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Emerson and Our Busy World


Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:35 am

By Victor Derycz

The human condition is a concept with many points of view that are mostly determined by religious belief and philosophy. It comprises the various elements that make up human existence. As an example, the point of view of the Christian religion on the Human Condition is that humanity is sinful at birth but can reach heaven through salvation by Jesus Christ. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th century writer and philosopher wrote many poems of which some focused on the central theme of transcendentalism. At a certain time in his writing, Emerson participated in the transcendentalist philosophical movement which developed in the early to mid 1800s along with many other well-known authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Walt Whitman. Through transcendentalism’s lens, the human condition is that all of humanity is born good, divinity is present in all of nature, and that any human can learn the existence of God through intuition. Emerson thought that with all of the busy lives that people were leading, it was important that they wouldn’t get detached from nature and God. The lack of connectivity between the daily lives of humans and the broader universe was an important theme for Emerson in the early 1800’s. Emerson was one of the founders of the transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was important to him, and many other intellectuals of the time, to expand the transcendentalist view of the human condition, and they did this through the club and it’s publication “The Dial.” It could be said that if this was important in the 1800s, it is even more important in today’s busy world. This transcendence into a holistic connection with the universe is reflected in Emerson’s poems such as “Song of Nature” and “Uriel”. An analysis of his poetry has much to teach us.

In Song of Nature, as in many of his writings, Emerson uses all of nature and the universe as the backdrop for human understanding and transcendence. Twenty-one stanzas relentlessly bring the elements of nature and the universe to enlighten his perspectives, our perspectives, and humankind’s perspectives. The poem is god as Emerson, and Emerson as god, all as one in the vastness of nature and the universe. This poem transports the reader directly into the realm of nature and away from day to day civilization. It does so completely and in an uncompromising manner that clarifies the human condition by detaching from everyday circumstance and speaking almost exclusively in the language of natural phenomena and the depths of the universe with language that glorifies nature as a divine source of inspiration and understanding for the human race. Shannon Mariotti, a Professor of Political Science at Southwestern University, clarifies the concept of transcendentalism when she talks about Emerson’s use of focal distancing in his works, including “Song of Nature.” She says:

Emerson dramatizes transitions from the material realm of particulars to the ideal realm of universals in terms of vision. Emerson’s carefully cultivated mode of transcending perception, the practice of focal distancing, tends to devalue material particularity as superficial, to be looked past, progressed quickly beyond, whereas he associates experiences of illumination and inspiration with the realm of universal ideals that exists more distantly above and beyond. Emerson tries to encourage and enact a shift in perception, from the realm of material things to the realm of ideals, from particulars to universals, from appearance to reality, from epistemological doubt to ethical clarity, from confusion to illumination, from estrangement to inspiration, and from conformist passivity to self-reliant creative action where we try to project the world we imagine into reality. (Mariotti 2)

