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Emerson’s Nature Poems: Are they Spiritual, Philosophical, or Scientific?

By Justin Moore

                                                        Venn Diagram
          Through his poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson explored spiritual, philosophical and scientific analyses of nature and man’s relationship to nature.  As father of the Transcendentalist movement, which regarded nature and people as inherently good, Emerson’s influence was vast.  Transcendentalists believed that society corrupted the individual; therefore, the movement placed an emphasis on the individual and not society.  The best way an individual could remedy the influence of a corrupt society was to become self-reliant.  Emerson believed nature exemplified the self-sufficiency that men lacked, though Emerson’s study of, and translation of, nature’s self-sufficiency and man’s ability to implement this self-sufficiency is contradictory.  Part of the contradiction lies in Emerson’s use of the word “nature.”  There are several prevalent scholarly voices that argue different perspectives about the meaning of “nature” in Emerson’s poems: spiritual, scientific, or philosophical.  As Emerson’s influence changed throughout his life, so did the meaning of the word “nature” in his works.

                                                                               Ralph Waldo Emerson
           Born in a Boston parsonage to Reverend William Emerson and Ruth Haskins Emerson in 1803 on the 25th of May, Ralph Waldo Emerson would be heavily influenced by religion.  In 1829, he became a Unitarian pastor of Boston’s Second Church and in that same year he was wed to Ellen Louisa Tucker.  Emerson’s sermons emphasized “‘the infinitude of the private man,’ the moral authority of religious or social institutions and even the Bible, and the liberation from its inherited past which the inventiveness and political freedom of the present offers the human race.” These themes foreshadowed the idealism in Emerson’s essay Nature (Bosco 12).
            Emerson encountered many devastating blows in the early 1830s that gave him the time and desire to travel to Europe.  In February of 1831, Tucker passed away from tuberculosis.  Two months prior to her passing, Emerson’s brother, Edward, was diagnosed with tuberculosis and moved to Puerto Rico where he passed away in 1834.  After his brother’s departure and wife’s death in 1831, Emerson stayed with his church for a little less than two years.  He left the church due to a disagreement over the sacrament of communion between himself and the congregation.  Emerson saw communion as “an example ‘of worship in the dead forms of our forefathers’” and he didn’t want to perform this ritual for the purpose of tradition or performance (Bosco 13).  Instead, Emerson was more concerned with the authenticity of one’s personal relationship with God and any form of ritualistic behavior that deviated from authentic worship was seen by Emerson to be a waste of time.  Emerson resigned as pastor in 1832, and on Christmas Day, three days after his resignation, Emerson set sail to Europe.                                                    
            In July of 1833, Emerson visited France’s Natural History Museum where he became heavily influenced by Carl Linnaeus’s and A.L. Jussieu’s classification of plants.  Richardson notes that during this time, “[t]he debate on classification was a debate not just about how species are distributed in the natural world but about how they are connected to each other” (140).  After visiting the museum, Emerson stated, “I am moved by strange sympathies.  I say I will listen to this invitation.  I will be a naturalist” (qtd in Spiller 3). Emerson responded to the invitation to understand connectivity between species and, in keeping with his religious background, elevated this idea beyond the physical and into the spiritual and religious realms.
