Nature and Transcendence in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays and Mary Oliver's Poetry. A Comparison

Bachelor Thesis, 2016

41 Pages


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Emerson's Transcendental Philosophy
2.1 The Idea of Transcendence in Emerson’s Philosophy
2.2 Nature in Emerson’s Transcendental Philosophy
2.2.1 Emerson’s Definition of Nature
2.2.2 Nature as a ‘Process Universe’
2.3 Man’s Place in Relation to Nature and God

3 Mary Oliver’s Poetry
3.1 Nature in Mary Oliver’s Poetry
3.2 Transcendence in Mary Oliver’s Poetry

4 Conclusion

5 Bibliography

1 Introduction

Passages like these recur in Oliver’s work, and the language, the tone, the very reverence challange the use of the term post Romantic. Emersonian capture is at the core of her work, and informs her sense of what her poetry does, her vatic voice, and her intellectual adventure of not knowing. (Johnson, 2005, p. 82)

According to Johnson (2005), the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson had an important influence on Mary Oliver’s poetry. However, a study that deals with the notions of influence requires a lengthy research. Therefore, this paper will focus on a comparatively easier subject. Thus, the themes of ‘nature’ and ‘transcendence’ in Emerson’s essays, as well as in the selected poems of Oliver will be examined to find out, whether there are similarities or differences between their perspectives. Using all of Emerson and Oliver’s works would go beyond the scope of this work, thereupon, I selected a few essays and poems from each author. First of all, I will deal with Emerson’s essays ‘Oversoul’, ‘Nature’, ‘The Methods of Nature’ and ‘Self-Reliance’. For the chapter that focuses on Mary Oliver’s poetry I chose poems from three differnt books, namely, from ‘Swan’ (2010 [e]), ‘Why I Wake Early’ (2004 [f]) and ‘Wild Geese’ (2004 [g]).

Transcendentalism is best known as a literary genre in the American literature. It was a whole new system, which was built upon various literal, religious, and philosophical studies, such as Idealism (Myerson, 2000). Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was born in 1803, is the first person to define Transcendentalism. With his essay ‘The Transcendentalist’ Emerson (1841) presented transcendentalism as a philosophical movement, which, then in years, developed into a spiritual, as well as a religious movement that evoked a social reform in society. The transcendentalists adopted a metaphysical view on the phenomena of nature, wherefore we find a collection of works written on the theme of ‘nature’ at that time (The Oxford Handbook of Transcendentalism, 2010). Emerson is wellknown for his essays, poems and letters. Especially in his essay called ‘Nature’ Emerson (1903 [b]) demonstrated clearly how he percieves nature as inseparable from existence; thus the idea of transcendence is to describe what is beyond appearances in form (Oliver, 2008 [a], p. 5). Mary Oliver, on the contrary, who was born on September 1935, is the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive (1984) (cf. The Pulitzer Prizes). She wrote over twenty books, including her poems, essays and two books about poetry. Oliver writes a lot about nature and often uses religious or spiritual vocabulary in her works, such as God, soul, prayer, etc. “Oliver has gently fended off attempts to categorize her work.” says Johnsons (2005, p. 78) in his article. The scholars mostly focus on the notions of ecoethics, feminism and mindfulness in her poetry. Still, it is hard to put Oliver’s lyric into a certain framework. This situation encouraged me to write my thesis in a rather open attitude to discover more about her poems. For instance, does nature maybe refer to something different than ecoethics in Oliver’s works? According to Wakoski (1995), Oliver’s precision in the use of natural imagery evokes the sense of trust in the reader, ehich enables him to discover the depths of their souls. Is it really so? What is Emerson’s transcendental philosophy concerned with? What do Mary Oliver’s poems depict about the soul and God? Does it have any relevance with the Emersonian idea of transcendence? How is nature described in Emerson’s essays? Does the phenomena of nature in Mary Oliver’s poems have any similarities with Emerson’s idea of nature? What do Spirit, Soul and God refer to in Emerson’s works? What is the role of man in existence in Emerson’s essay as opposed to Mary Oliver’s speakers? To sum up, my goal with this thesis is to observe the notions of nature and transcendence in both authors’ selected works, in order to find out, whether there are any correlations or differences between their ideas. The questions mentioned above will be answered in detail in the following chapters.

