Ralph Waldo Emerson Poems
Ralph Waldo Emerson Audio Poems and Analysis
Emerson is best known for his nonfiction works, but he was also a prolific poet. At times he was musical.
Some scholars have criticized the poems for being didactic, suggesting that Emerson is only using the poetic form as another vehicle for expressing transcendental philosophies. That's not the view I hold. There is quite a bit of variety in form as well as subject matter; Emerson's body of work includes at least one piece that I would characterize as a "moody love poem". I consider many of the poems to have a lyrical quality -- they work well for audio work. Interestingly, there exist earlier drafts of some poems, and we can see how rambling musings were fine-tuned and turned into art.
Some of the poems are free form, but many make deft use of traditional poetic devices, including rhyme. Poems like "Two Rivers" have a strong spiritual message, but they role off the tongue in a most un-sermonlike manner. Emerson speaks of hearing music in the Musketaquit (Concord) River; I hear it in the poem.
On this page, you'll find Ralph Waldo Emerson audio poems as well as brief analysis of the text. ( The poems are hosted on Audioboo. You can click to listen.)
"The Amulet" is a moody love poem -- and a bit of a departure for Emerson thematically. The context is open to interpretation. Is it a poem about a lost love, or just an insecure one?
I don't think contact has necessarily broken off between the two people. The letter tells no tidings since it came, just as the picture and the ring remain ever the same (unable to deliver news). The poem's persona laments how none of these tokens can give him the minute-by-minute assurance he seeks. At one point, he addresses his love as "Oh, changing child." We are left to wander: Is the woman changing in a deep way, or is she mercurial (ever changing)?
Further and Discussion of The Amulet
- American Poems
You will find a couple stanza-by-stanza discussions here.
What (or Who) is "The Amulet" About?
The love the poem is addressed to...
... Is a Lost Love
In "The River", Emerson finds himself in a situation most of us can relate to it. He's back at a place that he has known since childhood, marveling how the landscape can be the same when he isn't. Before him is the same river that washed his father's land in his childhood and that he pondered then: wondering where the water came from and where it was going. The ensuing years have brought Emerson cares, but they have also changed him in a way that makes him not regret their passing.
The eternal nature of the river is contrasted with our own short lives. This is one of the central themes of the poem; it holds together a poem that, like the river itself, meanders here and there.
The Mountain and the Squirrel
"The Fable" is a didactic work -- and also a cheerful rhyming poem that can be discussed with a classroom of students, from elementary school on up to adulthood. The context: an argument between mountain and squirrel.
We get a sense that the mountain is feeling superior to the little squirrel. But is the squirrel in the poem disturbed by being less grand that a mountain? No, the squirrel notes that it takes many different things to make up a whole (a "year" or "sphere"). This little animal recognizes that "talents differ" and concludes with the thought that the mountain can't do a basic task that squirrels do: crack a nut.
We might ask youngsters: What else can the squirrel do that the mountain can't? What can they themselves do that a mountain can't? Students might extend the theme by making up another argument between two entities, one large and one small.
The poem is often described as humorous. Emerson uses language cleverly to show a squirrel-centric viewpoint: "...I'll not deny you make a very pretty squirrel track." This line subordinates the mountain to the squirrel, making it sound matter-of-fact that a mountain be thought of as a squirrel track.
Here is another audio take on "The Fable", one that includes the text of the poem.
ESL Resources for 'The Fable'
"The Fable" has some tricky vocabulary. For some, the literal meaning may prove elusive. From the British Council come resources for second language learners. Students can listen to the poem and then complete a short quiz, either on the computer screen or on paper.
One of several poems inspired by the Concord River, Two Rivers suggests that there is a lovelier river yet. The first is a literal one. The second one is generally regarded as a spiritual one.
This poem has a lovely rhythm, created in part by repetition. (One might ponder the effect that Emerson creates through the repetition of phrases that begin with the word 'through'. Might he be suggesting the motion of the river?)
American Transcendentalism Web has offered two earlier versions of the poem, first penned in Emerson's journal. The 1856 text reads more like prose; it includes an extended metaphor that does not appear in the final poem. Emerson notes that the river turns stones into jewels, but that away from the river, those diamonds and opals cease to be jewels and become mere flints.The 1858 text is far closer to the final version, but lacks some of the musicality.
This poem is addressed to the rhodora, a member of the rhododendron family. One can find the rhodora blooming wild in the woods, seen by a few creatures here and there -- but not often by people. Does this mean its beauty is wasted? Emerson says no. The line "Beauty is its own excuse for being" expresses how right and appropriate it is that it exists where it does.
Resources and Analysis for The Rhodora
This study guide for "The Rhodora" is or purchase, but you can browse and read samples.
- Annotated Copy of The Rhodora
You can click on individual words to get study notes for The Rhodora.
- Free Study Guide
Printable poem with analysis.
Is Emerson also answering the question of why we are on Earth?
Emerson "Reads" The Rhodora
Thanks to modern technology, Emerson's mouth moves as he reads "The Rhodora".
Ralph Waldo Emerson Recitation for High School Students
High school students who participate in the Poetry Out Loud competition can select from many poems, including four Emerson selections.
More About Emerson
About the Pictures
Some of the pictures are my own shots. Others are from Morgue File where credits are not required but often requested. Emerson himself is in the public domain.