           Emerson published his long essay Nature in 1836 and in it he demonstrated that nature not only exhibited connectivity within itself, but served as the reason mankind has commodity, beauty, a learned language, and discipline. As a commodity, “nature is not only the material, but is also the process and the result” (Spiller 11).  Emerson notes that as times progresses forward and mankind’s reach expands, men must move and build their homes.  In order to build a home, one must utilize the resources available in nature, and if men are to move they must be reassured that the lifestyle they are accustomed to moves with them, which is done by means of roads and railways.  Thus all modes of transportation are in some way provided by nature.  Nature provides everything that man needs, yet in order to encourage men to work together to harvest the resources available, men must be given an incentive to work.  This incentive comes in the form of commodity.
           Emerson believed that “nature[’s] [beauty] satisfies the soul purely by its loveliness” (Spiller 13), but nature also has medicinal purposes and is remedial to one’s health.  Men “are never tired, so long as [they] can see far enough” to view the horizon (Spiller 13). Language is also a result of nature since nature is the reason that men have thoughts.  Spiller notes that for Emerson “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact” and “every appearance in nature corresponds to some state of the mind” (18).  In order to express this state of mind, man must draw a picture which represents what he has seen.  These pictures, when used commonly enough, begin to have meaning which in turn can then be associated with words. Words are representations of the picture which is a representation of the object in nature that provoked a thought that man needed to convey. Finally, for Emerson, nature exhibits discipline every day in the form of “space, time, society, labor, climate, food, locomotion, the animals, [and] the mechanical forces, whose meaning is unlimited” (Spiller 23).  Nature is the “understanding of intellectual truths” and provides examples of structure that ensures survival.  Without discipline in nature, everything would be chaotic and existence for man would be near to impossible.
          In his 1836 essay Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, and Discipline are the four ways in which Emerson connects nature to the human race.  All four of these themes can also be found in his poems.  Of the four, beauty is most prevalent in Emerson’s poems since it is beauty that is seen as having the most restorative and spiritual significance for mankind. And yet the exact relationship between God, nature, and mankind in Emerson’s poetry is difficult to determine, though it is clear that Emerson did not view nature as inherently sinful. Morphology is the study of living things and the relationship these living organisms have with one another.  Emerson’s view of morphology was influenced by Goethe and it “enabled the expression of a sympathetic, even filial, identification with nature” as seen in the poem “Woodnotes” (Rossi 126).  In the poem the narrator states, “come, lay thee in my soothing shade, / and heal the hurts which sin has made” (Wagenknecht 53).  The narrator believes that “nature is faithful to all who trust her” and that “nature cleanses [man] from sins” which is “in opposition to the orthodox Christian view” that a cleansing of sins can only “be accomplished through Divine Grace” (Wagenknecht 53).
          Critic Edward Wagenknecht asserts that Emerson believed nature is subordinate to God. For Emerson, “God is almost identified with nature, but generally nature seems to be the ‘Not-Me,’ serving as a kind of medium between God and the soul” (55).  Wagenknecht’s evidence is derived from “The Waterfall,” a poem in which the narrator is given strength from the earth: “For Love draws might from terrene force/ and potencies of sky” (Wagenknecht 55). When man is weak and feeling overwhelmed, he must look to God.  Emerson utilizes nature here as a medium between God and the soul.  When examining the fruits of nature and the majestic landscapes that men’s eyes behold, Emerson says that one cannot help but see the creator in the earth’s beauty.  Nature is the tangible evidence of a God whose presence can only be felt spiritually. 

