Ralph Waldo Emerson's Art Essay
The concept with which Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Art” deals is the recognition of beauty through art. Art is viewed through the course of the composition as both an expression of the human soul and as a language that speaks to all individuals, not just the rich or the privileged. To the individual, art is a means through which he/she can be inspired to create and, in turn, inspire others. What Emerson attempts to pontificate is the overarching idea that art conveys different meanings unto different individuals and serves as a tool for inspiration for the spirit. In delivering his viewpoints on the subject of art, Emerson remains consistent and flowing as he not only informs the reader about the subtleties of art, but also raises valid ideas about its perception and challenges the reader to question their own perception and value of the subject.
The definition of art varies from person to person, and there is no right or wrong answer when questioning what constitutes art. Emerson believes “the individual, in whom simple tastes and susceptibility to all the great human influences overpower the accidents of a local and special culture, is the best critic of art” (5). The individual cannot rely on word of mouth to receive an accurate idea of a painting because the message conveyed unto the masses may not necessarily be the identical message conveyed unto the individual. In order to receive a clear analysis, the individual must personally experience the painting and establish his/her own opinion. By this logic, the point of the critic is meaningless because he cannot accurately portray unto the listener the message of the painting, for he based his deduction on the personal emotions and thoughts provoked by the work of art. Through such observation, the notion of an individual perception of art is recalled, which ties back with Emerson’s argument. In addition, the reader of the text must realize that the critics trusted to convey analyses of art cannot serve as the end-all, be-all when forming an opinion about a masterpiece, referring back to how the text challenges the reader to question their definition of art.
Because the perception of art yields different values to the careful observer, the critic must not be given a role in determining one’s personal tastes. It is true that what one may dismiss as unworthy of their time, another may view as their newest source of creativity. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or as quoted by Emerson, “It was not painted for them, it was painted for you, for such as had eyes capable of being touched by simplicity and lofty emotions” (7). Though people may criticize the individual’s tastes and deem him a person not worthy of association, the individual must not allow the words of the critics to take root in their souls. The person enjoyed the work because it conveyed unto them a message it could not covey unto another soul. If the human spirit can create art, the human spirit can also distinguish art, tying...
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Throughout his literary career, Emerson consistently advocated the idea of self-reliance, of making self the ultimate judge of things in this world. The self he celebrates, however, is not the same as the individual self, which threatens to become selfishness, but an autonomous spirit which wills to act according to universal moral laws. This spirit, which is located in all objects, may grow as a result of communion with nature.
Like many Romantics, who give nature an essential role in their intrinsic lives by treating it either as an equal partner with, or as a substitute for, God, Emerson often expresses a passion for nature, as can be seen in his famous work Nature (1836). His love for nature appears to he the expression of his heart based on nature’s utilitarian value; however, his reason tells him otherwise. In his analytical reasoning, he follows the argument of traditional idealism in conceiving nature as an ephemeral phenomenon without independent existence. As a result of the conflict between his intellect and his emotion, Emerson remains essentially indecisive as to the ontological being of nature.
From his early work Nature to the publication of Letters and Social Aims (1875), he consistently uses the image of shadows to illustrate the essence of nature. What is emphasized in an equally consistent manner throughout Emerson’s life is the utilitarian value, both spiritual and physical, of nature to humankind. Because of the extremely important role that it enjoys in a person’s daily life, Emerson cannot afford to part with nature, which is emotionally close to him, nor can he follow the traditional doctrine of idealism without misgivings.
His love for nature often makes him doubt the statement of idealism, and these emotions force him to endow nature with life—hence the persistent tension between emotion and intellect in Emerson. When his reason gains ascendancy, he will deny that nature has a soul. Once his emotion becomes dominant, however, he will not hesitate to attribute a spirit or apply the metaphorical expression of transcendence to nature.
