In a previous posting, we looked at the 19th century American poet William Cullen Bryant’s “To a Waterfowl.”  Much that was said there is also appropriate to a discussion of today’s poem, “The Rhodora,” by another American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson (May 25, 1803 – April 27, 1882).  Bryant’s poem was published in 1818, and Emerson wrote today’s poem in 1834.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

As with Bryant’s poetry, we must keep in mind a characteristic of much 19th century poetry: the general feeling that everyday language was too common for something as “exalted” as poetry, so poets tended to sprinkle their verses heavily with bits of Elizabethan English, with “thee” (you) and “thou” (you) and “thy” (your) and lots of old-fashioned forms and endings to verbs, such as “dost” for “do” and “seekest” for “seek,” and “wert” for “were.”

Though it was not at all their everyday language, such out-of-date phrasing was nonetheless very familiar to them from common public knowledge of the King James translation of the Bible, which in those days was considered the Bible.  All of this old-fashioned English can seem just too “precious” and overblown for modern readers, and it is all too easy to imagine, as I said previously, such a poem being declaimed by some artsy fellow with forefinger on right hand dramatically upraised.  Once we realize, however, that such artificially “high-flown” and deliberately archaic language was just a characteristic of the times and the prevalent notions, we may see through it to what lies beyond.  Keep that in mind as we go through Emerson’s poem.

You will also need to know that the Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) is a wild shrub with colorful pinkish-purple blossoms that appear on the bare branches before they have yet leafed out, or just as leaves are beginning to sprout.  In Massachusetts — which was where Emerson lived — it blooms in damp and swampy wetland areas in May.  Its range extends from Pennsylvania northward into southern Canada.

You will also want to be reminded that the now seldom-seen word “whence” means “from where,” just as its companion word “whither” means “to where.”  In spite of their clarity and usefulness, both have largely fallen out of use in modern English.  So when we see the title of today’s poem —

On being asked, whence is the flower?

We know that it means in ordinary English:

On being asked, “Where is the flower from?”

In other words, someone likely asked Emerson, “Ralph — where did you get the flower?” — and that gave him the excuse for writing a poem.

Now let’s look at the poem, which I will discuss part by part.

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.

Concord, Massachusettswhere Emerson lived — was some 35 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean to the East.   He wrote the poem in Newton, which was only about 12 miles from the sea.  In May the sea breezes — the easterly winds from the sea — are frequent in that region.  So Emerson tells us that in May, when the winds from the sea blew into “our solitudes,” meaning the uninhabited, woodsy places outside the towns — the wilder and more lonely places — he found the newly-blooming Rhodora in the woods.  It spread out its “leafless blooms” — which as we saw is characteristic of the shrub — in a damp recess of the forest — “to please the desert and the sluggish brook.”

By “to please the desert and the sluggish brook,” Emerson is merely telling us that the shrub was not blooming to please anyone — because until he came along and found it, there was nothing where it grew but “the desert,” by which he means its wild location with no people (desert in its old use signified a wild, uninhabited place) — and the “sluggish brook” — a slow-moving little stream.

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.

Emerson saw purplish petals of the Rhodora that had fallen into a pool of water, making the blackish, rather stagnant water look “gay” with their beauty.  This is of course an older use of “gay” — not the modern “same-sex preference” definition.  Emerson is saying that the petals fallen into the dark pool make it look bright and colorful.  He adds that the red-bird might come to that pool “his plumes to cool,” meaning to cool his feathers — or in simpler words, to splash about.

The Red-bird/Redbird was and is a common name for the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis):

He adds the fanciful notion that the red-bird might “court the flower that cheapens his array,” meaning the red-bird might try to impress (as a male would a female) the flower that makes his own bright feathers look “cheap” — less impressive than the petals of the Rhodora.

Now Emerson gets to the philosophical part of the poem:

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;

He says, if the sages/wise men ask the Rhodora why its charm is wasted “on the earth and sky — that is, wasted on this world, growing in places where people may not even see it — then the answer — in Emerson’s view — is this: that just as eyes exist so one may see, beauty exists so it may be beautiful — whether someone is there to see and appreciate it or not.  His analogy is a bit shaky, and of course this notion of sages talking to a flower and getting an answer from it is just Emerson’s rhetorical way of making  a point — that beauty needs no excuse.  It just is.

He continues, in his old fashioned English, by presenting the question again:

Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!

By that he asks, what is the reason for the blossoming in a wild, lonely place of a flower that in its beauty rivals the rose — “Rhodora, why were you there?”

And then he gives his own answer:

I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.

When he was in the woods looking at the blooming Rhodora, he just enjoyed its beauty, not even thinking to wonder why it was there — and he never really knew why it was there — but he has a supposition about it:

“But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”

Really, the whole point of the poem is in those last two lines.  Emerson was a New England Transcendentalist, who felt that Divinity pervaded all of nature, and was the power behind all that happens.  So when we read that Emerson supposes

“The self-same power that brought me there, brought you” …

He is saying essentially the same thing that Bryant said in “To a Waterfowl”:

“He, who, from zone to zone,
Guides through the boundless sky thy certain flight,
In the long way that I must trace alone,
Will lead my steps aright.”

The lesson, Bryant tells us (through the fiction of talking to the bird), is that the same Power that guides the waterfowl on a sure path through the endless sky, will also lead the poet himself through life and beyond, will be the unseen guide on the unmarked path which everyone must walk for himself or herself.

And that is Emerson’s

The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.”