The American transcendentalist movement, which took place from 1836 to 1860, was founded by intellectuals at Harvard as a protest against the general state of society, and they created a practice of living that strove to return people back to simple and natural beliefs that could guide behavior and create a healthy society. It was a belief in an ideal spirituality "that transcends the physical and empirical and is realized only through the individual's institution" ("Transcendentalism") that prompted them to split away from the Unitarian church and create a new movement focused on spirituality, as opposed to established religion. There was also an enormous importance placed on liberalizing the individual and a connection to nature. Walt Whitman's "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" and Ralph Waldo Emerson's "The River" best exemplify the ideas and beliefs of American transcendentalism and had a profound influence on future generations. Ralph Waldo Emerson is known as the father of transcendentalism and his is very influential in the movement. His poem "The River" mirrors Ralph Waldo Emerson's childhood memories of the Concord River, and emphasizes his connection to the natural world. Similarly, Walt Whitman believed in the importance of pure observation of nature and the universe, as oppose to analyzing and explaining every occurrence. Both poets highlight the importance of the individual, a strong connection to nature, and a cherishing of spirituality, as they are key concepts in the transcendentalist movement.
In the transcendentalist movement, there was a large focus on the individual in terms of thoughts and experiences. They preached the philosophy that one must experience things for themselves, instead of them just being explained. "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" stresses this idea when the observer became overwhelmed by the lecture the astronomer was giving with "the proofs, the figuresâ€¦, the charts and the diagrams" (Whitman 2-3) and could not seek relief until he left and "wander'd off by myself, / In the mystical moist night-air" (Whitman 6-7). Once he was alone, he could look up at the stars and experience the world for himself, instead of being scientifically educated by the expert. Individualism allows one to reflect on their surroundings and gain a greater appreciation for what they see (witness, observe?). Sometimes a person must separate themselves from the crowd, as the speaker in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" does in lines 6-8, to experience life from a different perspective and to begin to understand the wonder of the universe. The narrator from "The River" is isolated in nature, allowing him to become one with his surroundings. Ralph Waldo Emerson greatly valued isolation and individualism, and the idea of individual freedom. Transcendentalism has a major focus on the importance of the individual, and both Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson include this core belief in their poems.
A new idea at this time that transcendentalists preached was a connection to the natural world. They believed that the natural world should be a guide for the human world, and this philosophy forms the backbone of Walt Whitman's poetry. "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" focuses on the idea that nature should be experienced, not studied. The speaker feels alienated as he watches the astronomer receive "much applause in the lecture room" (Whitman 4) for his intellect because he feels the astronomer only informed the audience about the stars as opposed to letting everyone experience the universe for themselves, and as a result the speaker escapes into nature to seek relief. While he "look'd up in perfect silence at the stars" (Whitman 8), the speaker became one with nature. The "perfect silence" (Whitman 8) speaks louder than the words of the lecturer, and gives the speaker a greater sense of nature's serenity. Walt Whitman emphasizes personal observation of the natural world instead of the formal study of it. In "The River," the speaker feels a strong connection between himself and his natural surroundings as he returns to the river that he loved as a child. Despite how much time has passed since he has returned, the speaker still feels a deep connection to the river that he "behold[s] once more" (Emerson 1). He states that the water, rocks, and trees "are the same, but I am not the same" (Emerson 18), observing that the natural surroundings remain constant but the speaker has grown and matured with time. Furthermore, Ralph Waldo Emerson stresses the eternity of nature, the fact that it will be there in life and in death. Nature has been present throughout "my country's primitive times / And soon may give my dust their funeral shade" (Emerson 41-42), meaning that nature has always been there and it will continue to exist after he dies. A main aspect of transcendentalism is the connection between humanity and the natural world, and transcendentalists teach the importance of respecting nature.
One of the main reasons why transcendentalism began was a desire to step away from religion institutions, with their laws and constraints, and move toward spirituality where they were free to speak and communicate with nature. Spiritualism recognizes that there is a divineness in everyone that must be honored and protected as well as the presence of an informal relationship between God and humans. Transcendentalists cherished their own spirituality, which they used as a connection to nature and all living things. After the observer in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" seeks relief outside, he is comforted by "the mystical moist night air" (Whitman 7). Walt Whitman uses the word "mystical" (Whitman 7) to describe the air since transcendentalists are extremely spiritual, especially in their beliefs about man's connection to nature. The word "mystical" (Whitman 7) also contrasts the dry, factual lecture the astronomer was giving. This poem also contains a comparison between scientific and technical information and experiencing nature and life for oneself. Once outside, the speaker can make a real connection with the stars and appreciate the mysteries the astronomer was attempting to explain through scientific techniques. On the contrary, for the astronomer, stars are only subjects to be studied scientifically. The stars and the outdoors symbolize nature with its internal knowledge and understanding while the astronomer and the audience in the lecture hall symbolize the oppression of civilization that bars humans from self-knowledge.
