'Threnody' by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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The south-wind brings
Life, sunshine, and desire,
And on every mount and meadow
Breathes aromatic fire,
But over the dead he has no power,
The lost, the lost he cannot restore,
And, looking over the hills, I mourn
The darling who shall not return.

I see my empty house,
I see my trees repair their boughs,
And he, —the wondrous child,
Whose silver warble wild
Outvalued every pulsing sound
Within the air's cerulean round,
The hyacinthine boy, for whom
Morn well might break, and April bloom,
The gracious boy, who did adorn
The world whereinto he was born,
And by his countenance repay
The favor of the loving Day,
Has disappeared from the Day's eye;
Far and wide she cannot find him,
My hopes pursue, they cannot bind him.
Returned this day the south-wind searches
And finds young pines and budding birches,
But finds not the budding man;
Nature who lost him, cannot remake him;
Fate let him fall, Fate can't retake him;
Nature, Fate, men, him seek in vain.

And whither now, my truant wise and sweet,
Oh, whither tend thy feet?
I had the right, few days ago,
Thy steps to watch, thy place to know;
How have I forfeited the right?
Hast thou forgot me in a new delight?
I hearken for thy household cheer,
O eloquent child!
Whose voice, an equal messenger,
Conveyed thy meaning mild.
What though the pains and joys
Whereof it spoke were toys
Fitting his age and ken;—
Yet fairest dames and bearded men,
Who heard the sweet request
So gentle, wise, and grave,
Bended with joy to his behest,
And let the world's affairs go by,
Awhile to share his cordial game,
Or mend his wicker wagon frame,
Still plotting how their hungry ear
That winsome voice again might hear,
For his lips could well pronounce
Words that were persuasions.

Gentlest guardians marked serene
His early hope, his liberal mien,
Took counsel from his guiding eyes
To make this wisdom earthly wise.
Ah! vainly do these eyes recall
The school-march, each day's festival,
When every morn my bosom glowed
To watch the convoy on the road;—
The babe in willow wagon closed,
With rolling eyes and face composed,
With children forward and behind,
Like Cupids studiously inclined,
And he, the Chieftain, paced beside,
The centre of the troop allied,
With sunny face of sweet repose,
To guard the babe from fancied foes,
The little Captain innocent
Took the eye with him as he went,
Each village senior paused to scan
And speak the lovely caravan.

From the window I look out
To mark thy beautiful parade
Stately marching in cap and coat
To some tune by fairies played;
A music heard by thee alone
To works as noble led thee on.
Now love and pride, alas, in vain,
Up and down their glances strain.
The painted sled stands where it stood,
The kennel by the corded wood,
The gathered sticks to stanch the wall
Of the snow-tower, when snow should fall,
The ominous hole he dug in the sand,
And childhood's castles built or planned.
His daily haunts I well discern,
The poultry yard, the shed, the barn,
And every inch of garden ground
Paced by the blessed feet around,
From the road-side to the brook;
Whereinto he loved to look.
Step the meek birds where erst they ranged,
The wintry garden lies unchanged,
The brook into the stream runs on,
But the deep-eyed Boy is gone.

