The Ideas Of Transcendentalism In The Works Of Emily Dickinson And Henry David Thoreau

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Transcendentalism is a philosophy that asserts the primacy of the spiritual and transcendental over the material and empirical (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Emily Dickinson, a famous poet of the 19th century and a devout fan of Transcendentalism, in her poems, she presents ideas that diverge from those present in the essay “Where I Lived, And Where I Live For” written by Thoreau.

Everything related to nature seems splendid to Thoreau. In his essay “Where I Lived, And Where I Live For”, he writes about how he goes from looking for an expensive estate but ends up going to the woods. He describes himself as living“far from noise and disturbance” (72). To him, nature is an escape from the chaos of society and a return to purer origins. Contrary to what most people would seek for in a more comfortable life, Thoreau chose to live in a rough dwelling lacking both a chimney and plastering. He appreciates how he is surrounded by nature the wildlife. He writes in his essay, “An abode without birds is like meat without seasoning. Such was not my abode, for I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.” (74). Instead of seeing the birds as interference, he sees them as his “neighbor”. He enjoys living in this kind of environment because he can truly free himself from the cage of society and devote himself to the embrace of nature. Living in nature not only brings relief mentally, but also brings Thoreau pleasure spiritually. His daily routine is as simple as “got up early and bathed in the pond;” was sacred in “that was a religious exercise,” he considered it “one of the best things which I [he] did” (76). In his mind, nature is the symbol of purity, all that it contains are great and delightful. Living in accordance with nature is the only way for him to feel spiritual jubilation.

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Although being a fan of transcendentalism, Dickinson has some different perspectives on the natural world. She doesn’t see the natural world as perfect as what Thoreau writes in his essay. She enjoys having close contact with nature, this makes her not only discovers the beauty of nature, but also sees its cruelty. In her poem “A Bird came down the Walk”, she writes, “He bit an Angleworm in halves/And ate the fellow, raw” (3-4). The words “halves”, “raw” describe the merciless of the bird. The food chain between birds and worms, predators and prey, makes Dickinson realizes that not every creature in the forest is innocent. Additionally, she also believes out that people actually can’t coexist with nature. In the third stanza, she writes, “I offered him a Crumb/And he unrolled his feathers/And rowed him softer home—” (14-16). The bird rejected her offer of crumbs and horrified flies away. He is unable to understand Dickinson kindness even she is trying to show her friendliness. Instead of showing his appreciation, he is shocked and chooses to fly away from her. This makes Dickinson thinks that the gap between human and animals will never disappear, and people can not actually become part of nature.

Transcendentalism was a philosophy that promoted self-reliance, intuition, and independence. On one hand, Thoreau’s idea of Transcendentalism is to escape the stress of society and to appreciate nature. He prefers to sit on his own wooden chair in the woods rather than on a comfortable sofa in the estate. On the other hand, Dickinson’s poem strongly refutes Thoreau’s points of nature. Although she treasures nature in the same manner as Thoreau, she is not oblivious to its cruelty and sense of distance. Comparing the ideas from both authors, it’s easy to tell that Dickinson’s poem diverges from Thoreau’s idea of a Transcendentalist.

Works cited:

  1. Dickinson, Emily. “A Bird came down the Walk” 1862, Dickinson packet
  2. Merriam. Webster Dictionary
  3. Thoreau, Henry David. “Where I Lived, and What I Lived For.” Transcendentalism: Essential Essays of Emerson & Thoreau, Prestwick House, 2008, pp. 74-77.

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