Transcendentalism got its start as a philosophical movement that developed in the late 1820s. It developed as a protest against the general state of spirituality at the time. Specifically, it arose in Massachusetts, in the eastern United States. The philosophy has at its source a number of different important writers and thinkers. One such thinker was Immanuel Kant. He was of Prussian German descent and prominent in the Age of Enlightenment. He wrote a doctrine on transcendental idealism in which he argued that the way subjects appear to us are the way they are. Not as they actually are in themselves.
In particular, transcendentalists were interested in something else Kant wrote about. How one should intuit objects, space, and time. He also questioned society’s growing dependence and reverence for science. He believed as the transcendentalists did, that science can’t answer all the questions that humankind has.
Also prominent at the root of Transcendentalism are Emanuel Swedenborg and Hindu texts on spirituality, such as the Upanishads. Some consider Transcendentalism as a variation, albeit in America, of English Romanticism.
Where and How did Transcendentalism Start?
Transcendentalism became a real movement with the foundation of the Transcendental Club in Cambridge, Massachusetts in September 1836. It was founded by Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Putnam, and Frederick Henry Hedge. The club often published their works within the journal “The Dial,” a publication that ran from 1840 to 1929.
In 1836 Ralph Waldo Emerson published his famous essay titled Nature. In it, Emerson puts forth the foundations of Transcendentalism. He suggests that the world can be understood through immersion within nature. In the essay, they are four different sections. They are Commodity, Beauty, Language, and Discipline, and they represent the ways humans use nature for their own needs. Take a look at these quotes from the essay.
“Have mountains, and waves, and skies, no significance but what we consciously give them, when we employ them as emblems of our thoughts?”
“The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.”
“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.”
Who were the Transcendentalist Poets?
Today, the most well-known transcendentalists are Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Other members of the official club in Cambridge or adherents to the tenants of Transcendentalism are Helen Hunt Jackson, Louisa May Alcott, William Henry Channing, Jones Very, Elizabeth Peabody, Samuel Longfellow, and Samuel Gray Ward.
What Form do Transcendentalist Poems Take?
Usually, Transcendental poetry made use of some kind of meter. The lines had a certain number of syllables and were often rhymed. But, this was not always the case. Transcendental poets often used figurative language metaphors and similes. These are most commonly employed in order to find similarities between a natural subject and a state of being, or the divine. Take a look at these lines from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s ‘The Bell’ in which he connects the chiming of a bell to death.
I love thy music, mellow bell,
I love thine iron chime,
To life or death, to heaven or hell,
Which calls the sons of Time.
What are the Common Themes in Transcendentalism?
Transcendentalism focused on the internal spirit and the importance of intuition as a source of knowledge. This was made all the more important as it pushed back against a rise in dependence on logic and black-and-white morality. These ideas came to be a spiritual way of understanding and relating to one’s life.
Perhaps the most important aspect of Transcendentalism is the focus on nature. The participants in the movement were opposed to industrialism as it was a distraction from the pleasure an individual can receive from nature. They believed that nature was the only place in which they could learn who they were at the deepest level. Transcendentalists believed that the institutions of society corrupted this pure self.
In poetry specifically, Transcendentalism is connected to the transcendence of the poet and the reader’s spirit. This is accomplished through the poet’s voice which usually asserts a love for expression and self-realization, as discovered through a natural landscape. Personal freedom was also crucial to this set of spiritual beliefs.
Take a look at these examples of Transcendentalist poems.:
- ‘The Mountain and the Squirrel’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- ‘Concord Hymn’ by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- ‘Tall Ambrosia’ by Henry David Thoreau
- ‘Transfiguration‘ by Louisa May Alcott
- ‘Poppies on the Wheat’ by Helen Hunt Jackson
- ‘Dream’ by Helen Hunt Jackson