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The Threshold Between Romantic Movement And Transcendentalism English Literature Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 1788 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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As a poet of the Romantic movement and Transcendentalist offshoot during the 19th century, Emily Dickinson distinguished the mindset of the common person of the 19th and 20th century as well as influencing the modern era as an influential American Romantic poet by incorporating God, death, and the mysterious use of nature into her poetry. Proof of her Romanticism is found in many of her letters, one in particular which is written to a friend of hers: “Haven’t we had delightful weather for a week or two? It seems as if Old Winter had forgotten himself. Don’t you believe he is absent-minded? It has been bad weather for colds, however… …I have lately come to the conclusion that I am Eve, alias Mrs. Adam. You know there is no account of her death in the Bible, and why am not I Eve? If you find any statements which you think likely to prove the truth of the case, I wish you would send them to me without delay.” [1] From this quote of her letter to a friend who remains anonymous, Dickinson displays Romantic tendencies: personification, descriptions to a point of madness, and a reference to her faith and inner-being. Dickinson also described the concept of death, and puts an emphasis the importance of the spirit and intuition in her poem, “I Could Not Stop for Death”. Moreover, Emily Dickinson was an introvert, and it can be concluded from this and the fact that she was born into a family of “pure Christian thinking” that she handled her problems by questioning death through the use of poetry. [2] With her Romantic characteristics, she also evoked a Transcendentalist intuition, as proven by the collaboration of many scholars in their social writings describing Dickinson: “…she seeks to transform the matrices of body and mind into a unified sense of self and power.” [3] Therefore, primarily by combining characteristics from these two literary mindsets, Emily Dickinson brings foundation to the threshold of the Romanticism movement and the Transcendentalist offshoot by means of her poetry and lifestyle.

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Romanticism, quite literally, was a movement in literature and the fine arts that began in the early 19th Century that stressed personal emotion, free play of the imagination, personal freedom from the rules of form, oftentimes stressing images of death, imagined past, the mystery of nature, beauty, strangeness, and faith. In Betsy Erkkila’s words, Romanticism expresses the writer’s most private inner being, and also fabricates an interest in irrational elements of the mind to the point of madness. Simply put, through the eyes of a Romanticist, nature held great power. Emily Dickinson displayed her Romantic tendencies through the use of her poetry and lifestyle. In one of her most famous poems, “I Could Not Stop for Death” (1890),

In relation to her poetry by means of Romanticism, Emily Dickinson also displays her Romantic inclinations through how she lived her life. Ford specifies in his essay, “Death in the Poetry and Lifestyle of Emily Dickinson”, that the remarks to Emily Dickinson’s cousins in a letter describe Dickinson “singing off charnel steps” which specifies that Dickinson recognized death, and had somewhat a fear of death. Not so much death itself, but the ambivalence and unknowing of death. This ambivalence sparked her work exponentially. Ford also describes that Dickinson had not always been so certain about “Paradise’s existence” and that “All we know is the “uncertain certainty”. [5] It is from these letters that one can also assume that Dickinson’s poetry reflected how she lived each day, inwardly, and outwardly. For example, Emily’s travel with the character of death from “I Could Not Stop for Death” brings her, as it seems, to parts of her past by means of nature [6] :

We passed where the children played

Their lessons scarcely done;

We passed the fields of gazing grain,

We passed the setting sun

This stanza can then be analyzed further in that this was a moment displaying Dickinson’s imagined past and her mysterious belief in nature. Though it will never be known what Dickinson was truly thinking of when she was writing this poem, as there are no letters or evidence which to validate her train of thought, it can in fact be deducted that her poems reflect how she lived her life in a general sense.

Nature and its mysterious glory are eminent all throughout Dickinson’s poetry which distinguish her Romantic characteristics in a different sense. Emily Dickinson’s use of images in the Bible, nature’s effect on humans, and how she fabricated her poetry so particularly, synthesized a lifestyle uniquely hers by calling earth her paradise and that nature and friendship were primary. [7] Dickinson’s use of nature must be recognized in such a way that it corresponds to her faith, and that writing poetry is Dickinson’s way of reassuring herself of her solidarity and hope. From this hope and personal decisions made by wanting to follow her intuition and spirit, Emily Dickinson distinguishes herself with transcendentalist style.

Specifically, Transcendentalism is the simplification of lifestyle, the lack of necessity for material goods, the belief in the unimportance of objects, and the pursuit of a keen focus on one’s inner self which incorporates one’s intuition and spirit rather than relying on one’s physical being as a means of surviving. It is important to understand that Transcendentalism was not necessarily a movement in response to Romanticism, but instead an offshoot of Romanticism. [8] 

In a modern view, Transcendentalists can be paralleled and are oftentimes meshed with Romanticists as “the hippies distinguishing themselves from authority”. [9] Through the eyes of a Transcendentalist standpoint, Dickinson’s poem “I Could Not Stop for Death” displays many characteristics of Transcendentalism. Primarily, Emily Dickinson is aware that death is unavoidable. It is from this, that she is able to come to terms that she must make life simple so that she is unattached if and when death comes. Her spirit resides in her memories, and as death slowly takes its hold on her, she begins to recall memories from her inner being.

The second to last stanza describes a house,

A swelling of the ground

which represents her grave and tombstone. Though her physical being hasn’t lived on, her inner self and spirit has:

Since then ’tis centuries…

Horses’ heads were toward eternity

Romantic characteristics and Transcendentalist ideals go hand and hand in this poem. Death, nature, and imagined past all compound with intuition and reliance on her inner being. By means of displaying Transcendentalist characteristics through Dickinson’s life, it can be safely concluded that “Emily Dickinson was in fact the only person in America who really made Transcendentalism practical.” [10] Furthermore, Emily Dickinson above all, knew herself. Instead of looking outwards, she turned her sight inward. She reflected not only on moments of greatest pleasure, but also times of unrelenting pain and ambiguity toward her own spiritual identity. [11] The synthesis of her introvert mindset can be attributed to her Christian upbringing, and her constant struggle with the thought of death. Perhaps Dickinson evoked parts of Puritanism [12] , and meshed ideas of Romanticism with it, thus creating her own self-avowed Transcendentalist lifestyle. Instead of participating in a community based on religion that helps the surrounding community, Dickinson built her own “community” inside of herself by use of intuition and exercising her religious spirit. Also, Dickinson’s solitary living and possible diagnosis of anorexia nervosa, combined with her uninterested view on objects [13] summarize her lifestyle. Dickinson’s solitary living promoted self betterment by means of her intuition and soul and her possible diagnosis of anorexia nervosa gives evidence to the lifestyle that one’s soul is vastly more important than “that which outwardly she showed.” [14] From all of these traits one can conclude that Dickinson was in fact part of the Transcendentalist offshoot.

Dickinson demonstrates uses of Romanticism all throughout her poetry and lifestyle, primarily in “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” because it incorporates death, faith, mysterious nature, and imagined past. As an offshoot from Romanticism, Transcendentalism took hold on a select few, especially Emily Dickinson who was deeply influenced by Transcendentalism, but still kept strong ties to Romanticism.

In conclusion, it is from the observations gathered by scholars and Dickinson’s poetry that one can conclude that Emily Dickinson was in fact the barer of the threshold between the Romantic Era and Transcendentalist offshoot.



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