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“Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 18th, 2021


In early nineteenth century, Emerson wrote a book entitled Nature where he portrayed his perceptions concerning nature. Emerson presented his perceptions as some form of revelation of the truth about nature. Emerson descends to expand on several aspects that he believes are manifestations of nature which include, discipline, beauty, language and commodity. He uses these aspects to explain the origins as well as the operations of nature. However, regardless of its greatness, Emerson’s work has been criticized a lot which has accorded it more attention from the scholars as well as other readers.


According to (Hodder, 1989), Emerson describes nature as everything in the universe that cannot be altered by human beings among them being air, rivers, leaves and space. He also says that, nature is continuous in the sense that it’s always in existence. He argues that there are several ways in which nature presents itself to human beings which include beauty, commodity, discipline and language. Emerson takes his time to explain how nature manifests itself in these aspects as well as ways in which they relate with each other. He points out that beauty is what can be observed by the human beings’ eyes and consequently contributing to the survival of human beings in one way or another. According to Emerson nature in the form of beauty is not only appealing but also assists human beings to treat some diseases and/or disorders that they may be suffering from. Discipline allows human beings to apply intellect so as to understand their surroundings in relation to time, locomotion and space. Language takes a larger part of manifestation of nature where it provides human beings with words used in description of nature and other aspects related to nature. Commodity provides human beings with features of nature like oceans, lakes and mountains as well as processes like condensation and evaporation. However, his work has been faced with so much criticism where scholars argue against ways in which he presents some of his issues and arguments. This is because quite a number of scholars who have gone through Emerson’s work have not been satisfied with the ways in which he has presented his arguments in support of how nature manifest itself in the various aspects. Among grounds on which his work has been criticized is the manner in which he integrates poetry in his explanations and examples. According to critics of Emerson’s work about nature, concerned readers and scholars argue that Emerson’s work would have been a lot better if only he had used less poetry and less complicated interrelations.

Summary of Emerson’s work

Ralph argues that, nature presents itself to human beings through language which according to him can be divided into several sections. The first section is where words are considered as representatives of facts. By that he means that the history of natural things is described by words to give a picture of the history of supernatural things. This consequently infers that what can be seen gives rise to a language with which to describe the inward happenings. All words that are used to represent facts are therefore assumed to have been derived from tangible appearances. For example, the fact that something is right is derived from the tangible appearance of a straight thing, spirit is derived from the appearance of wind while wrong is derived from tangible appearance of a twisted thing (Hodder, 1989).

The argument of words being derived from tangibles leads to the next section of language where Emerson argues that natural facts are representatives of facts that are spiritual otherwise known as intangible facts. Here, Ralph argues that all natural facts symbolize facts that cannot be touched by human hands. This means that what is portrayed naturally must have a similar representation in human beings’ minds, which cannot be naturally presented by any other but that particular natural fact. For example, rocks symbolize firmness, darkness symbolizes ignorance and a fox symbolizes cunningness. It therefore occurs that, the relationship that runs from natural objects to spiritual facts exists for the benefit of man and that it’s difficult to comprehend human beings without the use of these relationships. In turn, it’s difficult to comprehend the natural objects without the existence of man as natural objects are not in a position to think and relate one thing to another so as to bring meaning. Nature is therefore described as the origin of language and the end of the same, where language is said to be born out of nature and to terminate in the same form, making nature a very powerful aspect. Since nature is associated with truth, writers and individuals who make use of this particular relationship in their works and speeches respectively are considered to be truthful. On the contrary, those who go against this law are considered as corrupt and liars (Emerson, 1903.

Ralph also describes nature as discipline which is applied in the comprehension of intellectual truths by humankind. However, before the application, several aspects namely, the society, time, locomotion, climate and forces are said to equip human beings with a wide range of meanings. Human beings are therefore equipped with reason as well as understanding of each and every description of their surrounding. Therefore, through reasoning, human beings are able to get the relationship between matter and their perception about it. This is where human beings are found to learn how some things are different from others, their degree of likeness, their order or arrangement, their specifications as well as generalizations. Ralph goes on to argue that though individuals possess the ability to reason, it is limited by some inequalities in their level of understanding. This is where human beings are expected to differentiate between various perceptions of nature. Time as well as space is used to bring these differences which gives every object of matter a different use from the other. Nature as portrayed by discipline allows tangible things to adjust to the perceptions of reason which are then produced in form of conscience. This results to the representation of matter in the spiritual form (Sealts, 1979).

