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Early American Romanticism and Transcendentalism: Rip Van Winkle and Thanatopsis

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In the two works, “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving and “Thanatopsis” by William Bryant, nature and mankind are two of the principal subjects, alike many other works created during the romantic period. In both works, nature and mankind’s desire to be in communion with one another due to nature’s attracting aesthetics of romanticism; the sublime, beautiful and picturesque. The sublime evokes a sense of awe and wonder and is characterized by sharp edges and dark scenery, while the beautiful evokes a calming sensation and is characterized by soft edges and scenery.

In Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Rip, or mankind, desires to be in and connect with nature due to its power and beauty. When Rip speaks of a mountain range, the Kaaatskil mountains, he describes them as “swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country” and “when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of grey vapours about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory” (Irving 1004). Here, nature is personified when Irving illustrates them having a “noble height,” “lording” and wearing a “hood” and a “crown of glory”. These all describe something inhuman having human attributes, revealing Rips personal, deep connection to nature. The implications behind “noble,” “lording” and “crown” all suggest royalty of some type. This reveals the mighty power and importance of nature to Rip. Irving paints a picture of what Rip saw when “he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun. For some time Rip lay musing on this scene” (Irving 1008). The physical descriptions of “lonely,” “shagged, and “fragments from the impending cliffs” are all aspects of The Sublime; having a rough, sharp, or varied appearance. This aesthetic is known to evoke fascination and awe from the viewer and we can imply this for Rip. Also, Rips appreciation for the beauty of nature is shown when Irving reveals how he “lay musing” for a long while.

William Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” is told in part from the perspective of nature, a woman, and highlights her desire to be in loving communion with mankind. In the opening line of the Poem, Bryant states “to him who in the love of nature / holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks / a various language” (Bryant 1-3). Here, Bryant uses “her” to describe nature as she “speaks,” personifying the force as a woman. In the next lines Bryant discloses nature’s response to man:

For (mans) gayer hours

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides

Into his darker musings, with a mild

And healing sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

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Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings, (Bryant 3-15)

When mankind is in his “gayer hours,” gay meaning happy, nature replies with “a voice of gladness, and a smile.” In addition, when mankind is experiencing his “darker musings,” or is in a state of depression, she “glides (in)” and “steals away their sharpness,” sharpness in this context meaning intensity. This displays her loving and caring heart for mankind. Bryant describes “sad images” of “stern agony” and “breathless darkness” making man “grow sick at heart.” All these phrases imply human suffering. In response to these, nature wishes mankind would “go forth, under the open sky and list to Nature’s teachings.” Here, “list” means to listen, but nature is not simply commanding men to listen to nature, but to also go out and physically be with nature as she can reduce suffering with her beauty.

The two works “Self Reliance” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, and “Economy,” by Henry David Thoreau, both propose advice on how to live a life free from the negative effects of society. Emerson believes in individuality while Thoreau advocates for simplicity, yet, both agree that self improvement is the goal.

In “Self Reliance,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the author advises the reader to live a life of individuality in order to avoid the negative effects of society. Emerson explains that “isolation must precede true society. (He) like(s) the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.” (Emerson 246). Emerson adds that this “isolation must not be mechanical but spiritual, that is, must be elevation” (Emerson 246). In this situation, “mechanical” meaning physical and “elevation” meaning rising above what the “true society” thinks is normal. While in church you aren’t physically alone, but you are alone spiritually. The author believes this time alone is crucial for maintaining individuality and growth. At the end of the essay, Emmerson clarifies “nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Nothing can bring you peace but the triumph of principals” (Emerson 253). By “principals,” the author means your own individual morals. Emerson is concluding that your instincts and conscious are the best to listen to rather than the opinions or regards of others in order to grow physically and spiritually.

In “Economy,” by Henry David Thoreau, the author suggests that in order to avoid the harmful effects of society the reader should live a life of simplicity. Taking on the problem of materialism, Thoreau proposes “the necessities of life for man in this climate may, accurately enough, be distributed under the several heads of food, shelter, clothing, and fuel” (Thoreau 975). The author believes in a non consumerist lifestyle and has broken down the necessities we need for life. Thoreau elaborates that “most of the luxuries, and many of the so called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor” (Thoreau 976). The author describes “luxuries,” or excess materials, as “positive hinderances to the elevation of mankind,” meaning they actually prevent us from growing spiritually. He also reveals these possessions are “not indispensable” meaning they aren’t needed and won’t stand the test of time in comparison to our spirituality that will.

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Early American Romanticism and Transcendentalism: Rip Van Winkle and Thanatopsis. (2022, Jun 16). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 8, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/early-american-romanticism-and-transcendentalism-rip-van-winkle-and-thanatopsis/
“Early American Romanticism and Transcendentalism: Rip Van Winkle and Thanatopsis.” Edubirdie, 16 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/early-american-romanticism-and-transcendentalism-rip-van-winkle-and-thanatopsis/
Early American Romanticism and Transcendentalism: Rip Van Winkle and Thanatopsis. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/early-american-romanticism-and-transcendentalism-rip-van-winkle-and-thanatopsis/> [Accessed 8 Feb. 2023].
Early American Romanticism and Transcendentalism: Rip Van Winkle and Thanatopsis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 16 [cited 2023 Feb 8]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/early-american-romanticism-and-transcendentalism-rip-van-winkle-and-thanatopsis/
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