Ralph Waldo Emerson: Criticism
Emerson's Nature: A River Reading
Ann Woodlief, Virginia Commonwealth University
Emerson's enigmatic little book, Nature, occupies a unique but seminal position in American literature. Here Emerson distilled his reading into a vision of the complex relationship among man, nature, and language. Although he began by defining nature as the "NOT ME," Emerson did much to ensure that many Americans, starting with Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, would turn to nature to find reflections of the self. They would seek words to test Emerson's faith that "every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." Note
To describe how the "me" may be revealed by the "not me," Emerson draws repeatedly in Nature on images of circulating, flowing currents of water, particularly of rivers, and air (sometimes equated with water). Typically his more explicit references are examples, quickly transformed into metaphorical statements about correlations (or correspondences) between man and nature through spirit. Yet the repeated association of flowing water with Emerson's most transcendental premises in Nature has not been fully explored. Note
However, a reading that visualizes flow in terms of natural rivers helps to reinforce and clarify the philosophical and structural integrity of the book. Emerson's very abstract notions about the metaphorical flow of spirit through man and nature need a more concrete translation. Emerson did not make it easy for us, for he rarely spoke of an actual river like the Concord, and even when he did, he avoided the sort of natural facts that would anchor symbolism. The "real" river implicit in the "ideal" river of spirit presented in Nature is, instead, usually the connecting and equilibrating flow of water in the River of the hydrologic cycle, and to read Nature without visualizing that "submerged" river is to reduce its symbolic power. To see that river, as well as Emerson's ambivalence about water and how his contemporaries were harnessing its force, shows how Emerson confronted and even perhaps resolved the paradox of union through separation of the "me" and the "not me" of nature in this little book.
Nature is illuminated well by its long personal and intellectual foreground, as Kenneth Cameron so ably demonstrated, and its river history is no exception. One of his earliest poems, "The River," is set by the Concord River in 1827, when he returns to its now-flooded banks, an image of periodic and thus reassuringly "unaltered" change, to contemplate his own place in the flow of nature and time. Twice more the Concord would become the presumable subject of a poem, "Musketaquid" and his late poem, "Two Rivers" but always the actual river is thoroughly submerged in more abstract contemplations. More revealing, however, are two quotations he recorded in his early notebooks. From Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he twice copied, "The servitude of rivers is the noblest triumph of man." (JMN 6: 30, 210) But it was the service as symbol that most interested him as his note from Heraclitus indicates: "No one has ever been twice on the same stream for different waters are constantly flowing down. It dissipates its waters & gathers them again; it approaches & recedes; overflows & fails." The final sentence ties stream and man together in a paradox:"On the same stream we embark & we embark not; we are & we are not." (JMN 6: 379) The river's reconciliation of union and separation, continuity and change would "serve" him well in Nature.
The one direct journal account of an excursion on the Concord was written on June 6, 1841, an evening when Henry Thoreau, as "the good river-god," introduced Emerson "to the riches of his shadowy starlit moonlit stream, a lovely new world lying as close & yet as unknown to this vulgar trite one of streets & shops as death to life or poetry to prose." Emerson finds himself transported out of "all time, all science, all history," almost trespassing within Nature. What he discovers is a feast for his eyes, "this enchanted liquid, painted with all reds & purples & yellows which glows under & behind you." (JMN 7:454-55) In the 1844 "Nature," Emerson again recalls this experience: "We penetrate bodily this incredible beauty. We dip our hands in this painted element; our eyes are bathed in these lights and forms." (CW 3: 173) Here is not recognition of kinship or correspondence so much as a sense of intruding into a sacred realm and being wrapped in its colorful beauty for a few moments, touching briefly but not uniting. He notes no invisible flowing connections nor reminders of the passage of time.
