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Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Threnody"

Updated on May 13, 2020
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion, after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962.

Ralph Waldo Emerson


Introduction and Excerpt from "Threnody"

The poem, "Threnody," is Ralph Waldo Emerson's most widely anthologized poem; it is a long poem of 289 lines and runs nearly 1750 words. It plays out in ten uneven stanzas, in many rimed couples interspersed with varying other rime schemes.

In this poem, the poet has created a speaker who eulogizes his young late son in a moving yet beautifully wise tribute. The Greek term "thanatos" along with the Greek term for song "oide" were employed to create the English word "threnody." Thus the term means song for the dead.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Excerpt from "Threnody"

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. . . .

To read the entire poem, please visit "Threnody."

Reading of "Threnody"


A long poem, 289 lines, by lyric standards, this poem pours out the grief of a father who has lost his son but who also maintains the unique presence of mind to offer an intelligent as well as heartfelt tribute. Ralph Waldo Emerson remains one of the most profound thinkers in early American letters.

First Stanza: Experiencing Natural Pleasantries for the Living

In Emerson's "Threnody," the mourning speaker asserts that while the wind from the south may bring life qualities to the living, it will have no effect on the dead. The speaker's dreadful assertions, of course, refer to his own son who has died and will no longer be able to experience the pleasantries of that wind from the south. As that wind continues to bring life and desire, it cannot touch the realm of those whose souls have left their physical encasements.

Second Stanza: Human Value

Without his lovely child to fill its reaches, his home now seems an empty bleak place. The whole world has become a place of sorrow for the grieving father. The son, who has gone from his sight and from the sunlight, is missed terribly.

The speaker demonstrates his pride in the son, who was full of grace and added value to the world by his mere presence. His son was wondrous to the father, a miracle of joy that brought meaning and value to the father's life as well as the world in general.

Third Stanza: Loved by All

The sorrowful father makes it clear that his son was admired and loved by all those who met him. He pleased even the "fairest dames" as well as the "bearded men" who were approached by the lad with any question.

Even people who had important business to attend to would stop to enjoy conversing with the boy or even to mend the lad's toys. The speaker takes pride in the fact that others loved him so well because of his pleasing qualities.

Fourth Stanza: Admiration and Pleasure

The speaker calls to mind how he felt such joy just observing the lad going off to school. The children were like little cupids eager for learning. The father's chest swelled with pride and pleasure seeing how his beloved child was so well liked by other children. They admired the boy and they would follow his example.

Fifth Stanza: Memories

The speaker remembers watching his son playing in the yard. In his coat and cap, the boy seemed to be listening to "some tune" played "by fairies." The boy seemed to be the only one who could hear such rarified music.

Although the speaker can still view the same scenes as when the boy filled them, the emptiness without his son to fill them weighs heavy on the speaker's heart. The speaker mentions that the boy enjoyed watching the flowing brook, but now "the deep-eyed Boy is gone."

Sixth Stanza: The Crowded Heart That Suffers

The heartbroken speaker again reiterates the fact that nature and the world manage to continue even without the presence of the boy, who had stolen the heart of his parent. This is a phenomenon which all bereaved human beings experience: the world continues although the deceased does not.

There seems to be a contradiction that the grieving mind cannot grasp because of the sorrow that clouds thinking; the crowded heart defies the mind, as it searches for succor from the anguish of suffering.

The speaker is pouring out his heart's blood with the vain hopes that some great force could appear to heal the boy of the disease that eventually stole his precious life from the speaker and his world.

Seventh Stanza: Lamentation and Sorrow

The speaker laments his own sorrow and admits that he is grieving "too much"; but he believes that the world is just a poorer place without his son to enrich it. This boy who was born and belonged to the future but whose future is now gone causes the very future itself to be lost.

Such exaggeration can be expected of a grieving parent. The loss of such a young child seems to be a sin against nature, a sin against the world, and it places a great burden on the suffering parent who must try to continue living and continue to try to understand his loss.

Eighth Stanza: The Balm of Ancient Philosophy

The speaker's lament has now reached the ears of God. Because the speaker has steeped himself in ancient philosophy, he is aware of the soul's ever living essence. He knows that his son's soul still lives on the spiritual plane of being.

And while such knowledge may assuage the grief by some small measure, it cannot eliminate the agony experienced so soon after the departure of that special soul from the particular physical encasement.

The speaker is aware that eventually his own soul will be able to transcend, "The mystic gulf" between himself and God. And eventually, he will be able to fully realize that his son has just made that transition before he did.

Ninth Stanza: Divine Love for Humankind

The Divine had merely appeared to the father through the son in order to teach the father certain lessons his karma had required him to learn. The speaker knows that the finite is united with the infinite through irrevocable ties.

God's love for mankind seems to be tested in so many ways, but none greater than the loss a loved one, especially the loss of a small, young child by a parent. By allowing God to speak in his threnody, the speaker asserts a healing power that will serve as a tribute to the boy now living on the spiritual level of being.

Tenth Stanza: The Eternal Soul

In the final stanza, the speaker asserts eternal verities "Hearts are dust, hearts' loves remain," and that which is "Lost is God" is found in the "Godhead." Knowing that the soul of the loved one continues to live assures the bereaved that they will meet again at some Divinely appointed time.

Eastern Philosophical Tenets

Emerson's tribute to his son offers a useful view of certain tenets of Eastern philosophical thought that assures its students that the concepts of reincarnation and karma operate smoothly regardless of the human being's knowledge of those concepts.

No doubt those concepts gave great comfort the grieving Emerson whose loss of his five-year-old son might have been overwhelming without such knowledge.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes


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