Emerson: Nature and Natural Philosophy

September 5, 2015 § 1 Comment

Caricature drawn by Christopher Cranch

Nature, published anonymously in 1836, is Emerson’s first publication. The title suggests the significance of nature in Transcendentalism, as well as Emerson’s significance in early forms of American environmental writing and thinking.  However, Nature–where Emerson proposes a ‘theory of nature’–is more specifically an attempt at philosophy than what we might think of as “nature writing.”

Yet one common response to Emerson from philosophers is that his thought isn’t very systematic: too poetic, too much metaphor, not enough system for a work in philosophy. For the most part, he hasn’t been accepted as a worthy figure in American philosophy (one major exception is the work of the philosopher Stanley Cavell; I would  also note that he is included in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Remember, Emerson tells us as much: he has no system. But another way to view this would be to understand that Emerson, in the early and middle part of the 19th century, represents a middle ground or hybrid between poetry and philosophy (also between poetry and science) that is called Natural Philosophy. In this context, before academic specialization separates poets, philosophers, and scientists, one could be all three. So we need to read Emerson, starting with Nature, with this forgotten poetic science and/or poetic philosophy in mind (and the reverse: scientific and philosophical poetics). Nature might be thought of as Emerson’s demonstration of how writing by “Man Thinking” reads.

Emerson uses in Nature various words and concepts from the science of his day, generally called natural philosophy or natural history, in poetic ways. Put differently, his writing and his focus on language reveals a “relation” (key term for him) between the study of nature, the study of philosophy, and the language tools of the poet. After all, nature is viewed as in some way emerging through language, a vehicle of the mind. I want to dig in at this point into what emerges from this vision of nature and its language–and how a ‘poetics of science’  figures in Emerson’s thinking. First, let’s consider some of the language he uses (with help from the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary)–pierce through some “rotten” and forgotten diction.


TRANSMU”TE, v.t. [L. transmuto; trans and muto, to change.]

To change from one nature or substance into another. Water may be transmuted into ice, and ice into water; the juices of plants are transmuted into solid substances; but human skill has not been able to transmute lead or copper into gold.

A holy conscience sublimates every thing; it transmutes the common affairs of life into acts of solemn worship to God.The caresses of parents and the blandishments of friends, transmute us into idols.

Continuing in the language and tools of transmutation–Alembic:


A chimical vessel used in distillation; usually made of glass or copper. The bottom part containing the liquor to be distilled, is called the cucurbit; the upper part which receives and condenses the stream, is called the head, the beak of which is fitted to the neck of a receiver. The head is more properly the alembic. This vessel is not so generally used now, as the worm still and retort.

E*pit”o*me (?), n.; pl. Epitomes (#). [L., fr. Gr. a surface incision, also, and abridgment, fr. to cut into, cut short; upon + to cut: cf. F. épitome. See Tome.]

1. A work in which the contents of a former work are reduced within a smaller space by curtailment and condensation; a brief summary; an abridgement.

[An] epitome of the contents of a very large book. Sydney Smith.

2. A compact or condensed representation of anything.

An epitome of English fashionable life. Carlyle.

A man so various that he seemed to be Not one, but all mankind’s epitome. Dryden.

Syn. — Abridgement; compendium; compend; abstract; synopsis; abbreviature. See Abridgment.

ANAL”OGY, n. [Gr. ratio, proportion.]

1. an agreement or likeness between things in some circumstances or effects, when the things are otherwise entirely different. Thus a plant is said to have life, because its growth resembles in some degree, that of an animal. In life and growth, then, there is an analogy between a plant and an animal. Learning enlightens the mind, because it is to the mind, what light is to the eye, enabling it to discover things before hidden. When the things which have an analogy follow a preposition, that preposition must be between or betwixt; as there is an analogy between plants and animals, or between customs. When one of the things precedes a verb, and the other follows, the preposition used must be to or with; as, a plant has some analogy to or with an animal.2. With grammarians, analogy is a conformity of words to the genius, structure or general rules of a language. Thus the general rule in English is that the plural of a noun ends in es; therefore all nouns which have that plural termination have an analogy, or are formed in analogy with other words of a like kind.
HIEROGLYPH”IC, n. [Gr. sacred, and to carve.]
1. In antiquity, a sacred character; a mystical character or symbol, used in writings and inscriptions, particularly by the Egyptians, as signs of sacred, divine, or supernatural things. The hieroglyphics were figures of animals, parts of the human body, mechanical instruments, &c., which contained a meaning known only to kings and priests. It is supposed they were used to vail morality, politics, &c., from vulgar eves.2. Pictures intended to express historical facts; supposed to be the primitive mode of writing.3. The art of writing in picture.

