The Poem

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

“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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Historical Context

Transcendentalism was a philosophical movement in Europe, based heavily on the writings of Immanuel Kant. When...

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Literary Style

In “The Rhodora,” Emerson uses a familiar rhyme scheme of two paired couplets, followed by four lines of alternating rhymes. For...

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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...

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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....

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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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Arnold, Matthew, “Emerson,” in Discourses in America, Macmillan, 1924, pp. 138–208, originally published in...

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(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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