To reach my goal, I will begin with Emerson’s transcendental philosophy. In this chapter, I will first present a summary of Emerson’s transcendental philosophy to create a foundation for the rest. Then, I will look at in detail what the idea of transcendence corresponds to in Emerson’s philosophy. Afterwards, Emerson’s definition of nature is explained. In the subchapters, I will point out the various connatations of nature we can come across in Emerson works to make his idea of nature more comprehensible. Finally, the chapter two finishes with the explanation of the role of man as an integral part in existence. Here, we experience man’s body as a part of a process universe, while his soul is representing the transcendence. In chapter three, I will analyze some selected poems written by Mary Oliver, which are categorized into the themes of ‘nature’ and ‘transcendence’. Before I start with the analysis, I offer a short introduction to Mary Oliver’s poetic style to prepare a basis for my investigation. My main goal in both subchapters in this section is to present what Oliver refers to with her natural imagery in general, as well as how she looks at what is beyond or comes through forms. At the same time, I will compare my findings with Emerson’s philosophy on the same topics to emphasize the similarities or differences between two authors’ perspectives.

2 Emerson's Transcendental Philosophy

We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE. And this deep power in which we exist and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 269)

In Emerson's transcendental philosophy, all originates from and expand in God1, as God itself, with growth towards betterment through interaction of all parts that it created. The big picture in Emerson’s philosophy is that God is the deep silent ground of the totality of existence, which is made of endless circles of relations that contain countless forms, which are an extension of God itself, and, therefore, bathed in its presence simultaneously. Hence, the ontology of life is demonstrated as a divine playground, which is made real through motion and diversity. Emerson’s philosophy does not take anything for granted, even the abstract processes such as time and space, as these are also forms arise in deep silent ground of existence. The core emphasis of Emerson’s transcendental idea is this coexistence of the form and the formless in the world at the same time. Within this framework, he also explores the individual dynamics of both aspects, as well as their relationship with each other. It is important to mention that Emerson’s God view has nothing comparable with the traditional religious idea of God. Emerson does not see God as a separate, controlling entity that is outside of this world. Such an idea implies the abandonment of human existence and the physical world. Quite the opposite, Emerson supports a view that suggests there is one being emanating each individual form of existence. As noted by Emerson (1903 [b]) in his Essay ‘Nature’:

Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture which God paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul. (p. 60)

According to this perspective, one may make the conclusion that abandoning the form means abandoning God. The non-division that expresses itself in the appearance of duality is the core of Emerson’s idea of Deity. To refer to this more or less hidden reality between the visible and the invisible, Emerson (1903 [a]) uses the term ‘truth’:

The mind is one, and the best minds, who love truth for its own sake, think much less of property in truth. They accept it thankfully everywhere, and do not label or stamp it with any man’s name, for it is theirs long beforehand, and from eternity. (p. 277)

In Emerson’s world, this truth, which is the totality of creation, processes in a circular manner, which has no end. “The term “truth” is here reserved for an activity in which signifier and signified are caught up in a self-consuming process.” (Neufeldt & Barr, 1986, p. 96) We can compare this to the famous Russian matryoshka dolls: Circles within circles. Atoms dance with each other and create matter. The tree is not a tree without the seed, the earth, the water and the air. Man is not man without the oxygen, which he receives from the air created by the tree. From the tiniest to the vastest, every form interacts with one another in movement. One part meets the other part, thus creating a circle; hence through the experience gained by their interaction they both become anew.

Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that here is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens. (Emerson, 1903 [a], p.301)

For this reason, the universe is an endless growth of the one and the same existence: God. That it is endlessly expanding is what gives us the hint of its infinity. God has manifested itself in a multitude of expression, and because it is one being in totality, all of its parts are interconnected. Emerson refers to this unity of God as ‘Oversoul’. It is a pure act of joy by God to know itself in this way. Therefore, the continuous process serves only always to the betterment of all parts. For this reason, Emerson (1903 [b]) often mentions in his essays the morality that is intrinsic in the existence.

