Philosophy of Writing and Aesthetics

The Dial: A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion, 1840-1844.

Aesthetics is defined by Random House as "having a sense of the beautiful." This can certainly be said of such Transcendental writers as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Both writers were constantly seeking beauty, not only in terms of nature, but also in terms of the individual spirit. While aesthetics can refer to any sense of beauty, it is often used in terms of literature. How does a piece work aesthetically? How does it look or how is it shaped and/or crafted? When reading Thoreau, I often feel as if he is writing for himself. But if his only intended audience was himself, why would he have bothered shaping such works as Walden into different sections? He would have written in his own internal language that would hold little meaning for anyone other than himself. The Transcendentalists did not write only for themselves. They wrote for anyone who was and is interested in the notion of transcendence, or the notion of using reason and intellect in order to go beyond the pre-existing limits of the world. When considering aesthetics, most people think of poetry, which often attempts to portray beauty --however pleasant or terrifying-- in some way or another.

While Emerson and Thoreau are usually thought of as the fathers of American Transcendentalism, they are not the only poets who are considered in the Transcendentalist poetic canon. Although he wrote "The Poet" and a vast number of his own poems, Emerson has a strange role in the aesthetics of American Transcendentalism. Many critics consider his ideas on the role of the poet, or writer, to be revolutionary. However, those same critics are less than thrilled about Emerson's own poetry. He is said to have influenced such famous writers as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, both poets who are extremely well-known on their own, but who are also linked to Transcendentalism by many scholars and critics. There are also lesser known, or lesser remembered poets, such as Jones Very and Christopher Cranch, who were encouraged and influenced by Emerson. Although Thoreau did not have the impact on poetry or poets that Emerson can claim, he wrote many poems himself and had his own theories about poetry and beauty. His main contribution to aesthetics lies in his ideas of nature and the ability to transcend the rest of the world and focus supremely on nature.

Overall, the major elements of aesthetics that we can attribute to the Transcendentalists include a new definition of the role of the poet and a different perspective of nature. The transcendentalists believed that the poet was representative of everyman or everywoman, but simultaneously different, in that he or she could observe the world, nature in particular, and express its beauty through his or her own verse. They believed that function was just as important, if not more so, as form, and that art lies in the process, or the experience, and not so much in the product. In fact, the Transcendentalists usually eskewed anything that was said to be definitive or all-encompassing. They believed in the circularity of ideas, in that as long as people are using their intellect, ideas are always evolving and never-ending.
Ellen Moore, Virginia Commonwealth University


Emerson, The Poet (1844) and Poetry and Imagination
Thoughts on Modern Literature.
Thoughts on Art.
Emerson: Selected Poetry [links forthcoming]
On Emerson's Poetry. Ellen Moore, VCU
Close Reading of "Give All to Love" [links forthcoming]
"The Editor to the Reader" [The Dial]
Literary Criticism in the Dial [link forthcoming]


Thoreau, Selected Poetry [links forthcoming]
Close Reading of "The Prayer" [link forthcoming]
Thoreau's Journal: thoughts on writing [link forthcoming]
Web Site "Friday" from A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers


Margaret Fuller [link forthcoming]
American Literature: Its Position in the Present Time, and Prospects for the Future [1846] [link forthcoming]
A Short Essay on Critics. The Dial, 1840.


Preface to Leaves of Grass [link forthcoming]
"Song of Myself" [link forthcoming]
"Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking Study web text. [link forthcoming]

Other Authors

Selected Poems of Jones Very
Selected Poems of Christopher Pearse Cranch
Selected Poems of Ellery Channing [link forthcoming]
Selected Poems of Caroline Sturgis Tappan.
Selected Poems of Ellen Sturgis Hooper.
What is Beauty?. Lydia Maria Child, The Dial.