Emerson’s Nature: The Tree of the Poet


We know from Lawrence Buell that one of Thoreau’s projects in Walden reflects his own interests in Romantic philosophy and poetics, or what Buell names Emersonian correspondence–after Thoreau’s neighbor and sometimes mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson. In fact, Thoreau builds his cabin on Emerson’s property at Walden, at Emerson’s own invitation; later, Emerson willed the land to Thoreau.

Emerson’s first publication, Nature (1836), is the classic (though not the complete) statement of this vision of nature in terms of correspondence between the material and the spiritual. This text is often viewed as the beginnings of American Transcendentalism as well as a crucial early text in the tradition of American nature writing. Later in the 1840s he publishes an essay titled “Nature” (our text for this week). What do we see in Emerson that might help us think more about Thoreau, and think forward to Thoreau’s neighbors and descendants, beginning with Leopold later this week, and Annie Dillard starting next week?

It is a rich and complex text–one that evokes in its idealism a very anthropocentric vision of nature, of concern to later, more ecocentric writers and thinkers. Later in the book, Emerson will write: ‘Nature is a metaphor of the human mind.’ That still sends chills down the spine of ecocritics today. Those crtiics will often refer to the wild “trasnparent eyeball” image from this section of Nature as evidence of Emerson’s ego-, rather than eco-centric ways of thinking. They would also note Emerson’s reference to “landscape” and align this vision with that of landscape aesthetics from the same period. For example, the painters of the Hudson School–images that emphasize the sublime and the beautiful of the natural world, the new world, but do so more from the perspective of man’s place in that world. A famous image: Durand’s Kindred Spirits.

Emerson’s notion of the “kindred” and “connate” relation between man and nature complicate the conventional view that Emerson’s nature is all head and no hands. Thoreau is usually viewed, as Buell puts it, as Emerson’s “earthy opposite.” I would argue, however, that Emerson does in fact offer a more ecocentric vision–or like Thoreau, a vision that moves between the more traditional view with man at the center toward, at the same time, an ecological understanding. The “tree of the poet” need not only mean the tree created by the poet; it suggests connection as well as creation. The poet shares in the nature of the tree; the poet can help us think organically. Emerson suggest this in the passage I cited in an earlier blog, from Emerson’s “Poetry and Imagination,” where Emerson writes “poetry is organic.” To quote from it again:

There is one animal, one plant, one matter, and one force. The laws of light and of heat trans-late each other ; – so do the laws of sound and of color ; and so galvanism, electricity, and magnetism are varied forms of the selfsame energy. While the student ponders this immense unity, he observes that all things in nature, the animals, the mountain, the river, the seasons, wood, iron, stone, vapor, – have a mysterious relation to his thoughts and his life ; their growths, decays, quality, and use so curiously resemble himself, in parts and in wholes, that he is compelled to speak by means of them. His words and his thoughts are framed by their help. Every noun is an image. Nature gives him, sometimes in a flattered likeness, sometimes in caricature, a copy of every humor and shade in his character and mind. The world is an immense picture-book of every passage in human life. Every object he beholds is the mask of a man.

” The privates of man’s heart
They speken and sound in his car
As tho’ they loud winds were; “
for the universe is full of their echoes.

Every correspondence we observe in mind and matter suggests a substance older and deeper than either of these old nobilities. We see the law gleaming through, like the sense of a half-translated ode of Hafiz. The poet who plays with it with most boldness best justifies himself, – is most pro-found and most devout. Passion adds eyes, – is a magnifying-glass. Sonnets of lovers are mad enough, but are valuable to the philosopher, as are prayers of saints, for their potent symbolism.

Science was false by being unpoetical. It assumed to explain a reptile or mollusk, and isolated it, – which is hunting for life in graveyards. Reptile or mollusk or man or angel only exists in system, in relation. The metaphysician, the poet, only sees each animal form as an inevitable step in the path of the creating mind. The Indian, the hunter, the boy with his pets, have sweeter knowledge of these than the savant. We use semblances of logic until experience puts us in possession of real logic. The poet knows the missing link by the joy it gives. The poet gives us the eminent experiences only, – a god stepping from, peak to peak, nor planting his foot but on a mountain.

And I believe it is there as well, even in this vision of the transparent eyeball–of being at once all seeing and nothing. I hear echoes of Thoreau’s “two views of the same.” And of the logic of Whitman’s poetics of the compost. And more to the point of where we are going, in Emerson’s blending of the philosophical (call it aesthetics, beauty, poetry) and the scientific (call it ecology, natural history, biology) we see thinking that is akin to Leopold’s land ethic in which beauty is a necessary part of ecological thinking.


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