Nature also manifests itself in the form of commodity which comprise of sensual benefits of nature. However, these advantages are not permanent but temporary and are just mediators and not final. In spite of its periodical limitation, nature in form of commodity is perfect and is clearly understood by human beings. Therefore nature provides human beings with so much so as to support their life on earth. Among the provisions of nature that benefit humankind are oceans, sky, Land, stars, rain and weather. However, commodity also exists in processes such as evaporation and condensation that take place on earth as well as the resultant features. Therefore, commodity portrays a wide range of features on nature that exists to be at the service of humankind.

According to (Emerson, 1903), nature also manifests itself through beauty which is usually recognized by the eyes. The way in which nature functions through beauty can be divided into some sections for better understanding. In one of the sections natural forms are perceived to be a delight in the life of humankind. Nature portrays its beauty by offering medicine or healing to the bodies as well as soul of human beings. This is where human beings relax through observation of nature and are healed of their psychological disorders like stress and depression. That is, through observing the coolness of water in oceans, water as it flows down a stream as well as the height and vegetation on mountains and ranges, one’s mind cools down slowly regaining its normal functioning. This particular beauty occurs in form of mountains, moonlight, rainbow, shadows and stars. The second section is where beauty occurs through the divine who is higher and more powerful than any other element. Divine beauty controls the will power of humankind and all that is provided by the divine is perfect. In the last section beauty is presented through intellect where all human actions are associated with their thoughts.

Literary Criticisms

According to (Porter, 1978), in nature’s manifestation through language, representation of natural facts by words which are then represented by thoughts is criticized. Ralph asks whether language which is one of the forms through which nature portrays itself to human beings. He had to wait for the existence of all the natural forms so as to come up with meanings. He criticizes language of being overly dependent on natural forms and creatures as according to the way their relationship runs into each other, language cannot survive were it not for the existence of natural forms. On the other hand, he criticizes natural objects of not being in a position to be their own representatives but have to wait for language in form of words to give descriptions to them. He also wonders whether natural forms like mountains and skies lack significance so much that they have to wait for symbolization so as to gain meaning. They are therefore criticized of lacking meaning other than what is signified by human thoughts as their representative symbols. Hence, according to Ralph, everything that exists in the universe is symbolic which means that nature is just a human beings’ metaphor. This description of nature renders it powerless and makes it appear very dependent on other things such as language, to be recognized and understood.

In his attempt to describe the representation of intangibles by the tangibles, Emerson uses several images of water where he describes it to be either circulating or flowing in a river. He enjoys using examples which he twists to metaphors showing how through the spirit, human beings are associated with nature. However, with all the efforts employed, Emerson is criticized for not been able to fully explore the associations existing between nature and rivers or flowing water. Another area where Emerson has been criticized of not tackling properly is his explanation of ways in which spirit flows in form of metaphors. Emerson complicates things as he makes use of an ideal kind river which he describes using spiritual facts rather than natural facts. This makes it hard for those reading his works to completely understand how an ideal river operates and to connect that with the relationship given (Porter, 1978).

(Sutcliffe, 1923), argues that, in his description of how nature presents itself in form of language, Emerson declares words to represent natural facts but this particular description is quite confusing to those people who have a great desire to understand language. Critics also argue that, it would have been a bit better if Emerson used the river’s outward appearance of creation to describe language instead of the internal creation so as to put readers in a better position to understand his works. That is, it would have been better if a word like riverbank was used instead of the internal part of a river, land instead of arriver and separation instead of rive. Emerson is also criticized of blaming children for their use of nouns in their conversations, which are then put in form of verbs and later fed into their minds. However, he forgets that he is also a victim of the same as he enjoys using nouns related to rivers which he uses to express what he perceived as reality. There are also other instances where after a description of certain facts, he gives evidences that in one way or another relate to rivers. For example, he declares spiritual facts to be symbolized by natural facts and then supports that by arguing that it is not possible for someone to look at a river as it flows when he/she is meditating and fail to get the picture of the dynamic nature of things. Emerson argues that tangible nature including rivers represents the intangible nature among them being laws governing nature. He continues to say that this representation is supported by spirit, where the spirit of human beings carries on thoughts of natural facts to the future. It therefore occurs that language is based on facts where words are only functional when associated with facts without which they would lose meaning (Sealts, 1979).

