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Transcendental Ideas: Aesthetics

Notes on Poetry of the Transcendentalists

Henry David Thoreau

The main characteristic of Henry David Thoreau's aesthetics is an intimate connection with nature, which is evidenced in nearly all of his work, including Walden, "Wild Apples" and the majority of his poems. For Thoreau, everything revolves around nature, aesthetically, physically and spiritually. At times, his poems and his prose writings seem more soulful and less measured than Emerson's.

Although Emerson had quite an influence on Thoreau's writing and his ideas, and it can be said that each of the Transcendentalists had his or her own aesthetic values, Thoreau seemed to take his to a level that is aligned with nature more closely than other Transcendentalists. At times it seemed that he wanted to lose his humanness and immerse himself into the nature that he so revered (McIntosh 57). Even though Thoreau knew it was not physically possible, he attempted, in his poetry, to transcend that which separated him from nature. On the other hand, he also felt the need to celebrate that in nature which was foreign to his own humanity.

Another obsession of Thoreau's, and other Transcendentalists, was the reconciliation of opposites, particularly, the reconciliation of nature and man. This specific wish of reconciliation, for Thoreau, seems to have been learned from his predecessors, of which the most well known are Wordsworth and Goethe (57). Of course, he was also greatly influenced by Emerson, even though he always maintained an identity and ideas separate from that of Emerson.

Many of Thoreau's ideas about poetry were derived from Wordsworth and Goethe, who were considered Romantics. However, Thoreau also had many of his own thoughts and ideas about the nature of the poet. "By poet, Thoreau does not mean primarily a maker of verse (though he sometimes means that too), but a man of inspired genius and imagination, whose specific task is that of romantic combination" (105). It is not really known as to whether Thoreau believed himself to fall into the definition. I imagine it was something he aspired to more than anything else.

While Thoreau is acclaimed more for Walden and "Resistance to Civil Government" than any of his poems, he is still thought of by many as a poet. This poetic inclination can be discovered even in his prose writings. I think one of the main reasons that Thoreau is considered a poet more than Emerson is is because he portrayed himself as being soulful and a bit of a dreamer, while Emerson often came across as authoritative and rigid.

In The Magic Circle of Walden, Charles Anderson summarizes Thoreau's role in the aesthetic ideals of the Transcendentalists.

It was to be the myth of Henry Thoreau as poet and seeker, a quest for heaven on earth. And there is even an unexpected new dimension, the metaphysical mode of fusing thought and feeling, which takes him one step toward explaining how facts can be so mythologized. They are facts to be felt by the mind and thought by the body (112).
--Ellen Moore, VCU

Another Opinion on Thoreau's Poetry

I am not commenting on quality, but it seems that Thoreau is imminently more readable and less "flowery and mystical" than Emerson. Once again, they have their merits and individual differences on both ends. As we know, Thoreau was more sort of abrupt, stubborn, immutable and self-assured than Emerson, and I think this reflects clearly in their different styles, although they share very much the same transcendental ideals. It was ort of the mood of the poet reflecting their exceptional expression. As a poet, all of these writers remind me of the simplicity of Wordsworth's own writing—

We can glean that Thoreau didn't consider himself a true poet as did Emerson, but he certainly engages the reader with a number of poetic devices including onomatopoeia, word play, puns, poetic license, just to name a few.
--Shannon Riley, VCU

Close readings of Transcendental Poems

On "Give All to Love", Bryan Hileman, VCU

By the title alone, readers can infer that this is an uncharacteristically sentimental and perhaps emotional poem. But at the same time, the title is a type of command, which is characteristic of Emerson's authoritative style and tone. It is also typical for Emerson to employ short line lengths and short stanzas, as he does in this poem.

The rhyme throughout this poem is a bit quirky and unpredictable. The only direct rhyme in the first stanza is 'muse' and 'refuse.' Typically, Emerson uses a more formal rhyme scheme. This seems to be a deviation from Emerson's usual style.
In the second stanza, we see a rhyme scheme of ABCBDEFFGHI, which is certainly not a known rhyme scheme.
In stanza three, the rhyme scheme changes yet again – it is ABBCDEFG. Also, notice how the number of lines changes from stanza to stanza.
The rhyme scheme is stanza four is ABACDEFG, so really the only direct rhyme we see here is 'love' and 'behoved.'
Stanza five has the following rhyme scheme: ABBCDDEFE, so we see more rhyming in this stanza, yet it remains pretty erratic throughout the poem.
The final stanza's rhyme scheme is ABBCDDC. This is the closest Emerson comes in this poem to a predictable rhyme.

The main thing that the rhyming in this poem seems to do is lend a rhythm to the poem, albeit a strange, ever-changing rhythm. But perhaps it is Emerson's intention to use a rhythm that reflects on the idea that love is not predictable and is constantly changing.

