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Concepts of Nature
Transcendentalism was an important philosophical and literary movement in New England from 1836 to 1860. This new development portrays the belief that humans can intuitively transcend the limits of the senses and logic and receive higher truth directly from nature. Both Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two writers who believed in exploring the spiritual meaning throughout the physical universe. They were influential in the furthering of the movement by creating such essays as “Nature” by Emerson and “Walking” by Thoreau.
The two works being published together is what allows many to understand the transcendental prospective, while still respecting the slightly different views on nature of the two writers.
Emerson’s essay forms an abstract view on nature, that nature is anything outside that the writer can describe. But then Thoreau’s definition has a more concrete and practical approach, that nature is the landscape he can always walk into. Throughout “Walking”, Thoreau speaks of “sauntering” (p.71) as walking without destination.
He believes that in order to appreciate nature for what it is, one cannot follow any kind of path, or follow any road, but he must wander and unify diverse terrain. In the beginning of his essay he says that, “He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.”(p.72) This proves Thoreau’s idea that you cannot just look at nature, you must go out and experience it.
This contrasts the writing of Emerson because he writes as if he were reflecting upon an experience, as opposed to taking a reader step by step through the woods as Thoreau does. In the beginning of his essay Emerson says, If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for the many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile” (p.6) Emerson insists that we witness the spectacle displayed continuously around us. But Thoreau believes that you must go and experience nature first hand and not only with your eyes but with all your senses.
The writing technique and word choice causes variation in the two essays also. When reading Thoreau’s essay it is as if he were lecturing to an audience. The very first words in the essay, “I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness…”(p.71) are very powerful and attention grabbing. It sounds as if he were making a dramatic public performance. Whereas Emerson begins in the particular moment, his reflection on an experience beings on the essays second page. He speaks of the “charming landscape which I saw this morning…”(p.7) Emerson doesn’t lecture or ramble off his beliefs, he instead grabs the reader and brings them into his world of perceiving nature and it’s experiences. But the exuberance of Thoreau’s “Walking” is what connects the essay with the passiveness of Emerson’s “Nature”.
For Emerson, nature is above all a means to human enlightenment. He believes that, “once a person has become attuned to the underlying spiritual realities, the world’s purpose is served and it becomes transparent” (p.xi). Although Thoreau is a walker, as apposed to a gazer, his essay also reveals a passion for enlightenment and the higher truth. And both believe that the only way to find this is to transcend the limits of the senses and logic, and receive it directly from nature. Both authors have the belief in intuitive idealism, where we can recognize in ourselves if we have a relationship with nature. And that is what the main point of the two essays are, they are both attempts to make people realize that nature is something that needs to be recognized and appreciated for its beauty. And if we all do this we will become better people. This is what influenced many of the greatest writers of all time and what made nature writing what it is today.
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