This essay will consist of the close reading of three different excerpts from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s book, Nature. The book was originally published in 1836, and it is one of the most influential Transcendentalist pieces written by Emerson. The book features different chapters focusing on the usage of nature. In this essay, we will focus on the chapters Nature, and Language, and the recurring themes of nature as a supernatural creation of God, fabricated for the human to learn and get closer to God. Along with this, the interconnectedness of all living beings through language, which serves as a uniting component of the spiritual and the human world.
Emerson uses numerous stylistic devices such as metaphors, analogies, anaphoras, parallel structures, and vivid adjectives that create imagery to help the reader understand the complex abstract thoughts by creating concrete and familiar examples that are easier for the reader to process. Emerson also uses lengthy compound phrases, punctuation, and repetition, to create rhythm and allow the reader to feel as though he is in the author’s present thought and moment of realization. Additionally, through contrasting articles that present different ideas, the reader will be able to further understand Emerson’s culturally influenced thought process.
To be convinced by my claim, the reader must identify some of the most important grammatical and stylistic elements that contribute to some of the most essential recurring themes found present in the first paragraph of the chapter, Nature. Hereunder, the opening sentence of this extract from Nature makes mention of the desire for men to attain a solitary state. The first independent clause, “To go into solitude”, suggests a process of achieving such a solitary state through the withdrawal from society, and what Emerson refers to as a man’s chamber. The word “chamber” seems a very intentional word choice in which the author might not only make mention of a room or a confined space but rather refer to a chamber as the vessel of the body where the individual’s soul or spirit is compacted in. This could be considered a prominent theme throughout the disclosure of the meaning of nature in relation to humans found in Emerson’s work.
As the paragraph continues, Emerson seems to ponder on the difficulty of finding solitude within one’s own presence and the presence of words through many different approaches. This raises the question of whether solitude is a procurable state if we are constantly surrounded by our own self and language, which we use to further understand and channel thoughts. As the passage continues, the author suggests that “If a man would be alone”, he should look at the stars, signifying that the only time men could truly be alone could be in nature, when existing in a condition of spiritual reverence. The use of the auxiliary verb “would”, continues the sense of undertaking a process as previously seen with the opening dependent clause, possibly reinforcing the complexity of interconnecting with nature in an intimate way. Such use of a conditional mood indicates the process or consequence of a situation yet to happen, underlining the idea that in order for man to attain solitude, he must submit himself to a process, in this case, looking at the stars.
The use of the stars throughout the passage is utilized as a metaphor for the perpetual connection of all elements in the universe, and human awareness of the dualistic separation between two worlds; the human world, and the supernatural “heavenly world” that embodies the elements men interact with. Once again, Emerson’s precise word choice such as heavenly, suggests that the stars, as a contributing component to nature, contain a spiritual, omnipresent godlike quality that contrasts the mortal human world. Additionally, the use of “rays” contributes to the common imagery of a divine firmament influencing and affecting the contrasting idea through the appearance of spiritual beams of light.
One of the most important sections of this passage, “One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime”, begins by offering the tentative probability of “the atmosphere” made purposely constructed to be transparent in order to allow the viewer (the human) to experience the divine aspect of nature, and thereafter, experience the sublime. Emerson’s dualistic separation continues with the adjective transparent which suggests the image of two things (two worlds) conjoined seamlessly. Although it is not specified what “the atmosphere” substantially makes reference to, it is possibly interpreted as though nature through the presence of the metaphor of stars and their divine qualities, is the atmosphere created for men by a higher power. Emerson’s use of the word “design”, sparks a lot of interest in the reader, taking into consideration that it suggests a third party’s intentional formation of nature; thus contributing to the author’s argument of nature as a product of a God to allow humans to approach the Universal Spirit.