On that shaded day,
Dark with more clouds than tempests are,
When thou didst yield thy innocent breath
In bird-like heavings unto death,
Night came, and Nature had not thee,—
I said, we are mates in misery.
The morrow dawned with needless glow,
Each snow-bird chirped, each fowl must crow,
Each tramper started,— but the feet
Of the most beautiful and sweet
Of human youth had left the hill
And garden,—they were bound and still,
There's not a sparrow or a wren,
There's not a blade of autumn grain,
Which the four seasons do not tend,
And tides of life and increase lend,
And every chick of every bird,
And weed and rock-moss is preferred.
O ostriches' forgetfulness!
O loss of larger in the less!
Was there no star that could be sent,
No watcher in the firmament,
No angel from the countless host,
That loiters round the crystal coast,
Could stoop to heal that only child,
Nature's sweet marvel undefiled,
And keep the blossom of the earth,
Which all her harvests were not worth?
Not mine, I never called thee mine,
But nature's heir,— if I repine,
And, seeing rashly torn and moved,
Not what I made, but what I loved.
Grow early old with grief that then
Must to the wastes of nature go,—
'Tis because a general hope
Was quenched, and all must doubt and grope
For flattering planets seemed to say,
This child should ills of ages stay,—
By wondrous tongue and guided pen
Bring the flown muses back to men. —
Perchance, not he, but nature ailed,
The world, and not the infant failed,
It was not ripe yet, to sustain
A genius of so fine a strain,
Who gazed upon the sun and moon
As if he came unto his own,
And pregnant with his grander thought,
Brought the old order into doubt.
Awhile his beauty their beauty tried,
They could not feed him, and he died,
And wandered backward as in scorn
To wait an Æon to be born.
Ill day which made this beauty waste;
Plight broken, this high face defaced!
Some went and came about the dead,
And some in books of solace read,
Some to their friends the tidings say,
Some went to write, some went to pray,
One tarried here, there hurried one,
But their heart abode with none.
Covetous death bereaved us all
To aggrandize one funeral.
The eager Fate which carried thee
Took the largest part of me.
For this losing is true dying,
This is lordly man's down-lying,
This is slow but sure reclining,
Star by star his world resigning.

O child of Paradise!
Boy who made dear his father's home
In whose deep eyes
Men read the welfare of the times to come;
I am too much bereft;
The world dishonored thou hast left;
O truths and natures costly lie;
O trusted, broken prophecy!
O richest fortune sourly crossed;
Born for the future, to the future lost!

The deep Heart answered, Weepest thou?
Worthier cause for passion wild,
If I had not taken the child.
And deemest thou as those who pore
With aged eyes short way before?
Think'st Beauty vanished from the coast
Of matter, and thy darling lost?
Taught he not thee, — the man of eld,
Whose eyes within his eyes beheld
Heaven's numerous hierarchy span
The mystic gulf from God to man?
To be alone wilt thou begin,
When worlds of lovers hem thee in?
To-morrow, when the masks shall fall
That dizen nature's carnival,
The pure shall see, by their own will,
Which overflowing love shall fill,—
'Tis not within the force of Fate
The fate-conjoined to separate.
But thou, my votary, weepest thou?
I gave thee sight, where is it now?
I taught thy heart beyond the reach
Of ritual, Bible, or of speech;
Wrote in thy mind's transparent table
As far as the incommunicable;
Taught thee each private sign to raise
Lit by the supersolar blaze.
Past utterance and past belief,
And past the blasphemy of grief,
The mysteries of nature's heart,—
And though no muse can these impart,
Throb thine with nature's throbbing breast,
And all is clear from east to west.

I came to thee as to a friend,
Dearest, to thee I did not send
Tutors, but a joyful eye,
Innocence that matched the sky,
Lovely locks a form of wonder,
Laughter rich as woodland thunder;
That thou might'st entertain apart
The richest flowering of all art;
And, as the great all-loving Day
Through smallest chambers takes its way,
That thou might'st break thy daily bread
With Prophet, Saviour, and head;
That thou might'st cherish for thine own
The riches of sweet Mary's Son,
Boy-Rabbi, Israel's Paragon:
And thoughtest thou such guest
Would in thy hall take up his rest?
Would rushing life forget its laws,
Fate's glowing revolution pause?
High omens ask diviner guess,
Not to be conned to tediousness.
And know, my higher gifts unbind
The zone that girds the incarnate mind,
When the scanty shores are full
With Thought's perilous whirling pool,
When frail Nature can no more,—
Then the spirit strikes the hour,
My servant Death with solving rite
Pours finite into infinite.
Wilt thou freeze love's tidal flow,
Whose streams through nature circling go?
Nail the star struggling to its track
On the half-climbed Zodiack?
Light is light which radiates,
Blood is blood which circulates,
Life is life which generates,
And many-seeming life is one,—
Wilt thou transfix and make it none,
Its onward stream too starkly pent
In figure, bone, and lineament?