However, these few, metaphorical references to the Concord should not mislead us: Emerson was in command of facts about flowing water, including those most charged with meaning. He may not have been as interested as Thoreau in the Concord's daily changes and bustle of life, but he had as sound a scientific base as many amateur naturalists at the time. The evidence is his January 1834 lecture to the Boston Mechanic's Institution at the Atheneum on "Water," crammed with both an array of facts from his reading and philosophizing on the truth buried there.
Before I show how that lecture serves as an undercurrent for Nature, Emerson's personal ambivalence about actual rivers must be recognized, for it too has a role in Nature. Oddly enough, personal and cultural gender associations with rivers become part of Emerson's understanding of how man--and perhaps also woman--relates to nature.
Emerson had a fear of water which he traced directly to his resentment of paternal authority. As a child he suffered a skin eruption, and his father repeatedly pushed him into the sea, forcing him to swim. Even at the age of 47 Emerson resented his father intensely for this, speaking in a letter to his brother William of his "mortal terror" as he hid from the dreaded summons, comparing himself to Adam hiding from the voice "of the Lord God in the garden." (Letters 4: 179)This he claimed as his only recollection of the father who died when he was eight.
Another obstacle Emerson encountered, as clergyman, prophet of self-reliance and union with nature, was cultural as much as psychological in origin. Practical Americans of the mid-nineteenth century, such as those Emerson addressed at the Mechanics Institute, viewed rivers primarily in utilitarian terms as offering intriguing challenges in the mechanics of engineering energy by controlling the fluid force. Other uses, such as providing drinking water and flushing wastes, were also important but they were rarely discussed publicly in a decorous age. Emerson, however, was only peripherally interested in these physical uses. Yet to praise the river as an image of beauty and source of spiritual energy, connecting the universe into a fluid whole, was to court the charge of sentimentality, even effiminacy. Note Ann Douglas argues that Emerson was sensitive to the social perception that liberal theology, unlike the strong patriarchal stance of Calvinism, was--in Emerson's word--"effete," and perhaps a factor in his resigning the ministry. Note
Perhaps these personal and social factors explain why he could rarely bring himself to exploit and explore the fertile facts of streams, either from experience or science. Yet he could not ignore them either, for his desire to reconcile permanence and change, unity and separateness, even male and female, virtually demanded this kind of rich metaphor of mobility rooted deeply in time. One feasible compromise was to draw on the more abstract language of "nature" and "flow" and generally avoid the word "river" with its utilitarian associations. As a result, though, he muted what could have been a powerful transcendental metaphor and obscures an key structural element in Nature. The best way to restore the river is not through Emerson's reflections on an actual river like the Concord, but through his perception of "riverness" in his lecture on "Water."
The stream that flows between two banks and is given the name "river" is actually only a relatively small manifestation of moving water. A river's ceaseless motion and continuity do not appear from nowhere but because it is part of the larger River, the hydrologic cycle. Note Its true source is not the springs, streams, or lakes that are visible, but the earth's water evaporating and condensing in precipitation, constantly replenishing streams and especially ground water. Most of the earth's water courses invisibly through the air and soil as well as all living organisms, supporting and nourishing even the most gigantic trees and making up about 70% of the human body, circulating through its cells, nourishing and purging.
Emerson knew both the facts and the significance of the River (although he never called it that), as "Water" makes clear. Note Here he emphasized how very essential water is to life itself, as well as to man's "necessity, our comfort, and our delight":
that we meet it oftener and owe it more than we imagine; that it is a friend who sends us favors unsuspected, that works when we sleep, circulates in our veins, is present in every function of life, grows in the vegetable, is a cement, and an engineer, and an architect, in inanimate nature (EL 1: 51).Yet these services are usually unseen and uncontrolled by man; water is the largely invisible regulator of life. Even when visible, it is metamorphic, assuming many "masks, all new and all beautiful":
Now he globes himself into a dewdrop. Now he reddens in the rainbow. Now he whitens into spray. Now he floats as a cloud. Now he shines as an icicle; now he crystallizes into the star of a snowflake; now he rolls of the atmosphere (EL 1: 52).Immense, often hidden, protean in shape and function, the "circulating medium" of the earth which balances, cleanses, and "modifies the atmosphere"--water is all this and more for Emerson, even before he gets to specifics drawn from his reading about how water in motion produces "the great changes at the surface of the globe" (EL 1: 52-3)
Each fact that Emerson examines, from the chemical composition of water (as the solid combination of two "invisible" and "impalpable" gases) to its vast quantity ("in a state of constant activity") to geological theories about the renewal of eroded soil ("a latent force sufficient to counterbalance mountains"), is framed in terms of motion and metamorphosis, of circulating unity. (EL : I, 52-58) This transcendentalizing of science, though, is done subtly, rooted more firmly in the concrete than Emerson would ever choose to do again.
