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Sunday, January 23, 2011

Poem of the Week: The Rhodora

The poem this week comes via babyfriday who introduced it to me. I had taught Emerson for years but, somehow, was not familiar with this, perhaps his most famous, poem. Despite being oft-quoted, reading Emerson can be a fairly intense, sometimes off-putting experience. He is very overt in his transcendentalism, particularly in his approach to self-reliance and living in the present. His thoughts on the beauty and power of nature however, are difficult for me personally not to find toothsome. Like his acolyte Thoreau, Emerson saw as an imperative the communion of the individual with nature. Even more than the Romantics, Transcendentalists believed in the supernatural strength that one could gain through his/her (re)connection with nature. Should one be so fortunate to divorce him or herself from society to retreat into nature, s/he could encounter beauty of the kind one only dreamed in the newly-established industrial cities. This beauty, however, was not for man's consumption alone. This natural beauty, unlike the beauty humanity tried to create, was never spectacle, but self-sufficient and self-sufficing. As Emerson wrote n "Self Reliance," "These roses below my window make no reference to former roses or better ones." In so existing, without concern for validation from an external consciousness, Emerson et al celebrated the Transcendental beauty of the natural world. Such seems to be driving idea behind the poem's most famous lines, 11-12.
It is also worth noting that the rhodora, like its cousin the rhododendron (and unlike the subject of so many poems, roses) grow largely in the wild and are rarely cultivated in private gardens. Enjoy the poem:
The Rhodora
Ralph Waldow Emerson
On being asked 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.
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.
Rhodora! If the sages ask the 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:
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 the brought me there brought you.

1 comment:

  1. I backpacked through Europe for three weeks after college and packed with me a single copy of "Essential Emerson" because deepness and youth and finding yourself and the like. I lasted a whole two days before heading to an English language bookstore to buy Bridget Joneses Diary. This is a very lovely poem and thank you for sharing Teach but yikes we get it, Ralph. "Kill your television", we hear you.

    Also, if you say "Emerson" in front of my mother she'll invariably respond "Emerson huge ta-ta's." She is the best.