'Ode To William H. Channing' by Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Though loth to grieve
The evil time's sole patriot,
I cannot leave
My buried thought
For the priest's cant,
Or statesman's rant.

If I refuse
My study for their politique,
Which at the best is trick,
The angry muse
Puts confusion in my brain.

But who is he that prates
Of the culture of mankind,
Of better arts and life?
Go, blind worm, go,
Behold the famous States
Harrying Mexico
With rifle and with knife.

Or who, with accent bolder,
Dare praise the freedom-loving mountaineer,
I found by thee, O rushing Contoocook!
And in thy valleys, Agiochook!
The jackals of the negro-holder.

The God who made New Hampshire
Taunted the lofty land
With little men.
Small bat and wren
House in the oak.
If earth fire cleave
The upheaved land, and bury the folk,
The southern crocodile would grieve.

Virtue palters, right is hence,
Freedom praised but hid;
Funeral eloquence
Rattles the coffin-lid.

What boots thy zeal,
O glowing friend,
That would indignant rend
The northland from the south?
Wherefore? To what good end?
Boston Bay and Bunker Hill
Would serve things still:
Things are of the snake.

The horseman serves the horse,
The neat-herd serves the neat,
The merchant serves the purse,
The eater serves his meat;
'Tis the day of the chattel,
Web to weave, and corn to grind,
Things are in the saddle,
And ride mankind.

There are two laws discrete
Not reconciled,
Law for man, and law for thing;
The last builds town and fleet,
But it runs wild,
And doth the man unking.

'Tis fit the forest fall,
The steep be graded,
The mountain tunnelled,
The land shaded,
The orchard planted,
The globe tilled,
The prairie planted,
The steamer built.

Live for friendship, live for love,
For truth's and harmony's behoof;
The state may follow how it can,
As Olympus follows Jove.
Yet do not I implore
The wrinkled shopman to my sounding woods,
Nor bid the unwilling senator
Ask votes of thrushes in the solitudes.
Every one to his chosen work.
Foolish hands may mix and mar,
Wise and sure the issues are.
Round they roll, till dark is light,
Sex to sex, and even to odd;
The over-God,
Who marries Right to Might,
Who peoples, unpeoples,
He who exterminates
Races by stronger races,
Black by white faces,
Knows to bring honey
Out of the lion,
Grafts gentlest scion
On Pirate and Turk.

The Cossack eats Poland,
Like stolen fruit;
Her last noble is ruined,
Her last poet mute;
Straight into double band
The victors divide,
Half for freedom strike and stand,
The astonished muse finds thousands at her side.

Editor 1 Interpretation

Ode To William H. Channing: A Masterpiece of Emersonian Thought

When one thinks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, transcendentalism and his essay "Self-Reliance" might come to mind. However, Emerson was also an accomplished poet, and his "Ode To William H. Channing" is a testament to his literary genius.


William H. Channing was an American Unitarian minister who was a close friend and collaborator of Emerson. The two men shared many of the same beliefs, including the importance of individualism and the rejection of traditional religious dogma. Channing was also a social reformer, advocating for the abolition of slavery and the rights of women.

The Ode

Emerson's "Ode To William H. Channing" was written after Channing's death in 1842. It is a tribute to his friend's life and work, and a celebration of the values they shared. The poem is divided into three parts, each with its own unique tone and message.

Part One

The first part of the ode is a reflection on death and the afterlife. Emerson begins by asking rhetorical questions that reflect his own uncertainty about what happens after we die. "What changes shall we see?" he asks, "What new heavens? what races newly risen?"

But despite his doubts, Emerson finds comfort in the idea that death is not an end, but a transition to a new state of being. He refers to Channing as a "soul" who has "fled to the land of the great Departed," and suggests that death is merely a passage to a higher realm of existence.

Part Two

The second part of the ode is a celebration of Channing's life and work. Emerson describes him as a "priest" who preached the gospel of love and freedom. He praises Channing's eloquence and his ability to inspire others with his words, saying that "the word he spoke was skin and bone to those who heard."

Emerson also acknowledges Channing's role as a social reformer, saying that he "pleaded the cause of human rights." He celebrates Channing's commitment to the abolition of slavery and the rights of women, and suggests that his friend's work will continue to inspire others to fight for justice and equality.

Part Three

The third and final part of the ode is a call to action. Emerson urges his readers to follow in Channing's footsteps and fight for a better world. He encourages them to reject the narrow-mindedness of traditional religion and embrace a more expansive, inclusive spirituality.

Emerson also calls on his readers to reject the status quo and embrace their own individuality. He suggests that conformity and obedience are the enemies of progress, and that true innovation and creativity can only come from those who are willing to think for themselves.


At its core, "Ode To William H. Channing" is a celebration of the values of transcendentalism. Emerson uses his tribute to Channing to promote the idea that the individual is the ultimate authority in matters of spirituality and morality, and that adherence to tradition and authority is a hindrance to progress.

