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The early 19th century ideas of transcendentalism, which were introduced
by Ralph Emerson and David Thoreau, where man as an individual becomes
spiritually consumed with nature and himself through experience are contrasted
by Emily Dickinson, who chose to branch off this path by showing that a
transcendentalist experience could be achieved through imagination alone. These
three monumental writers set the boundaries for this new realm of thought.
Although these writers ideas were not similar, they all followed the simple idea
that “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul” . The male perspective
seen through the works of Thoreau and Emerson, where nature “refers to essences
unchanged by man; the air, the river, the leaf” , is revised and satirized by
Dickinson's statement that “Of all the Souls that stand create-, I have elected-
One” . Dickinson's works were meant to taunt society by showing how a woman,
ironically trapped in her “natural” surroundings of the home, could obtain as
much power, if not more than any male writer. This ironic revisions of ideas is
directed at all male transcendentalists and figures in society.
Both Ralph Emerson and David Thoreau used societies stereotype of the
true male environment, “nature”, to draw their power and write from their
experiences. Experience was the most important factor to these writers. The
ability “to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account in my next
excursion” was the basis of all their writings. “To get the whole and genuine
meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the whole world” was their goal
behind all their writings. They did not use their power of writing in order to
gain a transcendentalist experience, but rather to record them. Both Emerson
and Thoreau chose to contact their true natural surroundings, and experience
time alone in the “woods”. By being “in solitude”, it brought forth a
conciseness that “all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind
is open to their influence” .
Mans views of nature being rightfully his, to do with what he wants, is
harshly contrasted by Emerson, who feels that “Nature sais,-He is my creature” .
Emerson felt that man, corrupted by society, can over power the fate of over
looking his true meaning. Escaping from the wheel of society into “the woods, is
perpetual youth”. By living in the woods, he found that fusing nature with soul,
one can accomplish anything.
Emerson felt that nature was an extension of five of his senses, where
he could feel the tree moving in the wind as if it was his own body.
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stressed the theme of “having intercourse with heaven and earth”, or interlacing
your body and soul with nature. But, of all five senses, he stressed vision the
most. Beauty can only be accomplished through the gate way of the eye, which is
where most experiences are derived from. “The eye is the best of artists” , and
has the power to display “the simple perception of natural forms” , which is
where true beauty comes form. “Nature satisfies the soul purely by its
loveliness” . By becoming “a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing. I see all” .
Being self reliant on oneself, following the idea that “Man is his own
star” , Emerson displays his transcendentalist idea that applies to anyone who
would like to follow it. The importance of flowing with nature, and excepting
what you are is stressed in Emerson's self-reliance. By following the modo “Ne
te quæsiveris extra” , Emerson completely committed himself to “nature”. By
letting it become part of his soul, he used its power to enable him to transcend
into the identity of anything or anyone he would like. This idea is important
to Emerson because it transforms “the tradesman, the attorney comes out of the
din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again”
. Looking at himself as an individual, not as a number lost in a sea of people
walking down a street, enabled Emerson to draw power to himself, where he did
not have to rely on anyone or anything. He became his own deity, his own master,
and his self owner. Emerson contained the ability “To believe your own thought,
to believe that what is true for you in your private heart, is true for all men”
, and that in itself is a philosophy which made him stand out from many, and
made him an individual.
Emerson clearly states in Nature, being in your natural surrounding, the
wilderness, is the key to happiness. But fails to recognize that not all
human's natural surroundings are the “woods”. Although he does admit that a
true transcendentalist “does not reside in nature, but in man, or in a harmony
of both” , he still focuses on a transcendentalist being in tune with nature.
Emerson feels that transcendentalism must come from experience in the wilderness,
and then through intellect.
David Thoreau also used “nature” for an escape from the wheel of society,
where he “went into the woods” in order “to live deliberately”. The woods is
where the soul and nature combine to be one. Thoreau ideas were the foundations
of transcendentalism, where Emerson, and any other transcendentalist built off.
Thoreau's works were more politically centered than of Emerson's, but followed
the same fundamentals that Emerson held in mind.
Thoreau made his trek into the “woods” in order to escape the machine,
and leave behind society in order to prove that one can live with simplicity,
and does not have to rely on society in order to provide his needs. Thoreau
made his escape to Walden pond, where he composed one of his works, Life in the
Woods. Through his experiences with nature, he questioned himself, “why should
we live with such hurry and waste of life” ? The formulation of these questions
clarified his thoughts to produce his ideas on transcendentalism. One should
live there life as an individual, and not be weary the mob around him. “Why
should we be in such desperate haste to succeed, and in such desperate
enterprises” ? Thoreau was much more concerned with his experiences around him.
Nature, for him, was a renewal of the soul, where he could confide in. Thoreau
was also critical of mans progress, becoming more and more machine like. “Most
of the luxuries and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not
indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind” .
Simplicity was the only way Thoreau found hid way back to the true “nature” of
man. He viewed his life as a man who “does not keep pace with his companions,
perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer” , and no one could challenge
that or take that away from him. All of his power was drawn from “nature”, the
nature of a true man, where he could transcend to any point and become anything
that he wanted.
In contrast to these two male writers, Emily Dickinson proved that
transcendentalism can be achieved with out the element of experience, but rather
just using imagination and the power of intellect to accomplish her goals. She
used many transcendentalist ideas in her writing, but all mostly to show the
power of intellect; a women's intellect. Dickinson, ironically surrounded by
her societies stereotype of her natural surroundings, “Discarded of the
Housewife” , and showed male transcendentalists that she could obtain as much
experience through her mind and writings, then as she could, actually being in
the wilderness. Through her writings, she constantly proves that yes; she is in
her natural surroundings, but the walls and ceiling of her house cannot stop the
power of the mind. Ironically being trapped in her house by her own will, she
takes all male power and influence from her life, and adds it to her own. She
renders her self genderless, because there is no need of digression from male or
female. She becomes her own “Divine”.
The power which Dickinson writes with all comes from her body within. “
The brain-is wider than the sky” , and Dickinson proved it through her writings.
She wrote about first hand experiences that she never had, transcendentalist
experiences, from the inside of her home. There was no Walden Pond to
experience nature, and there was no sunset to watch, all there was for her, was
the corners of the ceiling of her house. How ever, with the power of
imagination behind her, Dickinson could transcend to anywhere she wanted, and
she experienced anything she wanted. Dickinson used her writing, and “solitude”
from society, to enable her to “Soul selects her own Society” . “The Brain is
just weight of God” , her own brain and her own soul, and of coarse, her own
god; “Mine” .
Emily Dickinson split of the transcendentalist road, to form her own
branch, where the power of imagination took the place of experience. Her bold
feminine statement to society proved that the confines of ones house is not
enough to capture the power of the mind.