Virginia Lucas Poetry Scrapbook

"Beyond the Prose: Nature in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Poetry," by Christian Ritter

            As one of the founders of the Transcendentalist movement in New England in the 1830s and 1840s, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote many works on nature, the individual man, and religion. Of these works, his prose - journals, essays, letters, and addresses - often gets the most recognition and praise. Since much of the Transcendentalist movement focused on nature and man’s relationship with it, these works do provide much insight into Emerson’s beliefs on the subject. However, despite his popularity as a writer both then and now, his poetry does not get quite the attention that his prose gets. Many of the poems that Emerson wrote had nature, or a specific part of nature, as the main focal point. Looking at these poems both individually and collectively, we see that Emerson used poetry to show that man needed to seek nature to find himself, which would then allow him to find God. Beyond always conveying a higher message about divinity, poetry also gave Emerson an outlet through which he could simply express his appreciation for nature’s aesthetic beauty.
            It is interesting that Emerson’s prose has been so widely read and revered, when in truth Emerson himself thought poetry was the best medium through which to explore nature. In fact, Emerson was a self-proclaimed poet in “all theory, ethics, and politics” (Collected Works 8: 446). Emerson believed that mortal men “live cabined, cribbed, confined in a narrow and trivial lot, - in wants, pains, anxieties and superstitions, in profligate politics, in personal animosities, in mean employments, - and victims of these; and the nobler powers untried, unknown,” (Collected Works 8:280). To combat this society full of corruption and bad ideals, Emerson suggested poetry: “A poet comes who lifts the veil; gives them glimpses of the laws of the universe; shows them the circumstance as illusion; shows that Nature is only a language to express the laws, which are grand and beautiful” (Collected Works 8:307). He illustrates this idea in “Merlin I,” in which he argues that the seer (poet) is the man who helps others understand the spiritual realm and the “underlying unity of the universe between God, man, and nature,” (Cavanaugh 27). Emerson did not believe that poetry could get rid of the problems found in society, but rather that it was a means by which man could learn to coexist with these issues.
To know how to coexist with rather than to escape this harmful society, Emerson believed that man should turn not just to poetry but also to nature. Emerson believed that nature is the great moral educator. He writes in the second stanza of “The Apology,”
Tax not my sloth that I
Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
Writes a letter in my book (l. 4-7) (Prose and Poetry 58)
Although he believed that modern society and the natural world were two separate entities that could coexist, he did not believe they were interchangeable. Man can bring himself from his corrupted society into nature and find peace and divinity, but man cannot take natural things back to the civilized community and expect them to have the same divine results. He states this belief most clearly in his poem “Each and All.” The speaker hears the note of a sparrow and decides to bring the sparrow home, but the sparrow does not enchant him like it did in its natural habitat: “He sings the song, but it cheers not now, / For I did not bring home the river and sky;- / He sang to my ear, - they sang to my eye” (l. 16-18). Later in the poem, the speaker does the same with a sea-shell:
I wiped away the weeds and foam,
I fetched my sea-born treasures home;
But the poor, unsightly noisome things
Had left their beauty on the shore (l. 24-27)
Although the speaker brings both the sparrow and the seashell home, he is taking away their beauty because he is stripping them of their natural surroundings. When they are taken away, Emerson suggests, they lose their divinity.
There is no question that Emerson believed that nature and divinity were linked. By placing himself in nature and using poetry as a means of expression, Emerson thought that man could find purpose and religion. Emerson expressed this belief by quoting Sir Francis Bacon in an unmarked speech: “[Poetry] was ever thought to have some participation in divinity, because it doth raise and erect the mind,” (qtd in Walls 50). After leaving his position as a Unitarian pastor in 1832, Emerson immersed himself in nature to truly find God. He had disagreed with much of what the Church was trying to preach. It had commonly been said that nature had to conform to fit the law of scripture, but Emerson believed the opposite; he believed that nature is perfectly ordered, and that scripture should adjust accordingly. To study nature, Emerson believed, was to study God, “to marvel at the ingenuity of His plan and the minuteness of His care,” (Walls, 42). For Emerson, there was no question as to whether or not God invented nature. That belief had already been accepted in Protestant culture. However, in turning to nature and suggesting that studying nature could reveal God’s ingenious “plan,” Emerson sought to show that objects in nature were not chaotic and foreign, but rather had a law that was comprehensible to the human mind.
