‘The Rhodora’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a sixteen line poem which was written in 1834 while Emerson was in Newton visiting his extended family. This piece was published with the sub-heading of “On being ask, whence is the flower.” This short phrase gives the reader additional insight into where the following text emerged from. It also informs a reader what inspired the writer and what one should keep in mind while reading. The sub-heading sets the tone for the poem and gives one a hint as to what it will be about.
Before beginning this piece a reader should take note of the title. Emerson has chosen to focus on one particular type of flower in the text, a “rhodora.” This plant is a common flowering shrub which might in another context be overlooked.
Additionally, this poem follows a rhyme scheme of aabb cdcd eeff ghgh. This alternating pattern keeps the lines from sounding too predictable, but still lends the text a certain ease and grace. ’The Rhodora’ was original published in Emerson’s 1847 collection Poems.
Summary of The Rhodora
‘The Rhodora’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson describes the power of a rhododendron flower and its ability to outshine and the improve, all the elements around it.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he was once walking through the woods on a windy day in May. The weather was not great, and the woods through which he traveled were bleak. That is until came upon the “fresh Rhodora,” or rhododendron. The brightness of the petals this flower illuminated everything around it. The dark water was made gay and the birds put to shame for their lack of brilliance.
In the second half the speaker describes the power of simple beauty. As well as how the flower exists for no other reason than to be beautiful. One has eyes to gaze upon such things, but they do not grow for humankind.
Analysis of The Rhodora
On being ask, whence is the flower.
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
In the first set of lines, which is composed in the form of a quatrain, or set of four lines, the speaker sets the scene for everything which is to following. In a few short phrases he outlines where he is, what his immediate environment is like and confirms the main subject of the poem.
Emerson’s speaker, who is likely the poet himself, is recalling a time, in the month of May, when he was wandering in the woods. Although the poem does not fully define where the speaker is, in terms of a city, town, or even country, one is informed that he is by the sea. The speaker describes the “sea-winds” which are strong enough to “pierce” his, and his listener’s, “solitudes.” These winds bring one out of their own inner world and force them to pay closer attention to what is around them.
In this moment the winds have worked to show the speaker a “fresh Rhodora in the woods.” As mentioned in the introduction, a “Rhodora” is a type of flowering shrub common throughout the north-eastern part of America. Its blooms are usually a vibrant purple and it is referred to by professionals as, Rhododendron candense. The speaker has stumbled upon one of these shrubs and immediately noted it as being “fresh.” It has not been touched by age or tragedy.
The scene in which the speaker is living is not, in general, a very bright one. The “nook” which the flower was found in is described as being “damp” and the nearby “brook” as “sluggish.” The flowers stand out in this solemn background. They are “Spreading” their “leafless blooms” when the speaker comes upon them.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
In the next set of four lines the speaker goes on to lend further details to the state of the flowers and the surrounding elements. The shrub is close to a “pool” of “black water” which now contains some of the “purple petals.” They have fallen from the plant into the dreary standing water and made it more beautiful. The flowers are not impacted by the “black[ness],” they improve it.
In the next two lines the speaker adds detail to the poem by inserting a “red-bird” into the setting. The pool is a place that such a bird might come to cool his “plumes.” It is likely, the speaker thinks, that birds bathe in the dark pool amongst the fallen petals.
The final line emphasizes the true beauty of the rhododendron. When it is placed next to a brightly coloured “red-bird” the bird’s colors are “cheapen[ed].” They are made to look less vibrant.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then beauty is its own excuse for Being;
At the beginning of the second half of the poem the speaker exclaims the name of the flower, “Rhordora!” His words are now being directed to the flower with no other intended listener.
He speaks to the flower and tells it that if there is ever a time “sages,” or people who profoundly wise, asks it “why there is so much beauty in the “earth and sky” then it should reply with a simple answer. The beauty comes from itself. Just as eyes were “made for seeing” beauty is its “own excuse for Being.” It exists to simply live and be seen by those who can appreciate it.
The speaker is imbuing the flowers with a simple but meaningful power. They have one reason to live, to give beauty to the world, and they do it very well.
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.
In the final set of lines the speaker compares the Rhodora to a rose which is traditionally thought of as the most beautiful flower. To the speaker though, the Rhodora is a true rival.
The flower was there in the forest without the speaker asking for it, or knowing he needed to see it. It existed with a power that brought him to this particular place on a May day. Up until this point he had “never thought to ask” what the power was that brought him to the flower and that which allows the flower to live.
While it is not specifically mentioned by the speaker, he refers to a higher power, whether that be Nature or God, it has aligned the world so that he might be near the Rhodora and the black pool at the right moment to understand natural power.