It is interesting to note how the compound word “heavenly bodies” signifies a celestial universe, yet the separation of such compounds into its two stems, independently represent the human and the divine. When these two concepts are united, it creates a larger picture in which both the mortal and supernatural coexist, essentially supporting Emerson’s previously stated argument consisting of the universe being an amalgamation of men and nature as creations of a God. The overall intent of God’s creation of nature as a continuation of the human world is for men to experience the sublime, therefore reinforcing such an idea as an emotional experience based on the intimidation of one’s surroundings and the effect of the beauty of nature. Thereafter, it follows Transcendentalist ideals based on seeking out solitude in nature, to be awed by its divine presence in order to reach the highest or best form of human life.
Essentially, this first passage serves as an introduction to Emerson’s ideas further examined throughout the book. Through the metaphor of the stars, the reader is introduced to the correlation between nature and god, as something heavenly and above mankind; a sublime experience created for men. The portrayal of solitude as a state which requires the awareness and presence of nature for it to be attained, concludes Emerson’s argument of the universe’s interconnection between nature, spirit, and men. It is important to understand that it is reciprocal, and as much as humans need nature, nature needs humans to make sense of its purpose.
An additional passage in which these ideas are reinforced and better understood would be found at the climax center of the chapter Nature, where the author claims how “In the woods, we return to reason and faith”. It is a very short statement containing very powerful information in accordance with previously mentioned utterances. The use of “woods” as a natural space of choice instead of the overall notion of “nature”, seems a consistent stylistic choice as seen through the use of stars in the previous passage. By using commonly known natural spaces, the author creates an easier approach for the reader to comprehend and process the message, as something concrete and familiar, as opposed to the abstract conceptual idea of nature as a whole. Furthermore, the use of the pronoun “we” creates a sense of collectiveness; the author is directly engaging with the reader as though the message not only concerns the author’s experiences, but rather any human being willing to understand.
The use of the verb “return” seems very relevant in the form that it insinuates, as though humans have previously experienced this connection between reason and faith, yet there was disunion between such notions. Woods, and nature (spirit), become a place where humans go back to the understanding of the power of the mind by a process of logic (reason), and the connection and trustful reliance on a God (faith). Once again, nature is portrayed as a binding component that conjoins the heavenly worlds and mankind itself.
As the passage continues the reader encounters a contrasting idea to Emerson’s Transcendentalist views regarding the search for nature in order to experience the sublime. The author moves from praising wild nature as transcendent excellence and an intimidating presence, to state that within this wilderness, he feels a sense of security, “There I feel that nothing can befall me in life (…)”. Consequently, Emerson continues his argument through the anaphoric parallel structure of “no disgrace, no calamity”. The repetition of the word “no” as an adjective before the nouns in the two clauses, emphasizes the possibility of infinite reasons why he shall not fear in nature. Nonetheless, by putting in parenthesis “leaving me my eyes”, referencing his life-long struggles with his vision, the reader senses a slight resentment on behalf of the author, a rancorous tone, crucial enough for him to make mention of it as though he begrudges that vision as the one thing nature cannot repair.
Furthermore, Emerson utilizes a different approach to unravel his argument by creating imagery through language when stating that by standing on bare ground with his hair touched by the air and elevated into infinite space, all arrogance vanishes. It is a very descriptive phrase composed of multiple elements that create an image and connection between natural elements such as ground, air, and space, thereafter combining a personal, first-hand experience with nature and its powerful transcendental qualities. Through descriptive adjectives, such as “bare”, intimate attributes are linked to the word “ground”, while “blithe” presents a sense of positivity, and the word “air” evokes a presence of good. Essentially, in this phrase, Emerson describes the sublime experience of being connected to the divine natural environment until reaching a state of selflessness and altruism.
The passage continues, as Emerson states, “I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God”. The first independent clause insinuates a process of becoming something, he is not a “transparent eye-ball, but rather there is a process in nature in which he starts to become this “transparent eye-ball”. Along with the repetitive theme of the process of becoming something in nature, transparency seems to resonate throughout the chapter too. For instance, “transparent eye-ball” serves both as a metaphor for his diminishing eyesight, while at the same time it embodies his desire to observe and absorb what nature has to offer, contributing to the parallel structure which includes “I am nothing; I see all”. By saying “I am nothing”, Emerson redefines the meaning of transparency, not only as something which is not visible but something that is overseen or simply inexistent. It further reiterates our level of importance when in nature, and how our insignificance can transform us into a mere essence that gains emotional and eternal pleasure from such sources.
