Skip to main content

Ralph Waldo Emerson Poems

Karen is a certified teacher. She enjoys recording audio as well as reading to student audiences.


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 Emerson's work for being didactic, suggesting that the author 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 his poems to have a lyrical quality; they lend themselves to 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's audio poems, as well as a brief analysis of the text. (The poems are hosted on Audioboo. You can click to listen.)

The Amulet

"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 Discussion of "The Amulet"

  • American Poems
    You will find a couple stanza-by-stanza discussions here.

The River

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 at how the landscape can have remained the same when he hasn't. Before him stretches the same river that washed his father's land in his childhood— the same river he pondered then, wondering where the water came from and where it was going. The ensuing years have brought Emerson troubles, 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 piece; 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 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 than 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 could 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. The British Council provides resources for English language learners. Students can listen to the poem and then complete a short quiz, either on the computer screen or on paper.

Two Rivers

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.


The Rhodora

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.


The Rhodora (Ralph Waldo Emerson) (mp3)

Resources and Analysis for The Rhodora

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

Have an Analysis or a Comment?

RandySturridge on December 06, 2012:

When I was younger his words use to captivate me

Susan R. Davis from Vancouver on October 15, 2012:

Interesting commentary. He was one of my favorites in college.

anonymous on June 12, 2012:

Great stuff once again! I'm enjoying learning some new things about some of the master poets!

Rose Jones on April 05, 2012:

Emerson was a wonderful writer, a transcendentalist and new thinker, as you have explained so well. Thanks for publishing this great lens; I have a fondness to Emerson because I had an uncle who was named Emerson. My father, who was named Edgar after Edgar Allen Poe, came from a family of 11 children. Living in the hills of Kentucky, they were raised by a teacher who loved literature and wanted his children to love it too.

anonymous on March 08, 2012:

I have enjoyed a lot of his quotes, I really should read his poems, thank you for introducing me to them.

David Stone from New York City on July 26, 2011:

I love Emerson, and I like how this lens presents a significant addition to what we can enjoy in his work.

Nice job, but do yourself (and Emerson) a huge favor by adding at least one Bookmark capsule. These make it easy for your readers to share and can quickly extend your reach. This lens deserves a chance to circulate, and I hope you give it every opportunity.

laki2lav on July 26, 2011:

very cool. i like poetry of all types and glad you did this