The facts Emerson cites are not necessarily complex ones, though they do tend to be those with the more transcendental implications. He focuses most on the effects of water seeking its level, its solvency, and the pressure of its weight. Here he finds water acting as artist and renewer, moving and shaping the soil and then, pressing on the deep heat under the ocean, balancing the entropy of erosion with the "continual reproduction of continents." (EL 1: 58) The ability of water to assume different forms, especially ice and snow, is also cited as a means of renewal and balance, keeping temperatures at an "equilibrium." Note The hydrologic cycle is "the beautiful phenomenon of its eternal circulation through nature," bathing us in "an invisible ocean." (EL 1: 63)
Emerson is enough the child of his time to celebrate also the mechanical powers of water, harnessed by man to arm him with "prodigious strength," but even here what he celebrates is water's capillary action and the power of steam (EL 1: 68). He finds the seeming solidity of matter itself challenged by these facts: "Its might and flexibleness seem to annihilate the obstinate properties of matter, to make the hard soft and the distant near." This overwhelming power evokes an isolated but ringing understatement--"Such virtue lies in a little water." He is far more expansive in the final sentence/paragraph:
It may serve to enlarge our perception of the the Creator, when we learn that in a bucket of water resides a boundless resources of the latent force sufficient to counter-balance mountains, or to rend the planet, and when we trace the manifold offices which one atom of hydrogen [sic] and one of oxygen, united in a particle of water may perform in the pulse, in the brain, in the eye, in a plant, in mist, in crystal, in a volcano, and it may exalt our highest sentiments to see the particle in every step of this ceaseless revolution serving life, the order, the happiness of the Universe. (EL 1: 68)
But the less visible powers of water, those of circulation and equilibration, erosion and reproduction of soil which guarantee plant, animal, and human life, are noted as far more significant. Man has little or no control over these metamorphic watery processes which literally sustain his life. Buried deeply in this class of facts are symbolic implications that Emerson would continue to work out as he considered the spiritual connections between man and nature, long after he would ignore the literal facts about water that he relates in this lecture. Note
Clues to a "river reading" of Nature lie in its introductory paragraph. Source and impetus for the original insights and actions that Emerson demands come from immersion in the life-giving stream of Nature: "Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past...?" (CW 1: 7) Nature is thus an internal generator of energy which floods us (and floods are periodic) with vigor, even nourishing as, as the maternal image of "embosomed" suggests. Note This image of nature as a river--more properly termed Nature, or even Mother Nature--is of an entity separate from man and basically unaffected by his will, empowering his ability to see for himself and to speak boldly what he sees.
Though separate, Nature is not alien to man, however, since the questions it raises in his mind are answerable in the "order of things," Emerson confidently asserts. Like man, "nature is already, in its forms and tendencies, describing its own design," (CW 1: 7) much as the river, acting for the laws of the River, reveals the design of those laws as it enacts them in designs on the earth. Already Emerson establishes that there are significant ties or parallels between a man and Nature, but there is also separation.