In “The Over-Soul” (1842), Emerson works out the framework for his idea of oneness, a metaphysical basis for the celebration of ego. The Over-Soul is the embodiment of wisdom, virtue, power, and beauty, among which virtue is supreme. To be the partner of the Creator—or to be a creator—one’s duty lies only in assuring the unceasing circular flow between one’s own soul and the Over-Soul. It follows that when Emerson says in his “Divinity School Address” that the man who renounces himself comes to himself, he means only the renunciation of the willful interference with the free flowing of the universal spirit, not biblical self-denial.
To obey the soul, according to Emerson, one’s acts would naturally arrange themselves by irresistible magnetism in a straight line. Because of the constant communication with and participation of the divine essence of the universe, each individual becomes part of the essence and is, thus, self-sufficient in every moment of his or her existence. As the divinity of the Over-Soul is inherent in the soul of each individual, one fulfills this divinity by being true to the transcendental spirit in oneself and by keeping it free from the harmful interpositions of one’s own artificial will. Virtue is not, as is made clear in “Spiritual Laws” (1841), the product of conscious calculation and should not be interfered with by will.
Applied to history, the idea of the Over-Soul leads to a subjective view of the past. History, according to Emerson, is only a record of the universal mind, and its task is to find the expression of one’s soul. Under this notion, what is called history is actually biography. A similarly moralistic view characterizes his theory of art. Although Emerson’s theory of the Over-Soul lays the groundwork for Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855), his view of art focuses more on a poet’s character than on the work of art.
What characterizes a poet, according to Emerson, is the power to perceive the unity of nature and the ability to impart one’s impression of it through imagination. As every person is susceptible to the work of the Over-Soul and possesses imagination, every person is thus potentially a poet. In cultivating one’s power and exercising one’s imagination, the poet should communicate with nature. Because of the ability to see the essence of this world and the power to employ signs to express it, the poet animates and illuminates other people and thus becomes a spiritual emancipator. The prestige that the poet enjoys, however, is not exclusive:It is equally shared by the hero and the sage. These three sovereigns—the namer, the doer, and the knower—are simply different names for the highest progeny of the Over-Soul.
A change has been noted in Emerson’s thought in his later period, when fate and limitation are emphasized. Emerson speaks of fate with awe; nevertheless, his tone remains defiant. Apart from, or in spite of, the emphasis on fate, assertions of thought and will are frequently made in his later works, as is demonstrated by the posthumous book Natural History of Intellect (1893), which primarily concerns the soul rather than the exterior world. Even in the essays “Fate” and “Allusions” (1860), where limitation is a major concern, the fundamental views expressed are still those that characterize his early period. As a counterbalance to the idea of illusion, sincerity is invoked by Emerson in his later works. With the recognition of this limitation as well as the corresponding stress on will and thought, Emerson’s doctrines thus become more profound.
It has been noted that every work of Emerson appears to contain all of his major ideas. His works are, indeed, often a highly crystallized form of writing resulting from the long process of modifications based on his audiences’ different responses. Because of the complexity of ideas, his essays often convey the impression of great diversity without clear logical connections. The central statements—usually simple, short, and concise—tend to be the most powerful expressions, calling for no lengthy modifier, yet yielding great insight. Emerson’s masterly command of everyday language continues to be a wonder in American literature.
First published: 1836
Type of work: Essay
Through communion with nature, one is able to transcend oneself and this world and achieve union with the divine essence of the universe.
Composed of an introduction and eight chapters, Nature, Emerson’s first book, contains all the fundamental ideas that were to be developed at length later in his life. The dominant theme of this work—the harmony between humans and nature—also became the theoretical basis of many literary works composed after it in the nineteenth century United States.
The treatise begins with a criticism of reliance on the past and a suggestion to depend on oneself to explore this world. In explaining the justification for self-trust, Emerson espouses a dualistic view of the universe, which, according to him, is divided into two parts: one, the self which represents the soul, the other, the exterior world, which he terms nature, the latter being subordinated to the former. Perfect correspondence, in his view, exists between these two parts, a link which makes one’s communication with the outside world possible. To him, nature is all benevolence; community, by contrast, often signifies waywardness.