An aspect of transcendentalism is that people should distance themselves from the material world and transcend into a world of nature and imagination. Even back in Emerson’s time, people started going further and further away from nature and receded to their busy material lives. Emerson noticed this and thought that humanity was straying from the truth and God. In his “Song of Nature” poem, Emerson employs this technique of focal distancing where he goes from his human form in the material world to God-like omnipresence where he zooms out into outer space to view the world as a whole. It might not seem that special to us today, but back in the 1800s, this must have been an amazing technique because no one thought of viewing the whole world that way. Symbolism is often employed in “Song of Nature ” to equate God with nature. In the fifth line of the poem, Emerson says that he “hid in the solar glory” (5). By saying that he “hid,” Emerson conveys that he cannot be seen, because of the brightness of the sun and brightness is often used to refer to holiness or God himself. This effect is amplified by the use of the word “glory” which also adds a sense of holiness to the sun. In a way, the sun has now become associated with God. By saying that he “hid in the solar glory,” an image has been created in the reader’s mind that Emerson has disappeared into the sun’s light to the point where you cannot distinguish him from the sun. All of this combined intertwines Emerson, nature, and God as the same being. This represents one of the classical tenets of transcendentalism: the unification of human, nature and divinity. On the sixth line of the poem, Emerson says that he is “dumb in the pealing of song” (6). “Dumb” traditionally means that a person is mute. In this poem, he uses that word in combination with “song” to show that he is speechless and in awe when he is listening to the sounds of nature. Emerson’s fascination with nature is very evident here and it seems as if he is portraying nature as something vast and magnificent with its sounds calling to him like bells from the church. This is yet again a transcendental description of nature. The music here does not come from humans or instruments, but rather from nature itself. It also relates to the transcendentalist idea that one can learn of God’s existence through intuition because in Emerson’s eyes, just in being surrounded by nature and experiencing its greatness, any person can realize that nature is divine and thus related to a great force. In the poem, Ralph Waldo Emerson eventually transitions from his human point of view to a god-like point of view which further reinforces transcendentalism as a theme in this poem because the transition shows how humanity and God are one and the same. In his god-like point of view, Emerson delves far out into the outer reaches of space itself and acts as a god forming new parts of the universe.

And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew. (25-28)

In this stanza, Emerson intertwines himself with God and nature. Emerson has transcended from his human self in the material world and has gone to God’s point of view. At the same time, God is forming nature and thus is present in all aspects of nature. This is a reminder that we and everything around us is made of nature’s elements and that we are intimately connected and part of even the most remote parts of the universe. Emerson employs metaphors in order to cleverly interweave the two concepts of God and nature in transcendentalism:

Too much of donning and doffing,
Too slow the rainbow fades,
I weary of my robe of snow,
My leaves and my cascades; (49-52)

At this point in the poem, Emerson is implementing his focal distancing technique where he is talking from his godly perspective. This is important because later in this stanza, God is essentially wearing a robe of nature. The words “snow,” “leaves,” and “cascades,” all have important meaning in nature. “Snow” is like the winter season, “leaves,” are the greenness of the forests, and “cascades,” are beautiful fountains of pure water. These three elements have important places in everyone’s mind that trigger the thought of nature when thought about. However, you can’t actually have a robe of these natural elements. That’s why the metaphor is extremely important. It effectively ties together the two concepts of God and nature in a way that no one usually thinks about. Thanks to this, the transcendentalist idea that God is present in all aspects of nature is also represented here. Another important thing to note is the beginning of the stanza when he says “donning and doffing.” This expression is typically related to an urban environment rather than nature. “Donning” means putting on work related gear whereas “doffing” means taking off work related gear. Emerson includes this expression in this poem after saying “too much,” which means he is trying to put down the idea of the busy, material world by saying that people are too involved in it and should take a step away from it. Again, this is a very transcendentalist idea because the modern industrial, material world is the opposite of the concept of nature and God. At one point in the poem, an allusion is made to famous people and prophets:

Twice I have moulded an image,
And thrice outstretched my hand,
Made of day, and one of night,
And one of the sea-sand.
One in a Judean manger,
And one by Avon stream,
One over the mouths of the Nile,
And one in the Academe. (61-68)

The people he chose have something very important in common. Not only are they all influential people that have a huge place in Earth’s history, but also they are all born in a very special place that has lots to do with the concept of transcendentalism. Jesus Christ was born “in a Judean manger” which is a device used for the feeding of livestock in farms. Farms are very nature based settings. It is filled with life in the form of a wide variety of crops and animals. The fact that Jesus Christ was born in a natural setting is extremely important and heavily reflects transcendentalism because one of its ideals is that God pervades all nature, so Jesus Christ was born in a very divine place. Emerson chose this on purpose in order to stress the importance of nature in the transcendentalist philosophy in his poem. This emphasis is further reinforced with his other examples of Shakespeare’s birth “by Avon stream” and Moses’ birth “over the mouths of the Nile.” Streams are one of the most important natural symbols as they contain water because water is universally seen as one of the purest and divine substances. The Nile river is also used to add importance to nature. When looking at pictures of the Nile, you see that it is surrounded by greenness. Just like water, green is the universal color of nature and thus the reference to Moses’ birth at the Nile river keeps reinforcing the importance of nature. Again, Emerson wrote these allusions purposefully to show the importance of nature in transcendentalism. Since nature plays such a big role in transcendentalism, all of these references to it establishes transcendentalism as the major theme of this poem. In stanza after stanza, Emerson is transporting the reader away from daily concerns and into a global, universal, and spiritual realm. One where things are not had and lost, but instead in constant transformation and renewal and he concludes his poem with:

No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn,
Gives back the bending heavens in dew. (81-84)

With elegant rhyme and contrast to add emphasis, Emerson finishes off beautifully by taking the forces of nature, the vastness of the universe, a dive to the atomic level, and connecting it all to a dew drop on a beautiful morning rose, in a manner that transcends the realms of the known and the unknown.

The poem “Uriel” is a reflection of Emerson himself. Emerson, as a transcendentalist, worked wholeheartedly to promote the ideas of transcendentalism. Christians attacked him for this because it was against their conventional belief in a god of morality. Emerson, with his transcendental belief, argued that the world as a whole was moral (including all humans), not just specific parts. Emerson most likely wrote the poem “Uriel” for the similarities that they both shared. “Uriel” is a fallen angel who was removed from mention in the Bible due to the fact that he had a more scientific and universal view of the world. In essence, Uriel was an early transcendentalist and, much like Emerson, had to endure the backlash of the church, simply due to differing views to the “official view.” While Uriel became a fallen angel due to his views, Emerson also suffered the scorn of the religious establishment due to his “Divinity School Address” given at Harvard Divinity School in 1838. In that address, Emerson was firm in expounding his transcendentalist views that man was all good. Additionally, Emerson possessed many transcendentalist views that went against common Christian beliefs. The transcendentalist theme in this poem enlightens the human condition by diving deep into divine affairs and closely relating nature as part of divinity. In a criticism of Ralph Waldo Emerson, W. Robertson Nicoll says the following about Emerson:

He struck the key-note of all his writing in his essay of Nature when he said: ‘The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us and not the history of theirs?’ (Nicoll 676)

Emerson questions traditional Christian faith and challenges it in favor of a more transcendentalist view. A view where humanity, nature, and God all hold a special relation to each other. A view where religion should be based on the revelation of divinity to us through intuition. Uriel expounds on his objective view on the nature of the universe:

Line in nature is not found;
Unit and universe are round;
In vain produced, all rays return;
Evil will bless, and ice will burn. (21-24)

The oxymoron at the end of this stanza creates a large contrast that stresses Uriel’s view. In the poem, the reaction of the holy leaders was not kind as Uriel expounded views that portrayed the universe as a constantly renewing, circular cosmic ecosystem. This was an affront to religious dogma where there was a beginning and an end which God controlled. In direct comparison to Emerson’s own fate, he writes:

As Uriel spoke with piercing eye,
A shudder ran around the sky;
The stern old war-gods shook their heads,
The seraphs frowned from myrtle-beds; (25-28)