The currents of the Universal Being and the capitalization of both words convey and indicate a sense of uniqueness; they are not common words, but rather they signify beings with consciousness and souls that exist in the heavenly bodies of the universe. However, Emerson’s approach to this concept as something that is capable of flowing through and transcending our body in a symbolic way, suggests the possibility of an alternate meaning. The Universal Being, therefore, presents ambiguity in the fact that it not only makes reference to living beings but also the transcendentalist ideas of innate qualities that contribute to our understanding of the world. This could also be referred to as our spirit or our soul. Universal Being, could thus be interpreted as the inborn qualities that flow through us because of human nature.
The last independent clause of the compound sentence states, “I am part or particle of God”. It is interesting how the last clause contrasts from the first one; while the author is becoming a transparent eye-ball, he shows certainty in being a “part or particle of God”. Additionally, the word “part” transmits a vague sense of importance, while “particle” conveys a feeling of diminutiveness. It is as though the author wanted to accentuate how small a component humans are in comparison to nature and God, yet how even in the slightest form, we are still interconnected and we are still part of it. This notion connects with the idea of the “transparent eye-ball”, and how humans are nothing but a small element of God from which innate natural notions essentially circulate through to contribute to the learning, connection and understanding of the dualistic reciprocal relationship between humans and agoldlike nature.
It is also substantial to note how the idea of being a small part of the Universe and the interconnectedness between things; two separate worlds that complement each other but are not on the same level, is one of the ideas developed in Timothy Morton’s Introduction to The Ecological Thought. Morton focuses on the idea of the ecological thought as the connection and coexistence of all living beings. Morton’s implementation of this ecological thought had the purpose of essentially disproving traditional perceptions of ecology as the relationships between human and nonhumans. To achieve this state of ecological consciousness, Morton suggests that we must leave the culturally constructed notion of nature behind, since it “fails to serve ecology well”. Through Emerson we see this particular problem; everything is interconnected in the same Universe, but not everything is equally important. This is caused precisely by the glorification of nature as something beyond humanity, a creation by a godly figure that is above mankind. By taking contrasting ideas like these, the reader can get a better understanding of what comprises the desire for the sublime experience that Emerson is so keen on.
Moreover, backtracking into the passage, the orthographic punctuation contributes to the overall flow and rhythm of the chosen excerpt in Emerson’s chapter Nature. This Emersonian stylistic element consisting of lengthy sentences through the use of constant semicolons and em (?) dashes, not only creates a time-dragging feel to the reader, but also the process of a detailed thought. The constant addition of independent clauses to create a compound phrase makes the reader feel as though they are flowing with the author’s instant thought and arriving at his present moment realizations. It makes the reading experience very intimate and personal, making it more accessible and desirable to submerge oneself into.
The subsequent line, “The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance.”. Emerson, plays with the notion of emotional familiarity as an equalizing factor that reduces everything to the same level. By the repetition of “to be”, he emphasizes the insignificance (when in nature) of these social relationships only existent in civilized spaces. The excerpt essentially captures the tension and pressure of society and its labels, and by putting both brother and acquaintance, master and servant together, the author shows how pointless and unsubstantial these concepts are when in contrast with nature, and therefore, God.
The preceding quote of the passage, “I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty” evokes some contradiction from the author’s perspective. For starters, Emerson presents an outsider perspective by stating that he is the lover. He is viewing and loving the uncontained immortal beauty, but not attaining it. By using the word “immortal”, Emerson automatically discards the possibility of humans attaining this uncontained beauty. It is also a very peculiar choice to say that he is the lover, since it insinuates a sense of reverence and admiration towards not being able to achieve that precise level of beauty – he is not good enough. The overall message transmits an unsettling conformist tone with regards to the acceptance of the mediocrity of mankind in the eyes of the spiritual nature. In addition to this, although the word “uncontained” could signify beauty’s existence in all spaces, it comes across as ironic and contradictory, considering such beauty is immortal, and therefore constrained in the walls of the supernatural and everlasting. It is an idea that, although it persists everywhere, is constricted and refrained to very specific notions far from mankind’s reach, therefore insinuating that the beauty is in fact contained.