In communicating with nature, he believes, one is able to purge oneself of all cares and eventually achieve a mystical union with the universe. Apart from spiritual nourishment, nature provides an individual’s material needs. At higher levels, it further fulfills one’s aesthetic sentiment, serves as the vehicle of thought, and disciplines one’s mind. Under the heading “Beauty,” which constitutes the third chapter, a theory of aesthetics is advanced. Emerson distinguishes three kinds of beauty in nature: the beauty of exterior forms, which is the lowest kind; spiritual beauty, with virtue as its essence; and the intellectual beauty characterized by a search for the absolute order of things.
Characteristic of Emerson, unity can be found among these three kinds of beauty, which, at the ultimate level, are but different expressions of the same essence: “God is the all-fair. Truth, and goodness, and beauty, are but different faces of the same All.” The equation of beauty, truth, and virtue is typical of Romantic aesthetics.
In discussing the use of nature as the vehicle of thought, Emerson further illustrates the correspondence between nature and soul, and matter and mind, using this link as the basis for his theory of language. According to him, language originally came from and should remain in close contact with natural images or facts. A language characterized by, or a discourse drawing heavily upon, vivid images is thus most desirable.
Because of the identification of beauty, truth, and virtue as different expressions of the Creator, the corruption of a person’s character is necessarily followed by that person’s corrupted use of language. Viewed in this light, people with strong minds who lead simple lives in the countryside cannot but have an advantage in the use of powerful language over people residing in the city, who are prone to be distracted by the material world.
After language, discipline—another use of nature at a still higher level—occurs. Following Coleridge and some of the nineteenth century German idealists, Emerson distinguishes two kinds of cognitive faculties: one, reason, which perceives the analogy that unites matter and mind, the other, understanding, which discerns the characteristics of things. Apart from the reiteration of the tremendous healing power of nature, which is esteemed as a religious preacher, the idea of unity is presented.
It is Emerson’s belief that what unites nature and soul, matter and mind, is a moral sentiment, sometimes called the Creator, the Universal Spirit, or the Supreme Being, which both pervades and transcends the two different parts of the universe. The ultimate discipline that one receives from nature, he maintains, should be the recognition and acceptance of this Universal Spirit underlying both the world and the self.
The tremendous importance that nature commands in his thought prompts Emerson to discuss its metaphysical status in the sixth chapter, titled “Idealism.” Before exploring this issue, he makes it clear that whether nature substantially exists or is simply a reflection of one’s mind is not exactly settled and makes little difference to him in terms of his love for nature. He then proceeds, however, to maintain that senses or understanding based on senses tends to make one believe in the absolute existence of nature, whereas reason, the better cognitive faculty, modifies this belief. The further distinction between a sensual person, who is confined by the material world, and a poet, who frees himself or herself with imagination from the domination of the material world, shows that Emerson favors the view that nature does not have absolute existence.
The discussion of the issue eventually ends with the reiteration of the superiority of the soul and trust in God, whose creation of nature is to be regarded for humankind’s emancipation. Having emphatically asserted the superiority of the soul, Emerson gives the following chapter the title “Spirit” to indicate that the essential function of nature is to lead one back to the Universal Spirit. In order to do so, one needs to employ a creative imagination rather than a mechanical analysis to achieve communion with nature: “a guess is often more fruitful than an indisputable affirmation, and . . . a dream may let us deeper into the secret of nature than a hundred concerted experiments.” The problem with this world, according to him, can only be a problem with self. In concluding Nature, Emerson therefore exhorts one to achieve unity with nature, to trust in oneself, and eventually to create one’s own world.
“The American Scholar”
First published: 1837 (as An Oration Delivered Before the Phi Beta Kappa Society)
Type of work: Lecture
The American scholar should avoid being enslaved to the past or foreign influences; people should rely upon the self as the ever-dependable source of inspiration.
In 1837, Emerson was invited to deliver the address “The American Scholar,” one of the most influential American speeches made at his time, to the Harvard chapter of Phi Beta Kappa; the same topic of the address had been prescribed year after year since his boyhood.
