How do Emerson, Thoreau, Melville and Whitman's notion of "nature" differ?
They each looked to nature for larger meanings in their lives, yet they had different notions of what "nature" meant, and they clearly found different ways of addressing nature in their writings.
While Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, and Whitman all sought the answer to life experiences in nature, their ideals and perspectives toward nature differed. Whereas Emerson and Thoreau and Whitman felt the Romantics' closeness to nature, believing that man can intuitively apprehend truths that the rational mind cannot attain, Melville, who carried with him not the mystical elements of Puritan thought, but the Puritan gloom with its Calvinistic notions of predestination and the innate depravity of man, felt the power of "blackness." Emerson expressed the idea of the "paths" of man being shared with an "ethereal heaven far above"; for, in nature, man feels the "sublime." Rather than celebrating the "sublime," in his poetry, Whitman extolled the elemental and primal life force of nature that permeates man in his transcendental life experiences, giving “forbidden voices” an unveiling to be “clarified and transfigured by their place in an organic universe” (enotes). Unlike the Romantics and Transcendentalists, he also embraced the science and commercialism of a burgeoning industrial America. On the other hand, Melville perceived nature as neither sublime or purely organic. Instead, for Melville, nature wears “a pasteboard mask” and is an inscrutable force against man rather than in harmony with him. In his Moby Dick, Ahab pursues the symbolic white whale in order to break through this pasteboard mask and understand the fate of man against the forces of nature that act as his foe.
Despite their differences, the transcendental thinkers Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman as well as the dark Romantic Melville all sought the permanent reality that underlies physical appearance. They valued intuition over logic and reason, seeking signs and symbols for understanding. Emerson optimistically called himself “a transparent eyeball” that perceived all through intuition; Thoreau walked through nature and found purpose for being; Whitman watched the creature of nature in his poem “A Noiseless, Patient Spider” throw filament after filament out just as the soul reaches for “the celestial spheres” in which it will find fulfillment; and Melville pessimistically sought to understand the darkness of nature with its horror of evil in an unflinching vision of the existential meaning of life.