This notion of separation between man and nature is soon modified, as Emerson continues with his explanation of nature as the Not Me. He cites the river as an example of nature "in the common sense...essences unchanged by man." But unlike the other three examples he gives--space, the air, and the leaf, the river can be altered by man, thus becoming Art, "the mixture of his will with the same things," and making the river "a canal." (CW 1: 8) Again, this example stands out in the list for Art--the others being a house, a statue, and a picture, because it is more closely linked to the natural world than they are. Though few people would consider a canal as art, then or now, it may be the best example here of an important distinction Emerson is making.
Art is defined as an "insignificant" operation of man that does little or nothing to change the natural essence. A canal, in fact, does not significantly alter the flowing essence of a river. It directs it for a space so that it will benefit man in a temporary channelization which requires constant maintenance to sustain. On a grand scale, Nature--in this case, the River--is not affected by man's will, or his turning it into art as a canal.
That single example of a canal expands Emerson's definition of nature as it introduces the tension of gender. The maternal, sustaining, and invigorating flood of Nature, earlier seen as empowering masculine creativity, is now translated into a river which is mixed with man's will to become nature-as-art. Thus man and mother nature are reconciled and no longer separate, if only for a while and on a less-than-grand scale. Recall that Emerson used "he" to refer to water which presses, powers, or serves other human needs in his lecture. Nature, once she is transformed into action by conjunction with man's will, becomes a "he" for practical arts but an androgynous "it" as beauty, language, and spirit. Note
In "Nature," Emerson returns to his initial picture of Nature separated from man, again using the female pronoun. Speaking of the glorious inaccessibility of the stars, Emerson assures the reader that, though remote, to the mind "open to their influence" that "Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection" (CW 1: 9) Nature here is clearly a maternal Other which the "wise spirit" refuses to make his "toy," even as he sees in her--in flowers, animals, mountains--the "wisdom of his best hour" (CW 1: 9). He could well have added a river, though not a canal, to this list. Paradoxically, it is because this wise man respects Nature's secrets and does not trivialize her that nature "reflected all the wisdom of his best hour, as much as [it] had delighted the simplicity of his childhood." (CW 1:9)
Then Emerson elaborates on ways man can experience Nature through the phenomena of nature. The eye becomes the crucial agent; it can create a unified landscape, recreate the child's ability to adjust "inward and outward senses," transcend into a "transparent eyeball," and acknowledge an "occult relation" with nature.(CW 1: 9-10). The kind of experience depends on the degree of harmony between him and nature, on how preoccupied he is with his feelings and how open to the unexpected, not on how much he wants a "higher" experience.
At best, a person can be transported outside himself as Emerson was, finding himself "glad to the brink of fear" as he almost floated away from himself and the landscape.Note This famed moment of transformation to a "transparent eyeball" is marked by his feeling "the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me." He joins the river of the Not Me, comparable to the River streaming through the atmosphere, perhaps losing himself in the process (and thus the fear) in an instant of joyful union. (CW 1:I,10) At other times he can be surprised by perceiving the "suggestion of an occult relation between man and vegetable" and move to a higher plane of thought or emotion. But he is not always transported, for the experience with nature always reflects by his mood and preoccupations; "Nature always wears the colors of the spirit."(CW 1:10') As desirable as close communion with Nature might be, the (male?) will can interfere. Emerson stresses that such experiences can not be sought but are gifts, granted perhaps on a casual walk or while working. However, though a person can not force such experiences, he can approach nature in ways that might culminate in the ultimate transcendental experience of the presence of spirit, and Nature can be his guide.
The first stop--a quick one--is commodity, "the only use of nature which all men apprehend." (CW 1:11) The chapter begins with a floating image: man is sustained by "the steady and prodigal provision that has been made for his support and delight on this green ball which floats him through the heavens....this ocean of air above, this ocean of water beneath, this firmament of earth between...this tent of dropping clouds" where he is served by "Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn." The metamorphoses of the hydrologic cycle base Emerson's description of how "the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man": "All the parts incessantly work into each other's hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal." (CW 1:11) This glorious cycle of the River goes on, all for the benefit of the puny creature called man. Mother Nature provides without his even asking.