When Emerson urged American scholars at the beginning of his address to create an original literature free from European influence, he was to some extent reiterating a conventional theme. The creation of an original literature, Emerson maintained, however, would have to be based on an inner spirit of self-reliance—the opening and concluding theme of Nature. The primary concern of this address is thus with an intellectual’s spiritual cultivation—the eventual goal being “Man Thinking”—rather than the actual composition of literary works.
In the discussion of the scholar’s education, three kinds of influence are mentioned: nature, books, and action. Of primary importance, permanent nature corresponds to one’s mind, hence it should be studied for the enhancement of the understanding of the self. The close relationship between the soul and nature is explained here in terms of a seal and print. The second source of influence is the mind of the past, which can best be seen in books. Emerson criticizes those scholars who allow themselves to be dominated by the past great minds to the extent that they think for the historical figures rather than for themselves, thereby becoming bookworms instead of “Man Thinking.”
As a result, creative reading is advocated for one’s own inspiration. Because of his belief in the union of the self with the Universal Spirit, Emerson further urges scholars to communicate with it first, drawing upon its creative force to compose their own original books. Only when one encounters difficulty in communicating with this spirit or God directly, he insists, should one depend on books. Action is considered the third source of influence upon the scholar. In encouraging a scholar to act, Emerson not only emphasizes the importance of the actual experience for one’s mental growth but also, and especially, attempts to identify a person of action with a contemplative mind, a hero with a poet.
After illustrating the three kinds of influence upon the scholar, Emerson describes the scholar’s duty, which is to guide people to find the universal mind within themselves and to achieve unity with it. To be qualified for such a work, the scholar would naturally need to be confident and self-trusting: “In self-trust all the virtues are comprehended.” When one looks within and becomes a master of oneself, Emerson states, one actually examines all minds and becomes a master of all people.
Because of the unceasing manifestation of the Universal Spirit in every object, the here and now is thus greatly emphasized. Instead of looking to great minds in the past and from afar, he prefers to embrace the lowly and common in the present—a common Romantic theme. To conclude, Emerson repeats the theme of self-reliance on the most grandiloquent level, assuring his audience that “if the single man plant himself indomitably on his instincts, and there abide, the huge world will come round to him.”
First published: 1841 (collected in Essays: First Series, 1841)
Type of work: Essay
Because of the inherent moral sentiment, which partakes of the divine spirit, the best principle for behavior is to trust one’s own intuition.
In his book titled Essays, “Self-Reliance” follows “History” so that a balanced and self-contained unit can be created out of these two. Abounding with short aphorisms, the essay begins with an admonition to believe in the true self, which is considered in essence identical with the Universal Spirit: “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” Emerson then holds infancy, which is favorably contrasted with adulthood, as a model for one to follow in the cultivation of a spirit of independence or nonconformity. His metaphorical use of a babe as a model of nonconformity is a radical twist of Christ’s elevation of it as an emblem of total dependence on God.
As does Wordsworth, Emerson regards a person’s growth normally as a process of losing one’s moral sentiment or spirit of nonconformity. Society is considered to have an adverse effect on the growth of each individual’s independent spirit, whereas solitude may contribute to it. Senseless philanthropy, which encourages dependence on outside help, is thus also thought to be detrimental. When Emerson states that one should live by one’s instinct, whether or not it be from the devil, he is attempting to use exaggeration to shock his audience; his idea is that the inherent moral sentiment, which makes one self-sufficient, cannot come from the devil. Total trust in one’s emotions may well result in contradiction when one’s emotions change, however; noting this, Emerson simply retorts that life itself is an organic process, inevitably involving contradiction. Acting in accordance with true feeling, he believes, will automatically bring about a sound life.
Viewed in light of self, history is thus the biography of a few unusually powerful figures. Having emphasized the importance of nonconformity, he begins to explore the philosophical basis for self-reliance. According to Emerson, there is an instinct or intuition in each individual drawing upon the Universal Spirit as the ever-dependable guiding principle. Because of the identification of intuition with the Universal Spirit, one is simply following its command when one acts in accordance with one’s intuition. The presence of the self-sufficing and self-contained Universal Spirit in each individual thus justifies one’s living in and for the present without having to refer either to the past or to the future.
