Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Are We Not Beautiful?

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

Are We Not Beautiful?

Article excerpt

A close reading of Emerson's poem "The Rhodora" in the context of his prose elucidates Emerson's indebtedness to Kant's aesthetic. Since for Kant the beautiful is the symbol of the morally good, "The Rhodora" not only exemplifies a Kantian aesthetic but also its ethical implications, both existential and environmental.


Since Kant--whose influence is evident in Emerson's aesthetic (1)--the beautiful has been variously sentimentalized, fetishized, moralized, and most recently belittled or reviled. It is my intention in this essay to restore some of the significance of the aesthetic and to demonstrate its importance for our moral and existential identities. A close reading of "The Rhodora" through a Kantian lens, as I will try to show, turns such a reading quite fortuitously not only into a defense of a Kantian aesthetic, but also into a commentary on our own ecological and moral obligations toward the world we live in.

   The Rhodora
   On Being Asked, Whence Is the Flower?

   In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
   I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
   Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
   To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
   The purple petals, fallen in the pool,
   Made the black water with their beauty gay;
   Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
   And court the flower that cheapens his array.
   Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
   This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
   Tell them, dear, that if eyes were made for seeing,
   Then Beauty is its own excuse for being:
   Why thou weft there, O rival of the rose!
   I never thought to ask, I never knew:
   But, in my simple ignorance, suppose
   The self-same Power that brought me there brought you. (2)

Several passages and images in "The Rhodora" clearly echo Kant's aesthetic. The first line invokes the speaker's solitude, a Kantian precondition for the experience of the beautiful, for the beautiful must be encountered without oppressive social constraints or obligations. The plural of "our solitudes" implies moreover that the speaker of the poem is the Emersonian representative person, the subject who speaks for the universal, though contingent upon the particular "we," as Kant would insist likewise. The second line tells us that the speaker "found the fresh Rhodora," and this fmding of the flowering bush implies that the beautiful must be a happening, an accident, it must not be expected or planned. In Nature, Emerson insists that beauty "comes unsought, and comes because it is unsought" (CW 1, 16). "Go out of the house to see the moon," he writes in the same book, "an 't is mere tinsel; it will not please as when its light shines upon your necessary journey. The beauty that shimmers in the yellow afternoons of October, who could ever clutch it" (CW 1, 14). It can only be found accidentally--in "a damp nook," for example--rather than perhaps on a museum wall. Though the beautiful may happen in a museum, the price of admission does not assure that it will.

The beautiful is a happening. It is an event. Indeed, the beautiful for Kant and for Emerson is neither a thing nor an object. (3) To make the beautiful into a thing would be to objectify, to limit, to fetishize it, such as we do when we go to a museum and take pictures of some paintings, and then, thinking we own them in our camera, turn away from the painting instantly. "How strangely have I felt of pictures," writes Emerson in "Experience," "that when you have seen one well, you must take your leave of it; you shall never see it again" (CW 3, 33). For, the beautiful is not to be had; it is an eminently temporal experience; it is "fluxional"; it is "vehicular and transitive," to use some of Emerson's terms from the essay "The Poet" (CW 3, 20).

Thus the rhodora is not the beautiful in itself, nor can we own it, buy it, or ever clutch it. Nor would Emerson pick it, or take a picture of it. When in his poem "Each and All," the poet finds beautiful sea shells and takes them home with him, he discovers that "the poor, unsightly, noisome things/ Had left their beauty on the shore . …

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