The River

Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘The River’ is a transcendental poem written by the famous American poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. How the river helps the poet to meditate upon nature as a whole is the crux of the poem.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ralph Waldo Emerson is now remembered as one of the most important transcendental writers.

Some of his best-known works are "Nature" and "Self-Reliance."

Some childhood memories help one to go beyond the horizon of adult life. Those memories give one the satisfaction that the person cannot ever find in other things. Like that Emerson finds pleasure in his childhood memories. The river by which he spent his time and found preliminary glory still rejuvenates his soul. It is that river, the fields beside it, the flowers, the forest, the trees, and the wind of his birthplace that taps on his mind’s door. As the poet opens the door, he discovers the elevating beauty of nature.

The River by Ralph Waldo Emerson


Summary of The River

‘The River’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a lyric poem that explores the poet’s childhood and youth. It is a meditation upon nature and mortality.

The poem begins with a description of a river flowing near the poet’s native place. As a child, Emerson had a close association with this river. It is not only the river, the whole landscape gave his childhood mind pleasure, immeasurable, and serene. In this poem, the poet reflects on those memories and he somehow feels sad for the loss of his childhood days. He is wiser than before but the memories associated with childhood magnificence cost him “many a sigh”. Whatsoever, in nature, he finds a parent-like existence. He can hear the utterings of dumb nature and takes solace in its cool boughs. Lastly, the poet wishes to get assimilated into nature after his death.



Emerson’s ‘The River’ is a free verse poem that doesn’t contain any specific rhyme scheme. However, there are a few instances where the poet makes use of slant rhymes. As an example, in the ninth and tenth lines of the poem, “vales” somehow rhymes with “waves”. Though the poem doesn’t have a set rhyming scheme, it is not monotonous to read. The internal rhyming of the lines keeps up the pace and flow while reading. Apart from that, the overall poem is mostly composed of the iambic meter. There are some variations such as spondee and trochee in the poem.


Literary Devices

There are several literary devices in this poem that make the poet’s meditation upon nature more appealing to the readers. Likewise, there is a metaphor for the river in the “blue wonder”. In “my infant eye” the poet uses synecdoche. The poet also metaphorically compares the river to a traveler. Apart from that, there are alliterations in the poem. As an example, “The fragrant flag-roots in my father’s fields,” contains alliteration of the “f” sound. Moreover, the poet uses personification in the line, “And where thereafter in the world he went.” There is an epigram in the lines, “But wiser than I was, and wise enough/ Not to regret the changes, tho’ they cost”. The poet uses hyperbole in “It hath a sound more eloquent than speech.” Lastly, he also uses anaphora in this poem.


Analysis of The River

Lines 1–7

And I behold once more

My old familiar haunts; here the blue river,

The same blue wonder that my infant eye

Admired, sage doubting whence the traveller came,—

Whence brought his sunny bubbles ere he washed

The fragrant flag-roots in my father’s fields,

And where thereafter in the world he went.

Emerson begins his poem, ‘The River’ in a manner that it seems the poet has been observing the river for a long time. He directly converses with the readers and welcomes them to behold the poet’s “old familiar haunts” regarding the river. Like a dramatic monologue, the first-person speaker of the poem talks with the readers as if they are his sole companion. Whatsoever, the poetic persona points at the river imaginatively. It is the “same blue wonder” that his “infant eyes” admired. As a child, he brooded upon the river as a sage. He thought from where the river came. Here, the poet uses a metaphor of a traveler and compares him with the river.

Moreover, he thought about where the river brought the “sunny bubbles”. In this phrase, the poet uses a metonymy. The river washed the “fragrant flag-roots” that grew in his father’s fields. The river’s course and destination brought, in the poet’s childish mind, the questions regarding mortality and the fate of humankind.


Lines 8–15

Look, here he is, unaltered, save that now

He hath broke his banks and flooded all the vales

With his redundant waves.

Here is the rock where, yet a simple child,

I caught with bended pin my earliest fish,

Much triumphing, —and these the fields

Over whose flowers I chased the butterfly,

A blooming hunter of a fairy fine.

The river doesn’t alter his course. According to Emerson, it is a symbol of eternity. It is there where it was before, “unaltered”. The poet asks readers to imagine the river. It has broken the banks and flooded the valley with his redundant waves. It is important to note here the use of the pronoun “he”. Here, the poet personifies the river and finds a father-like manifestation in it. Unlike mother-nature, the river symbolizes the manly side of creation. The line, “He hath broke his banks and flooded all the vales,” exemplifies it better.

In the following lines, the poet shifts his focus from the river and introduces the rock on which the poet as “a simple child” caught fish with a bent pin. It was an experience that he can’t ever forget in his life. Thereafter, he imagines the fields. There he chased the butterfly amongst the flowers. During his childhood days, he was like a “blooming hunter of a fairy” tale. Through this metaphor, the poet refers to his inquisitive spirit that never faltered at any point in his life.


