A Meditation on an Introduction’s Opening Passage as found in “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism. The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?

Here we find Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the opening passage of his introduction to his seminal essay “Nature,” bemoaning the distance he and his generation are from anything Original and True as compared to preceding generations. As he sees it, only through the firsthand experiences and the tales of our forefathers and foremothers have we been able to learn our life’s lessons and traditions. The gleaming highest highs our civilizations are able to reach are only because of the solid foundations built from and with Nature’s sacred mud by the caring and calloused hands of those to whom have gone before us and who now uplift us still.

If the great Emerson, a transcendental man, perhaps the Transcendental Man as he was in possession of a most extraordinary ability to focus and perceive that which the eye of most mortals miss, is shocked by such a revelation, then it seems to this less-than-transcendental and exceedingly mortal man just how far we find our present selves from those God beholding foregoing generations would bring about the death of fright to such a perceptive and feeling man as he.

And it is not just a distance in generational time I am referring to, but also, mostly, a distance in understanding, as perhaps the same could be said of Emerson’s meaning; though as far as he felt his generation was from an understanding of the Original and True, just how much farther away from understanding we of the present are is too hard for me to imagine.

Just what does our generation know of Nature? of God? of the Universe? Just how many more countless sepulchres have we built and how many more countless biographies have we written? Surely we know greatly of nature and of god and of the universe through the words and misdeeds of our spawning and splintering sects and religious disorders, and through the kaleidoscopic lens and the equations of the material, the physical, carried out to the farthest nth of a degree, accessible to only but a few of our most scientific of brains. Yea, ours is but a weak and plastic generation with hardly one of us finding even a germ under the nail let alone a fleck of sacred earthen mud, so far removed from Nature and Her Elements are we.

Like the everlasting trees
Of the most symbolic

Our ancients bare green before us
Full in their lustrous branches
Roots firmed in their foundation
While with the passing breeze
Our limbs naked and thin
We waive

Lo! but look at me. Look at me, me with my naked, thin limbs waiving away my right of birth to ancient spirits more alive long dead than I whose blood still courses hot will every be. I whose blood still courses hot but whose heart has grown cold and without passion for the Original, the True. I lie content each night having yet let another day slip away without once baring my feet and stepping into the grass; without once feeling the raw moonglow on my rusty skin.

But it wasn’t always so. I wasn’t always so distant from the Original and the True. And neither were you, for we were all born of and from the Original and of the True. It is who, in essence, I am and who you are.

We just forgot, that’s all.

We just allowed each passing day to take us farther and farther from who we were born to be.

So much time has
passed since then,
since I last felt raw
moonglow on
my rusty skin,
that I have forgotten
how the breath of night
can upturn a sallow face.

Long ago,
when I could still remember
how to pause,
and how to listen,
and how to breathe,
for more reasons
than just to breathe,
I knew fields
and wood,
and calico aster;
I knew how to kneel,
and how to observe,
and how to bring myself to quiet.

And I knew,
without knowing,
that if I lay
on my back
beneath the reeds
and remained hushed,
as night clouds
floated by,
shadowed and silent,
that my Self
would simply fall
away.

Step Into the Grass, an excerpt
from Poems from the River

As romping youth we did not have to be told how to meditate, how to pray. We just knew. We had no need for such technical terms as spirituality or epiphany or satori, for it was in our unknowing that we were able to truly know them. And now that we know them, we know nothing.

I suppose the question is, then, can we return to our essence? Can we, in our knowledge and understanding, return to the bliss of ignorance, to the wisdom of youth, so that we can come back again, if even just a little closer, to the Original and True.

Are we able to do that, knowing what we know?

Tonight
I’ll bare my feet
and step old and aching
into the caliginous balm
of the cool redemptive night.