Because Emerson believed the law of nature was the same law found in man, he sought to show how man could use nature as a means to fully understand himself. Robert Spiller argues that the core doctrine of the Transcendentalist movement is the “correspondence between moral and natural laws,” (qtd in Walls 57) which was what Emerson worked to find in nature and explain in his poetry - how the human soul and the spirit of nature are linked. What Emerson found was that nature is a great moral educator, but not in the sense that nature will give direct answers for how to find God. In fact, nature’s messages are only “dubious hints.” Instead, man should search his own soul and find that the “higher self, the self that is not self, emancipates itself in ecstatic unison with the universal spirit,” (Foerster 614). Patrick Labriola of The Concord Saunterer suggests that Emerson’s views on the relationship between man and God can be analyzed on three levels. On the first level, Emerson believed that nature enables the individual to learn about himself through the signs of nature. Spending time in nature is a time for self-reflection, which consequently leads to understanding and acceptance. Man cannot find God without first finding himself. On the second level, spirit has changed itself into a natural substance in order to reveal itself to mankind. This relates to why Emerson left the pastorate; he believed that God has manifested Himself in the natural world so that man will use nature to find Him. On the third level, conscious human spirit and the unconscious spirit of nature are united when these two spiritual forces come together. Should man put himself in nature, he will soon find that his soul, the soul of nature, and the soul of God are united as one (125).
There are plenty of poems written by Emerson that show this relationship of man with nature and God. For example, “The Rhodora” talks about the speaker’s visit to a rhodora bush;
he compliments its beauty and contemplates his own presence and the bush’s presence. He finishes the poem by saying,
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 (l. 13-16)
God who created both human and nature, even that particular rhodora bush, compels the speaker to the flower. Each individual is drawn towards nature, and by placing himself there the speaker can truly begin to understand life and divinity. Another example much more personal to Emerson himself is seen in “Fable.” The poem involves a quarrel between a mountain and a squirrel. Emerson labels the squirrel “Bun,” which was a nickname Emerson gave to himself (Emerson, Prose and Poetry 230). Emerson adopts the role of the squirrel, and the mountain calls him a “little prig.” Bun responds that the mountain is truly big and the squirrel is truly small, but each has its own unique characteristics: the mountain can carry forests on its back, but it cannot crack a nut like the squirrel can. The two can simply coexist. By physically putting himself in the poem Emerson represented himself as part of the natural world, and by acting as part of the natural world he found belonging and unity with other parts of nature.
            Nature for Emerson was an outlet through which he could explore himself and his relationship to God, but it was also a way in which he could come to terms with life’s hardships and troubles, which were plentiful for him. Frank Thompson argues in "Emerson's Theory and Practice of Poetry" that Emerson used poetry to overcome the sorrows he faced throughout his life. In 1831, Emerson’s wife Ellen Louisa Tucker died of tuberculosis at the young age of 20 after having been married to Emerson for two years. The loss affected him greatly, so he sought refuge in nature to contemplate life and death. For a while after his loss, Emerson’s poems were largely centered on his former wife, and through nature and poetry Emerson eventually found solace. However, loss came again soon when Emerson’s brother, after first being institutionalized for a mental illness, died of tuberculosis in 1834. Once more, Emerson went to nature and again he eventually found solace (Thompson 1174). Robert Tindol has a different view of the same subject, arguing that after the deaths of his wife and brother, Emerson began to study nature more scientifically, finding that human beings can suffer because of the very “structure of the organism and the quirks of biological design rather than the grand design of an entity that lords over physical creation,” (411). No matter what way Emerson processed death, he always went to nature to find consolation, and he used poetry as an outlet for this expression.
While Emerson did write poems that provided valuable insight into man’s role in the natural world and his relationship with God (including “The Rhodora” and “Fable”), it is my belief that poetry for Emerson was also an expression of his appreciation of nature’s aesthetic beauty, with not every poem having a higher insight into man’s role in the natural world. Richard Francis supports this claim in “Archangel in the Pleached Garden: Emerson's Poetry” when he suggests that Emerson’s poetry oscillates between “law and passion, between didacticism and sensualism.” He argues that much of Emerson’s poetry did convey the philosophical ideas of the Transcendentalist movement, but the rest of his poetry aimed to romanticize our “phenomenal existence” in nature (464). In essence, Emerson’s poetry rode the fine line of explaining our existence and marveling at the beauty of the natural world.
This claim is supported by Emerson’s emphasis on the senses in his poetry. Sight and color are incredibly important aspects of Emerson’s poems that contribute to his aesthetics. Although Emerson’s son personally said that his father didn’t have an eye for color, examinations of his poems suggest otherwise (Foerster 603). “The Rhodora” mentioned earlier shows a strong contrast between the dark and dreary black pond and the vibrant purple petals of the rhodora and the red plumes of the bird that’s come to cool itself. “The Adirondacs” [sic] is another poem, albeit much longer than “The Rhodora,” that places an emphasis on color. In it Emerson writes, “Through files of flags that gleamed like bayonets, / Through gold-moth-haunted beds of pickerel-flower, / Through scented banks of lilies white and gold,” (l. 21-23). In another poem Emerson describes how “Yonder ragged cliff / Has a thousand faces in a thousand hours,” showing the changing colors of the sun on rock (“Musketaquid” l. 24-25). There was fluidity in the colors of the natural world, from the “opaline” shine of the sea, to the white air of a snowstorm casting a veil over hills, to the silver line of the swinging spider.