The idea of wilderness as another contributing element of nature, appears as a place in which the author finds “something more dear and connate than in streets or villages”. The use of the verb “find” suggests to the reader the likelihood of the author’s search for purity and beauty, a constant search for the sublime experience that is predetermined to only happen in the
“tranquil landscape”. Nonetheless, the determiner “more” creates the possibility of this dear and connates “something” also being present in streets and villages. This is reinforced by the adjective “connate” considering it makes reference to the congenital knowledge found in individuals, therefore, meaning that it always exists regardless of the environment or setting, yet it is heightened when in nature. These notions presented by Emerson not only correspond to his previously mentioned arguments relating to nature and the sublime, but also the ideals of the Pastoral, as the desire to exit civilization in order to reach the idealized nature.
Emerson’s direct mention of wilderness as a place to which human’s escape from their daily life in order to experience getting closer to God and experience the sublime, is the same idea as explained in William Cronon’s article The Trouble with Wilderness. While Emerson views nature and wilderness as the most pure and divine product of god, a connection that should be praised and desired to procure, Cronon focuses on arguing how similar ideas to Emerson’s are in fact harmful since they lead to the dismissal of our environmental responsibilities as a civilization. By following the “dualistic vision in which the human is entirely outside the natural” (Cronon 17,) which is seen through Emerson’s understanding of nature as a supernatural creation that complements and coexists with men yet is above all mankind, the “epic struggle between malign civilization and benign nature” (Cronon, 20) continues to prosper in people’s mentality. It is also interesting to note that, although these are contrasting ideas, they both seem to agree with the sublime experience being “more of a state of mind than a fact of nature”. Emerson, as a Transcendentalist, focuses on the idea of nature as a meeting ground for human spirit and imagination. This insinuates that nature, as we know it, could essentially be a fabricated illusion considering we only understand our mind and our own experiences. Therefore, both Cronon and Emerson possibly agree on “the wilderness experience” (Cronon, 8 ) being a constructed idea, that according to Emerson should be pursued and according to Cronon, should be evaded.
Lastly, the line, “and especially the distant line of the horizon”, although at first thought could be interpreted as the horizon viewed from the mainland, most likely it refers to the horizon most distant from human civilization, where humans can truly flourish and become “somewhat as beautiful as his own nature”. Emerson, by using the adverb “somewhat” insinuates the previously detailed idea that humans can only reach a certain level of beauty in comparison to “immortal beauty”. Moreover, the author’s claim of one’s own “nature” seems to be an homonym, in the sense that it doesn’t particularly refer to the divine, godlike natural space we have been discussing so far, but instead a mortal, human nature emerging from within.
Another way to deeply understand Emerson’s ideas such as the relationship with nature, and the sublime, is by recognizing the role of language in the way it helps the process of thoughts and experiences. According to Emerson, all things are linked because every object requires language, and therefore humans, in order to be understood. Language thus serves as a bonding agent that unites the natural world with humans, aside from the imminent connection that everything is a product of God. At the beginning of the chapter Language, Emerson states that “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance.”, this, essentially means that in order for humans to understand the abstract aspect of nature, we must use language based on concrete things to create a mental picture of things our brain can grasp onto. The author, by saying that “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact”, indicates that every material object in nature signifies spiritual facts or realities, therefore connecting humans, and nature through the transcendence of language as a symbol for spirituality that contributes to Universal Understanding.