On the other hand are the ways man works actively to create still more conveniences by manipulating nature. Steam and ships, canals, and bridges are all examples given here. (CW 1:11-12). But Emerson is not so impressed as he hurries on to "a farther good" in the next chapters. He was far more expansive in "Water," especially in a massive sentence celebrating the river's potential power:
we think we have been very ingenious to set this strong laborer to work for us in so many ways; and contriving to take advantage of all his surprizing talents for industry, we have set him to cleanse our cities, to flood and fertilize our wastes, to carry our ship on the shoulders of his waves, to turn our mill wheel night and day, and if he must expand with such frightful force whenever he is hot, we have given him steam-pistons to lift up a few hundred tons with all his straining; and if he can pull so hard, and weigh as much as appears, we have thought he may as well press books, and spermaceti, and paper, as press himself with all his thousands of pounds. (EL 1: 51)The image of books, spermaceti, and paper, all compressed by the weight of this masculinized water, is especially intriguing, coming from a writer who ordinarily found comfort, delight, and symbols for language and spirit in his relationship with nature.
The experience of beauty described in "Beauty" depends not on the individual phenomena observed but on the person's ability to see and rejoice in the fluid unity he perceives through the diverse forms. Though he delights in these "primary forms...in and for themselves," he also cherishes their salutory effects on him. Physically and mentally he finds himself restored by nature's medicine, even made "a man again"; indeed, "In their eternal calm, he finds himself." (CW 1: 12-13) An image which combines the early morning sky with fluidity pictures this renewal: "The long slender bars of clouds float like fishes in the sea of crimson light. From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake of its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind." (CW 1:13) He finds renewal and joy in the landscape for another fluid reason: the constant changes of nature's transitory states. Every moment nature changes, presenting "a picture which was never seen before," especially on a river: "By water-courses, the variety is greater. In July, the blue pontederia or pickeral-weed blooms in large beds in the shallow parts of our pleasant river, and swarms with yellow butterflies in continual motion. Art cannot rival this pomp of purple and gold. Indeed the river is a perpetual gala, and boasts each month a new ornament." But again Emerson warns, such moments of beauty, "if too eagerly hunted, become shows merely, and mock us with their unreality." (CW 1: 14). Like the river, this beauty cannot be clutched or even discovered intentionally. A man may appreciate, even participate in its ephemeral grace, but he cannot command its appearance.
However, if a man lives a life of virtue and great actions, he participates in a more spiritual beauty. The "energy of his thought and will" are, in a sense, in unison with Nature's energy (here seen as female): "Nature stretcheth out her arms to embrace man, only let his thoughts be of equal greatness." (CW 1: 15-16) Exercise of the human will (to virtue and action) makes the "high and divine beauty which can be loved without effeminacy." (CW 1:15) The underlying sexual imagery is intriguing, leading me to suspect that Emerson often does not necessarily use "man" as the generic "human." Yet he continues to seek energizing union of male and female.
Beauty as object of intellect is not so much on a higher level as in alternation with beauty as virtuous action. Again Emerson stresses that such beauty is "unsought, and comes because it is unsought," though combined with man's will and mind.(CW 1:16) The difficulty with seeing the intellect as almost unconscious and undirected brings most readers up against a recurring paradox of Nature at this point. The will must be both active and passive, participating in the subjective experience of beauty but not seeking or controlling it. Nature must also be known as active and in motion, yet separate from man, for the experience to occur. Note
There is more in this paradox than vestiges of Puritan beliefs in the work ethic and God's grace. The subjectivity of the aesthetic experience makes it difficult to describe, but perhaps a river analogy helps. Photographers and artists know the profound problems of "capturing" the beauty of a river, for it lies not so much in the basic form as in the fluid motion of light and reflection as well as the flow and even sound of the water itself. To appreciate a river properly, one must surrender himself to some degree to the elements and float, figuratively if not also literally, open to the experience but not controlling perception. As Emerson would say, you allow the experience of beauty to "[reform] itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation." And that creation is Art, the "result or expression of nature, in miniature" which suggests wholeness and "universal grace." Man's will becomes a conduit of Nature's energy; "Thus, in art, does nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works." (CW 1: 16-17) Even as the energy of the river's flow shapes and changes its form on the face of the earth from which its waters spring, so the energy of man's joyful experience with nature's beauty can express itself through him, in an organic creation called art.
