Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : The Role of Nature in Transcendentalism : Thoreau, Whitman and Emerson • Comparison of the Poets Walt Whitman and Ruben Dario • Analysis and Summary of “Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau • Persistent Themes in the Poetry of W.B. Yeats • Summary and Analysis of the Poem “Departmental” by Robert Frost • Poem Analysis of “Traveling Through the Dark” by William Stafford • Romanticism in Poems by Wordsworth and Coleridge • An Analysis of Common Themes in Victorian Poetry
Transcendentalism is a name that was applied to a social and literary philosophy that was holistic and distinctly American in nature. The transcendentalists, represented byWalt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others, devised a theory and practice of living that sought to bring individuals and society back to the most simple, natural, and straightforward beliefs that could guide human behavior and foster a health society. The transcendental movement and the natural worldwere intertwined as among the basic beliefs of the transcendentalism movement was the belief in the intrinsic value and importance of nature. In the view of transcendentalists such as Whitman, Thoreau and Emerson, nature and the natural world was the template for the human world and this theme in transcendentalist poetry, especially in the case of Whitman, forms the backbone of meaning in his poetry.
In his autobiographical work, “Walden”, which was written while the writer and poet was living off the land in nature outside of his town and contemplating nature, Thoreau explained the importance of being close to nature rather than living disconnected from its cycles and processes, both subtle and obvious. In terms of another common theme found in the poetry of the transcendentalists and in other works by Thoreau, it was also in this work that the dignity of physical labor was defended and discussed at great length. Thoreau, as with the other transcendentalists writing poetry at this time, believed that there was no greater office that that of living on and working the land in a responsible manner. For these writers and thinkers who were part of the transcendentalist movement in literature and poetry, intellectualism, however, was also important, if not just as vital as having a keen understanding and appreciation for the natural world.
The transcendentalists, especially those writing poetry including Whitman and Thoreau, prioritized the cultivation of thought and philosophy, especially as it could be applied to living in society, and they conducted social experiments, such as Brook Farm, in which they strove to perfect their ideals. Spirituality, as opposed to religion, was also an important element in their belief system, and spirituality was distinguished by religion as an informal relationship between God and man, and the recognition that there is divineness within each living being which must be honored and protected. These ideas, combined with the stressed importance of a transcendentalist’s life connected with nature were among the driving ideas behind the transcendental movement in poetry. Finally, the transcendentalists believed fervently in the democratic experiment, and they advocated self-reliance and independence as the duties of responsible citizens.
Like Thoreau and Emerson, the poet Walt Whitman can be classified as a transcendentalist in terms of the themes in his poetry. The same beliefs and preoccupations held by the two essayists are those that are explored throughout Whitman’s body of poetic work. Whitman expresses his transcendentalist beliefs enthusiastically, and is perhaps even more appealing to some readers than the seemingly solitary figures of the misanthropic poet Thoreau and Emerson because of the exuberance that characterizes his poems. Whitman is unrestrained in his praise of the American experiment and of the American people. Three poems in which Whitman’s transcendental beliefs are exemplified and are most evident are “Song of Myself,” “Facing West from California’s Shores,” and “When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
In the poem “Song of Myself,” Whitman meditates at length on most of the beliefs and practices that were central to transcendental thought. He opens the poem with the passionate declarative statement, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself” (l. 1). This focus on the self is characteristic of transcendentalists, not in an ego-bound sort of way, but in an effort to understand the self and its relation to nature and society. It is important to point out that the self is by no means isolated; Whitman immediately indicates that his speaker shares atoms with the reader, and that for this reason, they have a common stake in society. Whitman is deeply interested in nature in this poem, as is the case in much of his poetry. As this poem analysis of “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman suggests, the analysis and contemplation of nature and the natural world provides the opportunity to reflect upon the workings of the world. He allows himself to “loafe” while contemplating a single blade of grass in the summer, which spurs him on to meditate about his own origins and the cycle of life.