Transcendentalism in America
The transcendentalist movement hit America full force by the mid 19th century, crafting a passionate spiritual idealism in its wake and leaving a unique mark on the history of American literature. Transcendentalism stems from the broader Romanticist time period, which depends on intuition rather than reasoning. Transcendentalism takes a step further into the realm of spirituality with the principle that in order to discover the divine truth that the individual seeks, he or she must transcend, or exceed, the “everyday human experience in the physical world” (“Elements of Literature: Fifth Course” 146). Nature, the physical world, is seen as a doorway to the divine world; beings can cross over into this divine world by not only observing nature, but also looking within themselves. As a result, individuality and self-assurance are seen as virtues, since they come from the heart of the individual. William Cullen Bryant and his poem Thanatopsis, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s The American Scholar, and Walt Whitman’s A Noiseless Patient Spider all display fundamental characteristics of Transcendentalism.
William Cullen Bryant was a famous American poet of the 1800s, integrating major themes of transcendentalism into his poems and short stories. Thanatopsis is one of Bryant’s most famous works, and combines the themes of nature, death, and the unity of these two with humanity. He starts by personifying nature, and claims he has a unique relationship with “her” and all her different “forms”, referring to sights that adorn the landscape. Valleys, brooks, and plant life are all her different forms. Bryant explains that nature speaks differently to an individual according to their mood: “Communion with her visible forms, she speaks/A various language; for his gayer hours/She has a voice of gladness, and a smile” (2-4). When that individual’s attitude changes, so does nature’s character: “and she glides/Into his darker musings, with a mild/And healing sympathy, that steals away/Their sharpness, ere he is aware.” (5-8). Nature seemingly heals the individual’s pain before they are conscious of it. Bryant then transfers to the melancholy thoughts of death. He states that when we die, we will become one with nature. He describes all the ways the earth will reuse us in the soil, for the trees, and we will become as indifferent as rocks that scatter about the world. Therefore, we should not feel disheartened towards death. He continues to persuade the reader not to worry, for everyone will one day lie down “in one mighty sepulcher” (37) together. He ends on the note that we should not greet death with hopelessness, as if entering a prison, but embrace it as if it were just an opportunity to lie down and sleep dreamily.
Transcendentalism is a sector of romanticism, and therefore, like romanticism, can be said to encompass the philosophy of “reverence for nature” (Benet's Reader's Encyclopedia). Many transcendentalist believers took to nature to gain inspiration and descend into a state of divinity. Wildlife was connected to God, and by embracing the wild you embraced spirituality itself. Living in an untamed environment and functioning in the works of nature was the essence of transcendentalism. Bryant perceives the personified Nature as a celestial being that takes many forms in the world, and he calls out to those who see her similarly. In his first line he addresses “To him who in the love of Nature holds/ Communion with her visible forms”(1-2). He is calling out to those who hold a special relationship with Nature’s various spectacles. He continues to admire nature’s wisdom, urging readers to “Go forth, under the open sky, and list/To Nature’s teachings, while from all around/ Earth and her waters, and the depths of air/Comes a still voice” (14-17). One author notes “ ‘Thanatopsis’ then exhorts anyone overcome with morbid thoughts of human mortality to venture into Nature for the sake of uplifting lessons to be...
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