The transcendentalist belief in spirituality is exemplified in Ralph Waldo Emerson's poem "The River" when the speaker manages to connect with nature on a deeper level. In "The River," the speaker feels as if he "were welcome to these trees" (Emerson 36) and the river after his long absence and "they know me as their son" (Emerson 39) and welcome him back like family. Nature is personified, with the word even capitalized as if it were a name, and given emotions that are understanding and caring towards man. "Call not Nature dumb; / These trees and stones are audible to me" (Emerson 21-22) cries the speaker as they insist nature is not mute or silent. The speaker is spiritual as they feel they can hear and understand nature with their "faery syllables" (Emerson 24). Man understanding nature is a key transcendental idea that is present in "The River". Ralph Waldo Emerson is declaring in this poem that everything in nature has a voice, and that the sounds found in nature are more beautiful than speech. The speaker glorifies in the "idle flowers, that tremble in the wind" (Emerson 23), the "wind, / That rustles down the well-known forest road" (Emerson 25-26), and "the stream, the trees, the grass, [and] the sighing wind" (Emerson 28) as he is immersed in and becoming one with nature. There is a certain balance and serenity in nature that is not present in society, and the transcendentalists encourage mankind to look to nature for guidance. While listening to his surroundings, the speaker notes that "they are not of our race, they seem to say, / And yet have knowledge of our moral race" (Emerson 31-32). Although nature and humans are externally different, there is no hostility between them and nature even understands that which is different from itself. Contrarily, humans are often unwelcoming of other races and do not take time to understand those that are different from them. At the time when American transcendentalism was popular, the United States was having internal conflicts that eventually led to the Civil War, which began in 1861, one year after the decline of American transcendentalism. One of the main issues that they were fighting over was slavery and whether or not one race should be allowed to dominate another. In "The River", Ralph Waldo Emerson is stating that nature is peacefully and manages to get along with everyone, and therefore humans should look to the natural world for guidance as to how to live. Although Ralph Waldo Emerson was once ordained and served as a junior pastor, he left established religion and looked to nature as his inspiration and source of learning. Throughout his life, Ralph Waldo Emerson would go into the woods by himself for a long time and wait for a nature to send him a message so he could share it with the human world. This continued experience shows Ralph Waldo Emerson's individualism and intense spirituality. Spirituality and being able to understand nature on a deeper level are key transcendentalist ideas, and they are the reason why the quarrel within the Unitarian church, which was the beginning of the movement, occurred.
While American transcendentalism was not a very long movement, it has had a profound influence on future generations. They rejected traditional poetic forms and chose instead to make each word create its own appropriate structure. Many of the poems are in free verse, as in "When I Heard the Learn'd Astronomer" and "The River". Free verse is classified as poetry with irregular meter and line length, with no rhyming pattern. Before transcendentalism, most poems had structure and followed a certain pattern, but transcendentalists want to be individualists so they broke out of the rules of poetry and created their own laws. Walt Whitman was a pioneer in free verse, and he has been called the "father of free verse". It intends to recreate the tones of natural speech, and it allowed a poet to express themselves without the restraints of natural speech and word sounds. While transcendentalism had an important impact on poetry, it also influenced future movements in American. For example, it directly influenced the "Mental Sciences" movement of the mid-19th century, and they considered Ralph Waldo Emerson their intellectual father and they took some of their ideas directly from the transcendentalists. Even today, transcendentalism continues to be an influential force at the center of American philosophy. Henry David Thoreau, another very influential transcendentalist, shaped passive resistance methods of the civil rights movement and the fundamental focus of the ecology movement through his writings. Transcendentalists preach peace and acceptance of one another, so visionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr. took transcendentalist writings and shaped them to fit their movement to promote change in a nonviolent way. Furthermore, Transcendentalism support change in society in order to make it a better place. Margaret Fuller and Elizabeth Peabody, two great transcendentalist writers, are role models for feminist intellectuals who also support getting involved in causes. Transcendentalism is no longer a major movement, but it remains in American society as a spirit behind numerous movements who wish to go against the dominant culture. It has been declared that "few American writers since [transcendentalism] have been completely free of the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau", which shows its extensive legacy in American society.
Although it did not last long, American transcendentalism is a profound movement that encompasses many uncommon, if not radical beliefs about breaking out of society's norm and observing the world as an individual, and it managed to make a lasting impression on American life. Renowned transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson used his experiences growing up on the Concord River to compose a transcendental poem that focused mainly on connecting to nature in a physical and spiritual manner. Walt Whitman commented on the necessity of escaping learning by listening and instead going out and experiencing things for oneself, even if it means breaking out of the pack. American transcendentalism continues to have an effect on American society and philosophy, even though it is no longer a practiced movement. Transcendentalism is an significant movement concerning both literature and philosophy, and its ideals of individualism, going against the grain, and connecting with nature both spiritually and physically have penetrated American thought for over a century and continue to flourish in society today.