One of the passages found in the second degree of the three found in Emerson’s chapter Nature, begins with the rhetorical question “Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things?”. For instance, the use of a rhetorical question as the opening for a new paragraph could be considered a stylistic move to attempt to persuade the reader into agreeing with a particular idea, in this case, how nature portrays all the things in life. Nonetheless, the use of questions could also be due to the uncertainty of a particular subject. Emerson, once again, utilizes “river” as a particular element of nature instead of its entirety as a way to make it more approachable. The meditative hour seems a very figurative way of insinuating a particular time for inner thought, its correlation with the word “river”, creates the likelihood that the meditative hour occurs in nature where a sense of existence is evoked. The analogy created by the author in which the simple act of throwing stones into a stream relates to all influence because of the waves propagated by the impact, is another scenario in which Emerson himself uses language as a way to express his own arguments regarding nature and its connection with humanity.
The sentence, “Man is conscious of a universal soul within or behind his individual life, wherein, as in a firmament, the natures of Justice, Truth, Love, Freedom, arise and shine.” The previous mention of the act of throwing stones into the stream, Emerson creates a clear connection between phrases, indicating that it is in nature where consciousness and awareness regarding the universal soul take place. Unlike previous passages where “Universal Being”, for example, was capitalized, it begs to question why “universal soul” wouldn’t be. It perhaps references Universal Being as something larger, perhaps a god, in contrast to the universal soul, which lies within the human. The use of the prepositions “within” and “behind” prove that this “universal soul” is not only found inside of one’s self, but also in other places where it arises and shines.
The use of the adverb “as” between “individual life” and “firmament”, create an equalizing connection where the concepts offered by Emerson are not only found in the human world, but also in the heavenly, divine world. It almost insinuates a level of consciousness transcending from the mortal to the spiritual; all this taking place while present in nature. The capitalization of the list of emotions or concepts seems very intriguing, perhaps the use of capitalization is to differentiate them from mere feelings, to imply something broader, as they are, after all, some of the most abstract and puzzling moral conflicts and dilemmas that humans struggle with. This is another example of Emerson using language to transmit different meanings by playing with words and concepts.
As the passage continues, Emerson unravels the meaning of universal soul as Reason, that “it is not mine, or thine, or his, but we are its; we are its property and men.” By saying that the universal soul is Reason, Emerson unravels that Reason is essentially men’s consciousness and inner morals. This consciousness traverses nature, to become a universal soul; the spirit. It is interesting to note how the use of “he”, a pronoun reference, makes the appearance of someone else, an additional voice to whom we belong. This pronoun reference continues when Emerson says “we are its”.
Through the use of specific adjectives, such as “private”, the reader senses ownership and property where individualism disappears when Emerson states that we belong to “it”. The author additionally creates vivid imagery of a tranquil blue sky where the earth is found, by the usage of descriptive words. The idea of “everlasting orbs”, also caught my attention, since a possible definition for “orbs” is “celestial bodies”, therefore meaning that in this earth and sky, we find many eternal bodies called Reason (the spirit).
Emerson creates a very amusing effect by giving different names to the same thing according to the setting they are found in. Intellectually, in men’s minds, it is Reason, but in nature, where the horizon of possibilities is broadened and men get closer to the divine, its Spirit which Emerson considers as the creator and the father (god). The passage concludes with the idea of Spirit as something with life because of humans’embodiment of such, through nature. It goes back to previously mentioned notions of spirituality conveyed by the material objects found in nature, which language is based on. Language becomes a vehicle for the Spirit, interconnecting humans and the natural world in the Universal Body.
Emerson finds language to be the binding component between nature and humanity, in a similar way that Laurance Buell, in his essay Representing the Environment, sees Dual accountability as a solution for the distance between factual reality (the world) and discourse (language). The aesthetic created by Buell combines the material world and language with the objective of broadening the horizon of language as part of factual reality, and thereby applying language to the object world. Buell’s purpose correlates with Emerson’s idea that language is what connects and creates the dualism between men and nature, and what allows humans to make sense of their surroundings. Essentially, both authors follow the notion of language as a vehicle that interconnects all beings. Emerson uses language to help us understand Reason, and God, and the moral universal soul and spirit found within. Without language, we could not describe our feelings or experiences of the sublime, or the sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. Without language we could not understand abstract concepts like gods and spirits, or even innate knowledge found within us. Without nature we would not be, and nature would be nothing more than a prospect with no meaning; an illusion.