Lines 16–21

And hark! where overhead the ancient crows

Hold their sour conversation in the sky:—

These are the same, but I am not the same,

But wiser than I was, and wise enough

Not to regret the changes, tho’ they cost

Me many a sigh.

In this section of ‘The River’, Emerson tells readers to listen to the “sour conversation” of the “ancient crows” that hold their meeting in the sky. In “sour conversation”, there is a reference to the harsh cawing of the crows. The crows are ancient as they were ever there before the birth of the poet. Like the river, the crows are also timeless and eternal. As the poet says, “These are the same” but in his case, he is not. He is an adult now and lost the childish spirit and innocence. However, the poet is wiser and matured than he was. He is wise enough not to regret the changes though the memories cost him many a sigh. Still, he misses those days but he is wise enough to decode the silent beauty of nature.


Lines 21–27

. . .  Oh, call not Nature dumb;

These trees and stones are audible to me,

These idle flowers, that tremble in the wind,

I understand their faery syllables,

And all their sad significance. The wind,

That rustles down the well-known forest road—

It hath a sound more eloquent than speech.

According to Emerson, nature is not dumb or silent. The trees and stones are audible to him. He can understand the “fairy syllables” of the idle flowers that tremble in the wind. Nature is like a fairy tale. It is up to the observer whether he can read it or not. Emerson is mature enough to understand the “sad significance” in the fairy syllables of the flowers. As the flowers symbolize the momentary beauty of nature, the poet feels sad about their brief course on earth.

Moreover, the wind that rustles down the forest road well-known to the poet, has a sound more eloquent than speech. This line is the most precious of the poem. According to the poet, nature is silent to those who try to listen to it with their ears. The syllables of nature are meant to be felt by a conscious mind. Hence, the poet says the sound of nature is more eloquent than human speech.


Lines 28–35

The stream, the trees, the grass, the sighing wind,

All of them utter sounds of ’monishment

And grave parental love.

They are not of our race, they seem to say,

And yet have knowledge of our moral race,

And somewhat of majestic sympathy,

Something of pity for the puny clay,

That holds and boasts the immeasurable mind.

Thereafter, in ‘The River’, Emerson personifies the stream, the trees, the grass, and the wind. He says that all of them utter sounds of “admonishment” and “grave parental love.” Here the poet compares nature as a parent of humankind. Like parents rebuke their children yet love them deeply, nature also takes care of humans as her children. The parts of nature don’t belong to the human race but they know the “moral race”. According to the poet, nature, out of her “majestic sympathy” and “pity for the puny clay” “holds and boasts the immeasurable mind.”

It is important to note here that “puny clay” contains synecdoche. Here, the poet refers to humans. Moreover, the poet thinks that nature holds and boasts about the human race in her “immeasurable mind”. Nature’s mind is immeasurable as mere humans can’t comprehend its course of action.


Lines 36–42

I feel as I were welcome to these trees

After long months of weary wandering,

Acknowledged by their hospitable boughs;

They know me as their son, for side by side,

They were coeval with my ancestors,

Adorned with them my country’s primitive times,

And soon may give my dust their funeral shade.

In the last section of the poem, Emerson feels as if he were welcome to these trees after long months of weary wandering in his course of life. The trees acknowledged the poet by their “hospitable boughs”. On these boughs, he spent comfortable moments when he was a child. Thereafter, the poet says they know him as their son. Along with that, they were also coeval with his ancestors. Nature gives comfort not only to the poet but also to his ancestors. Moreover, the poet says nature adorned with them the country’s “primitive times” and she will soon give his dust to their “funeral shade”. In this way, the poet wishes to be a part of nature after his physical death. He seeks an eternal life cuddled in the breast of mother-nature.


Historical Context

Emerson wrote this poem, ‘The River’ in his journals in Concord, Massachusetts, in June 1827. It is one of the best Emerson poems. The poem was first published in “The Complete Works” in 1904. In this poem, the poet recapitulates his childhood days in Massachusetts. He was born in Boston on May 25, 1803. In the early 1820s, he started teaching at the School for Young Ladies. Thereafter he decided to spend two years in a cabin in the Canterbury section of Roxbury, Massachusetts, where he studied nature and wrote several poems on it. In 1826, he went to St. Augustine, Florida, where he began writing poetry again after recovering from his poor health.

The poem might have been written during his stay at that place. In this poem, the poet talks about his childhood fancies regarding the river that babbled by his native place in Massachusetts. Moreover, through this poem, Emerson describes how nature helps him to transcend the boundary of mortality. It is nature that remains unchanged while humans fade away. Apart from that, the river holds a fixed spot in his mind. It has the same spark that mesmerized the poet when he was a child.


Similar Poetry

Like ‘The River’ by Emerson, the following poems revolve around the themes of nature, mortality, and eternity.

You can read about 15 of the Best Poems about Rivers and Streams and 10 of the Best Nature Poems here.

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Sudip Das Gupta Poetry Expert
A complete expert on poetry, Sudip graduated with a first-class B.A. Honors Degree in English Literature. He has a passion for analyzing poetic works with a particular emphasis on literary devices and scansion.
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