Yet however important sight was for Emerson, it was not the only sense that he emphasized in his poetry. Sound was also important. In “Each and All,” referenced earlier, Emerson writes,
            Again I saw, again I heard,
The rolling river, the morning bird; -
Beauty through my senses stole;
I yielded myself to the perfect whole (l. 48-51)
Emerson wrote of natural sound in “Merlin I” as well, saying,

Chiming with the forest-tone,
When boughs buffet boughs in the wood;
Chiming with the gasp and moan
Of the ice-imprisoned flood (l. 17-20)

Emerson himself noted that he did not have the best ear for man-made sounds, and although he dutifully attended concerts, he much preferred the natural sounds found outdoors. With so much emphasis put on the senses in his poems, it becomes clear that Emerson found beauty in the natural world. Beauty for Emerson was the “form under which the intellect prefers to study the world,” and the man who can best portray this beauty to others is the poet (Cavanaugh 27). 
            Emerson’s poetry on nature varied in subject matter, but generally did not focus on big, pressing issues. Many of his poems had very simple subjects, which might suggest that Emerson wrote much of his poetry simply because he enjoyed the look of the natural world. For example, “The Humble-Bee,” written in May 1837, focuses on Emerson’s appreciation for bees. As the poem progresses, both the bee and the poet become more immersed in nature, until finally the speaker can draw connections between himself and the bee. “Water” is a poem that focuses solely on water. After the speaker dips his foot into water, he contemplates its importance, noting that it “understands civilization” and, if ill-used, can “elegantly destroy.” With so many of Emerson’s poems having simple subjects, it’s easy to assume that he wrote these poems outdoors, surrounded by nature, which is in fact true. “The Humble Bee” was written after Emerson saw a bee fly into the woods and decided to go follow it. “The Snow-Storm” was written during a heavy storm in Concord on December 29, 1834. “The Sea-Shore,” a poem that commends the beauty of the sea and the coast, was written right after Emerson took a walk on the beach at Pigeon’s Cove on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, (Emerson, Prose and Poetry 475). Since Emerson spent so much time observing nature and often wrote his poetry in a natural setting, it can be suggested that he wrote to express his awe at the aesthetic beauty around him.
            It truly is a shame that more critics of Emerson’s work do not study his poetry to the extent that they study his prose. Close examination of individual poems shows that Emerson appreciated the aesthetic beauty of nature, from the sights to the sounds to the simple pleasures. A broader look into his poetry shows Emerson found that nature, man, and God are all linked. Should man go into nature, he will eventually find and understand himself, and after persistent effort, man will eventually find that his soul and the soul of nature are the same, both made by the almighty God. Thus, man’s time in nature will eventually lead to a discovery of the divine. Furthermore, time spent in nature will help one recover from the hardships that man encounters in life. Should critics study Emerson’s poetry more, they will discover that this poetry delicately balances the complexity of existence with the simplicity of nature’s beauty.
Works Cited
Cavanaugh, Cynthia A. "The Aeolian Harp: Beauty and Unity in the Poetry and Prose of Ralph Waldo Emerson." Rocky Mountain Review of Language and Literature 56.1 (2002): 25-35. Web.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: Greystone, 1930. Print.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Emerson's Prose and Poetry. Ed. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. New York: Publishing Synthesis, Print.
Foerster, Norman. "Emerson as Poet of Nature." Modern Language Association 37.3 (1922): 599-614. JSTOR. Web. 1 Nov. 2016.
Francis, Richard Lee. "Archangel in the Pleached Garden: Emerson's Poetry." ELH 33.4 (1966): 461-72. Web.
Labriola, Patrick. "Ralph Waldo Emerson's ‘Nature’: Puritan Typology and German Idealism." The Concord Saunterer 10 (2002): 124-33. JSTOR. Web. 29 Oct. 2016.
Thompson, Frank T. "Emerson's Theory and Practice of Poetry." Modern Language Association 43.4 (1928): 1170-184. Web.
Tindol, Robert. "Emerson's Nature as an Early Manifestation of the Biological Sublime." Changing English: Studies in Culture and Education 20.4 (2013): 409-19. ProQuest. Web. 2 Nov. 2016.
Windolph, Christopher J. Emerson's Nonlinear Nature. Columbia: U of Missouri, 2007. Print.
Wilson, Eric. Emerson’s Sublime Science. Great Britain: MacMillan Press, 1999. Print.
Walls, Laura Dassow. Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. Print.