eye. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1993.
Lopez, Michael. Emerson and Power: Creative Antagonism in the Nineteenth Century. De Kalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1996.
Myerson, Joel, ed. A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Porte, Joel, and Saundra Morris, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Richardson, Robert D. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.
Robinson, David M....
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