Expert Poets: Emerson and Whitman

Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman offer readers a unique view on language development and its inherent role in man and nature. And it is with Emerson’s and Whitman’s expert understanding of language, poetry, and Nature that readers are rewarded with further insight into the world around them.

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Some of what Emerson writes in his poem “Nature” reminds me of “The Natural Approach” developed by Tracy Terrell in 1977, developed later along with Stephen Krashen, to language acquisition and development, focusing more on understanding meanings rather than grammar structures; in this method “language is viewed as a vehicle for communicating meanings and messages” (Richards & Rodgers 178, 180).

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This is rather different to what Chomsky argued: “Much of human language use is not imitated behavior but is created anew from underlying knowledge of abstract rules. Sentences are not learned by imitation and repetition but ‘generated’ from the learner’s underlying ‘competence’” (Richards & Rodgers 66). However, Chomsky was more grammar oriented than others. One more: “Sociolinguistic competence refers to an understanding of the social context in which communication takes place” (Richards & Rodgers 160).

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Emerson touches on these points when he writes: “Words are signs of natural facts” – I believe he is referring to words as meanings and messages – “Every word which is used to express a moral or intellectual fact, if traced to its root, is found to be borrowed from some material appearance” (Emerson). Here language, as Krashen and Terrell mentioned, is a “vehicle” to express a “material appearance” and is very natural in our human development. This is also relevant to Emerson’s statement: “Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” I would argue that Emerson’s use of “spirit” and “spiritual” to describe language would best be understood if, as a linguist might, as an abstract or emotional thought and the “natural” word use could refer to something concrete – hence: “enraged man” (anger) would refer to the spirit (i.e., the emotions or the abstract one cannot touch) and “lion” (symbolic meaning through visual evidence) would refer to the natural world (i.e., the concrete evidence, not-abstract). And this further explains when Emerson writes that “Nature is the symbol of the spirit.”

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But what does all this mean? Well, I believe Emerson has already touched on “the natural approach” where language is a “vehicle of messages” and Chomsky’s “abstract rules” but uses this to lend additional support to his final argument – that language is a social construct (i.e., Sociolinguistic competence). Emerson explains this social connection:

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“The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity of truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost.”

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Likewise, Walt Whitman in “Sea-Drift” and “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life,” both poems found in Leaves of Grass, utilizes personification to illustrate just how Nature can be a healing force during a man’s distressing period.

“Sea-Drift” describes one man meandering through nature, specifically on a beach, while he experiences anguish after having lost his brother. The narrator of the poem laments:

From your memories sad brother…
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves.

(Whitman, “Sea-Drift” 11, 17, 23-24 Web)

The man, in utter sadness, falls to the beach in tears, meeting the ocean’s pulse of time and gradual consolation in the process. The narrator then correlates a childhood memory of two birds, one male and one female, to his own loss of his brother. The memory portrays a she-bird vanishing, “nor ever appear’d again,” (53) and the he-bird calling on his mate in dire hopes of her return and “pour’d forth the meanings which [the narrator] of all men know” (68) through his own loss and pain (Whitman, “Sea-Drift” Web). The poem ends with the narrator understanding the he-bird’s loss and desperate calling to its mate, much as he does to his dead brother: “Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes, / Following you my brother” (Whitman, “Sea-Drift” 79-80 Web). Nature ultimately, and finally, acts as a cathartic force, driving the mourner from reflective memories and closer to healing and understanding of the normalcy of loss and death. The narrator continues to exemplify this mood of healing and understanding:

Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
O madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love. (Whitman, “Sea-Drift” 81-84, 87-88 Web)

The narrator’s own love cannot soothe from within, but it is an external force which creates the healing power to begin. Nature illustrates to the man that time does not cease, in any form, because of death, but instead life rages forward, through the pain, offering tough love to those left alive to suffer the death of loved ones.

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Whitman continues the theme of Nature’s therapeutic mending, illustrated with the ceaseless waves of continual healing. In “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” Whitman chooses to follow the flow of life, which he writes: “Ebb, ocean of life, (the flow will return,)” despite the tragedy confronting him, and further exclaims his own unification with Nature, “I ebb’d with the ocean of life” (Whitman, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” 62, 1 Web). Death, therefore, becomes a cycle and not an ultimate end to life. The narrator continues:

As I list to the dirge, the voices of men and women wreck’d,
As I inhale the impalpable breezes that set in upon me,
As the ocean so mysterious rolls toward me closer and closer,
I too but signify at the utmost a little wash’d-up drift

(Whitman, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” 22-25 Web).

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Transcendence emerges from the earlier poem, “Sea-Drift,” and it is one of knowing that mankind and their woes are small matters compared to the endless cycles of nature and surrounding life, with the narrator claiming “I too am but a trail of drift and debris” and further illustrated by the narrator’s attempt to comprehend the universal and infinite: “I perceive I have not really understood any thing, not a single / object, and that no man ever can” (Whitman, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” 53, 38-39 Web). By the end of the poem, the narrator furnishes a higher understanding of Nature’s existence, one that is not completely cruel but rather sincere, offering its “sobbing,” and that mankind is indeed at the mercy of such Nature by reporting “We, capricious, brought hither we know not whence, spread out / before you” (Whitman, “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” 81, 83-84 Web).

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Both poems, in sum, exhibit one man’s anguish from having been confronted with death and to understand, as a survivor, that life and death do continue onward, and illustrated through Nature’s oceanic waves. Furthermore, Whitman offers a personal view of how Nature can be a comforter as well as an illustrator to how life continues, ebbs, and willfully knows that death is only one part of the dramatic whole of life.

As expert poets Emerson and Whitman must have known that language is derived from mankind’s attempt to decode nature into meaningful messages, and it is Nature, our supreme social context – so to speak – provides all the important messages we need to live a correct way of life; however, when we lose such connections to the natural world, mankind becomes lost to the path which is correspondent to harmony and peace.

Walt Whitman

References

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Nature.”

Richards, Jack C. & Theodore S. Rodgers. (1986). Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching, 2nd edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Print.

Whitman, Walt (1819-1892). “As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life” (1891-1892). Whitmanarchive.org. Walt Whitman Archive, Eds. Ed Folsom and Kenneth M. Price, n.d. Web 2 March 2011.

—. “Sea-Drift” (1891-1892). Bibliomania.com. Bibliomania. n.d. Web 2 March 2011.

  

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