What is an example of personification in Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Nature"?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Personification is the attribution of human qualities to something which is not human. In chapter 1, Emerson states that

Nature never wears a mean appearance. Neither does the wisest man extort her secret, and lose his curiosity by finding out all her perfection.

First, Emerson gives Nature the ability to "wear" a certain kind of appearance. He also gives Nature the ability to keep a secret and to be a "her"; Emerson says that Nature keeps her own secrets, even when investigated by the wisest of men.

Also in chapter 1, Emerson claims that

The greatest delight which the fields and woods minister, is the suggestion of an occult relation between man and the vegetable. I am not alone and unacknowledged. They nod to me, and I to them.

Here, he personifies the vegetables, giving them the ability to have a kind of relationship with human beings, and even to nod at or acknowledge a person. He insists that there is some hidden relationship between people and the things that grow in Nature.

At the beginning of chapter 2, Emerson writes that

Beasts, fire, water, stones, and corn serve [man]. The field is at once his floor, his work-yard, his play-ground, his garden, and his bed . . . Nature in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result.

In this way, Emerson paints Nature as a servant to humankind, something that lives to help us and make our lives better.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emerson uses personification in the introduction of his essay to imbue the era in which he lives with uniquely human characteristics:

"Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchers of the fathers. It writes biographies, histories, and criticism."

Here, Emerson attributes sentience, critical thinking and even the ability to erect tombs (sepulchers) to a non-human, intangible idea, “our age,” which most nearly means, “the times in which we live.”

A little later, at the end of the first paragraph of chapter one, when discussing the ability of nature to evoke awe and wonder in humans, Emerson again employs personification to lend human characteristics to the stars in the sky.

“But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.”

Here, Emerson designates the stars as “envoys,” which in common parlance means diplomatic messengers. This is clearly a human description of a non-human object. Then Emerson describes the stars as wearing an “admonishing smile,” another uniquely human characteristic.

This latter example of personification (the admonishing smile) is part of a larger motif present in much of Emerson’s works; he imparts aspects of human behavior and physicality to the natural world in order to convey his feelings of intense kinship for nature. Again and again throughout Emerson's writings, the reader can see that he views the natural world as his friend and constant companion.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team