In my monthly contributions to Pretzels & Bullfights, I endeavor to lead us through the different literary periods and highlight a poet or two from each period. In November, we entered the Romantic Period, a major movement that stretched from approximately 1798 to 1870. In the midst of the Romantic Period, a deeper movement took hold in America. Transcendentalism became the foundation of literary expression for the great writers in the beginning to mid-nineteenth century.
Transcendentalists believed that knowledge was not limited to what is experienced through the senses but also grew from intuition and contemplation of the spirit. The seeds of knowledge gestated through combinations of internal and external fuels. Transcendentalists were skeptics of formal religion. They believed that the divine spirit was a personal experience, that faith resided within and that established religious practices were a detriment to spiritual growth and enlightenment. Transcendentalism as a basis for thought began in Germany with Immanuel Kant, a writer who asserted that not all things can be known with absolute certainty and that lack of scientific evidence of existence does not mean that something does not exist. His theories and philosophical stance contrasted the very scientific ideals of the time.
In America, it began much like other shifts of thought begin, a meeting of minds. Unlike early movements, accurate records exist to mark the beginning of this literary movement to Ralph Waldo Emerson and the first meeting of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1836. Many prominent writers participated, including Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, William Henry Channing and George Ripley.
Imagine the struggles in America at that time in history. The fledgling country wanted to expand westward although anchored by opposition to slavery and the limitations on the rights of women, both issues an unsettling undercurrent in society. Although the essence of Transcendental philosophy was and is universal, the Transcendental Literary Movement was primarily an American experience due to societal factors and the role that freedom of religion played in the establishment of the new country. The founders understood that a philosophical-literary movement could not solve problems, but it provided the vocabulary to allow for reasonable discussions toward resolution.
Although Transcendentalism was seen as a new way of understanding truth, it incorporated many facets of the Romantic Movement, primarily the reliance on the natural world as a platform of expression. Transcendentalist writers viewed the hardships of life and limitations of society as barriers between self and spirit then grasped the natural world as a way to free thought from distracting influences. As a result of moving beyond limitations, the human mind, thought and spirit could grow beyond all imagined potential.
Ralph Waldo Emerson was the very reluctant founding father of this movement. His reluctance was due to his preference to be very much like a cat in a window, carefully observing the world around him but not participating in the activities. Emerson was born in 1803 in Boston, Massachusetts, a graduate of the Harvard School of Divinity and ordained as a minister in the Unitarian Church. He resigned from the clergy shortly following the loss of his first wife to tuberculosis. His exit from the clergy was not a denial of faith, rather a questioning of the role of established religions. He remarried and tragically lost his first child to an untimely death. He could have succumbed to bitterness, become hard-edged and distrustful but did not allow such negativity to consume him. He became stoic and displayed an optimism that might seem unusual for someone who suffered extreme emotional losses.
Emerson recognized two levels of reality, both the physical world of his more scientific counterparts and the internal spirit/supernatural, a reality that he called the Oversoul. These levels of reality are evident in his poetry just as our unique belief systems appear in our work.
I chose the following poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson to present today for various reasons. It is an example of how well he blended nature and spirit together in one cohesive poem. The visuals are not only highly descriptive but celebratory in tone and of course, the last two lines move me nearly to tears in the degree of love he displays.
Was never form and never face
So sweet to seyd as only grace
Which did not slumber like a stone,
But hovered gleaming and was gone.
Beauty chased he everywhere,
In flame, in storm, in clouds of air.
He smote the lake to feed his eye
With the beryl beam of the broken wave;
He flung in pebbles well to hear
The moment’s music which they gave.
Oft pealed for him a lofty tone
From nodding pole and belting zone.
He heard a voice none else could hear
From centred and from errant sphere.
The quaking earth did quake in rhyme,
Seas ebbed and flowed in epic chime.
In dens of passion, and pits of woe,
He saw strong Eros struggling through,
To sun the dark and solve the curse,
And beam to the bounds of the universe.
While thus to love he gave his days
In loyal worship, scorning praise,
How spread their lures for him in vain
Thieving Ambition and paltering Gain!
He thought it happier to be dead,
To die for Beauty, than live for bread.
The Transcendental Movement gave voice to a wealth of talented writers and although short-lived, was too influential in literary development for me to encapsulate in one article. In my next installment of Pretzels & Bullfights, I will delve into the life and writings of another prominent Transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, whose philosophy was both similar and very different from that of Ralph Waldo Emerson. I hope this article has sparked your curiosity and imagination. I’m Beth Winter and I thank you for joining me for Pretzels & Bullfights.
Until next time…