Whereas Christ alone has traditionally been regarded as the Word made flesh, Emerson regards every human potentially as a reincarnation of the Word. Consequently, regret of the past and prayer for the future as a means to effect private ends are both diseases of human will and should be avoided. Traveling with the hope to see something greater than the self, in Emerson’s view, would simply be senseless. As a result of this moralistic view, society, like nature, may change but never advance. Typical of his conclusions, the end of this essay, which repeats the theme of self-reliance and predicts the subjugation of Chance under human will based on self-reliance, sounds greatly optimistic.
First published: 1841 (collected in Essays: First Series, 1841)
Type of work: Essay
“The Over-Soul” underlies the universe, giving birth to and justifying the existence of all objects.
Greatly influenced by a third century neoplatonist philosopher, Plotinus, “The Over-Soul” explicates one of Emerson’s essential ideas, one on which his entire thought is based. Beginning with an approval of a life based on hope, Emerson posits the idea of unity or “Over-Soul” as the metaphysical basis for the existence of everything. According to him, the Over-Soul is a perfect self-sufficing universal force, the origin of which is unknown and the essence of which is characterized through wisdom, virtue, power, and beauty, giving sustenance to all objects. Maintained by this force, all objects are thus self-sufficient in every moment of their existence, having no need to concern themselves with the future. With no hearkening back to the past and no anticipation of the future, the meaning of one’s ever-progressive life simply exists in the “here and now.”
Because of the unifying power of the Over-Soul, differences between objects can be eradicated: “The act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one.” In explaining the nature of this universal spirit, Emerson makes a distinction between the natural self—the body and its faculties—and the transcendental spirit residing in each individual and animating the natural self. This transcendental spirit, he emphasizes, cannot be defined by the intellect; it can be detected only with the intuition. A child, who acts according to instinct, is thus celebrated as the model for the reception of this spirit.
As the ultimate force in this universe, the Over-Soul ought to be obeyed as the absolute commander of the self, as it can guide one to lead a most sound life. The movement of the universe, in this sense, can be interpreted as the ceaseless communication between each individual soul and the Over-Soul. The more one communicates with the universal soul, the more powerful one may become. Jesus, who, according to Emerson, heeded the voice from the spirit within oneself, is held as a perfect example of such a communication between the individual soul and the Over-Soul. A genius is simply the person who lets the spirit flow into the intellect and then speaks from within. In order to communicate with this universal spirit, one needs only to be plain and true, as it normally descends upon the lowly and simple, the type of people who consistently received Emerson’s attention after the composition of Nature.
Echoing a statement from the Hindu sacred text, the Upanishads, Emerson maintains that one may also partake of divinity from communicating with the divine force: “The simplest person who in his integrity worships God, becomes God.” The presence of this universal spirit in each individual thus makes it imperative for one to look not without but within for the source of inspiration.
Viewed in this light, the greatness of renowned poets lies thus in their ability to remind people of the immense resource under their control and to instruct them to disregard all their achievements. All exterior authority, be what it may, Emerson states, should be disregarded; only the self guided by the Over-Soul is to be trusted. The orthodox faith based on exterior authority is interpreted at the end of the essay as a result of the withdrawal of the soul and the decline of religion. To be a master of the world around him, Emerson concludes, a person has to achieve unity with the divine soul and follow the dictate of his or her own heart.
First published: 1860 (collected in The Conduct of Life, 1860)
Type of work: Essay
Although fate is a horrendous force in this world, mind and will are equally powerful and can subjugate fate to a good use.
A great change occurred in Emerson’s thought in his later life, as can be demonstrated in the essay “Fate.” Whereas freedom and optimism were emphasized in his early life, fate and limitation eventually became his great concern. Having, in his later life, read much oriental literature, which greatly emphasizes the power of fate, Emerson felt it necessary to reckon with this subject and include it in his thought.
