The poet, who was the second cousin of the better-known Ralph Waldo Emerson, uses simple language and syntax throughout this piece. He asks readers what it is that makes a country great and why nations fail before supplying answers to those questions.
A Nation's Strength William Ralph EmersonWhat makes a nation's pillars highAnd its foundations strong?What makes it mighty to defyThe foes that round it throng?It is not gold. Its kingdoms grandGo down in battle shock;Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,Not on abiding rock.Is it the sword? Ask the red dustOf empires passed away;The blood has turned their stones to rust,Their glory to decay.And is it pride? Ah, that bright crownHas seemed to nations sweet;But God has struck its luster downIn ashes at his feet.Not gold but only men can makeA people great and strong;Men who for truth and honor's sakeStand fast and suffer long.Brave men who work while others sleep,Who dare while others fly...They build a nation's pillars deepAnd lift them to the sky.
Explore A Nation’s Strength
‘A Nation’s Strength’ by William Ralph Emerson is a straightforward poem about the strength of countries and where it comes from.
This poem begins with the speaker presenting readers with rhetorical questions regarding where a nation’s strength comes from. He then goes on to pose a few different answers before coming to the conclusion that strength comes from leaders who work harder than everyone else and are capable of inspiring those around them.
The main theme of this poem is the strength of nations. Specifically, the poet is interested in analyzing and describing how and why some nations maintain their strength and endure the passage of time while others do not. He poses a few reasons why a country might endure before settling on what he says is the main reason—the people/leaders they contain.
Structure and Form
‘A Nation’s Strength’ by William Ralph Emerson is a six-stanza poem that is divided into quatrains or sets of four lines. The lines follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABAB; changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The poet uses similar-length lines that alternate between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This means that the odd-numbered lines have a total of eight syllables (with a few exceptions), and the even-numbered lines have a total of six syllables, with some exceptions.
In this poem, the poet uses a few literary devices. They include:
- Enjambment: can be seen when the poet cuts off a line before its natural stopping point, for example, the transition between lines one and two of stanza one.
- Parallelism: the use of the same line structure multiple lines. For example, the poet begins several stanzas with a rhetorical question like “Is it the sword?” before answering the question.
- Caesura: can be seen when the poet inserts a pause into the middle of a line of verse. For instance, “It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand.”
- Rhetorical Question: a question that does not expect an answer. For example, “What makes it mighty to defy / The foes that round it throng?”
Stanzas One and Two
What makes a nation’s pillars high
And its foundations strong?
What makes it mighty to defy
The foes that round it throng?
It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand
Go down in battle shock;
Its shafts are laid on sinking sand,
Not on abiding rock.
In the first lines of this poem, the speaker begins by asking two rhetorical questions. He wonders what it is about a nation that makes its “foundations strong?” What is that a nation does that allows it to stand up to and “defy” surrounding foes?
Here, he’s suggesting that it’s not easy to stay together as a country in the face of adversity. Time, enemies, and the many other conflicts that countries face usually result in governments and ideologies falling apart.
The second stanza provides some suggestions as to what the speaker thinks about strong countries. The speaker makes it clear from the start that they do not believe that it is gold or wealth that makes a nation or kingdom great. Just because a nation has money doesn’t mean that it’s going to be able to defend itself and its ideologies. If it depends on its wealth to get it through difficulties, then it’s going to find itself “on sinking sand” rather than “abiding,” long-lasting rock. It’s this kind of “rock” or foundation that the speaker is interested in.
He compares depending on wealth to building a house on quicksand. It’s going to fall apart quite quickly.
Stanzas Three and Four
Is it the sword? Ask the red dust
Of empires passed away;
The blood has turned their stones to rust,
Their glory to decay.
And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown
Has seemed to nations sweet;
But God has struck its luster down
In ashes at his feet.
Another suggestion the speaker has is that it could be a “sword” or the power to win important battles. If a country is filled with warriors or a good army, it doesn’t necessarily mean that the country is going to withstand the true tests of time.
In answer to his own rhetorical question, the speaker says that all one has to do is turn to ask the “empires passed away” that had such armies but are now nothing more than broken monuments.
The blood of these once-great empires has rusted the stone of their great accomplishments and led to decay (just as rust destroys metal).
Another option is “pride,” or love for one’s country and its people. Many different nations have pride in varying levels, but the speaker knows that God does not approve of such an understanding of the world (in which one values their country and people over everyone and everything else). It’s sure to be struck down by God and turned to assess.
Stanzas Five and Six
Not gold but only men can make
A people great and strong;
Men who for truth and honor’s sake
Stand fast and suffer long.
Brave men who work while others sleep,
Who dare while others fly…
They build a nation’s pillars deep
And lift them to the sky.
The fifth stanza of the poem says that it is not gold that inspires and makes people great; it is only “men.” People are only made great through the inspiration and direction they receive from their leaders. It’s critical to have leaders who are interested in truth and honor for the sake of those things alone and not to any other end. People must be able to suffer for a cause they believe in as well.
The men that it takes to make a nation great are those who work long hours when others are sleeping and who are capable of pushing people to be the best versions of themselves.
It’s these people, the speaker concludes, that make a “nation’s pillars deep” and lift a nation and its people into the sky. This is a more lyrical way of saying that countries that have leaders like those described in this poem are more likely to endure the test of time.
The meaning of this poem is that nations only become great because of the people who reside within them and how capable those people are of inspiring others to be the best versions of themselves.
The theme is the strength and power of nations. The word “nations” stands in for countries, and the poet spends the six stanzas analyzing the things that people usually think make countries great, like warriors and wealth, and describing what it is that truly helps countries endure the test of time.
This relatively short poem is about the strength of nations and where that strength comes from. The speaker has very clear, confident opinions on how and why countries last and why others fall apart.
Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:
- ‘Building the Nation’ by Henry Barlow – comments on how nation-builders contribute to their country.
- ‘Of History and Hope’ by Miller Williams – speaks about the United States and the betterment of the nation.
- ‘Prayer at Sunrise’ by James Weldon Johnson – depicts the power of God and contains a speaker’s request to gain more strength.