The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 513 words.)