May 26, 2003

The Rhodora

by Ralph Waldo Emerson

MONDAY, 26 MAY 2003
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Poem: "The Rhodora," by Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The Rhodora

On being asked, Whence is the flower?

In May, when sea-winds 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 self-same Power that brought me there brought you.

Literary Notes:

Today is Memorial Day. Originally called Declaration Day, it is a time to remember those who have died in our nation's service. The day was officially claimed on May 5, 1868 by General John Logan, National Commander of the Grand Army of the Republic. It was first celebrated that year on May 30 when flowers were placed on the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery. Since the late 50's on the Thursday before Memorial Day, the soldiers of the 3rd U.S. Infantry place small American flags at each of the more than 260,000 gravestones at Arlington National Cemetery.

It was on this day in 1521 that the German priest and theologian Martin Luther was declared an outlaw and his writings were banned by the Edict of Worms. He had entered the religious life because one night, as a young man, he'd been caught in a terrible thunderstorm, and swore to God that if he survived he would become a monk. He was ordained, studied theology, and eventually got a job as a professor. He often confessed to his students that he didn't understand parts of the Bible, and he asked for their help to figure it out. As his career progressed, he began to make more and more controversial lectures. In Luther's time, a common practice of the church was the sale of indulgences, which decreased the time a person had to spend in Purgatory. In 1517, the church was trying to raise money to build the Sistine Chapel, and its agents began to pitch the sale of indulgences much more aggressively. Luther was disgusted, and on the eve of All Saints Day in 1517, he posted 95 theses attacking indulgences on the door of his church. He wrote, "All those who consider themselves secure in their salvation through letters of indulgence will be eternally damned, and so will their teachers." Luther was summoned to Rome, got into an argument with a cardinal there, heard a rumor that he would be imprisoned, and fled the city with help from friends. In 1520, Luther published even more controversial writings, attacking papal authority and the whole structure of the church. That December there was a bonfire at his university, where he burned a copy of canon law and a copy of the Pope's indictment of him. In April 1521, he was called before the Diet of Worms, a legal assembly of the Holy Roman Empire, and the officials asked him to reject his writings. He said that he couldn't do so unless convinced by Scripture or reason. Two months later, on May 26, the Diet declared him an outlaw and his writings banned. His writings inspired the Protestant Reformation.

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