Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Consisting of sixteen lines, “The Rhodora” is one of Emerson’s most admired poems. The major theme in this poem, a work written two years before Nature, can be found in many of his later works as well as in the Romantic literature of his time. As indicated by the subtitle, “On Being Asked, Whence Is the Flower?” the poem has a philosophical import concerning the existence of the flower.
A spiritual communication between humankind and nature appears at the very beginning (represented by sea winds, a favorite theme in Emerson’s works), when the speaker states that the sea winds in May “pierced our solitudes.” A common image in Romantic poetry, the wind often connotes inspiration. In this regard, the opening statement may also imply that the poet was inspired by the muse through his communication with nature, thereby beginning his creative process—an act which corresponds with the growing season of May in the outside world, as is mentioned in the poem.
Freed from solitude by the sea winds, the speaker notices the Rhodora—a rather obscure flower—blooming in the woods in a somewhat private location ordinarily unlikely to catch one’s attention. The presence of this flower, the spelling of which is capitalized throughout the poem to emphasize its significance as the symbol of beauty, is described as pleasing to both land and water. The service that the Rhodora offers to the world almost involves self-sacrifice, as is...
(The entire section is 725 words.)
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In the heading, “Whence” does not mean when, but from what place, or from what origin or source. Thus, the heading of the poem implies that someone asked the speaker where the flower came from. Which might be another way of asking, what is so special or important about this ordinary flowering shrub?
The speaker begins by noting the season and the general weather. It is May, when flowers are just beginning to bloom; an off-shore breeze has inspired him (and, noting the plural use of “solitudes,” possibly a companion) to take a walk. He then describes coming upon the rhodora and its immediate surroundings, which seem to indicate that the plant is alone in an otherwise none too thrilling spot: it is a damp nook or corner; the brook is not babbling happily, but sluggishly. He even uses the word “desert,” which seems oddly misplaced for this part of the world, especially given the description of the nook. However, the New England spring comes notoriously late, following several months of very muddy conditions, so perhaps it is the desert of mud—with no other blooms in sight—that Emerson is referring to. As line 3 reveals, the rhodora is a shrub that blooms before its leaves appear, meaning that the petals stand out in stark relief.
With the alliterative “P’s” in line 5, Emerson uses the most musical line in the poem to describe the flower itself. Notice, though, that the petals...
(The entire section is 756 words.)