I have been in quiet revelation lately, caused by a little book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s work (NATURE and Other Writings) that I picked up in the remaindered book section of Copperfield’s. The force of his language takes my breath away, as in the following:
Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear.
I see the spectacle of morning from the hill-top over against my house, from day-break to sun-rise, with emotions which an angel might share. The long slender bars of cloud 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 its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.
People don’t write like this today. Nature poets like Gary Snyder, whose work I have read extensively, tend to be more Zen in outlook, less unabashedly revelatory. Mary Oliver has her moments, as do others, but the cadence is different—more modern, more informed and jaded. Reading Emerson is like reading the best of these, but set to classical music: uncomplicated, infused with light, a song of sublime exhilaration.
My lack of acquaintance with him can mostly be chalked up to having too many Humanities credits in college to take another Lit course, but I am so glad that I finally found a moment to experience his writing. It makes me see the natural world around me with a different eye. Of course there are things about his writing that make him a bit too dated for our age: the idea of a transcendent perfection of spirit within matter, as separate from matter itself, does not square well with the Pagan idea of immanence, for one thing. His notions of gender are antiquated, and his writing often gets lost in a search for absolutes that is SO pre-modern. I don’t find any of that offensive, though. He’s so quaint he’s cute, and well worth it for those moments of language which are absolutely ravishing in their simplicity, precision, and beauty.
Emerson was railing against a Tradition which had become moribund, suffocating all attempts to see the world anew. So he was all about seeing with a fresh eye, making acquaintance with the natural world in defiance of religious strictures or social habit. In the introduction to Nature, he writes:
Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs? Embosomed for a season in nature, whose floods of life stream around and through us, and invite us by the powers they supply, to action proportioned to nature, why should we grope among the dry bones of the past, or put the living generation into masquerade out of its faded wardrobe? The sun shines today also.
I find it ironic, and pleasing as well, to find such freshness “among the dry bones of the past”, having lived half a lifetime at the peak of the age Emerson and others created. Too much relativism, too much glorifying of subjective experience, causes us all to search for our “roots,” to re-discover the jewels of our ancestors, buried amid the dross of their legacy that the previous generation fought to overcome. Yes, the sun shines today, but for me it shines brighter in concert with the reflected mirror of the past.