Unlike his earlier essays, which nearly always begin with an optimistic trust in the potentiality of the self, “Fate” begins with an emphasis on obstacles, which are described as immovable and which individuals would inevitably experience in their attempts to achieve goals. To avoid the misunderstanding that he has radically changed his view regarding the grand nature of humankind, which had been effectively advocated during most of his life, Emerson affirms the importance of liberty immediately after his opening statement on the significance of fate.
The ideal principle, according to him, is to strike a balance between liberty and fate, rather than overemphasize either of them. After setting forth this principle, Emerson turns his attention back to fate, citing Hinduism, Calvinism, and Greek tragedy as examples for their emphatic treatment of this grim aspect of life. Contrary to his earlier idea, Nature—equated with fate in this essay—is now perceived as potentially rough and dangerous. He describes various kinds of limitations—environment, race, physique, character, and sometimes thought.
In order to illustrate the importance of fate, Emerson even makes an overstatement that one is predetermined the moment one is born. A criticism is further made on the narrow focus of his own previous thought (the optimism emphasizing the power of the self) with the recognition that circumstance, the negative side which one cannot fully control, ought to be considered. According to Emerson, fate manifests itself in both matter and mind, the latter being affected in a much more subtle way.
Having elaborated the significance of fate, he begins to assert liberty again: “Intellect annuls Fate.” To counteract fate, one is advised first to transform it intrinsically by regarding it as a positive force working for one’s ultimate good rather than a negative force. Furthermore, one should draw upon the ever-resourceful universal force, the moral sentiment within oneself, to take oneself out of bondage into freedom. Only by so doing, Emerson maintains, can one expect to reconcile fate and freedom: “Person makes event, and event person.”
After analyzing the way to reconcile the opposite forces of fate and freedom, he moves a step further in holding that one can subjugate fate to one’s will because event is only the exteriorization of the soul—an idea that is in agreement with his early thought. In doing so, he applies the law of cause and effect to human life, regarding the soul as the cause and event as its effect. Nature, in his view, best serves those who concentrate on refining their moral sentiment. The essay concludes with an assertion of the balanced interplay of fate and freedom, giving the enduring impression that by trusting oneself, one is eventually able to become what one wants to be: “Let us build altars to the Blessed Unity which holds nature and souls in perfect solution.”
First published: 1839 (collected in Poems, 1847)
Type of work: Poem
Beauty needs no rational justification for its self-sufficient existence.
Consisting of sixteen lines, “The Rhodora” is one of Emerson’s most admired poems. The major theme in this poem, a work written two years before Nature, can be found in many of his later works as well as in the Romantic literature of his time. As indicated by the subtitle, “On Being Asked, Whence Is the Flower?” the poem has a philosophical import concerning the existence of the flower.
A spiritual communication between humankind and nature appears at the very beginning (represented by sea winds, a favorite theme in Emerson’s works), when the speaker states that the sea winds in May “pierced our solitudes.” A common image in Romantic poetry, the wind often connotes inspiration. In this regard, the opening statement may also imply that the poet was inspired by the muse through his communication with nature, thereby beginning his creative process—an act which corresponds with the growing season of May in the outside world, as is mentioned in the poem.
Freed from solitude by the sea winds, the speaker notices the Rhodora—a rather obscure flower—blooming in the woods in a somewhat private location ordinarily unlikely to catch one’s attention. The presence of this flower, the spelling of which is capitalized throughout the poem to emphasize its significance as the symbol of beauty, is described as pleasing to both land and water. The service that the Rhodora offers to the world almost involves self-sacrifice, as is reflected in the description of the pleasure that its fallen petals were able to give to the pool: “The purple petals, fallen in the pool! Made the black water with their beauty gay.”
After examining the objects on land and water, Emerson proceeds to note the creature in the sky, the “red-bird,” courting the flower, thereby making his poem symbolically comprehensive of all the objects in this world. A radical transition occurs at the center of this poem; whereas the first half essentially describes various objects with the focus on the beauty of the Rhodora, the second half primarily concerns the metaphysical meaning of the flower.