The paragraph following "Words are signs of natural facts" in "Language" (CW 1:18) is especially tantalizing for anyone interested in language. Just how Emerson could have used the "outer creation" of the river "give us language for the beings and changes of the inward creation" is lost to us. But surely he could have done much with a word related to "ripa" (bank), "rive" (separation, even violent tearing), "arriver" (to arrive, land), and even "reve" (dream). Another word for river, from the Latin "fluvius," is part of picturesque verb/nouns that Emerson liked: "flow," "fluid," "fluent," "flux," and "flood." Emerson says that "children and savages use only nouns or names of things, which they convert into verbs, and apply to analogous mental acts" (CW 1: 18). He too liked river verb/nouns and their associations to mark his vision of reality.
"Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact," Emerson declares, and for evidence he turns to the river: "Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour, and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into the stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful type of all influence." And he goes on to speak of the "universal soul" which is called Reason "within or behind" an individual life and called Spirit in the "firmament" of nature; the "life in itself" is called "the Father" in all languages. (CW: 18-19)
To return to the river analogy, the visible phenomena of the river (or nature) point to the more invisible and universal hydrologic River and the laws of Nature which are permeated by Spirit, a concept which Emerson soon expands. It is the spirit of Nature, also part of human nature, which enlivens otherwise dry natural facts into "radical correspondence between visible things and human thoughts" NoteThese natural facts become the basis of languages, but the words can lose their force if removed too far from their natural and symbolic origins. Emerson recommends the advantages of country life for a "powerful mind" to nourish him as nature's "light flows into the mind evermore." "Noble sentiment," when tied to his childhood memories of a "rolling river," for example, gives him "the spells of persuasion, the keys of power." (CW 1:20)
Questioning whether nature's only significance is what we give it as emblems of our thought. Emerson is nevertheless confident that "the whole of nature is a metaphor of the human mind. The laws of moral nature answer to those of matter as face to face in a glass," and "a life in harmony with nature, the love of truth and of virtue, will purge the eyes to understand her text." (CW 1:21) Sphinxlike Nature has her secrets, but still spirit "manifest[s] itself in material forms," making the "visible creation" the "terminus or the circumference of the invisible world" Note Words, then, which are rooted in natural phenomena, such as the river, have symbolic resonance, making the universe "transparent" so "the light of higher laws than its own, [shine] through it," (CW 1:22) even as the River speaks to us of the flowing connections, continuity, and renewal of Spirit.
In "Discipline" Emerson focuses again on nature as an active teacher of man, giving "sincerest lessons, day by day, whose meaning is unlimited," educating "both the Understanding and the Reason" (CW 1: 23). What nature teaches, how she (or it) teaches, and how man the student is transformed by the teaching, although not ideas new to this chapter, are given a kind of final flourish before Emerson moves to a "higher" plane of discussion of Spirit. It is not easy to discipline oneself in nature's school, to understand the laws of nature and the differences in natural things and processes, but the rewards are at once intellectual, emotional, and spiritual: "How calmly and genially the mind apprehends one after another the laws of physics! What noble emotions dilate the mortal as he enters into the counsels of creation, and feels by knowledge the power to Be!" He also discovers that nature is now "thoroughly mediate" and "made to serve," that it is, "at last, only a realized will,--the double of a man." (CW 1:25)
Some of this process might be seen in "Water," where Emerson takes results of scientific inquiry about water to create a vision of a fluid world where the seemingly solid land is constantly being dissolved and reformed and where all life is unified and nourished by water. Organic change and art, unity through diversity, renewal following entropy--the dynamics of water come to sound much like the Emersonian dynamics of the human soul. The symbolic resonances of scientific facts run throughout.