“The visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world. “Material objects,” said a French philosopher, “are necessarily kinds of scoriæ of the substantial thoughts of the Creator, which must always preserve an exact relation to their first origin; in other words, visible nature must have a spiritual and moral side”. (p.35)

The outer appearances in nature are the manifested ideas of God, and it is God’s will, whether they are recognized by man or not. Man and nature are the most important subjects of Emerson’s philosophy. Most often he looks at the interdependence between the spirit and nature, relationship between the soul and man, and then, how man and nature interact with each other in the process universe of expansion. There are two distinct dynamics of motion in the relation between God and man that create one of the most important circles in the world. The first motion is the descent of God into man’s existence.

“This energy does not descend into individual life on any other condition than entire possession.” (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 288) What is distinct to man is that he is given the chance to observe his surroundings and be very aware of what he perceives as reality. Man is central and integral part of God’s circle for he has the ability to create like God with his thoughts, if they are in alignment with the Source of the thoughts. “The same Omniscience flows into the intellect and makes what we call genius” (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 288). If he sees the cause of appearances, he meets God halfway, while it is pouring down itself into man. This is the ultimate gain of God’s self-expression: the union (Emerson, 1903 [a], Emerson, 1903 [b]). “That we are spirits that have descended into our bodies, of this Emerson was sure. That each man was utterly important and limitless, an “infinitude”, of this he was also sure” (Oliver, 2008 [a], p.7). Thus, man’s inactive interaction with God in the present moment for the union creates the second dynamic. This is a movement of ascension, where growth and gain begin. It is the fundamental process that is happening in the world. Descent and ascension create the circle of union of man and God. Truth is not something to be created by man, but to be noticed. For Emerson, it is crucial that man transcends his individuality by being present in nature. Also, nature’s inherently transcendental character and its service to man by being the ultimate mirror of divinity have great importance in his works. Moreover, Emerson reminds the reader of the authentic characteristics of man who prioritizes the truth over personal benefits. We also encounter his critiques about man’s unconsciousness due to the power dynamics in the society.

Character teaches over our head. The infallible index of true progress is found in the tone of the man takes. […] If he have not found his home in God, his manners, his forms of speech, the turn of his sentences, the build, shall I say, of all his opinions, will involuntarily confess it, let him brave it out how he will. If he have found his centre, the Deity will shine through him, through all the disguises of ignorance, of ungenial temperament, of unfavorable circumstance. (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 286)

The following chapters will explain in detail the themes mentioned above.

2.1 The Idea of Transcendence in Emerson’s Philosophy

“The Transcendentalists were not interested in compiling a history of typology, but rather in transcending the mere appearances of nature in favor of spirit that exists beyond” (Labriola, 2002, p. 131). The idea of transcendence lies in the perspective that suggests there is one spirit that animates all beings. The coexistence of the visible and invisible is the center of this philosophy. Emerson argues in his essay ‘Circles’ that the universe as we perceive is an ongoing transformation of forms in circles. It is a process universe. The coming together of two ends creates a new momentum that contains new information. The engine source of this dynamism is the deep well of God itself. God transcends forms by penetrating them constantly. The idea of Emerson’s transcendence originates mainly from these two perspectives: One being is in every creation and that one being transcends them (in other words, itself) continuously in the world. “Whilst the eternal generation of circles proceeds, the eternal generator abides” (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 318). Emerson’s boldness and spontaneity in his texts was also rooted in this knowledge, for he never wanted to grant an ultimate truth. The truth for him is the constant change of the truth. Therefore, anything that is taken for granted, in reality, is being simultaneously transformed anew in each moment. (Neufeldt & Barr, 1986, p. 108) In his essays, we encounter many examples of how transcendence looks like in a process universe. For instance, the transcendence of the human will into God’s will, transcendence of time and space, and nature’s impermanence are some of the themes he discusses. The following paragraphs will explain these examples in a wider sense. Also, I will cast light on some of the abstract terms he uses to demonstrate the invisible energy, such as ‘oversoul’, ‘spirit’ and ‘soul’.