While describing how nature manifests itself through discipline, critics argue that Emerson is not consistent in the way he relates his ideas. For example, he argues that nature has the ability to equip human kind with lessons that possess a wide range of meanings. Nature is also given the privilege of equipping human kind with reasoning as well as understanding capabilities. The kind of strength and capability accorded to nature is quite overwhelming. But with all that in its entirety, nature through discipline is criticized of not being in a position to allow human beings to discipline themselves through its occurrence. It does not also enable human beings to comprehend laws governing nature as well as the distinction lying between processes and other things existing in nature. It therefore occurs that, the power that helps humankind to understand things is shifted to the emotions, spirit and intellect. This shows that nature is not as powerful as it’s previously described and cannot function on its own. It has to be supported by other aspects of humankind so as to efficiently provide its functions.

Nature as manifested in beauty is criticized of not being consistent when being observed by human beings. This is because Emerson describes its experience to be dependent on human beings perception. It therefore occurs that, if a certain human being is not in a position to see or view natural features, then, manifestation of nature through beauty seizes to exist in the world of that particular person. Critics continue to argue that when human beings concentrate too much on seeking the nature’s manifestation in beauty its occurrence might become mere shows which are in a position to deceive mankind (Porter, 1978).

Response to criticism

It occurs that most of Emerson’s work is criticized on the basis of his use of language and words. This is because Emerson combines so many features in one piece of work. Based on critics of his work, it would have been better if Emerson wrote poems separately and then describe nature in some sort of a story or pure descriptions with a few examples separately. Emerson has been found to like integrating poetry in almost everything he says and when people fail to understand what is meant by certain poetry, they say that his work does not make sense. To the lovers of poetry, Emerson’s work is very interesting amid the few hitches in his correlation of issues and ideas here and there. However, even the lovers of poetry can agree with other readers that, Emerson exaggerates the use poetry. This is a big problem as it can make a large number of readers fail to understand the concepts of his work or get a different meaning altogether. Emerson assumes that all readers are conversant with poetry and that they would be comfortable with its usage in such works as “Nature”. In contrary to his assumptions, critics from scholars as well as other readers show that, the integration of poetry only makes his work complicated and some readers get confused in the of course reading. Another genuine critic is the overly use of rivers and its features in his descriptions and explanations of nature. It would have been a lot better if Emerson gave other realistic examples rather than dwelling so much on the flow of rivers and other features associated with water and rivers (Sealts, 1979).


Emerson’s work on nature is one of the most popular pieces of literature which is read and researched on by American scholars. This is because of its detailed explanations of nature and several aspects through which it manifests itself. Aspects like commodity, beauty, discipline and language are explained so expansively that, readers are able to comprehend what is being talked about by Emerson. These particular aspects show ways in which nature manifests itself through them. Though none among the four aspects can be said to be more important than the other, language and beauty take a larger part of nature than discipline and commodity. This is because language gives descriptions of words used to explain about nature and its applications while beauty basically deals with all what can be viewed by human beings. The other two borrow from language and beauty in their representation of nature. If readers would take some time to understand Emerson’s work as well as its critics, then they would be in a position to declare that they understand nature. This is because of the richness of Emerson’s work in explanations pertaining ways in which nature manifests itself through various aspects and how spiritual and natural things relate to each other in support of nature (Sealts, 1979).


  1. Emerson R. (1903): The complete works of Ralph Waldo Emerson: Houghton, Mifflin and Company pp. 22-29
  2. Hodder A. (1989): Emerson’s rhetoric of revelation: Pennsylvania State Univ Press pp. 34-37
  3. Porter D. (1978): Emerson and literary change: Harvard University Press pp. 43-48
  4. Sealts M. (1979): Emerson’s Nature: Southern Illinois University pp. 23-27
  5. Sutcliffe E. (1923): Emerson’s Theory of literary expressions: The university of Illinois pp. 13-18
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