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Featured Poem: The Rhodora by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Written by Rachael Norris, 27th May 2019

The Reader's Learning and Quality Leader, Tom Young, has chosen this week's Featured Poem, The Rhodora by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

It's funny how poems you had forgotten about will seek you out again. I first read ‘The Rhodora’ a couple of years ago when a Reader Leader brought it in on Day 3 of a Read to Lead course in Stoke and read it with the other participants in his practice session. The main thing I remember from this twenty minutes of Shared Reading, amongst his sensitive and attentive leadership, was how beautifully Chris read it aloud.

Hearing a good poem read aloud with care and attention can bring a lot of pleasure in itself. I don’t think any of us had heard of a Rhodora, but enjoyed the way it sounded, and were probably picturing other flowers whose beauty would match up to that described.

I think I know the experience described here – encountering something beautiful, that is always there, but usually unknown to you, so it seems like a secret; and wondering that it should exist at all – but fewer memories than I would like come to mind. (I was kayaking once and a solitary seal appeared suddenly very close, exhaling a puff of air and seawater as it glided past, and I love that memory much more than the one a little later of observing dozens of them, but at a distance and in the company of other people.) I wonder if you have to go hiking in the woods, or sea kayaking, in order to experience this ‘power’.

Reading it again now, it seems to be asking some big questions of a small thing. ‘Whence’ meaning ‘from where’, I have to remind myself, and later ‘Why thou wert there’. I can relate to those head-spinning moments when such questions come to mind, and it seems strange, actually, that they don’t occur to me more often. But perhaps it is better to abandon yourself to such moments. The person in the poem admits that she ‘never thought to ask’ at the time and ‘never knew’ the answer, except that ‘if eyes were made for seeing, then beauty is its own excuse for being’. That’s my favourite bit.

The Rhodora

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.

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Would you like the opportunity to read this or other poems in a Shared Reading group?

If you like the idea of listening along to a story or poem, why not come along to a Shared Reading group? We run groups across the UK, you can find one near you here.

If you can’t find a group in your local community, why not help us bring Shared Reading to your area by becoming a volunteer?


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