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 reflected in the description of the pleasure that its fallen petals were able to give to the pool: “The purple petals, fallen in the pool! Made the black water with their beauty gay.”
After examining the objects on land and water, Emerson proceeds to note the creature in the sky, the “red-bird,” courting the flower, thereby making his poem symbolically comprehensive of all the objects in this world. A radical transition occurs at the center of this poem; whereas the first half essentially describes various objects with the focus on the beauty of the Rhodora, the second half primarily concerns the metaphysical meaning of the flower.
Further division exists in the second half, which contains two sets of questions and answers, each set occurring every four lines. Corresponding to this structural pattern, the tenses also shift from the past in the first half to the present mixed with the past in the second. Furthermore, the rhyme scheme of aabbcdcd, which occurs twice in the poem, reinforces the theme of the dichotomy between nature and self (the description of the Rhodora and the inquiry about the metaphysical meaning of its existence) and the correspondence between them.
Emerson begins the second half with an apostrophe to the Rhodora, asking in the name of the sages why its beauty is wasted on earth and sky. The reason, central to this poem as well as to Emerson’s thought, is that the flower is self-sufficient, existing for its own sake; “Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,/ Then Beauty is its own excuse for being.” By refusing to justify the being of the flower with analytical rationalization, activity that characterizes the sages, the poet implies that intuition or instinct rather than rationalization is necessary for leading a satisfactory life.
A similar question is posed in the last four lines, where the Rhodora is regarded as the rival of the rose, a favorite flower in Western tradition. The rivalry between the Rhodora and the rose possibly signifies a contrast between the lowly and plain and the high and flamboyant in stylistics, the former being the poet’s choice. The concluding answer may be given by the Rhodora as well as the speaker, or by the latter speaking for both: “But, in my simple ignorance, suppose/ The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.”
The poet’s affirmation of the quality of simple ignorance represented by the flower indicates his predilection to use the lowly and humble as the basis of his aesthetics, a theme presaged by the...
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