The Transcendental Movement in literature and poetry spawned, for the most part, from its predecessor, the Romantic Era, as well as in reaction to the re-christianization of New England during the Second Great Awakening. Many transcendental poets and philosophers began as liberal Unitarian preachers during the Second Great Awakening, who wished to focus American religion less on how to right the inherent sins of humanity and instead on how to be a cognizant, yet free-spirited individual. Eventually, many of these preachers abandoned their religion in favor of a more philosophical journey through poetry and literature, known as Transcendentalism.
While murmurs of their philosophy were heard in New England throughout the early nineteenth century, the Transcendental community wasn’t officially founded until September 8th, 1836, when poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson gathered other intellectuals at the Transcendental Club in Boston to discuss his essay, “Nature”. Moreover, at this meeting, Emerson drafted “The American Soul”, which stated, ‘We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds … A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.
‘ This statement, which would later become the foundation of transcendental philosophy, was inspired by Emerson’s love of Hinduism, Swedenborg’s mystical Christianity, and Immanuel Kant’s transcendental. Hinduism, along with the Romantic poetry movement, contributed to the emphasis on nature and man’s spiritual relationship with the natural world. Moreover, another strongly Romantic concept that the Transcendentalists embraced was the renewed potential of the individual; specifically, an individuals’s imagination and uniqueness thought was glorified as one of the defining, almost divine characteristics of consciousness. Swedenborg’s revelation of Christianity was intertwined with this glorified conscience as it was found in the concept that the divine gave man the ability to have free-thought and seek peace. Finally, Immanuel Kant’s conception of the word transcendental, or the ability to “go beyond one’s physical self” allowed Emerson and his contemporaries to explore through their poetry, a spiritual and psychological journey towards the divine.
The Transcendental Movement encompassed all forms of writing as well as several schools of thought; however, poetry appeared to be one of the most prominent forms of transcendental expression. Most transcendental poetry was written in some kind of metrical verse, however, there was no set style. Each line had a certain amount of stressed syllables, and often had a rhyme scheme. This variety in meter and rhyme emphasized the individualism and free-spirit transcendental writing embodied as the was no “right way” to write a poem. These poems did, however, compare in their use of natural symbolism and personification of the natural world, as well as the use of first person narrative to describe the poet’s attempt to find truth within the natural world.
The founder of this movement, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a plethora of poems, primarily focusing on man’s relationship with nature. Another notable transcendentalist, Henry David Thoreau, advocated for transcendence via nature, abolition, and civil disobedience in his essays and poems. Other transcendental poets include Louisa May Alcott, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller, and slightly later, Emily Dickinson.
Transcendentalists, such as the aforementioned, often met to discuss their writings in places such as Cambridge, MA or Brook Farm in western MA. In fact, Brook Farm was not only a meeting place for transcendentalists, but also a heaven for the transcendental experience, a utopian society, where many brilliant works of literature were crafted amongst the very peace and spiritual harmony the works themselves’ described.
However, during the 1850s, the Transcendental Movement began to lose steam, primarily due to the untimely death of writer, Margaret Fuller, in an 1850 shipwreck as well as the slow dissolution of Brook Farm starting in 1846. And while its members remained active in the public eye, notably Emerson, Thoreau and others as they publicly rallied for abolition, the Transcendentalists never again materialized as a cohesive group.