‘The Mountain and the Squirrel’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a twenty line poem that is contained within one block of text. While the text does not rhyme, there is no particular pattern for a reader to follow.
This is due to Emerson’s attempt to influence the syntax with surprising consonants and vowels. For example, in the fourth line of the poem a reader is surprised by the insult “prig.” It was not the expected rhyme, lending it a greater impact. It seems crueler and more demeaning when thrust into what should be an aabb pattern. The poem continues on from there with a few more rhyming couplets as well as with two words “replied” and “you” which do not rhyme with anything.
The images and themes of this piece are fairly straightforward. ‘The Mountain and the Squirrel’ was intended for children but when read from an adult perspective it becomes more complex. While it seems like the squirrel is attempting to come to terms with the mountain, there are a number of jabs and insults which make it seem as if he has not forgiven everything.
Summary of The Mountain and the Squirrel
The poem begins with the speaker describing how a mountain and a squirrel got into an argument. They are fighting over the squirrel’s place in the forest. The majority of the text is made up of the squirrel doing what it can to convince the mountain it is worthy of living there, even though it is smaller.
Analysis of The Mountain and the Squirrel
The mountain and the squirrel
Had a quarrel,
And the former called the latter
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by stating the basic premise of the piece. There is a mountain and a squirrel and they got into a fight of some kind. It is easy enough to assume a setting for this piece as the mountain is a location in itself. There are likely forests covering and surrounding it and many places for the squirrel to live and hide.
A reader should immediately notice that Emerson used the word “quarrel” to describe the fight. This makes it seem less serious than if he had chosen to actually say fight or argument. It is a temporary upset to their normally well-balanced relationship.
The poem starts out with what seems like an aabb rhyme scheme but when the speaker gets to the fourth line and expects a rhyme for “latter” they get the word “prig,” meaning self-righteous, instead. The speaker is relaying the insult used by the mountain to refer to “the latter” or the squirrel.
Both of these characters have been heavily personified, so much so they are able to speak to one another and interpret unwelcome actions. The choice to arrange the lines in this manner and surprise the reader with the hard “g” consonant gives further emphasis to the insult. It is disrupting of what could be a pattern.
“You are doubtless very big;
But all sorts of things and weather
Must be taken in together
To make up a year
And a sphere.
In the fifth line the speaker uses “Bun” to refer to the squirrel. It is replying to the mountain in a very clear and well-spoken way. He selects his words carefully. The squirrel starts by acknowledging that the mountain is “very big.” It has a presence the squirrel cannot deny. Additionally, he adds that “You,” the mountain are only one of many things which much be “taken in together.” The squirrel is attempting to set aside their differences and come to terms with the fact that they will not always get along. One cannot hope to live in peace with every type of being, sentient or not.
These objects, creatures, and people all “make up a year / And a sphere.” The world is constructed of the good and the bad, both are equally necessary for life to go on. Through these lines the squirrel appears to be in a conciliatory mood but he is stealthy insulting the mountain. It is something that he must put up with.
And I think it no disgrace
To occupy my place.
If I’m not so large as you,
You are not so small as I,
And not half so spry:
In the next lines, the squirrel lays out his argument. The basis of the quarrel is also revealed here. He does not see anything wrong with his occupying of one “place” on the mountain. Just as the mountain is large, with a large role to play, the squirrel is small with an equal role to play. Both must exist.
In order to come to terms with the mountain the squirrel lays out their respective advantages and disadvantages. First, that the mountain is much larger than he is— something he accepts as the truth. But, the squirrel is much more “spry.” It can move quickly from place to place in a way the mountain never dreamed of.
Lines 16- 20
I’ll not deny you make
A very pretty squirrel track.
Talents differ; all is well and wisely put;
If I cannot carry forests on my back,
Neither can you crack a nut.”
He continues on the same track in the next set of lines. The squirrel is attempting to appease the mountain while also showing his own advantages. They are equals in the world if not in size, speed and abilities.
First, he compliments the mountain. This is another slightly backhanded compliment as the mountain is said to be a “pretty squirrel track.” The mountain is beautiful and a perfect place for a squirrel to roam. He admits their talents are different. The mountain is able to carry forests on its back but it cannot “crack a nut.” There is something about its inability to complete such a simple task that lends the ending of the poem a less than forgiving tone. It is clear the squirrel still holds a grudge against the mountain for (what a reader may assume was) its attempt to drive the squirrel from its back.