Famous Rhododendron Manuscript Displayed At University Of Virginia Library
University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Virginia
Reprinted from "Mid-Atlantic Rhododendron, News and Notes", Mid-Atlantic Chapter newsletter
At the Middle Atlantic Chapter fall meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia, members visited the University of Virginia Library (home of the MAC rhododendron and azalea collection) and viewed an original manuscript of the most famous poem ever written about the genus Rhododendron. Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The Rhodora", with its memorable line "Then Beauty is its own excuse for being," is also acknowledged to be one of the greatest American poems, memorized by generations of school children who had never seen a wild azalea. "The Rhodora" was first published in the Western Messenger in July, 1839, and later in Emerson's Poems (1847), and has since been reprinted in innumerable anthologies. The University of Virginia manuscript is a copy by Emerson pasted down on a watercolor of rhodora in bloom and probably provided by Emerson to an admirer who asked for an example of his autograph.
Rhodora (Rhododendron canadense) is the most northerly of native American azaleas, growing from Labrador south to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, near streams and in "damp nooks." Rhodora bears purplish pink flowers in April and May before the leaves appear.
Emerson's poem cannot fail to echo in the hearts of laborers in the gardens of rhododendrons and azaleas. The complete text of the poem follows.
In May, when seawinds 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 selfsame Power that brought me there, brought you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Poem from R.W. Emerson Collection (#6248-a), Barrett Library, University of Virginia Library.