Emerson uses this as an accurate, albeit metaphorical, description of the reaction his parish had when he exposed his strong transcendentalist views, not unlike Uriel’s exposition of his universal views. Both Uriel and Emersons audiences, took these views as a direct affront to their faith, and both were ostracized; Uriel from the Bible itself, and Emerson from his parish. Another important thing to note is that the seraphs were on myrtle-beds. Seraphs are considered as belonging to the highest order in the celestial hierarchy and are associated with myrtles which are plants in nature that are considered sacred and a symbol of love. Emerson introduces this specific plant into the poem because it is very closely related to transcendentalism. Not only is it a part of nature, it is also a part of divinity. It is these two things combined together that make myrtles a good representation of transcendentalism. Later on in the poem many words of nature are used in conjunction with divine words. “In heaven once eminent, the god / Withdrew, that hour, into his cloud” (37-38). As Uriel is falling, God withdraws into his clouds. Clouds are a very important aspect of nature. Clouds are very spiritual to people because they see them every time they look up and humans always try to find meaning in them and try to find common shapes in clouds. For that reason, Clouds are also extremely symbolic. Clouds are made of fine droplets of water, a pure substance, and are white in color. The white color is universally regarded as a symbol for purity, divinity and spirit. Emerson purposefully chose clouds because of their importance in nature and associated it with heaven and even made it God’s home. The association of all these things shows a very transcendentalist belief on display in this poem, because two of the basic transcendentalist views is that nature symbolizes the spirit and that God is everywhere in nature. Afterwards, as Uriel falls from the sky, Emerson expresses his belief that transcendentalism is the one true belief with the following metaphor: “Or by knowledge grown too bright / To hit the nerve of feebler sight” (41-42). He is calling the sight of the other divine beings “feeble” and the knowledge of Uriel “too bright.” By stating this, Emerson demonstrates his views of the angels’ views. By stating that the knowledge of Uriel is “too bright,” he is implying that he agrees very strongly with Uriel. Bright knowledge is not literally meaningful, but figuratively, the word “bright” shows that he agrees with Uriel to a large extent because “brightness” is a very powerful aspect of nature. Most of the “brightness” we experience comes from the Sun and the Sun is very closely related to divinity in the typical human mind. Right afterwards, by saying that the view on the universe of the other angels is feeble, Emerson is essentially saying that he believes that they are wrong.” Emerson is strongly implying a firm belief in transcendentalism in this portion in the poem. Emerson yet again includes a metaphor to connect nature and divinity: “Straightway, a forgetting wind / Stole over the celestial kind” (43-44). Much like the other words related nature that Emerson uses in his poem, “wind” has a lot of significance here. “Wind” represents the breath of the world and is often thought to indicate the presence of divinity. The fact that “wind” affects the “celestial kind” in some way reminds us that divinity is not separate from nature, but is included in all aspects of it. Emerson ends the poem powerfully by highlighting the gods’ ironic situation: “And a blush tinged the upper sky, / And the gods shook, they knew not why” (55-56). It is traditional religious belief that God is all good and powerful. However, through irony, Emerson supports his transcendentalist belief by making gods look like powerless, scared beings. The gods realize that they just made a major mistake by casting out Uriel. It’s ironic because any religious person would likely believe that gods are all-knowing and powerful. However, against expectations, they are portrayed as flawed weaklings. Additionally, the fact that Emerson says “the gods shook,” implies a strong power behind the idea of transcendentalism and its truth.

It is clear by now that Emerson had a firm belief in transcendentalism because of the sheer amount of references to its basic tenets, especially nature and humanity. Transcendentalism seems like a philosophical movement intended to elevate religion to a more advanced state where people don’t blindly follow faith, but where they figure out the importance of nature and God on their own. People in both Emerson’s time and our own, tend to busy themselves with too many distractions and lose sight of their own divinity, their own goodness, and their connection to each other and nature. The human condition at Emerson’s time transitioned away from nature and towards a more industrial world due to the industrial revolution that was just beginning. Emerson’s transcendentalism provides a path, through immersion in nature, by which humankind can reconnect with their own holiness.

Works Cited

Mariotti, Shannon. “Emerson's Transcendental Gaze and the 'Disagreeable Particulars' of Slavery: Vision and the Costs of Idealism.” Academia.edu, 2019, www.academia.edu/30227051/Emerson_s_Transcendental_Gaze_and_the_Disagreeable_Particulars_of_Slavery_Vision_and_the_Costs_of_Idealism?email_work_card=view-paper. Accessed 9 November 2019.

Nicoll, W. Robertson. “Ralph Waldo Emerson.” The North American Review, vol. 176, no. 558, 1903, pp. 675–687. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25119398. Accessed 9 November 2019.

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