Plants in Poetry and Prose


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Nature has been a source of inspiration for writers for hundreds of years. The beauty of nature is often compared to love, but nature has also been the source of death and destruction. Nature proved to be a sound source of inspiration for early American writers as well, especially those living in the New England region, from the early nineteenth century through the twentieth century. There was no limit to the different elements of nature that influenced these writers – forestry, garden vegetables, shrubbery, and cultivated weeds each made their way into the works of respected writers.
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During a transitional time in history, American writers of the late 19th century and early 20th century emerged with new philosophies that were portrayed through their writing and inspired by the plants they encountered in their daily lives. Literary movements, such as transcendentalism and realism, highly regarded nature as a source of beauty and means of understanding humanity. Transcendentalism was founded on understanding the inherent goodness of man (Wikipedia) and the importance of self-reliance and independence. Nture was an essentialway to discover the human soul and feel connected to oneself and a higher power, outside the restraints of society. "It was a visionary bent, a way of, as the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth had once described his mission, 'of seeing into the life of things' that permeated the best of American thought and art" (PBS). The plants of the New England region were key elements in using the landscape to promote the identity and aesthetics of the American individual. Literary realism, which succeeded transcendentalism, focused on depicting daily life as it was, looking at the activities and experiences without the embellishments of Romanticism, and further used plants as a source of inspiration.


Transcendentalism in art
Transcendentalism in art
Many writers and poets not only used nature as a coping mechanism for periods of historical turmoil, but also for matters of internal distress. In the works of modern poets, such as Louise Gluck, Allen Ginsberg, and W. B. Yeats, nature is introduced as a way in which the writer defeats feelings of isolation by finding comfort within their natural surroundings. Not only does nature serve as an expressive outlet for the writer, but also consoles the reader in its familiarity and simplicity. When natural imagery of any kind is written, even with exalted questions of existentialism, it is evident that nature has the ability to inspire these meditations, but also to present them with both literary intimacy and universality.






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Emerson and the Rhodora
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) is one of the iconic writers and thinkers of the Transcendentalist era. After being ordained a Unitarian minister and then losing his wife, Ellen Tucker, to tuberculosis, Emerson rethought his career and began to form his transcendentalist philosophies. Many writers and artists, such as Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne, joined Emerson in forming these ideas, including the perfectibility of the human spirit and the unity of that spirit with the divine ‘Over Soul’. Emerson’s essay “Nature” represents the harmony that humans should have with nature and its ability to connect humans with a higher power. In his poem, “The Rhodora”, Emerson chooses the beauty of the species Rhododendron canadense to embody the perfected beauty that can be found within simply looking at nature, through which gratitude and understanding can be gained by the individual.



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Henry David Thoreau and Beans
Henry David Thoreau, a member of the Transcendentalist movement, moved to the woods outside his hometown of Concord, MA in 1845. His goal was to commune with nature: "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." During his time there, he came into contact with many different aspects of the natural world, including many different types of animals and plants. He devotes an entire chapter of his book, Walden, to the bean field he planted near his cabin, of the species Phaseolus vulgaris. While to most people beans would mean nothing more than a means of food or income, Thoreau extended their influence and importance to affect his philosophizing about the human condition, and the sometimes tense and paradoxical relationship between man and nature.




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Robert Frost and Birches
Robert Frost was a modern American poet writing during the early 20th century. Although Frost was born in California, he spent most of his life on the east coast and his writing was inspired by the rural landscapes of New Hampshire and Vermont. Observing and experimenting with his environment, Frost managed to use nature as a way to draw on themes of religion and the human psyche. In his poem "Birches", published in 1916, Frost is depicting a tree that is representative of his beloved New England, while simultaneously meditating on matters of religious truth and spiritual fulfillment. When describing the birches in his poem, Frost presents a literal and accurate account of the White Birch Tree, and its thin branches
weighed down by snow. He later links the physical structure of these trees to metaphysical questions of the human experience.




Emily Dickinson and Daisies Beautiful-Daisy-Flower-Picture-2.jpg
Emily Dickinson lived in the town of Amherst, Massachusetts, where she took great pride in maintaining her family garden, as well as composing her very own herbarium. Her complete herbarium, which she began at the age of fourteen, consists of 424 specimens which include plants native to the region where she lived, plants from her garden, and house plants. Other than her interest in botany and gardening, flowers fill the lines of her verse. Her connection with nature is obvious in her poetry, for it served has a sanctuary for Dickinson that should could not find anywhere else. She depicts flowers as sacramental images, such as "an Orchard, for a Dome," but also uses flowers to create her own portraiture, emulating her beliefs and emotions. The flower that is most often used in her poetry to depict feminine figures is the daisy, which turns its face to the sun, and stands tall emanating white petals of purity.




Walt Whitman and Lilacs external image syringa_vulgaris_Primrose.jpg
Walt Whitman (1819--1892) was born in Long Island, New York and spent most of his career there. He saw in nature, and particularly in plant life, a symbol of transient human existence. In his famous "Song of Myself", he says "I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass." This observation of nature leads to observations about humanity. The spear of grass leads to a discussion of the individual. Plants are mortal and genera are made up of individual plants. Humans are mortal and nations are made up of individual people. The lilac especially caught Whitman's attention for its short-lived blooms and sweet odor. No better plant for Whitman could combine youth and death, and one and many, quite like the lilac.





References:
Hampson, Thomas. "The American Renaissance and Transcendentalism." IHAS: Artists/Movements/Ideas. Pbs.org, Web. 30 Nov. 2011. <http://www.pbs.org/wnet/ihas/icon/transcend.html>.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. London: CRW Pub., 2004. Print.

"Transcendentalism." Wikipedia, Web. 29 Nov. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transcendentalism>.