                                  Great Mother

          Literary critic George Woodberry disagrees with Wagenknecht’s assertion based on the poem “Blight.”  In “Blight,” Nature is the Great Mother that man aspires to reach and it is from nature that man has fallen. Woodberry argues that Nature gives man strength, but the strength does not come from God, but rather from man’s inner aspiration to achieve complete reconciliation with Nature and thus reach the level of the Great Mother.  In “Blight,” Emerson writes about “the coming of the ideal man, who shall achieve reconcilement and be himself equal to Nature” (Woodberry 170).  The opening lines to “Blight” are “Give me truths/For I am weary of the surfaces, / And die of inanition.”  The narrator desires the utmost truth, the core of what truth is, not simply a representation of truth. Furthermore, the narrator describes himself as “Of the round day, related to the sun, / And planted world, and full executor, / Of their imperfect functions.”  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word executor, is “one who executes or carries out a purpose” or “one who performs the duties” of someone else.  In the case of “Blight”’s narrator, he wants to perform the duties of Nature.                                          
          Wagenknecht disagrees with Woodberry, arguing that for Emerson the beauty of nature is created by God and mankind is to enjoy the beauty and see God’s work in nature, but mankind should not mistake nature for God.  Agreeing with Wagenknecht is author Robert Spiller, who states that Emerson used the word “nature” to mean “the spiritual uplifting of man” in which “God will show [Emerson]… where and how to live.” This attitude can be seen in “The Waterfall” and “Monadnoc” (Spiller 3).  In the poem “Monadnoc,” the narrator states that “Monadnoc is a mount strong…/ but well I know, no mountain can, Zion or Meru, measure with man” (Wagenknecht 55).  According to the OED, a Monadnoc is a “hill, mountain, or ridge or erosion-resistant rock rising about a peneplain.”  Zion is a hill where the city of David began and is where Jerusalem was first established.  Jerusalem is, biblically speaking, the place of God’s people.   The narrator is saying in “Monadnoc” that no matter the tallest hill that man may have, it is the hill that God has chosen which stands above the rest.  The narrator recognizes that there is beauty in other nature, but the height of beauty rests in God. 
           Emerson believed that everything consisted of Nature or the Soul.  Spiller notes that “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE” (8).  The soul for Emerson was the mind. According to theology, Nature is not what man is intended to strive towards.  God is the true epitome of truth and it is towards God that mankind is intended to strive .  Nature is the creation, not the creator, as Emerson implies.  But Emerson’s poems “Blight” and “Monadnoc” are a clear indication of Emerson breaking away from religion and into philosophy.  Wagenknecht notes that “in the Bible, nature fell along with man, but not in Emerson” (56). Emerson believed that since humans possess a higher form of Divinity within them in the form of free will, then mankind is in a unique position to distance himself from God.  Nature, on the other hand, is void of making decisions and thus unable to distance itself from God.  Since nature is under the “‘serene order’ or God’s self revelation, [nature] is ‘inviolable by’” humans (Wagenknecht 56).  Therefore, nature is closer to God than man is, which is why Emerson strove to find connection not only between God and man, but also between nature and man.
           Again, Woodberry argues against Wagenknecht by asserting that for Emerson, “it is not that man has fallen off from God, but from Nature” (169).  According to Woodberry, Emerson held the view that there is opposition between man and nature and that “Nature is represented as the Great Mother and man as her child” (169).  Man is weak in comparison to nature, which is dominant and in control.  The opposition of man to nature is man’s atonement for the first sin by the Biblical figure Adam.  In Emerson’s poem “Woodnotes,” Woodberry finds evidence of Emerson moving away from the thought that mankind is separate from God, and instead theorizes that mankind is separate from nature.  In “Woodnotes” Emerson writes, “But the curtain doth not rise, /And Nature has miscarried wholly / Into Failure, into folly.” According to the OED, “miscarried” means “gone astray, not reaching or achieving the intended or desired end” (miscarried).  According to the poem, nature gave birth to mankind and not shortly after birth man was led astray into failure.  Since this great initial failure, mankind has been aspiring to attain the status of his parent, the Great Mother.
           Finally, critic Gustaaf van Cromphout argues that for Emerson nature and mankind are “coworkers” of God. According to Cromphout, Emerson believed that intellect and knowledge were how man could best strive towards self-awareness and therefore hoist himself to the level of God’s coworker.  Emerson mentioned several times in his sermons that “men were called upon to be God’s coworkers in completing the creation” (Cromphout 144).  This belief led Emerson to theorize that “nature is God striving toward self-awareness, a condition that Nature achieves in humanity”: “Nature remains unconscious of its own striving until it reaches the point of human self-awareness.” According to Cromphout, “humans, in other words, [are] nature having risen to consciousness” (145).  This theory is in opposition to the Christian belief that men are in debt to God and are his joyful servants, not his coworkers. 