Further division exists in the second half, which contains two sets of questions and answers, each set occurring every four lines. Corresponding to this structural pattern, the tenses also shift from the past in the first half to the present mixed with the past in the second. Furthermore, the rhyme scheme of aabbcdcd, which occurs twice in the poem, reinforces the theme of the dichotomy between nature and self (the description of the Rhodora and the inquiry about the metaphysical meaning of its existence) and the correspondence between them.
Emerson begins the second half with an apostrophe to the Rhodora, asking in the name of the sages why its beauty is wasted on earth and sky. The reason, central to this poem as well as to Emerson’s thought, is that the flower is self-sufficient, existing for its own sake; “Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,/ Then Beauty is its own excuse for being.” By refusing to justify the being of the flower with analytical rationalization, activity that characterizes the sages, the poet implies that intuition or instinct rather than rationalization is necessary for leading a satisfactory life.
A similar question is posed in the last four lines, where the Rhodora is regarded as the rival of the rose, a favorite flower in Western tradition. The rivalry between the Rhodora and the rose possibly signifies a contrast between the lowly and plain and the high and flamboyant in stylistics, the former being the poet’s choice. The concluding answer may be given by the Rhodora as well as the speaker, or by the latter speaking for both: “But, in my simple ignorance, suppose/ The self-same Power that brought me there brought you.”
The poet’s affirmation of the quality of simple ignorance represented by the flower indicates his predilection to use the lowly and humble as the basis of his aesthetics, a theme presaged by the seclusive setting. The eventual naming of the Power, which unifies various objects in the universe, not only serves as a link between the poet and the flower—a spiritual rapport between humankind and nature already seen at the beginning—but also hearkens back to the subtitle of the poem, thereby giving the poem a highly structured unity.
First published: 1857 (collected in May-Day and Other Pieces, 1867)
Type of work: Poem
The universal spirit Brahma is effable and transcends the dichotomy of a person’s thinking.
Greatly influenced by a sacred text of Hinduism, Katha-Upanishad, “Brahma” is a philosophical explication of the universal spirit by that name. The poetic form of elegiac quatrain is used to represent the solemn nature of the subject. Throughout the poem, Brahma appears as the only speaker, sustaining the continuity of the work. That the spirit is the only speaker signifies not only its absolute nature but also its sustaining power, upon which the existence of the entire universe—metaphorically, the poem—is based.
The poem begins by examining the common-sensical view that the spirit ends with one’s death. Even though the body may be destroyed, Brahma, which resides in each individual as the fountain of life, never ceases to exist: “If the red slayer think he slays,/ Or if the slain think he is slain,/ They know not well the subtle ways/ I keep.” When the body is destroyed, the poet maintains, the spirit will appear again, likely in a different form. By employing the examples of both the slayer and the slain, the speaker is suggesting not only the prevalence of their view (that the spirit may not be eternal) but also the dichotomy that normally characterizes a person’s perception.
The dichotomy recurs in the second stanza, in which opposite notions such as far and near, shadow and sunlight, vanishing and appearing, and shame and fame are juxtaposed. To the speaker, who unifies the universe, the seemingly unbridgeable differences between opposite concepts can be perfectly resolved; hence, the paradoxical statements. Brahma’s great power is further described in the third stanza, where the spirit states that it comprehends yet transcends everything—both “the doubter and the doubt,” the subject and object, and matter and mind. In addition, the rhyme scheme befittingly reinforces the spirit’s interweaving power, yielding a sense of wonder based on unusual metrical symmetry.
Different from the otherworldly spirit in Hinduism, however, the transcendental spirit represented by Brahma in this poem leads the follower not to Heaven but to this world. By using the conjunction “but” in the last stanza, Emerson prepares his reader for his own interpretation of the universal spirit. The concluding statement that justifies self-sufficient existence in this world, “But thou, meek lover of the good!/ Find me, and turn thy back on heaven,” makes this poem characteristically Emersonian.