“The Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Quote from The Rhodora over image of fir needles

Wild Socks

Our mall used to have an Old Navy store. One day I was there, meandering through the men’s section, and on the back wall I found a rack of wild socks. Stripes. Checkers. Skulls. OK, I wasn’t too keen on the skulls. But these were the most amazing socks I’d ever seen in a store. I mean, like, you can buy these? I double-checked. Yes, I was still in the men’s section.

And the socks were on sale.

Probably no one else wanted them. I bought several pairs. Some of them are still with me — I wore a pair just yesterday. Though they’re getting thin, they still have the same pizzazz.

It’s getting harder to fit them in my sock drawer, though, which has filled to the brim with all manner of patterns and colors: polka dots, argyle, chevrons, teal, purple, orange. I smile, knowing my early-adopter fashion sense has been vindicated by the likes of Happy Socks and the Awesome Socks Club. A few years ago, I even found a rack of tastefully decorative dress socks next to the suits at Kohl’s.

Beautiful socks are sprouting everywhere you look. Sometimes you see them, sometimes you don’t.

I rarely wear a plain black sock to work anymore. Life is too short for boring socks, right? But they are seldom noticed anyway. There they are, tucked behind my swishing pant cuffs — sometimes they peek out, and someone will compliment me on them.

I think seeing my patterned socks can brighten someone’s day. But I’m OK if no one says anything. Beauty, after all, is its own excuse for being.

So says Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem “The Rhodora,” a reflection on a beautiful flower blooming in an unlikely, lonely place.

“The Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

From The Early Poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1899

     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 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;
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 that brought me there, brought you.

The Lingo

Emerson uses some fancy, old-school language in the poem. But no fear! You can learn what these words mean, and once you know them, you’ll rattle them off like anything else, and the person you perform the poem for will be able to understand too.

  • whence = from where; the full title of the poem is technically “The Rhodora, on Being Asked, Whence Is the Flower” — it’s the same as asking “where does the flower come from?”
  • Rhodora = a flower native to New England that blooms in swampy areas
  • gay = at the time Emerson wrote this, “gay” just meant a combination of happy and excited (and conveniently rhymed with “array”)
  • plumes = feathers (fun fact: in some languages, like French and Spanish, a pen is still sometimes called a “plume” because old pens were made out of feathers)
  • court = showing up interested in making a positive connection
  • cheapens his array = the flower is so colorful that the bird’s colorful feathers (his “array”) look less impressive by comparison
  • thee = you (old-school style) — some people today still hear this in a formal prayer context, but it might not be as formal as we think
  • thou wert = you were (old-school style)
  • O rival = slapping a big, fat “O” in front of a word was like saying “you are the one I’m talking to right now” in a really polite way
  • self-same = just means “same”

Performance Tips

Try these tips to make your performance of “The Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson come alive.

  • I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
    • Cup your hands into the shape of a blooming flower
  • Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
    • Act like you’re standing in a swampy, no-good place
  • The purple petals fallen in the pool
    • Lower your hand like a falling petal
  • Made the black water with their beauty gay;
    • Wave your hand over an imaginary pool of water
  • And court the flower that cheapens his array.
    • Hold out your hands like you’re weighing the difference between two objects
  • Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
    • Hold up a finger like you’re making a point
  • This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
    • Gesture to the ground and the sky
  • I never thought to ask; I never knew;
    • Shrug your shoulders
  • But in my simple ignorance suppose
  • The self-same power that brought me there, brought you.
    • Gesture toward yourself, then outward

Memorize It

Use this recording to memorize “The Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Play it on repeat until you’ve got it down. Don’t forget to come back to brush up in a week or two.

“The Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Go Forth and Perform

Maybe you notice someone’s flashy socks, or maybe some other opportunity brings up the topic of hidden beauty. When that happens, take the chance to perform Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “The Rhodora.”