Julie Chen


American Literature I

Professor Percy Kuo

Introduction on Emerson’s Concept of Nature

This paper will discuss some central concepts in Emerson’s “Nature. Emerson’s view of nature is mostly abstract and enigmatic, I search some detailed explanation on Internet after reading my note on the text book.

Me and the ‘Not Me’

Emerson presents his vision of the complex relationship between humans and nature. And his precedent ideals become the main spirit of transcendentalism. But why is nature so significant to us? In the introduction of ‘Nature’, Emerson brings out his thoughts clearly: “Our age is retrospective…The foregoing generation beholds God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” It is said that thought the tide of history, humans see the same from the beginning since God made us, we see the same sun, moon and star as our ancestors all the time. In this circumstance, Emerson believes that both nature and man belongs to God. Therefore, men can see themselves by viewing nature with intuitive reason and be guide by the truth of the whole universe when lost. We ‘act it as life’ and apprehend nature as a truth. “All science has one aim, namely, to find a theory of nature…whenever a true theory appears, it will be its own evidence, its test is, that it will explain all phenomena.”  However, the theory of nature is hard to define anyway, but Emerson first clarifies the universe as a composition of Nature and the Soul. In a word, “all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.” “Nature, in common sense, refers to essences unchanged by man; space, the air, the river, the leaf.” Therefore, there are two genres of objects in this immerse universe, ME and the NOT ME. By defining nature as the NOT ME, Emerson urged intellectuals to turn to nature to find reflection of the self, because that every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.

The Symbol of River, Water and Liquid in ‘Nature’

Emerson believes ‘me’ can be revealed by the ‘not me’, so he draws repeatedly in ‘Nature’ on images of circulating, flowing currents of water, particularly of rivers, and air (the wind). But why these ‘river’, ‘water’ and ‘air’ so essential that Emerson has mentioned for so many times? Actually, these words visualize ‘dynamic flow’ in terms of natural rivers that helps to reinforce and clarify the philosophical and structural integrity of the book. And Emerson's abstract notions about the metaphorical flow of spirit through man and nature are now clearly presented. He views nature such a immense, lively existence. The image of ‘flow’ describes this major characteristic of nature, always refreshing and integrating itself. Emerson praises the river as an image of beauty and source of spiritual energy, connecting the universe into a fluid whole. The river's reconciliation of union and separation, continuity and change would "serve" him well in ‘Nature’. The most evident part of Emerson’s using ‘river’ as a major interpretation of nature is because ‘river's ceaseless motion and continuity do not appear from nowhere but because it is part of the larger River, the hydrologic cycle. Its true source is not the springs, streams, or lakes that are visible, but the earth's water evaporating and condensing in precipitation, constantly replenishing streams and especially ground water.’ (Paragraph 10, Emerson's Nature: A River Reading, Ann Woodlief ) Moreover, Emerson emphasizes how very essential water is to life itself, as well as to man's necessity, comfort, and delight: “we meet it oftener and owe it more than we imagine; that it is a friend who sends us favors unsuspected, that works when we sleep, circulates in our veins, is present in every function of life, grows in the vegetable, is a cement, and an engineer, and an architect, in inanimate nature.”

Art and Beauty

Let us back to the matter of me and the ‘not me’. After Emerson presents his thesis about ‘Nature refers to essences unchanged by man’ (still in the introduction part of ‘Nature’), he mentions: “Art is applied to the mixture of his (man’s) will with the same thing, as in a house, a canal, a statue, a picture.” In here, art is defined as an ‘insignificant’ operation of man that does little or nothing to change the natural essence. A canal, in fact, does not significantly alter the flowing essence of a river. In another words, Nature, in this case, the River-- is not affected by man's will, or his turning it into art as a canal. So, is natural beauty the real and only beauty? According to the first sentence in the third chapter of ‘Nature’-- A nobler want of man is served by nature, namely, the love of Beauty”, Emerson reckons that all beauty is in nature and both humans and nature are of God. So men’s creations, in a sense, are also existences of beauty in God’s name. However, although we see nature’s beauty everywhere, ‘this beauty of Nature which is seen and felt as beauty, is the least part.’ Because ‘the shows of day, the dewy morning, the rainbow, mountains, orchards in blossom, stars, moonlight, shadows in still water, and the like, if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality.’ Emerson believes Nature’s beauty is hard to pursue and behold. But if we approach nature with a humble heart, the whole universe will be the property of every individual in it. And ‘every rational creature has all nature for his dowry and estate. It is his, if he will. He may divest himself of it; he may creep into a corner, and abdicate his kingdom, as most men do, but he is entitled to the world by his constitution. In proportion to the energy of his thought and will, he takes up the world into himself.’ In the chapter of Beauty, Emerson also emphasizes on ‘the intellect of nature’s beauty’. The intellect is the existence of ‘absolute order of things as they stand in the mind of God’. Upon beholding this, we see virtues in Nature. That’s why people should all be sensitive with the intellect of the universe, to apprehend the truth that surrounds them. How Humans Should Reacts to Nature

Like points that have been mentioned before, we human beings should not ask Nature for anything because Nature has given us all, since the moment God creates the universe. Emerson has once described the most intimate interaction of humans and nature by draw a scene of man looking into the starlit night sky. Solitude comes always in the moment a person looks at the stars. “The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and vulgar things. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.” In this moment, we gaze at the universe and the universe gazes upon us, too. Although we are not looking or ask for anything from nature, she embraces us in the delight of intimacy, as if we are daughters of the same father. Upon experiencing this kind of solitude, humans can be always open up to anything that universe will teach us truth, with all its virtue, knowledge and will, and this is just the way of Nature.

Work Cited

1. Emerson's Nature: A River Reading

Ann Woodlief, Virginia Commonwealth University


2. The Norton Anthology of AMERICAN LITERATURE Volume B (1820-1865), sixth edition. Nina Baym (General Editor)

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