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|Contexts and Comparisons||Chapter 7 - Romanticism|
Romanticism takes on different characteristics in different cultures. Even within the British Isles, England and Scotland produced idiosyncratic forms of Romanticism, as each country on the continent of Europe endowed the movement with distinctive national traits. Early in the nineteenth century, Unitarianism, a rational religion produced by the English Enlightenment, paved the way for the emergence in the United States of a literary and philosophical movement, Transcendentalism, whose chief proponent was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). Like the English Romantics, Transcendentalists valued the individual over the group, feeling over reason, and God's creation, the natural world, over that merely human creation, the city. Influenced by German philosophers like Kant, indebted to New England's Puritan traditions, and thus ultimately derived from Plato, the wellspring of Western idealistic philosophy, Transcendentalism also owed much to Asian mysticism (see the Passage for Study drawn from the Bhagavad-Gita, in Chapter 1, which heavily influenced both Emerson and Henry David Thoreau). Its dominant outlook, however, was Romantic.
The Transcendentalists, who also included Margaret Fuller (1810-1850) and Thoreau (1817-1862), encouraged a complete rejection of authority of any kind, affirmed the necessity of self-reliance, and looked to nature as a teacher. It is perfectly understandable why Transcendentalism should have developed in New England, giving Romanticism a specifically American coloration, for America was truly a New World, an Eden, a Paradise, and in this new world, authority came not from above but from the consent of the governed. Here the American Adam and Eve, unencumbered by outdated laws, traditions, and customs, could read the Bible of Nature, find the soul's own truth, and perfect the self.
In a body of work that fills approximately thirty volumes, Emerson wrote about his own experience of man thinking and feeling. Remembered primarily as a brilliant essayist ("Self-Reliance") and lecturer ("The American Scholar"), Emerson, throughout his life, expressed himself in poetry as well. May-Day (1867) and Selected Poems (1876) contain his best known works. Many of these poems explore the very same themes that provide the substance of his books, essays, and lectures. His poem "Self-Reliance," for example, is a brief lyric utterance of the insight that is more fully developed in the essay of the same title.
Emerson's poetry, however, never achieved the acclaim of his essays. The startling aphorisms, or sententiae, that delight the reader of his prose perhaps militate against the organic requirements of a poem. Nature's music, a Transcendentalist might have explained, is heard to greater effect in his essays than when it activates the strings of the poet's lyre, Emerson's favorite image. Nevertheless, as a master of richly condensed units of thought, Emerson achieves a kind of poetry in the totality of his work.
Emerson's Transcendentalist ideas were quickening and liberating to a post-Puritan society. Assuming that God (or good) was everywhere in nature, Transcendentalism fearlessly stirred the romantic soul to awaken and respond to the oversoul animating all creation. Nature's moral imperative was to find and follow the God within, for to be was to be good. The following sententiae culled from the essay "Self-Reliance" typify the ideas that moved the followers of Emerson's American gospel.
Excerpts From "Self-Reliance"
To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in
your private heart is true for all men -- that is genius.
- What are some of the assumptions behind Emerson's ideas?
- How do Emerson's ideas relate to the myth of the American dream?
- Are Emerson's ideas democratic?
- How does the philosophy of individualism support a capitalist economic system?
- Do Emerson's ideas provide a guide to living a moral life in a democracy? In a capitalist society?
- Does Emerson believe in free will?
- Is Emerson naive?
- Are there any dangers inherent in Transcendentalism?
- Is there any room in Emerson's philosophy for the problem of evil?