“Standing on the bare ground, - my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, - all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God”. (Emerson, 1903 [b], p. 10)

This sentence above is about the transcendence of our humanness. It speaks for a human being, who gains access to the unified mind and heart of the Source by virtue of being present in nature, which Emerson calls ‘Oversoul’2. Most of the people perceive themselves to be individual beings, who are separate from their outside world. Such idea gives rise to the thought in man that he is the one and only creator in the world. It is like mixing the brush for the painter of the art. According to Emerson (1903 [a]), all forms emerge from the same silent ground of the Source, thus it is the only creator exists in the universe.

In that deep force, the last fact behind which analysis cannot go, all things find their common origin. For the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. (p. 64)

This invisible unity is something to be ‘recognized’ in the dualistic appearances. God sees itself from opposite sides in form, and thereupon, it also becomes the one who is ‘recognized’ in the matter simultaneously. What makes man unique in comparison to other forms is his ability to acknowledge this awareness in his consciousness. According to David M. Wyatt (1976), Emerson’s word choices such as ‘transparent’ or ‘fluid’ are also great signifiers for this truth, which refer to man’s place “in the tension between fixity and flowing” (p. 146). God becomes aware of seeing its diversity in the form of man. In his essay ‘Methods of Nature’ Emerson (1903 [b]) emphasizes that man does not need to study the universe in the common sense. He simply needs to ‘see’ the world. For what he aims to study is already present in his soul (p. 208). What is important for man is to own his unique expression in the existence, which is his capability to carry the thoughts of God into the form. By seeing his role as the transparent vessel, which circulates the thoughts in the universe, man transcends his personal will.

As with events, so is it with thoughts. When I watch that flowing river, which, out of regions I see not, pours for a season its streams into me, I see that I am a pensioner; not a cause but a surprised spectator of this ethereal water; that I desire and look up and put myself in the attitude of reception, but from some alien energy the visions come. (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 268)

By acknowledging God as the main source of all events, man realizes he is animated by his ‘Soul’. Hereby, how Emerson uses this phrase is also made comprehensible. To refer to more individuated expressions of the oversoul, Emerson uses this phrase ‘soul’. According to Emerson (1903 [a]), the soul is God’s invisible presence. It is a field of energy that is pure aware consciousness. “The soul circumscribes all things. […] In like manner it abolishes time and space” (p. 272). It has a simple and plain quality. It doesn’t take a superior stand against anything. Neither does it want anything from the creation. It is simply the presence of God; and hence, its simplicity is the greatest richness in the world. If a man is tapped into his soul, he can only know the truth because “the soul knows only the soul, the web of events is the flowing robe in which she is clothed” (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 274). Hence, man’s doorway to know the infinite and all-fair in the world, he must enter to the timelessness of his soul by practicing being present in the moment. In order to be present, one must let go of the concepts of past and future. Only then, awareness becomes aware of itself. Thus, the transcendence of time is inherent within the transcendence of our humanness. “Emerson believed in the individual soul in this world, but he believes in its persistence through all time-in its immortality, which transcends all time” (Hudson, 1920, p. 210). Past and future are finite and bound to the laws of time and space. Emerson (1903 [a]) is especially very firm about the problem of man’s interest in the future. In his opinion, man must surrender to the flow that moves through him without questioning the outcomes in the future. “For the soul is true to itself, and the man in whom it is shed abroad cannot wander from the present, which is infinite, to a future which would be finite” (p. 284). Also, according to Emerson 1903 [a], in order to be present, man must be leading a humble life, which is empty enough on every level to receive the descent of God.

