Updated February 3, 2021

The Philosophy of Transcendentalism in Emily Dickinson’s Poems

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The Philosophy of Transcendentalism in Emily Dickinson’s Poems essay
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The philosophy of transcendentalism originated in the 1830s in the eastern part of the United States in response to intellectualism. It is considered to be one of the major movements of religion, philosophy and literature in American history. Its followers desired intense spiritual experiences and sought to go beyond the purely material world of reason and rationality. In other words transcendentalism is people having knowledge about themselves and the world around them that transcends what they can see, hear, taste, touch or feel. This understanding arises from intuition and imagination and not from logic or the senses. People count on themselves on the account of what is right or wrong. Transcendentalists accept these ideas not as religious beliefs but as a way to understand life.

Transcendentalists opposed conformity or forcing one’s behaviour to adhere to social expectations and norms. That is to say they were nonconformists – people usually not adhering to a generally accepted pattern of thinking and acting. Transcendentalists were concerned with the needs and interests of non-white people – Native Americans and African-Americans. Many of them were engaged in social reform movements, especially anti-slavery. They also spoke in favor of women’s rights and supported the demonstrations against the government when its actions clashed with common good.

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were two of the most famous transcendentalists. Emerson in his most famous essay, “The American Scholar,” encouraged Americans to stop turning to Europe for inspiration and imitation and just be themselves. He held the belief that people were good by nature and that everyone had a limitless potential. He encouraged his colleagues to look into themselves, into art, into nature and to answer life’s most puzzling questions. His commitment and contributions to the philosophy of transcendentalism inspired a uniquely American idealism and spirit of reform.

Transcendentalists believed in humans’ potential to connect with both the natural and spiritual world. They firmly believed in the presence of God in nature. As stated by Emerson solitary time in nature was the most perfect way for a person to connect with the universe. He held the belief that man should be focusing his attention to his inner self for guidance.

In 1850 Emily Dickinson received a collection of poems by Emerson. It included poems like “Give All to Love”, “The Problem”, “The Sphinx”, “The Humblebee” and some others which style and subject seem to resonate in her poetry.

Unlike these two male writers Emily Dickinson proved that transcendentalism does not necessarily need to be achieved with the element of experience, but one can reach it with the help of imagination and intellect in order to accomplish their goals. Throughout her writing she used many transcendentalist concepts to show the power of intellect, specifically women’s intellect. She constantly proves in her poems that even though she is in her natural habitat, the walls and ceiling of the house cannot stop the power of her mind. From the inside of her home she wrote about f experiences that she never had. With the power of imagination Dickinson could transcend anywhere she wanted and she could experience anything she wished for. Emily Dickinson separated from the transcendentalist path to form her own branch where the power of imagination took over that of experience. Her feminist ideas proved that limited opportunities are not strong enough to control the power of the mind.

As a result of her life of solitude Emily Dickinson was able to concentrate on her world more strongly than other authors of her life. While reading her poems one can’t fail but notice how she searches for universal truths and explores some conditions of the human life: the meaning of life, faith in God, the place of man in the universe and so on. Emily Dickinson saw man’s spirit to be expressed or represented in nature. Nature plays a big role in her work. Her treatment of nature blends into all of her subjects. For instance, in the poem The Brain is Wider than the Sky Dickinson depicts the triangle of God, Humanity, and Nature, which transcendentalists claimed to be the core values of life. Dickinson depicts the capacity of mind to consume, analyze and absorb. Given the sky’s incredible size the brain is able to incorporate the world into itself, and thereby even to absorb the ocean.The source of this capacity, in this poem, is God. This poem reflects the notion that without the other two one of these aspects of life can’t exist.

Dickinson kept her writings as simple as possible. For trying to be herself, Dickinson was actually pursuing a transcendental ideal; No matter what she was true to herself and an individual instead of conforming to a world of followers. Taking Dickinson’s famous isolation into account it can be said that in her lifetime she was neither a leader nor a follower. Dickinson never committed herself to any particular school of thought or philosophy, she was just herself. This perhaps was transcendental.

For Dickinson the survival of the soul after death was one of the major religious questions. She totally rejected the idea of man’s innate moral corruption. This was one of the transcendentalists’ main beliefs as they believed in the innate goodness of both humans and nature.

The monotonous daily life and the society – especially the religion and political groups were seen as barriers between the self and the spirit and therefore eventually distort the purity of the individual. Nature, thus, provides a means of freeing the mind from its usual distractions. The very word “transcend” implies moving beyond some hindering state of mind or body. The transcendentalists held the belief that people were at their best when truly “self reliant” and happy. Due to these real individuals the true community could be formed.

It can be said that Dickinson lived by the following transcendentalist ideas:

  • Nonconformity: Emily Dickinson is well-known for her unique poetry. The compact phrases she used express far-reaching ideas. Between paradox and uncertainty her poetry is clearly capable of moving and provoking.
  • Self-reliance: She led a life of solitude and therefore thought for herself and turned to herself for guidance instead of following the ideas and opinions of other people. Nature appears widely in her work in forms of symbolism and metaphor.
  • Living simply: Dickonson lived in isolation and kept in touch with few people only. She did not comply with social customs.

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