Idealism and Poetry

1. Insignificance

Near the start of Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson distinguishes two senses of his key term: nature as all that is not myself (including my body), and nature as all that is not artifice. But, he says, no confusion will arise from this, for all the effects of human artifice…

…taken together are so insignificant, a little chipping, baking, patching, and washing, that in an impression so grand as that of the world on the human mind, they do not vary the result. (8; all citations are to Essays and Lectures, published by the Library of America)

It is not difficult to get me to agree that the vast wealth of human accomplishment is, in the last analysis, paltry—I know that mood as well as anyone. But “insignificant” rings false: the degree of alteration and destruction we have imposed on the earth gives the lie. Only a broadening of perspective, whether in space (from the earth to the cosmos) or in time (from the present and recent past to geologic time past and future), can restore this sense of insignificance. Such shifts show us the human as ephemeral and accidental. This view, we shall see, is not to Emerson’s purposes.

If we reject Emerson’s view of the insignificance of the human in the face of nature, what follows?

2. Landscape, with Deed

Emerson sets, as his central question, that of final causes: “to what end is nature?” (7). One among these ends is beauty, which takes three forms: “the simple perception of natural forms” (14), nature “in combination with the human will” (16), and nature “as it becomes and object of the intellect” (18). Just the first two will occupy us for now.

This is an escalating series. The first, which considers nature in itself, is the least: “Go forth to find it, and it is gone” (16). A landscape on its own pleases only so long. Better the landscape elevated by some great deed, for the deed teaches “that the universe is the property of every individual in it” (16). Emerson illustrates this with several examples; I will select only the most unfortunate:

When the bark of Columbus nears the shore of America;—before it, the beach lined with savages, fleeing out of all their huts of cane; the sea behind; and the purple mountains of the Indian Archipelago around, can we separate the man from the living picture? (17)

Today, with the Columbus myth in tatters, the navigator’s addition to this scene only diminishes it. His “greatness” has proven to be nothing more than murderous mediocrity, and the man’s paltriness infects its natural surroundings (that his soon-to-be victims exist, in this imagined painting, only as part of the natural decor only furthers the effect).

Very well, you say, but the problem lies with the example, not the point. True, but two points still hold. First, while there are perhaps exceptions, the rule among humans is mediocrity. This is one conclusion impressed on us by our “significance” (in the sense Emerson denied above): our cleverness to this point appears to have trained us on our own destruction. Our significance is inseparable from our paltriness.

Second, take away the moral judgment and this remains: the scene does not need any figures whatsoever. Nature is self-sufficient and grand even without the presence of a few clever apes, and is indifferent to their presence. If a person must appear, at least let this indifference be manifest, as it is in the opening scene of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, der Zorn Gottes, where we see conquistadors struggling against, and swallowed up by, an unforgiving mountain.

3. Idealism

This brings us to my fundamental disagreement with Emerson: he is an idealist (of sorts) and I am not. Emerson broaches the topic after completing his discussion of the ends of nature. “It is a sufficient account of that Appearance we call the World,” he writes, “that God will teach a human mind” (32). By the principle of sufficient reason, then, there is no need to countenance an external, independent nature. “Whether nature enjoy a substantial existence without, or is only in the apocalypse of the mind, it is alike useful and alike venerable to me” (32).

Emerson is, above all else, a thinker concerned with the dynamics of thought itself, and his interest in idealism must be seen in light of this. “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit” (11); meaning, we know nature only in relation to our moods. And, in our best moods, our “best hour” (9), when the mind is aflame with thought and we have achieved “an original relation to the universe” (7), nature becomes fluid, and is made to conform to our thoughts. This is the third, and highest type of beauty: nature as an object of thought. It is highest because it is as thought that we most truly capture nature.

But it is not so. Nature remains as it was, implacable for all our ecstasy. Emerson defines idealism as the view that “attribute[s] necessary existence to spirit” and “esteem[s] nature as an accident and an effect” (33). I can half-agree: nature is an accident and a contingency. But we are but one small, ephemeral, unimportant contingency within the whole. Emerson is not wrong about the feeling of nature’s fluidity that strikes us in our best hours, but it is something of a delusion, brought on by enthusiasm. It is more than a little ridiculous.

4. Poetry

If I have written this brief essay elaborating on a sticking point between Emerson and myself, I have done so in the service of a deeper agreement. In calling human activity “insignificant” in the face of nature, Emerson underestimated the power of the understanding. And, in his idealism, he overestimated the power of the imagination. But these errors are a result of his fidelity to the dynamics of thought. We have materialist moods, where nature strikes us as indifferent to the point of mockery, in the face of which effort is futile, and idealist moods, where nature strikes us as malleable, its possible transformations limited only by the limits of our thought. Recognizing the latter as our best and most ennobling moods, Emerson saw more truth in idealism than in its rival.

I style myself a poet, and it is as a poet that I find myself in agreement with Emerson. Three interlinked functions of the poet appear in this essay. (1) The poet integrates disparate parts into a unity. “There is a property in the horizon which no man has but he whose eye can integrate all the parts, that is, the poet” (9). (2) The poet concentrates this vision of totality into a particular. “The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point” (18). (3) The poet unfixes this particular, setting it into new relations. “He unfixes the land and the sea, makes them revolve around the axis of his primary thought, and disposes them anew” (34).

In this regard, there is something inherently idealistic about poetry: it cannot but treat nature as fluid, its relations as unfixed. Nature must appear to the poet as mere phenomenon, as mere material for the poet’s thought to rework. Emerson is right about this, and he is right, further, that our best hours are the hours in which nature so appears to us. (Poetry is here both broader and narrower than versifying.) Poetry aims, then, to show us new ways of relating to the world.

Emerson’s error lies in expecting nature itself to have a stake in this. Nature is indifferent to the relations we take to it. It simply is, subsuming us as an out of the way part. “Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” (7) Why not, indeed, but it is not nature that demands this of us. We may go through life unthinkingly and nature will be none the worse.

Are our worst hours, then, those in which we accurately perceive nature’s indifference, and our best those in which we are deluded? No: indifference cuts both ways. The mind afire with thought is its own reward, priceless to any who have known it. And poetry—understood in its broadest sense, as anything aimed at “communicating, through hope, new activity to the torpid spirit” (45)—is thus an ethical duty.