EM”BLEM, n. [Gr. to cast in, to insert.]

1. Properly, inlay; inlayed or mosaic work; something inserted in the body of another.2. A picture representing one thing to the eye, and another to the understanding; a painted enigma, or a figure representing some obvious history, instructing us in some moral truth. Such is the image of Scaevola holding his hand in the fire, with these words,”agere et pati fortiter Romanum est.” to do and to suffer with fortitude is Roman.3. A painting or representation, intended to hold forth some moral or political instruction; an allusive picture; a typical designation. A balance is an emblem of justice; a crown is the emblem of royalty; a scepter, of power or sovereignty.4. That which represents another thing in its predominant qualities. A white robe in scripture is an emblem of purity or righteousness; baptism, of purification.EM”BLEM, v.t. To represent by similar qualities.AL”LEGORY,n. [Gr. other, to speak, a forum, an oration.]

A figurative sentence or discourse, in which the principal subject is described by another subject resembling it in its properties and circumstances. The principal subject is thus kept out of view, and we are left to collect the intentions of the writer or speaker, by the resemblance of the secondary to the primary subject. Allegory is in words that hieroglyphics are in painting. We have a fine example of an allegory in the eightieth Psalm, in which God”s chosen people are represented by a vineyard. The distinction in scripture between a parable and an allegory, is said to be that a parable is a supposed history, and an allegory, a figurative description of real facts. An allegory is called a continued metaphor. The following line in Virgil is an example of an allegory.Claudite jam rivos, pueri, sat prata biberunt.Stop the currents, young men, the meadows have drank sufficiently; that is let your music cease, our ears have been sufficiently delighted.

What about “hieroglyphic”? We find that the 1828 Webster’s defines the word as a mystical character or symbol. It relates, certainly, to the other words that focus on the emblematic nature of Nature that Emerson locates in our language: that is, language is the vehicle of nature, which is itself symbolic of spirit–thus the words we find are analogy, allegory, epitome. Early on this view of  symbolic relation has a spiritualist (and almost mystical) connotation: the occult relation between man and the vegetable world (ie, the living world other than man). Emerson’s tree-waving, as we put it, more so than tree-hugging. (It’s 11 am, have you spoken to a tree today?)

There is a spiritual component to this that makes its way directly into Emerson’s thinking in Nature. The most prominent source that Emerson is working from is Swedenborg, whom he cites at the end of “American Scholar” and in Nature refers to in quoting (without citing him): the visible world and the relation of its parts, is the dial plate of the invisible. This figure of the dial and the idea of what Emerson also calls “radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts” is a key to Transcendentalism (and Nature is considered by many to be the ur-text of the transcendental movement in America). But it turns out that all this spiritual-mystical-philosophical-alchemical vision of nature is not just a 19thc. version of a seance. It is also the place, in the very same ideas of relation and correspondence and emblem, where Emerson engages in the science of his day.

This science did not rigidly separate (as we have done) study of the natural world with imagination or poetry or philosophy. So, it makes sense to speak of a ‘poetics of science’–though the combination of poetry and science is strange to our ears. I borrow this phrase from the Emerson scholar Laura Dassow Walls who wrote the book, literally, on Emerson’s significant interest in science and the way natural philosophy of his day informs his thinking: Emerson’s Life in Science: The Culture of Truth. To pick up one piece from this exhaustive reading of Emerson’s work in relation to science: there is the figure of polarity and magnetism that appears throughout his writing; a metaphor that he borrows from his own readings and observations of experiments and discoveries in his day–but more than that (so I would argue): a metonymy  that he focuses on, to the extent that his own thinking and writing is already (in his understanding of nature and writing both) related, correspondent, in a more than metaphorical sense of the word related. With metonymy, we might think of it more in the ecological senses of relation. (More discussion to come about this rhetorical concept, metonymy, of importance to Emerson).

