Clojure, Emacs and Cider

Or, what you need to know before diving into clojure’s REPL.


I’ve been coming to clojure lately, and I finally decided to give emacs a go. Unfortunately, setting up emacs for clojure is a PITA, for lots of reasons.

Let’s try to shed some light on that.


  • Clojure: a programming language from the lisp family. Plenty about that on the internet
  • Leiningen: a clojure runner, not unlike npm or maven or whatever. Actually its different because the config file is written in clojure itself. It’s basically a command-line utility to interact with clojure programs, which include launching a network repl, or nREPL, for interacting with your clojure code
  • Emacs: an editor written in some kind of lisp. This is important, because you customize emacs by writing lisp (which is a different from clojure)
    • major modes: determines the editing behaviour of the current buffer. Only 1 active at any time
    • minor modes: alters behaviour in well-known way. Many active at same time
    • init.el: where the customization of emacs starts. Should be in ~/.emacs.d/init.el
    • Cider: a set of emacs modes for working with clojure Cider makes use of a lib called org.clojure/tools.nrepl

Setting up

There are already alot of tutorials on clojure and leiningen. We’re gonna dive into emacs and cider. For emacs, I followed this guide (actually the braveclojure site is excellent for clojure also), but you will need to tweak some things to make sure everything runs smoothly.

Note 1: the guide doesn’t have the link to the git repo that you should clone, right now its still online at so you should git clone ~/.emacs.d. I’m guessing the authors are prepping for the book release so they changed the text to reflect that.

Note 2: When you clone that repo, you are actually getting some packages besides the configuration. If you ls ~/.emacs.d/elpa you will see alot of folders.

Note 3: Don’t forget to edit your ~/.lein/profiles.clj and include cider-nrepl:

{:user {:plugins [[cider/cider-nrepl "0.10.0-SNAPSHOT"]}} ;; ignore, see Note 4

Note 4: CIDER used to require you to keep its dependencies in your lein profiles. But CIDER and cider-nrepl have the same version numbers so its easy to keep them in sync. You are putting a hardcoded 0.10-snapshot but CIDER is 0.14.0 on melpa stable and 0.15 on melpa. But CIDER now injects its dependencies so stating them is no longer required, but only serves to explicitly mismatch the frontend (CIDER) from the backend (cider-nrepl)

What it is exactly that I’m doing here?


  • using emacs as an editor
  • using leiningen with a plugin called cider-nrepl
  • using an emacs package called cider to send clojure code to the repl and get results, all from inside emacs.

I honestly don’t know exactly how it works because I’m a clojure noob. This is how I think it works.

  • when you launch a repl (lein repl for instance), and you have the cider-nrepl plugin the plugin hooks onto the repl
  • when you call cider-jack-in you are launching a repl behind the scenes
  • cider is “just” for editing files (in emacs lingo, buffers)
  • cider-nrepl takes care of communicating with the repl, ie, sending clojure code from emacs to the repl and getting results, exceptions, etc

Careful. Emacs uses cider, which is a major-mode. Cider communicates with the nrepl, so cider and nrepl must be version-compatible. You have to be careful with the cider and nrepl version you are using, otherwise you will have warnings and the repl may not work. This means you have to pick cider from the proper repo; if you clone the emacs settings mentioned above, you are already getting a specific cider version

Melpa, Elpa, Marmalade

You can grab packages (plugins) for emacs from different repos. There’s Melpa, Elpa and Marmalade. Here’s a link explaining the differences. Make sure you grab cider from the proper repo, and that the cider (actually cider-nrepl) version matches with the cider-nrepl you configure in your leiningen.

