EMERSON: ‘IMMORTAL BEAUTY’
“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. 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. 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 become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am a part or particle of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, – master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of an uncontained and immortal beauty.” (1)
In the first paragraph above, I hear my own experience, described in a mid 19th century American voice. I share the sense that the exhilaration comes partly from the land, woods and sky themselves and partly from the continuing life of the child within us.
In the second paragraph, I feel at home with with the overall sentiment, whilst having to work a little with Emerson’s terminology. At the beginning I am not sure what he means by ‘God’. I do understand that ‘plantations of God’ restores innocence, as well as wildness, to the term ‘plantation’. (Emerson was a notable abolitionist.) I also note that the woods are a domain where reason and faith are brought together, in a time and culture where they seemed to be in conflict. Nature isn’t just a word for material reality. Nature is a source of protection and healing that goes beyond the mundane.
The third paragraph makes Emerson’s transcendentalism clear, and with it the true power of contemplation. ‘Standing on the bare ground … uplifted into infinite space – all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball. I am nothing: I see all”. God and Nature become Universal Being, from which ‘I’ am not separate. To be simply present in this space, with no agenda and nothing in mind, is to be “the lover … of an uncontained and immortal beauty”. The nature of our experience is a living nature we perceive, are part of, and relate to – not a reified externality. An open, enlivened receptivity to this reality can allow a deeper awareness (for Emerson, that of the Divine in us) to declare its presence.
(1) Ralph Waldo Emerson Nature Boston, Mass: Thurston, Torry and Company, 1849
NOTE: According to Wikipedia, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) “was an American essayist, lecturer, philosopher, abolitionist and poet who led the transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century” who gradually moved away from the religious and social beliefs of his contemporaries, formulating and expressing the philosophy of transcendentalism in his 1836 essay Nature”. He wrote most of his important essays as lectures first and then revised them for print. “Emerson’s ‘nature’ was more philosophical than naturalistic. … Emerson is one of several figures who took a more pantheist or pandeist approach by rejecting the view of God as separate from the world”.