Emerson is particularly struck, in the lecture and in "Discipline," by the lessons in unity and metamorphosis that come through nature's particulars: Note "A leaf, a drop, a crystal, a moment of time, is related to the whole, and partakes of the perfection of the whole. Each particle is a microcosm, and faithfully renders the likeness of the world." Note He turns to an analogy of physical flow to show the Unity which "lies under the undermost garment of nature": "The granite is differenced in its laws only by the more or less of heat, from the river that wears it away. The river, as it flows, resembles the air that flows over it; the air resembles the light which traverses it with more subtile current; the light resembles the heat which rides with it through Space."(CW 1:27)
Pervading all natural things, man included, even his thoughts, is a unifying fluidity of Spirit, much as the hydrologic River flows through air and bodies, mirroring the ever changing but ever constant spiritual reality of the Universe that Emerson projects. One might say, then, that the facts of a river and the hydrologic cycle, when expanded as metaphors, can offer glimpses of a Unity runnning through all nature, and even all that is not physical. With that kind of flowing vision established (though without the concrete example of the river), Emerson leaves the world of physical senses and the particular fact, ready to question the very existence of natural phenomena.
After showing ways man can use and be taught by nature, Emerson confronts in "Idealism" a more disturbing (yet also exhilarating) implication of nature as the Not Me. Realizing the "despotism of the senses" as he accepts "necessary existence to spirit," he sees "nature aloof, and, as it were afloat." Note Yet he is emancipated by this perception, declaring that "The best moments of life are these delicious awakenings of the higher powers, and the reverential withdrawing of nature before its God." (CW 1:30)
The thinking person, then, can see permanent laws of a fluid Nature behind the apparently solid phenomena of nature. To cast this in rivery terms: behind a river lies a largely invisible River whose motion, governed by natural laws, brings dynamic equilibrium to the globe but which is largely beyond the realm of man's senses or control. This physical River can correspond to the metaphysical connective River of Spirit.
Ordinary practical folks are frustrated by and so resist accepting nature's fluid changes, but the poet thrives by seeing that "the refractory world is ductile and flexible," open for his imagination to use for expression. (CW 1:31) Understanding that he cannot trust his senses and that nature is not material but a mobile spirit releases the poet: "The remotest spaces of nature are visited, and the farthest sundered things are brought together, by a subtile spiritual connection." (CW 1:32) The philosopher also is able to go beyond the particulars of nature to see that "a spiritual life has been imparted to nature; that the solid seeming block of matter has been pervaded and dissolved by a thought." (CW 1:34) Idealism, then, serves the thinking person, allowing him to "put nature under foot" by expressing his vision of nature as a separate, streaming, non-material reality through poetry, religion and ethics, philosophy, even physics. (CW 1:35)
Having demonstrated the "eternal distinction between the soul and the world," Emerson is ready in "Spirit" to reestablish man's ties of spiritual consanguinity to nature. (CW 1:38) The "ineffable essence which we call Spirit" (CW 1:37) or God is the non- physical creator and sustainer of man and nature which may be compared with (but not identified with) the universal, dynamic, and metamorphic flow of water.