Absence of the "I"
One aspect of this poem that is typical of Emerson is the absence of the "I." Emerson could well be applying the idea in this poem to his own life, but he attempts to make it more universal by leaving himself out of the equation. Of course this is typical of nearly all poetry from the nineteenth century. The dawn of the confessional or personal poet didn't occur until the twentieth century, so one can't really say much about the absence of Emerson's "I" without mentioning the absence of the "I" in most poetry of that time period.

In the second stanza, there are several "h" sounds, such as hope and hope and high and high. There are also many "t" sounds in the last four lines of the stanza. One doesn't know if Emerson did this on purpose or if it is simply coincidence. However, considering Emerson's meticulousness in his other works, it's probably safe to assume that he planned for the sound and word echoes.

One can't help but notice the lack of imagery in this poem. It is almost all telling with little showing. Still, even with its lack of imagery and illustration, the poem is lovely in terms of idea and language. The theme of this poem is set out from the title on – love. By looking at the poem in terms of the first line of each stanza, it's easy to see that Emerson is setting up each stanza as a different, though still part of the central idea, idea on love. In this way, it works almost like his essays do. It begins with a declaration, treatise or command, this one being "Give all to love," and spins out on itself from there.

Stanza 1 Give all to love;
Stanza 2 'T is a brave master;
Stanza 3 It was never for the mean;
Stanza 4 Leave all for love;
Stanza 5 Cling with life to the maid;
Stanza 6 Though thou loved her as thyself,

This poem could easily be classified as a lyrical poem, as can the majority of Emerson's poems. Also, it seems show the influence Persian poet Hafez had on Emerson, in terms of short lines and the way in which it attempts to celebrate love.

A Reading of Henry David Thoreau's "Prayer" by Bryan Hileman, VCU

Great God, I ask for no meaner pelf
Than that I may not disappoint myself,
That in my action I may soar as high
As I can now discern with this clear eye.

And next in value, which thy kindness lends,
That I may greatly disappoint my friends,
Howe'er they think or hope that it may be,
They may not dream how thou'st distinguished me.

That my weak hand may equal my firm faith
And my life practice what my tongue saith
That my low conduct may not show
Nor my relenting lines
That I thy purpose did not know
Or overrated thy designs.

This is a short, fairly simple poem in terms of rhyme scheme and theme. The first and second stanzas have a rhyme scheme of AABB. However, the third and final stanza deviates a bit from the first two with a rhyme scheme of AABCBC. The poem is in iambic pentameter, as are several of Thoreau's poems.

The title is "Prayer" and the poem seems to be just that. There is virtually no imagery in the poem. This could be because it is set up to read like a prayer and prayers usually have little or no imagery. One of the most interesting aspects of this poem is the way it addresses God directly. Thoreau, in his prose works, usually seems to avoid the mention of religion or God, and instead discusses more of a spiritual component to living, usually in communion with nature. Basically, in this poem, Thoreau, or the speaker, seems to be directly addressing God, and asking that he (Thoreau) be able to live by God's plan and purposes rather than his own. Also, we see a desire on the speaker's part to "practice what my tongue sayeth," or, in other words, to practice what he preaches.

Walt Whitman

One can almost assume that, like Dickinson, Walt Whitman does not necessitate an introduction. Most famous for his book, Leaves of Grass, as well as for his "I am the most wonderful poet" attitude that somehow was not always construed as arrogance, Whitman is one of America's best known and most well-loved poets. He was somewhat related to the Transcendentalist movement, although he lived most of his life in New York City, whereas most of the Transcendentalists lived in Massachusetts. Many believe that Whitman should be pictured beside some of Emerson's definitions of The Poet.. Whitman was an enthusiastic American and an enthusiastic poet. His joy dripped from his verse and thrilled Emerson, although he (Emerson) was somewhat embarrassed about Whitman's open homosexuality and eroticism in his poetry. Nevertheless, Emerson says that Whitman was a Poet and encouraged him ceaselessly.
Ellen Moore, VCU

Was Whitman a Transcendentalist?
Whitman -- It seems to me, from what we have read, that Whitman is indeed a Transcendentalist or at least expresses a transcendental view in these poems. However, there is something significantly different in Whitman's transcendental writing than in Emerson's or Thoreau's. I am not sure if I have placed it correctly, but it seems like Whitman applies his transcendental notions rather than preaching or simply philosophizing. I realize that Thoreau actually went into nature, so in a sense he too applied it, but what I mean is that Whitman doesn't seem to do it so intentionally. It seems like perhaps he would not have called himself a transcendentalist, but still assumes their views in several respects.
Jessica Gordon, VCU

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