The Poets’ Niche

By Mark Sconce
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19th c.Transcendentalist Poets


Louis Filler, my professor of American civilization, was a mischievous man. He walked into class one morning and said, “By now, you all know those three great transcendentalist poets-- Thoreau, Emerson, and so forth.” Such assertions sent us scrambling to the library; today we just Google it! And here’s what we find. So forth were many: among them, Louise May Alcott, Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson during the rise of transcendentalism in mid-nineteenth century America. Scholars contend that it was a reaction against intellectualism, particularly that of Harvard University.

Ever tire of über rationalism--the ponderous, almost pious platitudes of the scientific brotherhood and the intellectual elite whose jargon is nearly indecipherable? Well, then you know how the 19th c. transcendentalist poets felt. And, like you, they rebelled, only with more fervor. Emerson, Thoreau and So Forth believed in a new standard for truth and beauty—Nature. They held that a person’s physical self could be transcended by a spiritual self and that intuition rather than rationalization was the key. Transcendentalist poets wrote about how nature uplifted them and served as a source of inspiration. Emerson’s musings during long walks and Thoreau’s time at Walden Pond were perfect expressions of transcendentalism, where believers could feel the force that bind all people and nature together.

ralph-waldoWe begin with the father of American transcendentalism, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), who believed “That every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.”


“May be true what I had heard,
Earth’s a howling wilderness
Truculent with fraud and force,”
Said I, strolling through the pastures,
And along the riverside.
Caught among the blackberry vines,
Feeding on the Ethiops sweet,
Pleasant fancies overtook me:
I said, “What influence me preferred
Elect to dreams thus beautiful?”
The vines replied, “And didst thou deem
No wisdom to our berries went?”

thoreau-IComes now Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) who explained why he chose to live on Walden Pond for 26 months: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

The Summer Rain

My books I’d fain cast off, I cannot read,
‘Twixt every page my thoughts go stray at large
Down in the meadow, where is richer feed,
And will not mind to hit their proper targe.

Here while I lie beneath this walnut bough,
What care I for the Greeks or for Troy town,
If juster battles are enacted now
Between the ants upon this hummock’s crown?

Tell Shakespeare to attend some leisure hour,
For now I’ve business with this drop of dew,
And see you not, the clouds prepare a shower--
I’ll meet him shortly when the sky is blue.

channing-IAnd, finally, my surprise choice for So Forth: William Ellery Channing (1818-1901).

“I call the mind free which jealously guards its intellectual rights and powers…”


Hymn of the Earth

The forests and the mountains high,
The foaming ocean and the springs,
The plains O pleasant Company,
My voice through all your anthem rings.

Ye are so cheerful in your minds,
Content to smile, content to share:
My being in your chorus finds
The echo of the spheral air.

No leaf may fall, no pebble roll,
No drop of water lose the road;
The issues of the general Soul
Are mirrored in its round abode.

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