Let man then learn the revelation of all nature and all thought to his heart; this, namely; that the Highest dwells with him; that the source of nature are in his own mind, if the sentiment of duty is there. But if he would know what the great God speaketh, he must ‘go into his closet and shut the door,’ as Jesus said. God will not make himself manifest to cowards. He must greatly listen to himself, withdrawing himself from all the accents of other men’s devotion. (p. 294)

By virtue of aligning with his soul, man embodies an immense power of knowing all existence, as the oversoul is the united essence of everything. When there is no finality to a single form’s appearance because of its constantly changing nature, things are just what they are. Not what they were, nor what they are becoming. They are whole and unique at the given moment (Emerson, 1903 [a]), p. 67). For God’s creation is an act of love, man’s experience of God is also associated with awe, joy and praise in Emerson’s philosophy. “What is Love, and why is it the chief good, but because it is an overpowering enthusiasm? Never self-possessed or prudent, it is all abandonment” (Emerson, 1903 [b], p. 217). In Robinson’s (1982) perspective, man’s transcending his ego is “the simultaneous existence of inspiration and expression” (p. 88).

When man surrenders to the Supreme Being, he becomes ‘genius’ (Emerson, 1903 [a], p. 217). By transcending time, space and his humanness; thus stepping into his eternal consciousness, he now possesses his immortality (Emerson, 1903 [b], p. 57). A genius is the man who becomes God itself, wherefore he operates from the omnipotent clarity and the universal heart. The gentle and caring action arises within him. How can one treat any part of itself with less love, if all parts are what makes its totality? From there on, his individual soul is on the steer of the direction of his life fully. The difference is now that the soul knows itself in every other thing. With the union with God comes the highest morality of the man. Emerson (1903 [a], p. 275) calls this “the law of moral and mental gain: the region of all the virtues”. Man is driven by the divine influences in his mind, and this makes him the central catalyst of the circle to transcend the visible forms. Emerson (1903 [a], p. 281) calls these impulses ‘soul’s revelations’. Ecstasy, inspiration, enthusiasm are signs of a true insight that is revealed by the soul. Man recognizes these with a sense of amazement and delight.

The world proceeds from the same spirit as the body of man. It is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconscious. But it differs from the body in one important respect. It is not, like that, now subjected to the human will. Its serene order is inviolable by us. It is, therefore, to us, the present expositor of the divine mind. (Emerson, 1903 [b], p. 64)

Emerson (1903 [b], p. 27) uses the phrase ‘Spirit’3 to describe God’s manifesting energy behind nature. Spirit is the creative energy that turns God’s ideas into forms. It is the bridge, through which the universal soul creates nature. Nature is the physical appearance of what is invisible to the eye. It is the embodiment of God. Therefore, nature has a transcendent character. In Emerson’s (1903 [b], p. 26) words “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact”. Also, nature does not have a private will (p. 204). For this reason, it is in service to awaken man to the reality, by virtue of being a neutral mirror of divinity.

When man curses, nature still testifies to truth and love. We may therefore safely study the mind in nature, because we cannot steadily gaze on it in mind; as we explore the face of the sun in a pool, when our eyes cannot brook his direct splendors. (Emerson, 1903 [b], p. 197)

In Emerson’s philosophy, man’s present moment awareness has a crucial place. He often emphasizes the importance of being close to nature because nature helps man transcend himself in its presence (Emerson, 1903 [b]), p. 9). For nature also grants us with the view of the connection between the visible and the invisible by representing the continuous change of the forms. The only stability this dynamism offers is its endless transformation.

To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it behold, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again. The heavens change every moment, and reflect their glory or gloom on the plains beneath. The state of the crop in the surrounding farms alters the expression of the earth from week to week. (Emerson, 1903 [b], p. 18)


1 Also referred to ‘The Source’ and ‘the Supreme Being’ in the following sentences.

2 He also uses the phrases ‘Highest Law’, ‘the transcendent simplicity’, ‘omniscience’ and ‘deep power’ to refer to the term ‘Oversoul’ in his texts.

3 Emerson refers to the same word also as ‘the Creator’ and ‘father’.

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Nature and Transcendence in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays and Mary Oliver's Poetry. A Comparison
University of Dusseldorf "Heinrich Heine"  (English)
American Literature
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nature, transcendence, ralph, waldo, emerson, essays, mary, oliver, poetry, comparison
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Isil Kaplan (Author), 2016, Nature and Transcendence in Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essays and Mary Oliver's Poetry. A Comparison, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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