Readers who are familiar with Emerson’s poetry will find familiar images of nature scattered throughout this short poem. In this particular piece, ‘Water,’ he focuses on water as opposed to a broader view of nature.
The poem depicts water as a personified element that has learned, through its long life, how to navigate the world. It knows civilization well. Water is at once “witty” and “pretty.” It blesses those who use it well and treats poorly those who misuse it.
In ‘Water,’ Ralph Waldo Emerson taps into themes of human life, the natural elements, and flourishing/failing life. The poem’s tone is direct and clear as the speaker lays out the different instincts and abilities of water. He openly discusses the nature of life and the potential for destruction inherent in all living things.
Structure and Form
‘Water’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson is a twelve-line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a rhyme scheme of ABCCDDEEEFFE but do not conform to a single metrical pattern. Emerson used a variety of syllable numbers per line, usually pairing up the rhyming lines with the same number. but, all of the lines do make use of iambic pentameter. This means that each contains five sets of two beats. The first of these is unstressed, and the second is stressed.
Emerson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Water.’ These include but are not limited to anaphora, repetition, enjambment, and alliteration. The latter, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “decketh,” “doubleth,” and “destroy” in lines seven, eight, and nine.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence—for instance, the transition between lines one and two as well as that between nine and ten.
Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone, or phrase within a poem. In this case, a reader can see the technique playing out in the second half of the poem with the use and reuse of words ending with “eth.” Anaphora, another kind of repetition, is also present. It is the use of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “It” and “It is not” at the beginning of lines three through six.
The water understands
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
In the first lines of ‘Water,’ the speaker begins by describing water using personification. He depicts it as having knowledge of all of civilization. It knows how to move through time, in amongst people, and control everything. Water has a knowledge of the world but also an active ability to influence it in different ways. The speaker desires how it “wets” his foot when he touches it “prettily.”
He speaks briefly of the aesthetic qualities of water before moving on to call it “witty.” The water can “chill” the speaker’s life, as if by choice.
Personification is also used in lines five and six to speak of some of the qualities that water doesn’t have. It never becomes “disconcerted,” nor does it suffer a broken heart. It is smart enough, or “witty,” as the speaker might say, to avoid these things. Over its lifespan, which is almost as long as the earth itself, it has learned how to traverse “civilization.”
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
In the second half of ‘Water,’ the speaker expands his depiction of it. For those of us who “use” water, it can be manipulated for the better or for, the worse. If you treat it well, foster its existence, and “Adorneth,” then you will have joy. As a life-giver, water is necessary for all people.
In the next lines, he immediately states the opposite. If one uses it poorly, then it “will destroy.” It could destroy those using it, or it would be used to destroy another.
Even though water has destructive powers, it is also elegant. It will complete its destruction exactly as it wants. It will be clean, clear, and of “perfect time and measure.” Its beauty, mentioned in the first lines as well, will “Elegantly destroy” that which ill uses it.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Water’ should also consider reading some of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s other poems. For example:
- ‘Fate‘–depicts the nature of fate and a speaker’s understanding of it. They don’t care if one is born with luck. Instead, one must possess the qualities to live a good life.
- ‘Concord Hymn‘–describes the spirit that inhabited farmers at the start of the Revolutionary War.
- ‘The Bell‘– speaks on the various functions of bells and the important role they play in announcing a death.
Also, consider reading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 10 best poems.