In terms of literature, Ralph Waldo is best known for his philosophical essays and as a leading transcendentalist. As a literary movement, I tend to see transcendentalism as the American counterpart to British Romanticism. In his poetry, Emerson explores themes about nature, love, society, and metaphysics.
In many of his poems, Emerson presents nature as an ideal escape from a corrupt society and the world of men. Nature serves as a refuge from flawed social arrangements and the dubious values of society. In the poem, “Good-bye” the speaker leaves civilization to find peace in the solitude of nature.
“Good-bye, proud world! I’m going home:
Thou art not my friend, and I’m not thine.
Long through weary crowds I roam;
A river-ark on the ocean brine,
Long I’ve been tossed like the driven foam;
But now, proud world! I’m going home.”
Society values superficial qualities like academic learning, wealth, or how much others flatter your vanity.
“Good-bye to Flattery’s fawning face;
To Grandeur with his wise grimace;
To upstart Wealth’s averted eye;
To supple Office, low and high;”
It is only in society that these things matter. A tree, while alive, could care less how much wealth you possess. Wealth matters only in human society. This is not the only poem that Emerson explores this idea. For example, Emerson reiterates this theme in the poem “Destiny” in which he points out that the qualities we think we possess such as wisdom, bravery, or beauty don’t matter unless there is an outside observer who values that quality in us. As he states in that poem, Beauty only has value in so far as it charms another person. The armor of a soldier only has value in so far as it helps him conquer others. If no one is willing to listen to our words or ideas, what value is wisdom or intelligence? However, he isn’t suggesting we value the things society values, but rather the importance of self-reliance. Our qualities only matter in that they help us achieve success in our personal goals. Therefore to escape, Emerson leaves human society for nature where he can quietly contemplate the deeper structures of the universe, himself, and his relationship to it. For Emerson, it is not in reading old books and ancient wisdom where we will learn about God and the metaphysical structure of the universe, but it is in nature that man discovers God and reality. For as the poem ends:
“I laugh at the lore and the pride of man
At the sophist schools and the learned clan;
For what are they all, in their high conceit,
When man in the bush with God may meet?”
The divine is to be found in nature. Not only that, but many deep philosophical insights about the real nature of the world can be discovered by observing nature. These themes about finding truth in nature are developed in many of his other poems as well. In “The World-Soul,” Emerson criticizes man’s attempts to control and conquer nature with science and technology. These products of human civilization make us forget we are part of nature and part of a continuous cycle in which the earth continually rebuilds and renews itself. In “Hamatreya” he tells of a group of farmer who delude themselves that they own the land before them, but the poem shows it is the land that actually will own them when they die and the earth will literally take possession of their corpses. The poem suggests that the material possessions that we stress so much about in life are ephemeral; we cannot take them with us when we die. Nature cannot really be owned, only temporarily borrowed. In “To Rhea”, the speaker listens to nature in order to learn that we should not fret over unrequited love, but love all people as part of an interconnected natural order. This idea of an interconnected world finds more direct expression in “Uriel” where an angel named Uriel interrupts a discussion about metaphysics that the old gods are having with the radical idea that the world is cyclical and its elements intertwined as opposed to each element and phenomena having clear cut and easily defined boundaries. He points out that good can come from evil. The prospects that clear defining borders may not exist disturb the other divine beings.
Two of his best poems, “The Rhodora” and “The Humble-bee” make the point that God created nature for us to experience beauty and that we can learn through nature by observing it. For example, in “The Humble-bee,” the speaker describes the bee as a great philosopher because the insect knows no human despair, but rather spends all its time with the best flowers (the best and most beautiful things in life). The point is to show us how a person can learn from nature. Like the bee, instead of burdening ourselves with endless problems of society, we should spend our time with the beauties of nature away from the corrupt world. He reiterates this idea in the poem, “Wood-notes I.” The poet sees all the secrets of nature and those who can see it secrets understand nature and nature can supply all we really need in this life. “Forebearance” reminds us that we should cultivate friendship with those who can appreciate nature and our virtues without out trying to exploit or control it.
Another major theme in his poetry is the importance of love. In “Give All to Love” the speaker makes the point that we should give up all other human virtues for the sake of love (i.e. fame, fortune, reputation). On the other hand, we should also be willing to let go of the one we love if she finds a joy and passion separate from ourselves..