Emerson also emphasizes the importance of social reform, particularly in the areas of slavery and women's rights. He suggests that these issues are not just political, but moral, and that it is the duty of every individual to fight for justice and equality.

But perhaps most importantly, Emerson's ode is a call to action. He encourages his readers to reject complacency and conformity, and to embrace their own individuality and creativity. He suggests that true progress can only come from those who are willing to think outside the box, and that the world needs more people like Channing who are unafraid to speak their minds and fight for what they believe in.


"Ode To William H. Channing" is a masterpiece of Emersonian thought, a tribute to a friend and collaborator, and a call to action for all those who value individualism and social reform. Through his beautiful and thought-provoking words, Emerson encourages us to embrace our own creativity and fight for a better world. It is a message that is as relevant today as it was in 1842, and a testament to the enduring power of Emerson's writing.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Ode To William H. Channing: A Masterpiece of Emersonian Poetry

Ralph Waldo Emerson, the renowned American essayist, poet, and philosopher, is widely regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the 19th century. His works, including essays such as "Self-Reliance" and "Nature," have inspired generations of readers with their profound insights into the human condition and the natural world. However, Emerson's poetry is often overlooked in favor of his prose, despite the fact that he was a gifted poet in his own right. One of his most celebrated poems is "Ode To William H. Channing," a tribute to his friend and fellow Transcendentalist. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language of this classic poem, and examine why it remains a masterpiece of Emersonian poetry.

The poem begins with a dedication to Channing, who was a Unitarian minister and social reformer, as well as a close friend of Emerson's. The first stanza sets the tone for the rest of the poem, with its invocation of the "spirit of the age" and the "voice of the time." Emerson is calling upon the forces that shape the world around us, and asking them to bear witness to his tribute to Channing. He also establishes the central theme of the poem, which is the power of the individual to effect change in society. This theme is a recurring one in Emerson's work, and is closely tied to his belief in the importance of self-reliance and nonconformity.

The second stanza begins with a description of Channing's physical appearance, which Emerson compares to that of a "Roman senator." This comparison is significant, as it places Channing in the tradition of ancient Rome, a civilization that Emerson admired for its virtues of courage, honor, and civic duty. The stanza goes on to describe Channing's intellectual and moral qualities, including his "thoughtful mind" and his "heart of fire." Emerson is painting a portrait of a man who is both wise and passionate, and who embodies the ideals of the Transcendentalist movement.

The third stanza is perhaps the most powerful in the poem, as it describes Channing's role as a reformer and advocate for social justice. Emerson writes that Channing "spoke for Freedom when he spoke," and that his words were like "a trumpet-call to battle." This imagery is reminiscent of the American Revolution, and suggests that Channing was fighting for a cause that was just as important as the struggle for independence from Britain. Emerson also notes that Channing was not afraid to speak out against injustice, even when it was unpopular or controversial. This is a clear reference to Channing's opposition to slavery, which was a divisive issue in the United States at the time.

The fourth stanza shifts the focus of the poem from Channing to Emerson himself, as he reflects on his own role as a poet and thinker. He acknowledges that he is not as brave or eloquent as Channing, but he still believes that his words can have an impact on the world. He writes that "the poet's thought is all the flower," meaning that his ideas are like the blossoms of a plant, which may be fragile and ephemeral, but still have the power to inspire and uplift. This is a quintessentially Emersonian idea, as he believed that the individual had the power to shape the world through their thoughts and actions.

The final stanza brings the poem to a close with a call to action. Emerson writes that "the time is ripe, and rotten-ripe, for change," and that it is up to each individual to seize the moment and make a difference. He urges his readers to follow in Channing's footsteps, and to speak out against injustice and oppression. He also reminds us that change is not easy, and that it requires courage and determination. However, he believes that the rewards of such action are worth the risk, as it allows us to live a life of purpose and meaning.

In terms of structure, "Ode To William H. Channing" is a classic example of Emersonian poetry. It is written in free verse, with no regular rhyme or meter, which gives it a sense of spontaneity and improvisation. The poem is divided into five stanzas of varying length, which allows Emerson to explore different aspects of his subject. The language is rich and evocative, with vivid imagery and powerful metaphors. Emerson's use of language is particularly effective in the third stanza, where he uses military imagery to describe Channing's role as a reformer.

In conclusion, "Ode To William H. Channing" is a masterpiece of Emersonian poetry, and a testament to the power of the individual to effect change in society. Through his tribute to his friend and fellow Transcendentalist, Emerson celebrates the virtues of courage, wisdom, and social justice. He also reminds us of the importance of self-reliance and nonconformity, and encourages us to follow in Channing's footsteps by speaking out against injustice and oppression. The poem is a timeless work of art, and a testament to the enduring legacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

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