We see this metonymyic (not just metaphorical) vision of nature and language in the “Language” chapter of Nature. We also see it in the lecture “Humanity of Science” where Emerson takes up a prominent theory from natural philosophy made famous by Goethe (a poet-scientist of interest to Emerson):

The order of the world has been wisely called ‘an open secret.’ And it is true that Nature’s mode of concealing a law is in its very simplicity; she hides facts by putting them next us.

The near explains the far. This idea that shows up in “American Scholar” as a vision for American learning and poetry–a poetry and philosophy of the street, of the familiar, the near, the low–is thus also related to Emerson’s understanding of science. And, as Emerson will go on in his “Humanity of Science” lecture, poetry is important to remind science of this poetic/symbolic condition of nature–the open secret, nature as hieroglyphic, emblematic. In other words, he remind us that science needs help from poets to interpret and express nature’s secrets to the public. Emerson’s humanistic scientist sounds a lot like his poet from the later essays. It is a remarkable claim–one that seems very distant to our culture that splits science and poetry, but perhaps all the more relevant because of that.

For those wanting some further reading on Emerson’s philosophical conceptions of science and its relevance for multidisciplinary approaches to nature and the environment, I can send you to T.S. McMillin’s essay “The Discipline of Abandonment: Emersonian Properties of Transdisciplinarity and the Nature of Method” (Nineteenth-Century Prose, Fall 2013). I have a pdf copy of the essay that I can provide, should you want to do more with this for your Writing Project.


The Uses of Whitman

October 23, 2009 § Leave a comment

Whitman appeared in the news recently, as he does every once and again. A statue of Whitman at a university in Moscow was dedicated by Secretary of State Clinton. Gay activists in Russia were upset that no mention was made of Whitman’s homosexuality nor of repression of gays in Russia. It is interesting to see how Whitman is viewed and used by those outside of the academy–and whether we might agree with assertions made for and on behalf of Whitman.

The link is: Russian Gays Express Disappointment

Whitman has also been appearing recently in a commercial for jeans; in one case, his actual voice, recorded on wax late in his life, reading a fragment from the poem “America.” [thanks to Emmy and Kevin for pointing me to this] I presume that Whitman would find this revenance, living on in America (and popular culture, no less), stirring.

You might also consider how poets since Whitman have used him and talked back, answered him or challenged him. In other words, not only been influenced by him, but made the influence explicit or the subject of a poem. Here is what searching for “Whitman” at the Poetry Foundation will get you.

You can also find there our own Mark Nowak (Lit House Director) writing about Whitman and the poetics of work and class as viewed through a contemporary Cambodian poet, U Sam Oeur. Professor Nowak will be speaking with us about this poet and Whitman in an upcoming class.

One of the ways Whitman is being used and explored by people outside of the academy, as well as within, is through the Whitman Archive. We will be looking at it in class; I suggest you begin to browse through it. You will find there the letter Emerson writes to Whitman in response to his reading of the 1855 Leaves of Grass; also, what Whitman does with that letter. We see that poets and writers have been talking back to Whitman–and Whitman talking to them, and to us–from the very beginning.

Poet: maker and mechanic

September 28, 2009 § 1 Comment

You might be surprised to learn that the origins of the word poet are “maker,” which then makes its way in transference to author and maker of verse. Here is the OED:

