The Concept of Nature in Nineteenth-Century English Poetry

By Joseph Warren Beach | Go to book overview

CHAPTER XI
COLERIDGE, EMERSON, AND NATURALISM

WHEN Emerson gave up the ministry of the gospel in 1832, he found himself looking earnestly for some other serious field to cultivate, some other subject on which he could preach without the hampering restrictions to which he had been subject in the church. And what he found was nature--the world of phenomena surveyed by science. The right interpretation of this world of phenomena was the main subject of his little treatise on Nature, published in 1836; it is the subject of innumerable references in his Journals over a long course of years; and occupies much of his attention in his essays, lectures and poems. His interest in natural science was greatly stimulated by his visit, in 1833, to the Museum of the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Here he found before his very eyes the several animal forms graded from lowest to highest in the scale. How much he was impressed is shown by his entry in his Journal:

The universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever, as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms,--the hazy butterflies, the carved shells, the birds, beasts, fishes, insects, snakes, and the upheaving principle of life everywhere incipient, in the very rock aping organized forms. Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in man the observer,-- an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me,--cayman, carp, eagle and fox. I am moved by strange sympathies; I say continually "I will be a naturalist."1

This passage has often been cited as evidence that Emerson was early converted to the modern scientific theory of evolution; and it certainly does bring up that interesting question. At the same

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