10 of the Best Ralph Waldo Emerson Poems

Ralph Waldo Emerson was born in Boston, Massachusetts in May of 1803. He is now remembered as one of the most important transcendental writers. The Transcendental Club, of which he was a founding member held meetings in Concord, Massachusetts. It was founded in the mid-1830s. The essay, “Nature,” his best-known work, was published in September of 1835 and a year later he delivered his address, “The American Scholar.” In 1841, he published the essay “Self-Reliance” which has since become one of his most popular. In the late 1840s, Emerson toured around the British Isles and France where he continued his popular series of lectures. 

The later years of his life were marked by travels out into the Adirondacks in order to become closer to the nature he was writing about. The publication of The Conduct of Life, his seventh collection of essays, saw Ralph Waldo Emerson take a stand on some of the most controversial issues of the day including slavery and national identity. The poet and essayist were elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1864. After suffering from health problems since the early 1870s, Emerson contracted pneumonia which proved fatal in April of 1882. 

 

 

The Bell

‘The Bell’ describes the various functions of a bell and the way it is related to life and death. The speaker this piece uses the bell to mark various occasions. It rings for births and deaths and “heaven or hell.” Love and loss are marked in equal measure by its sound. The speaker narrows his view of the world in relation to the bell and mentions ships landing and the quiet moments in church. By touching on simple events, but at the same time the mystical, Ralph Waldo Emerson is able to create a narrative of life and death with the bell as the central notifying figure.

 

The Snow-Storm 

This piece one of the best representatives of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendental beliefs. Through the image of a snowstorm, the speaker describes the ability of nature to transform the world. Overnight, the speaker’s world is changed dramatically. While the poem can be read on one level as a meditation on the power of nature, there is a second layer that speaks to the unseen hand of the writer or artist and their capacity for shaping the world while no one is looking. The snowstorm is the creative architect of the final scene of ‘The Snow-Storm.’ It is both the bricks and the builder, which come together in a “mad… night-work.” 

 

Boston Hymn 

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote ‘Boston Hymn’ from the perspective of God. The speaker’s authoritative tone calls out to the American people and tells them that they need to consider the paths their lives are on. Emerson wrote this long poem against the backdrop of the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation. He celebrated the document, and due to the nature of the speaker, implied that God was fully supporting it as well. It was first published in January of 1863 in Dwight’s Journal of Music. 

 

Give All To Love 

Within this piece, Ralph Waldo Emerson speaks on the entirety of existence. This includes everything everyone has ever done, and everyone anyone has ever known. Love is the most powerful force in this world. It defines who one is and how they live. It is a “god” and “master” of one’s life and therefore controls all the choices made. The speaker makes the case that it would be cowardly, rather than brave to resist its pull. 

 

Brahma 

This poem was written in 1856 and is named for the Hindu god of creation. Like in ‘Boston Hymn’ in which the Christian God is the speaker, Brahma is the speaker in this piece. He expresses beliefs associated with Hinduism and Confucianism. He also represents himself as the centre of the universe. The god is the cause of all things and the main force at the centre of the human soul. The unifying image of Brahma at the centre of everything relates to Transcendentalism’s larger theme of unity between humankind and the natural world. A similar set of beliefs can be found in ‘The Rhodora.’

 

Concord Hymn 

This poem is a narrative of the Revolutionary War. It describes the spirit of determination that inhabited the “embattled farmers” at the start of the war. Specifically, the poem details the first shot fired in Concord, Massachusetts in 1775. It goes into more detail about how the farmers came together at the “rude bridge” on the bank of the river. There is a feeling of change in the air and everyone was ready to do what they had to. The “Battle Monument” for which this piece was written, featured in the last lines. The speaker asks God to spare the monument from destruction because the future generations need to learn from the past. 

 

Water

A short yet powerful poem, ‘Water’ depicts the power of the element in human and non-human life. The poet uses personification to describe water and its ability to influence the lives of all living things for the better or the worse. He states in the last lines that if one treats it well, and fosters its existence, then it will bring joy. But, if one misuses it, then it will bring one sorrow.

 

The Rhodora 

‘The Rhodora’ is one of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s best-loved poems. The subtitle of the poem, “On Being Asked, Whence Is the Flower?” gives the reader a hint that the text is going to discuss the importance and origins of a flower, specifically the rhododendron. It is clear from the start that there is a spiritual connection between humanity and nature. The speaker in the text, likely Emerson himself, was walking through the woods on a windy day. 

Suddenly, the world was illuminated by the flower. The “dark water” of the sea was made bright and the bird’s beautiful colours were cheapened. The poem concludes with the speaker directly addressing the flower and telling it that the two of them, man and flower, came into being from the same force. They are kin.

 

The Mountain and the Squirrel 

This piece speaks on the strengths and weaknesses of two quarrelling characters. There is a mountain which is presented as a stubborn and unmovable character. Then there is the squirrel who spends the poem trying to convince the mountain that it should be allowed to live in its forests. 

The light-hearted and simple dialogue in the text makes the poem accessible to readers of all ages. This is furthered through the use of a simple AABB rhyme scheme. By the end of the poem, Ralph Waldo Emerson has crafted a deceivingly simple narrative that speaks on the world as a place constructed of good and bad creatures and situations. Both are equally important for life to go on. 

 

Terminus 

‘Terminus’ is generally considered to be the poet’s meditation on his own death. It was written later in life and the majority of the poem speaks to the limits of human life.  The word terminus can refer to a physical or metaphorical ending and is often related to a point distant in space. There is a second meaning though, “Terminus” is also the name of the Roman God of Boundaries. His insight on life and death make up the majority of the poems. The first section of the poem address death more rationally, and less emotionally than Ralph Waldo Emerson had in the past. But, by the end of the poem, he returned to his emotional roots as he responds to Terminus’ ideas about death. 

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