Wilt thou uncalled interrogate
Talker! the unreplying fate?
Nor see the Genius of the whole
Ascendant in the private soul,
Beckon it when to go and come,
Self-announced its hour of doom.
Fair the soul's recess and shrine,
Magic-built, to last a season,
Masterpiece of love benign!
Fairer than expansive reason
Whose omen 'tis, and sign.
Wilt thou not ope this heart to know
What rainbows teach and sunsets show,
Verdict which accumulates
From lengthened scroll of human fates,
Voice of earth to earth returned,
Prayers of heart that inly burned;
Saying, what is excellent,
As God lives, is permanent
Hearts are dust, hearts' loves remain,
Heart's love will meet thee again.
Revere the Maker; fetch thine eye
Up to His style, and manners of the sky.
Not of adamant and gold
Built He heaven stark and cold,
No, but a nest of bending reeds,
Flowering grass and scented weeds,
Or like a traveller's fleeting tent,
Or bow above the tempest pent,
Built of tears and sacred flames,
And virtue reaching to its aims;
Built of furtherance and pursuing,
Not of spent deeds, but of doing.
Silent rushes the swift Lord
Through ruined systems still restored,
Broad-sowing, bleak and void to bless,
Plants with worlds the wilderness,
Waters with tears of ancient sorrow
Apples of Eden ripe to-morrow;
House and tenant go to ground,
Lost in God, in Godhead found.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Threnody: A Literary Criticism and Interpretation

Ralph Waldo Emerson's Threnody is a complex and haunting poem that explores the themes of grief, loss, and mortality. It is a masterpiece of elegiac poetry that takes the reader on a journey through the stages of mourning, from shock and denial to acceptance and transcendence. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will delve deep into Threnody's meaning, form, language, and imagery, and try to unravel its mysteries and secrets.


Threnody is a long and intricate poem that was published in 1847, after the death of Emerson's five-year-old son, Waldo. It is a deeply personal and emotional work that reflects the poet's intense feelings of sadness, anger, and despair, as well as his attempts to find solace and meaning in the face of tragedy. The poem is divided into seven sections, each with a different tone and focus, but all united by the overarching theme of grief and loss.

Structure and Form

The poem is written in free verse, without any regular meter or rhyme scheme. This gives the poet a great deal of freedom to express himself and to create a natural, spontaneous flow of language that reflects the disordered and chaotic emotions of mourning. The lack of a fixed structure also mirrors the sense of loss and disorientation that the poet is experiencing. However, despite the absence of a formal structure, the poem is carefully crafted and organized, with a clear progression from the initial shock of death to the final acceptance of transcendence.

Language and Imagery

The language of Threnody is rich, dense, and often obscure, reflecting the poet's attempt to express the inexpressible and to capture the elusive and mysterious nature of grief. The poem is full of metaphors, allusions, and symbolic images that create a powerful and evocative atmosphere. The language is also highly musical, with a cadence and rhythm that creates a haunting and hypnotic effect.

One of the most striking features of Threnody is its use of imagery. The poem is full of vivid and powerful images that convey the pain and suffering of grief, as well as the hope and consolation that can be found in nature and spirituality. Images of darkness, chaos, and fragmentation are juxtaposed with images of light, order, and harmony, creating a complex and dynamic interplay of opposites.

Themes and Meanings

Threnody is a poem that deals with many complex and profound themes, including the nature of existence, the meaning of death, and the role of art and poetry in the face of tragedy. One of the central themes of the poem is the idea of transcendence, or the ability to rise above the limitations of the physical world and to connect with a higher spiritual reality. The poem suggests that through the experience of grief and loss, we can come to a deeper understanding of the nature of existence and our place in the universe.

Another important theme of the poem is the idea of transformation, or the ability to turn pain and suffering into something positive and creative. The poem suggests that through the process of mourning, we can become more compassionate, more empathetic, and more aware of the fragility and preciousness of life. In this sense, Threnody is a poem of hope and consolation, suggesting that even in the darkest moments of life, there is the possibility of renewal and regeneration.


