Emerson's earliest reference to an essay on nature occurs in his journal for 1833. Three years later, in 1836, he anonymously published his now-famous Nature. It was his first major work, and it continues to be his best known. The essay met with good critical reception but with little support from the reading public. He reprinted it in his 1849 edition of Nature; Addresses, and Lectures.
The essay's epigraphs will vary according to which edition of Nature is anthologized. In the 1836 edition, for example, Emerson introduced the essay with a quotation from the Roman philosopher Plotinus, but when he reprinted the essay in 1849, he omitted Plotinus' poetic line and inserted one of his own poems. Some of today's literary anthologies do not include either epigraph; others include both.
The 1836 epigraph from Plotinus reads: "Nature is but an image or imitation of wisdom, the last thing of the soul; Nature being a thing which doth only do, but not know." This poetic line emphasizes a theme that runs throughout the essay: Nature does not have a personality of its own. When we say, for instance, that nature is upset because a storm is violently raging outside, we are projecting a human emotion onto nature that it itself does not possess.
Emerson's six-line poem that he uses as the epigraph for the 1849 edition asserts the interconnectedness of all things:
A subtle chain of countless rings
The next unto the farthest brings;
The eye reads omens where it goes,
And speaks all languages the rose;
And, striving to be man, the worm
Mounts through all the spires of form.
Nature, in the images of a rose and a worm, speaks directly to individuals. Within these six lines, Emerson introduces various themes found in the essay, including the theme of the chain that binds together all of nature. Often referred to as the Great Chain of Being, this concept outlines the theory of evolution — another theme of his — that would shock the world when Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859. Note that the worm in Emerson's poem strives to become a perfect form, a human being.
Unlike many of Emerson's essays, Nature is extremely long and is divided into an introduction and eight chapters, or sections. Readers should number each paragraph in pencil for easy reference throughout these Notes and in the classroom.