Nature is again pictured as empowering man, even as it expresses spirit through him: "Spirit, that is, the Supreme Being, does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old."(CW 1:38) A similar but more fluid image appears in Emerson's 1836 lecture on "Humanity of Science": "Nature proceeds from a mind congenial with ours. Nature is overflowed and saturated with humanity" (EL 2: 33). Not abandoned to the "splendid labyrinth" of his perceptions--as idealism does by "denying the existence of matter" (CW 1: 37), the man who understands the permeation of spirit in nature, including himself, finds unlimited possibilities: "As a plant upon the earth, so a man rests upon the bosom of God; he is nourished by unfailing fountains, and draws, at his need, inexhaustible power." (CW 1:38)
Yet Nature is still the Not Me, still separate and not "subjected to the human will," for only then can we be assured of "inviolable" and "serene order," and nature become "the present expositor of the divine mind." Thus Emerson shows that we are "as much strangers in nature, as we are aliens from God" at the very instant that he asserts empowering connection of man and nature through spirit. He can and does have it both ways. Seeing this paradox in light of the separated yet connected relationship between humans and rivers, especially the hydrologic cycle, emphasizes its truth beyond the apparent contradiction.
How does one achieve the "manly contemplation of the whole" without being distracted by the particulars, by scientific knowledge of functions and processes? In indirect ways, Emerson says in "Prospects", "by untaught sallies of the spirit, by a continual self-recovery, and by entire humility," recognizing that guesses and dreams can offer far more truth than "preciseness and infallibility." (CW 1:39) Poetry, with its glimpses, can teach more than "digested systems" of science. (CW 1:40-41) So Emerson turns to the Orphic poet to describe "traditions of man and nature."
The myth sung by the poet depends on both fluid and organic images (although as much sexual as rivery):
Man is the dwarf of himself. Once he was permeated and dissolved by spirit. He filled nature with his overflowing currents. Out from him sprang the sun and moon; from man, the sun; from woman, the moon. The laws of his mind, the periods of his actions externized themselves into day and night, into the year and the seasons. But, having made for himself this huge shell, his waters retired; he no longer fills the veins and veinlets; he is shrunk to a drop." (CW 1:42)Emerson resumes his own voice, reminding his reader that at present his power over nature is through the understanding only, but that Reason promises "the exertions of a power which exists not in time or space, but an instantaneous in-stream causing power." (CW 1:43)
Energized by "influx of the spirit," man may see nature in the way the Orphic poet describes:
"Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient. Every spirit builds itself a house; and beyond its house a world; and beyond its world, a heaven. Know then that the world exists for you." (CW I:45)The whole issue of separation from the Not Me has thus been surmounted; man can be liberated by experiencing natural phenomena embedded with symbolic potential, thus attuning his imagination to the fluid processes of nature. Note This then is nature's highest use, as spiritualized material for the self to be creative, to "Build, therefore, your own world." (CW 1:45) The underlying river metaphor then, although not always explicit in Nature, has become a vehicle which expresses and even resolves paradoxes Emerson saw embedded in nature. Overpowering yet empowering man, nature offers him stability yet eternal change, unity yet eternal separation, much as the river does. Both the maternal and paternal aspects of nature are unified when represented by the conjunction of the river image with man, and the fruit of this reconciliation is vital, even original artistic creation.
However, it did not prove so easy to sustain a vision of nature, man, and spirit in motion, especially as Emerson became more aware of the deceptive flow of illusions. The gentle current ready to float man into a mystical union with the Universe was replaced by the forceful "method of nature," a "rushing stream [that] will not stop to be observed." Any effort to stand still "would be crushed and dissipated by the torrent it resisted." (W: 1,124) Yet he kept hoping, in the words of the motto poem of "Illusions," that "in the wild turmoil,/ Housed on the Proteus,/ Thou ridest to power,/ And to endurance." Note
Perhaps the only way he could find peace
was to withdraw from the actual world of struggle and change, as he did
in the 1856 poem "Two Rivers." The Concord River is virtually ignored for
the "sweeter rivers pulsing" through it, the River which flows "Through
flood and sea and firmament;/ Through light, through life....Through years,
through men, through Nature fleet,/ Through love and thought, through power
and dream." (W 9:248) The synthesis of the human with the particulars of
nature and universal Spirit, with the River in the river, which Emerson
so ardently envisioned in Nature as the source of creativity, has
finally been lost--maybe even drowned--in the formless abstract.
Home: Authors & Texts: Emerson