[< Anglo-Norman and Middle French poete (French poète) a canonic writer of poetry (1155 in Old French), one of the great poets of antiquity (1370), someone who writes in verse or poetic style (1380), fantasist, dreamer (16th cent.), anyone with poetic inspiration (working in any art-form) (17th cent.) and its etymon Latin po{emac}ta writer of verse, poet, playwright, person of great skill (Plautus) < ancient Greek{pi}{omicron}{eta}{tau}{ghacu}{fsigma}, early variant of {pi}{omicron}{iota}{eta}{tau}{ghacu}{fsigma} maker, author, poet < {pi}{omicron}{epsilon}{gifrown}{nu}, {pi}{omicron}{iota}{epsilon}{gifrown}{nu} to make, create, produce, to compose, write (< the same Indo-European base as Sanskrit cinoti he collects, assembles) + –{tau}{ghacu}{fsigma}, suffix forming agent nouns. Compare Old Occitan poeta authority (second half of the 13th cent.), poet (14th cent.; Occitan poèta), Catalan poeta (late 13th cent.), Spanish poeta (c1223), Italian poeta (a1294).
With the transfer of sense (within Greek) from ‘maker’ to ‘poet’ compare MAKER n. 5.

With this in mind, Emerson’s vision of the poet as both a genius of imagination–inspired, impressed by spirit and enthusiasm–and maker and reproducer, might not seem contradictory. The last paragraph of his essay “Art,” the last essay in the First Series (and thus, a sort of lead in to the next volume of his published work, “The Poet”) makes the case that the useful arts need to be considered along with the fine arts–including “our great mechanical works.” Here is the paragraph:

The art that thus separates is itself first separated. Art must not be a superficial talent, but must begin farther back in man. Now men do not see nature to be beautiful, and they go to make a statue which shall be. They abhor men as tasteless, dull, and inconvertible, and console themselves with color-bags, and blocks of marble. They reject life as prosaic, and create a death which they call poetic. They despatch the day’s weary chores, and fly to voluptuous reveries. They eat and drink, that they may afterwards execute the ideal. Thus is art vilified; the name conveys to the mind its secondary and bad senses; it stands in the imagination as somewhat contrary to nature, and struck with death from the first. Would it not be better to begin higher up, — to serve the ideal before they eat and drink; to serve the ideal in eating and drinking, in drawing the breath, and in the functions of life? Beauty must come back to the useful arts, and the distinction between the fine and the useful arts be forgotten. If history were truly told, if life were nobly spent, it would be no longer easy or possible to distinguish the one from the other. In nature, all is useful, all is beautiful. It is therefore beautiful, because it is alive, moving, reproductive; it is therefore useful, because it is symmetrical and fair. Beauty will not come at the call of a legislature, nor will it repeat in England or America its history in Greece. It will come, as always, unannounced, and spring up between the feet of brave and earnest men. It is in vain that we look for genius to reiterate its miracles in the old arts; it is its instinct to find beauty and holiness in new and necessary facts, in the field and road-side, in the shop and mill. Proceeding from a religious heart it will raise to a divine use the railroad, the insurance office, the joint-stock company, our law, our primary assemblies, our commerce, the galvanic battery, the electric jar, the prism, and the chemist’s retort, in which we seek now only an economical use. Is not the selfish and even cruel aspect which belongs to our great mechanical works, — to mills, railways, and machinery, — the effect of the mercenary impulses which these works obey? When its errands are noble and adequate, a steamboat bridging the Atlantic between Old and New England, and arriving at its ports with the punctuality of a planet, is a step of man into harmony with nature. The boat at St. Petersburgh, which plies along the Lena by magnetism, needs little to make it sublime. When science is learned in love, and its powers are wielded by love, they will appear the supplements and continuations of the material creation.

The word “reproductive” has always caught my attention the most. Emerson isn’t afraid to think of the art and making of poetry in terms of technology and reproduction. In “The Poet” this relates, I would argue, to his vision of a poetry that is a matter for the people, even as the people need help from the poet to recognize it. There is poetry in the streets and in the political parties, he suggests, in his anticipation (or call) of Whitman. This is an important strand of Emerson’s thinking that has not been traditionally emphasized: Emerson’s interest in “material creation” (the last words of “Art”), in a poetry and imagination that, however lofty it would seem, is also useful, popular, material, social. This is something we can take into our reading of Emerson’s poetics; and something you might want to take out, and take into a reading of an artist or “poet” more familiar to you whom you might now describe, surprisingly, as Emersonian.

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