           While the critics discussed above debate the relationship between nature and God in Emerson’s essays and poetry, there are some critics who are more concerned with Emerson’s scientific ideas. Author and literary critic Peter Obuchowski argues that Emerson’s poems endeavored to ascertain nature’s relationship to mankind via scientific analysis and discovery.  Obuchowski insists that for Emerson, “the whole problem of philosophy in relationship to science centered on the larger question of what relationship ‘poetic’ truth bore to scientific truth” (4).  Emerson couldn’t ignore the scientific discoveries that were happening during his time.  To do so would have limited his understanding of nature and the world in which he lived.  It is important to note that the men in Emerson’s time saw scientific knowledge as “cutting-edge versions of the ‘grandest’ human truths” (Ross 119).  Evolution didn’t apply only to species, but to the evolution of the mind.  As the Transcendentalist that he was, Emerson placed himself “at the forefront of the ‘human side’ of evolutionary theorizing” (Ross 120). 
          Literary critic William Rossi agrees with Obuchowski and proposes that Emerson considered “pursuing his inquiry through scientific theory… because the process of [scientific] professionalization was only then getting under way in England” (118).  Rossi states, “Emerson lived through a time when [nature’s] physical environment was extraordinarily transformed” and his theories were also evolving (101).  There was population growth as well as industrial and agricultural capitalism.  These emergences would have impacted the way in which Emerson lived, providing him access to modern luxury but also detaching him from the religious aspects of nature.  Emerson thus became “much more interested in the relationship between the natural world and the human mind than. . . in the natural world as proof of a designing deity” (Rossi 109). 
          Clearly, there are many different routes that Emerson took to ascertain man’s connection to nature: religion, philosophy and science.  Emerson didn’t settle on one explanation in his understanding and use of the word “nature” which is why, for many, studying Emerson’s poems and essays is frustrating.  Emerson’s contradictory explanations of man’s connection to nature have bothered literary critics for over one hundred and fifty years, and it is the challenge of defining Emerson’s view of nature that has invoked such a lively and interesting debate.
                                                Works Cited

Bosco, Ronald.  “Ralph Waldo Emerson: A Brief Biography.”  A Historical Guide to RalphWaldo Emerson, edited by Joel Myerson, Oxford University Press, 2000,  9-58. 

Cromphout, Gustaaf Van.  Emerson’s Ethics.  University of Missouri Press, 1999.         <'s+ethics&hl=en&sa=X&ved=
0ahUKEwjAj_fC6anQAhWDJCYKHR16DP8Q6AEIHTAA#v=onepage&q=nature&f=false.  Accessed 9 November, 2016.

"Executor, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 15 November 2016.

"Miscarried, adj." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 15 November 2016.

"Monadnock, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 15 November 2016.

Obuchowski, Peter.  Emerson and Science.  SteinerBooks, 2005. <
KnQAhUFWSYKHbfmBP8Q6AEIHTAA#v=snippet&q=philosophy&f=false>.  Accessed 9 November, 2016.

Spiller, Robert, and Alfred Ferguson.  The Collected Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, vol. I Nature, Addresses, and Lectures.  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.


Richardson Jr, Robert.  Emerson: The Mind of Fire.  University of California Press, 1995. <
0ahUKEwjjx8bilMXPAhXFWx4KHRUlCHUQ6AEIHDAA#v=onepage&q=museum&f=false>. Accessed 4 October, 2016.

Rossi, William.  “Emerson, Nature, and Natural Science.” A Historical Guide to Ralph Waldo Emerson, edited by Joel Myerson, Oxford University Press, 2000,  101-150. 

Wagenknecht, Edward.  Ralph Waldo Emerson: Portrait of a Balanced Soul.  Oxford University. Press, 1974. 


Wayne, Tiffany.  Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism.  Infobase Publishing, 2006.<
Accessed 9 November, 2016.

Woodberry, George.  English Men of Letters: Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The MacMillan Company, 1907.
onepage&q&f=false.>. Accessed 4 October, 2016.

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