Summary and Analysis of Nature Chapter 1


Concerned initially with how we reflect on solitude, the stars, and the grandeur of nature, this chapter turns from the universal world, symbolized in the stars that Emerson views at night, and focuses on how we perceive objects around us. Emerson speaks of the landscape in which he walks and how he, as a poet, can best integrate all that he sees. What is most important in this sequence is the similar ways we perceive the various objects — stars, the landscape, and the poet.

Emerson's gazing at stars is an example of nightly rediscovering the eternal — making each experience new — and continues the theme of progress from the introduction. Added to this theme is a second one, the theme of accessibility. Using stars as symbols of the universe, Emerson states that we take stars for granted because they are always present in our lives, no matter where we live. However, although they are accessible because we can see them, they are also inaccessible: Their distance from us makes them more elusive than we might imagine.

Emerson then moves from commenting on the faraway stars to discussing the immediate landscape around him. Creating a bond between stars and the landscape, he furthers the theme of a chain linking everything in the universe. Just as stars are accessible to all who will take the time to gaze at them, so too is the everyday landscape around us. Recalling the farms he sees while walking, Emerson encourages us to perceive nature as an integrated whole — and not merely as a collection of individual objects. He distinguishes between knowing who owns various farms and being able to see a unified landscape vista, of which the farms form but a single part.

Claiming that the person who is most likely to see the whole of things is the poet, Emerson differentiates between the poet and other people: The poet, he says, is one of the few people who can see nature plainly, not superficially, as most of us do. In order for us to see nature plainly, we must cast off old ways of seeing. Here, again, the theme of casting off is present: Instead of the theories and the past ("the dry bones") that Emerson said needed to be discarded, the person who yearns to see with new eyes must cast off years like a snake sheds its skin, revealing the child within. A child, Emerson says, accepts nature as it is rather than manipulating it into something it is not, as an adult would do.

Emerson states that when he himself stands in the woods, he feels the Universal Being flowing through him. This notion of the Universal Being, which he identifies with God, is what many readers identify as transcendentalism. Every object in nature, including each human, partakes of this animating life force; through it, all objects in nature are linked. However, Emerson suggests a paradoxical relationship when he writes, "I am nothing. I see all." Finding oneself only by first losing oneself is a recurring — and puzzling — theme in much transcendental thinking. We must read many of Emerson's ideas symbolically rather than literally, and, above all, we should remember the importance of his message and not get sidetracked by the images he uses to communicate his ideas.

Finally, Emerson returns to the key idea in the poetic line of Plotinus: Nature does not have a personality that it alone devises. Humans, he says, who are paramount over nature, grant to it human characteristics we perceive it to have.