The natural world has always been an important subject for poets and prose writers and is not an aspect that is dealt with exclusively by transcendental poets such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, who are some of the most influential transcendental poets.. Whether in thepoetry of the era of Romanticism, including that of Wordsworth, Keats, and Shelley, the Gothic tales of Stoker, Shelley, and Poe, or the works by transcendentalists Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, nature serves as much more than simply a passive setting against which compelling actions unfold or a pretty backdrop or setting in the natural world. Rather, nature in all of the poems and essays by Emerson, Thoreau, and Walden is a living character through which human identity is constructed either through the characters’ alignment with the natural world or their struggle against it.
In the works of Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman in particular, nature is portrayed as a beneficent living force that can, if studied and understood through careful and intentional reflection, offer enduring lessons about what it means to be human. In “Self-Reliance," and the main ideas behind Thoreau’s “Walden”, as well as “Leaves of Grass”, the respective authors are deeply reverent of nature, and it is through their intimate relationship with the natural world that they construct their own identities and their philosophies about how to live a right life in the natural world. For Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, nature is viewed as possessing all the knowledge that man needs to know, if only he is attentive and willing enough to study its messages and apply them to his life.
For Ralph Waldo Emerson, the physical environment is a perfectly ordered world because it is natural; it was not constructed by man and it is therefore not subjected to or tainted by his misguided ideas, as Emerson portrays men’s institutions to be. Yes, the physical world is wild and untamed, just as the human soul itself. In nature or the natural world, Emerson finds the rules by which he lives, and by which he exhorts others to live. The institutions of men have no appeal for him since they do not fit within the natural world, nor does he acknowledge them as authoritative; as he says, “No law can be sacred to me but that of my [own] nature" (52). The human being, like the natural world in which he lives, is untamed. However, there is an order within man, as there is within nature, if only he takes the time to study and understand his own system.
Even if man does not understand his own personal nature, or the natural world in which he lives, this order still exists “[N]o man can violate his nature," Emerson writes, just as the “Andes and Himmaleh [sic]" cannot be anything other than they are: mountains (59). “[R]ead it forward, backward, or across, it still spells the same thing," he asserts. Emerson warns against forgetting that we “share the cause" (65) of nature by being overly preoccupied with the institutions we have made; of this obsession, Emerson writes that he is I am “ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions" (52). Nonetheless, Emerson recognizes that we must live in the world that we have created, and he advises that we “keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude," which is found in nature, even while “in the midst of the crowd" (55).
Thoreau takes a slightly more radical or extreme stance, advocating a literal return to nature—and a disconnection from the madness of the modern world– as a way of understanding oneself and society and, as in one of his seminal works aside from “Walden” entitled, “Civil Disobedience”, he connects themes of nature, law and soceity.. Thoreau contends that “most men…are in an extreme uncertainty" about life, and it is for this reason that he deliberately returned to the natural world for “two years and two months" (3), alone, in order to understand man’s essential nature (91). Although Thoreau returns to the “civilized world" as a “sojourner" (3), it is in the natural environment that he finds the lessons he needs to be able to live in the world of men and their artificial institutions. Like Emerson, Thoreau believes that the highest law is not that created by men, but that which is ordained by nature. “If we knew all the laws of Nature," Thoreau writes in one of the important quotes from “Walden” that “we should need only one fact, or the description of one actual phenomenon, to infer all the particular results at that point" (290). This is one of the main lessons that Thoreau wants to convey to his reader: any deviation from the patterns established in the natural world will only distract man from his true nature.
Although Whitman’s genre was poetry, not prose, the role and value of nature was, as was true for Emerson and Thoreau, that it serves as a template for how to live a meaningful life. For Whitman, nature inspires and reflects the individualism that he aspires to embody and which he wishes for his fellow man. Like Thoreau, important works by Walt Whitman contemplate the natural world deeply; even a simple blade of grass provokes deep meditation about human origins and the meaning of life. For Whitman, Nature without check with original energy" (l. 14) is an inspiring model by which he would like to live. Whitman alludes that as much as we may alienate ourselves from the natural world, we cannot escape our connection to it; we were born of dust, he reminds the reader, and to dust we will return, becoming one with nature. Nature is Whitman’s religion; more than any man-made institution, the laws by which man can and should live are plainly visible in the natural world.
Emerson, Thoreau, and Walden are classified as transcendentalist writers, characterized by their preoccupation with nature. Far from viewing nature simply as a beautiful landscape, these three writers do identify and praise nature’s beauty, but they also look beneath the superficial aspects of nature in order to derive lessons about living in the world of men and the artificial institutions that they have made. Each of these writers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman disconnects temporarily from that world in order to return to nature and study it carefully. In nature, they assert, the order of the world is evident, and the patterns established there can and should be imitated in the society of men. The most important lesson, agreed upon by all three poets Emerson, Thoreau, and Walden, is that the laws of man cannot govern an individual’s spirit, which is part of his natural endowment. While we must live in the world we have created, we can always look to the world that existed before us to find the direction that we need to live rightly.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance." New York: Sully & Kleintech, 1883.
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. J.Lyndon Shanley, (ed.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.