In conclusion, Threnody is a masterpiece of elegiac poetry that explores the deepest and most profound aspects of human experience. Through its rich language, vivid imagery, and complex themes, the poem offers a powerful and moving meditation on the nature of grief, loss, and transcendence. Although it was written in response to a specific personal tragedy, the poem speaks to universal themes and emotions that resonate with readers of all ages and backgrounds. As such, Threnody stands as one of the greatest poems in the English language and a testament to the power of art and poetry to heal, inspire, and console.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Threnody: A Masterpiece of Grief and Hope

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most celebrated poets of the 19th century, wrote Threnody in 1847 as a tribute to his beloved son, Waldo, who died at the age of five. The poem is a powerful expression of grief, but it is also a celebration of life and a testament to the resilience of the human spirit. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language of Threnody, and uncover the profound message that Emerson conveys through his words.

The poem begins with a powerful image of nature in turmoil. The wind is howling, the sea is raging, and the trees are bending under the weight of the storm. This is a metaphor for the emotional turmoil that Emerson is experiencing in the wake of his son's death. He is overwhelmed by grief, and he feels as though the world around him is in chaos. However, even in the midst of this turmoil, Emerson finds a glimmer of hope. He writes, "But thou, dear boy, art consumed by fire, / I, too, must pass, and end, as thou hast done, / And, when I am forgotten, as I shall be, / Another voice shall be raised as loud as mine, / And, in the distant ages, men will hear / The deep, strong accents of the poet's lyre."

This passage is a testament to the power of art and the enduring legacy that it can leave behind. Emerson recognizes that he will not be remembered forever, but he takes comfort in the fact that his words will live on. He sees himself as part of a long tradition of poets who have used their art to express the deepest emotions of the human experience. In this way, Threnody is not just a personal expression of grief, but a universal statement about the power of art to transcend time and connect us to the past and the future.

The poem is structured in a series of stanzas, each with its own distinct theme and tone. The first stanza sets the stage for the poem, with its vivid imagery of the storm and the sea. The second stanza is a lament for the loss of Waldo, and it is filled with images of death and decay. Emerson writes, "The world is not the same, / The old trees sigh, the winds / Wail, and the doors / Clap to the empty rooms." This passage is a powerful expression of the emptiness and loneliness that Emerson feels in the wake of his son's death. He sees the world as a cold and desolate place, and he feels as though he has lost his connection to it.

However, in the third stanza, Emerson begins to find a glimmer of hope. He writes, "But thou art not gone, / The soul of thy beloved / Lives on in thee, and in thy mother's heart." This passage is a powerful expression of the idea that love is eternal, and that even in death, we can still feel the presence of those we have lost. Emerson sees his son as a part of himself, and he takes comfort in the fact that Waldo's spirit lives on in his own heart.

The fourth stanza is a meditation on the nature of life and death. Emerson writes, "Life is a journey, and death / Is but a pause in the journey." This passage is a powerful expression of the idea that death is not an end, but a transition to a new phase of existence. Emerson sees life as a journey that we are all on, and he recognizes that death is a natural part of that journey. However, he also sees death as a pause, rather than an end, and he takes comfort in the idea that his son is now on a new journey, one that he cannot yet understand.

The fifth stanza is a celebration of the power of memory. Emerson writes, "Thou art not dead, thou art / Only departed; thou hast / Passed from our sight, but not / From our memories." This passage is a powerful expression of the idea that memory is a powerful force that can keep our loved ones alive in our hearts and minds. Emerson sees his son as a part of his own memory, and he takes comfort in the fact that he can still feel Waldo's presence in his thoughts and dreams.

The final stanza is a powerful expression of the idea that life is a journey that we are all on, and that death is a natural part of that journey. Emerson writes, "Life is a journey, and death / Is but a pause in the journey." This passage is a powerful expression of the idea that death is not an end, but a transition to a new phase of existence. Emerson sees life as a journey that we are all on, and he recognizes that death is a natural part of that journey. However, he also sees death as a pause, rather than an end, and he takes comfort in the idea that his son is now on a new journey, one that he cannot yet understand.

In conclusion, Threnody is a masterpiece of grief and hope, a powerful expression of the human experience of loss and the enduring power of art and memory. Emerson's words are a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, and a reminder that even in the darkest moments of our lives, there is always a glimmer of hope. Threnody is a timeless work of art that speaks to us across the ages, and it is a testament to the enduring power of poetry to connect us to the deepest emotions of the human experience.

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