A Meditation on a Title and an Introductory Poem as found in “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes;
And speaks all languages of the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form

Ralph Waldo Emerson
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Too often I’ll show little regard to introductions and read through them with hardly reading them at all, my eyes skimming dismissively over the words in an effort to get to “the true essence” of the work. However, as I have resolved to not just read, but to read deeply the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson, I have to remember, then, that care needs to be given to each of the words that Emerson had specifically chosen to pen, as he had entrusted each chosen word to convey its part of a broader message that he had, himself, intended to convey. So it is with care and attention that I proceed.

~~~~

Other than the title, the above poem is our first encounter with the essay “Nature,” the first piece presented in The Complete Essays and Other Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson; and, consequently, the first commitment to that which I have resolved myself. But before considering the poem, we mustn’t overlook the essay’s title; for, from it, we can focus more clearly on the meaning of the poem specifically, as well as the body of work writ large.

Hardly can there be a title broader in meaning than “Nature,” for the word encompasses so much: the essence of the Natural Environment – all within the world and all the worlds within the universe; the essence of the Human Environment – all that which the mind thinks and the body feels; as well as the Environment of the Animal, which may or may not include humans, depending on one’s belief. Though broad and ambiguous, it is full of meaning, as any title should be, as it prepares our minds for all the largesse and grandeur that both Nature, Herself, and the mind and poetic ambition of Emerson can account for. The title, therefore, helps us greatly in our discovery, in that it prepares us to read both the poem and the essay with a universal and open mind, where metaphors and allusions are to be found with meaning, and meaning more.

The poem, itself an introduction to the introduction, is both untitled and unattributed. Often we find authors will select poems and quotes from others, mostly those recognized by history as being of the elite authorial class, as a preface or opening to his or her work. These introductions in brief are generally an attempt to provide a broad look into the author’s mind and, hopefully, to the direction that his or her writing will be taking us. However, as it is untitled, and as Emerson’s reputation precedes his work, for he, himself, is regarded by many to be an elite author, it is easy enough to assume that the poem is an original piece by him. Still, the poem remains untitled, which only means that we will have to rely more heavily on its content, looking closely at each sentence and the words within for us to gain of it our fullest appreciation. So with the poem, let us begin.

A subtle chain of countless rings / The next unto the farthest brings;

Right away, the poem’s “subtle chain” announces that in the essay, as in Nature, we should expect revelations of mysteries linked yet boundless; simple in form, perhaps, yet complex and profound in meaning. For the “subtle” or simple chain, a common yet powerful metaphorical device, enlightens us with its “countless rings” – its circles of life – by alluding to the eternal fact that Nature in all her majesty enjoins all together in common constituency within her universal realm, from the most diminutive to the most grand, “unto the farthest brings” – to the infinite’s endless end.

The eye reads omens where it goes;

Sad would be the soul who hasn’t walked even the shortest way into the wood or out into the empty, expansive field, to where everything slows down to quiet and allows one to hear Nature’s call, be it through the creaking sway of the trees or the hum of the wind upon the grass. For once where She Her presence reveals, so, too, will Her omens, signs signalling the nature of our Collective and Universal Soul through the mundane: acorns scattered on the wooded floor signals life’s endless cycle of birth and death, as the mist of the passing clouds signals the transformative and transient nature of life itself.

And speaks all languages of the rose;

While not all of us speak the same language, we all can look at the rose and equally understand its beauty. And, regardless of all the many different ways we may express it in words, we all have that same feeling of awe and humility as we arrive at that deep and soulful understanding of just how small our presence is when looking up towards that grand vastness above filled with its countless twinkling diamonds of light.

And, striving to be man, the worm / Mounts through all the spires of form

The line suggests that the worm in its striving is emulating our behavior; however, I read it as further suggesting that from the worm’s behavior we have learned to strive, from the worm we have evolved, and as the worm forever works through all forms of nature – be it the soil, the wood, the apple – to realize its true nature, we, too, forever work “through all spires of form” – be they the physical or metaphysical – continuous “unto the farthest brings,” as do links of an endless “subtle chain,” in a most noble and enduring of effort to realize our own true nature.

~~~~

With this meditation on a one-word title and one-sentence poem we discover that, while both may appear simple in form, both hold complex and profound messages that are, we must assume, a herald’s call as to the further complexities and profundities that await us.


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