It took me a while to figure out that different repos have different versions (ex: stable vs snapshot). What I actually did was remove all package folders from ~/.emacs.d/elpa and add all repos in ~/.emacs.d/init.el. Emacs will install packages on the first run

;; Define package repositories
(require 'package)
(add-to-list 'package-archives
             '("elpa" . ""))
(add-to-list 'package-archives
             '("marmalade" . "") t)
(add-to-list 'package-archives
             '("tromey" . "") t)
(add-to-list 'package-archives
             '("melpa" . "") t)
(add-to-list 'package-archives
             '("melpa-stable" . "") t)

And below:

;; The packages you want installed. You can also install these
;; manually with M-x package-install
;; Add in your own as you wish:
(defvar my-packages
 '(;; makes handling lisp expressions much, much easier
   ;; Cheatsheet:

   ;; key bindings and code colorization for Clojure

   ;; extra syntax highlighting for clojure

   ;; integration with a Clojure REPL

Emacs, Cider, Repl

REPL: When you are using cider, you are actually sending code to the REPL for evaluation, and getting results back. If you change a file, you have to either reload the classpath or send the code again

Let’s get this show on the road.

Start a new project:

$ lein new testdrive
$ ls testdrive

You should see a bunch of files, which include project.clj as well as src and test folders. There should be a core.clj under testdrive/core/ that looks like this:

(ns testdrive.core)
(defn foo
  "I don't do a whole lot."
  (println x "Hello, World!"))

Lets go to emacs:

$ emacs .

Navigate to the core.clj file with arrows and enter key. Now we want to fire a repl through cider. Press Alt+X (in emacs lingo, its M-x), then write cider-jack-in and then ENTER.

The repl will start. Now you try to call the foo function from within the repl:

user> (in-ns 'testdrive.core)
#object[clojure.lang.Namespace 0x79a385c4 "testdrive.core"]
testdrive.core> (foo 1)
CompilerException java.lang.RuntimeException: Unable to resolve symbol: foo in this context, compiling:(/tmp/form-init5405367346234268941.clj:1:1) 

WHAAAAAT? I hate you emacs/clojure/repl.

Note: please see the shortcuts at the end on how to navigate emacs, split the frame, etc. Its much easier to split frame and switch between the source and the repl.

Not so fast. When you fire the repl, it just spins a clojure repl, that’s all. You haven’t loaded anything yet (I mean, eval’d). So now you want to load the core.clj onto the repl. There’s a bunch of cider shortcuts for this, I do Ctrl-c Ctrl-k (again, in emacs lingo its C-c C-k) (the Ctrl key is not released). The cider readme states that this means “load (eval) the current buffer”.

Now if you go to the repl again and try

testdrive.core> (foo 1)
1 Hello, World!


If you don’t want to go to the repl, you can write this in core.clj

(foo 1)

And press C-c C-e. You should see the result on the same line:

(foo 1) => nil

Now change the foo function to “return” something (as you know, in clojure the last result is the return value).

(defn foo
  "I don't do a whole lot."
  (println x "Hello, World!")

Try again with C-c C-e:

(foo 1) => nil


Remember: the repl has the old function definition. If you change the function, you have to eval it again. Position the cursor at the end of the new definition for foo and eval it through C-c C-f (or any other way fwiw). Now try to call foo again through C-c C-e (so that it shows the result in our buffer):

(foo 1) => 333

Note: when using cider, the position of the cursor is important to determine what is going to be evaluated

Basically, what this allows you is to load and run all the code that you want without ever leaving the repl (emacs in this case). Cider has alot of goodies for interactive development:

  • C-c , for running tests for a given namespace (eg: if you’re in the testdrive.core buffer/namespace, it will run testdrive.core-test which correspondes to the file testdrive/core_test.clj)
  • We already seen C-c C-e for eval’ing and displaying the results (kinda like lighttable)
  • C-c C-x for reloading the classpath (eg: you changed some code, and want to run tests)
  • and others

Caveat: if you add a dependency on project.clj, you have to restart cider because the classpath is defined only once at startup (its a java thing).


I recommend the following pages:

Please kindly correct me if you find any bugs. You can raise an issue: And finally, stay tuned. I’ll try and post some more clojure interactive development goodies.

Written on November 17, 2015