Romantic and Unromantic Writings

1. Introduction:

Emerson and Poe are more alike due to their differences than one would initially think. Emerson’s romantic approach to Transcendentalism opposes Poe’s gothic, unromantic stance of Nature’s effect upon the human psyche. They both utilize Nature as the setting that alters the individual impression of enlightenment, omnipotence, intuition, and premonitions.

2. Emerson:

In his Commonplace Book, Michael Niebuhr addresses Emerson writing about reaching hypersensitivity and wonderment within Emerson’s “Nature.” In Emerson’s essay, Nature becomes the ultimate setting in which divine omnipotence transpires and enlightenment of the soul is reached. Emerson writes:

In the woods, we return to reason and faith. There I feel that nothing can befall me in life, — no disgrace, no calamity, (leaving me my eyes,) which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes…I am nothing. I see all. The currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God…To be brothers, to be acquaintances, — master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. 1112

It is clear after reading “Nature” that Emerson considers the wilderness to be much more than a simple physical location; it functions as a spiritual entity and as the Great Equalizer as well — Emerson becomes “part or particle of God” when in Nature’s presence, and the divisions of power and class that exist in society become nothing but “a trifle and a disturbance” when faced with the sacred wilderness; and according to Emerson, Nature is indeed sacred. He becomes part of God while in Nature’s presence because, quite simply, nature is God. In communing with Nature, Emerson escapes from the artifice of human society, and reconnects with his Creator.

Hillary Hershenow also comments upon the limitlessness attained when one enters into Nature. Emerson writes:

In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough, and at what period soever of life, is always a child. In the woods, is perpetual youth. Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith. 1112

The idea of perpetual youth in this passage is quite striking and it is very easy to agree and identify with his belief. When one enters into nature, all age limitations are left back with society. One has the ability to be creative and, most importantly, to reconnect with that childlike wonderment. In nature, nothing is boring and all elements are thought provoking. All the societal pressures that wear one down with age are lifted and all that’s left is giddiness and awe. Emerson believes everything becomes simplistic again and incredibly relatable. Worries and tribulations are replaced with “reason and faith.”

Hillary also addresses the message of Emerson, which expands into another of his essays, “The American Scholar.”  Although this is a very different expose as offered within “Nature,” it still represents the transcendent ideal about Nature. Emerson states, “What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.” (The American Scholar, 1139). Though a very different piece of writing, Emerson connects, yet again, to nature and its importance to mankind. There is a constant connection between man and nature, and it is crucial that the scholar recognize just how much of a role nature plays and will always play in daily life. The scholar also needs to recognize the sheer power of nature and know not to tamper with it or take it for granted. He’s constantly reinforcing that importance and recognition of the beauty and power of nature, and it becomes evident that he sees nature as the key to scholarly knowledge and reflection.

Emerson's description of the “transparent eyeball” functions as a metaphor for the artist's ability to discern the essential nature of objects. Transcendence is not formless and the eyeball is not a free-floating entity. Rather, the eyeball is a necessary link between the observer and the landscape surrounding him or her. It is about being a part of all of nature and its motion, much like a camera. Just like nature should be experienced visually for its true meaning to shine forth, the photographic eye has to be present to capture the image.

3. Poe:

Elizabeth Schroeder, in her essay, “Transcendence and Madness: The Identity Crisis of Emerson and Poe” writes about Poe’s striking resemblance to Emerson: Although Emerson’s images of hypersensitive cognition and transcendent eyeball are echoed within Poe’s short stories, Poe capitalizes upon the tension that can exist due to self-awareness. He does so by manipulating the effects of hypersensitivity to be the cause of an ambivalent sense of self. Poe’s perpetuation of an Emerson-esque image of the fragmented eyeball is evidenced within The Fall of the House of Usher. The story opens with the impressionable narrator describing the ominous, Usher mansion:

[…] I looked upon the scene before me- upon the mere house, and the simple landscape features of the domain- upon the bleak walls- upon the vacant eye-like windows- upon a few rank sedges- and upon a few white trunks of decaying trees- with an utter depression of soul which I can compare to no earthly sensation more properly than to the after-dream of the reveler upon opium- […]. (1553)

Like Emerson, the narrator within Poe’s story processes his surroundings. Initially, his hypersensitive observations mirror that of Emerson’s all-seeing eye; the narrator notices minute details the panoramic vista offers, right down to the “rank sedges” and “decaying trees” garnishing the mansion’s perimeter. But, the ironic appearance of the dilapidated landscape as well as house’s anthropomorphized “vacant eye-like windows” does not bring the narrator comfort, nor do they heed any sense of opulence inside. Ominous and gloomy, the looming environment of the Usher mansion provides no comfort to the narrator’s elevated and highly sensitive intuition. Working in opposition to Emerson’s definition of nature’s impact on man, nature affects a mean, unwelcoming, and depressing disposition upon the narrator.

As quickly as the narrator observes the decaying dankness before him, his soul is tersely infected by the house’s unwelcoming appearance. Instead of feeling exhilarated by a perfect sense of reason, the eerie scene haunts him; it is as if the house projects a solemn, gloomy mood upon the narrator. The effect of the decaying dwelling and its rotting landscape is what the narrator describes as, “utter depression of soul,” depression the narrator correlates to unearthly and nightmarish sensations achieved by the effects of opium upon a sobering body.  Depressed and despondent, the narrator’s hypersensitivity toward his environment is fragmented and completely revised in such a way to perpetuate his own doubts and fears; he is conflicted and disjointed by the landscape’s hallucinogenic warning of danger and lurking doom.

4. Conclusion:

These examples highlight such stark, opposing views of nature according to Emerson and Poe. Even though Emerson wrote “Nature” less than 4 years before Poe’s short story (1936 v. 1939), the two are completely different in the way they describe and interpret Nature’s effect on a person. Emerson’s attention to romanticism and enlightenment within nature is apparent; whereas, Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” completely reverses the effect. Poe’s story seems to be written in spite of Emerson’s optimism, and therefore, it explores the alternative effects of transcendence upon the human condition. Where Emerson explores an individual’s connection with spirituality and divinity, Poe moves away from this notion. Instead, Poe moves toward an expository psychoanalysis of the human condition- one in which transcendence was made equal to a destitute mind and liberation from such meant anarchy.

More About Poe’s “Downward Transcendence”

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