What is the tone of Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, "Nature?"

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Ralph Waldo Emerson interweaves a philosophical and a poetic tone in Nature as he strives to touch his readers' minds and hearts.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Nature" has a lyrical tone, as much of the writing has the quality of music or poetry. For example, Emerson writes the following:

The rays that come from those heavenly worlds, will separate between him and what he touches. One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime.

Emerson's writing elevates nature from the mundane to the sublime, as the belief that nature could bring people to an appreciation of the sublime was one of the central tenets of Romanticism and off its offshoot, Transcendentalism. Emerson's use of alliteration, or starting words that are close together with the same sound, such as "perpetual presence," adds to the lyrical quality of his essay.

In addition, Emerson's writing is philosophical in tone. For example, he writes the following:

Whoever considers the final cause of the world, will discern a multitude of uses that result. They all admit of being thrown into one of the following classes; Commodity; Beauty; Language; and Discipline.

Emerson is attempting to discern the reality of the universe, and he approaches this task in a philosophical way. Philosophy involves trying to figure out the nature of existence and of reality, and Emerson takes this approach in his writing. "Nature" tries to plumb the reality of existence for the reader, and this investigation lends a philosophical tone to the essay.


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If by “tone” we mean the emotional attitude of the author to his subject, then Emerson’s essay about Nature strikes a kind of reverential, or mystical, tone—the stars, for example, “awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible.” His point is that nature is at once omnipresent and, in its essence, unreachable, or unknowable. What is required is a kind of poetic or non-rational openness to things; this is why Emerson says children understand or “see” nature better than adults, and why, a little later, he uses his famous image of the “transparent eye-ball“ to describe the revert that comes over him in the woods: “I am nothing, I see all.” There is a certain inconsistency, however, in Emerson’s thinking, when he declares that in the woods “mean egotism” vanishes but at the same time claims for himself a kind of “occult” connection to plants (“They nod to me, and I to them”). It’s even possible in such moments to discern a certain comic tone in the essay—as if Emerson, despite his earnestness, is perhaps winking at his reader.

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Before I analyze the essay, let's take a brief moment to clarify the literary device. Tone, is the attitude cultivated by the author, poet, or artist of a work and it is communicated to the audience through diction, syntax, organization, and style. 

Emerson's tone in his essay "Nature" meanders as he explores man's relationship with nature. His first section, in which he discusses the stars and nature as a whole, is reverent. He waxes romantic on the seemingly infinite nature of stars, and uses this to transition to the true beauty and amazement of nature. 

However, at the end of this transition, he begins to shift into a more analytical tone, exploring the identity of a person who can truly appreciate nature, even as an adult. Through his discussion, he comes to a conclusion: "few adult persons can see nature." Despite the negativity, outwardly apparent in this statement, Emerson does not despair. Instead, he describes the utter beauty of nature to someone who truly appreciates it. This awed and admiring tone is punctuated by his triumphant declaration of being one within nature: "I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God." 

As Emerson's essay draws to a close, his tone reverts to academic and didactic, in which he explains certain truths about nature to his audience, hoping to win them over to his side, the side of nature's true devotees. 

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What is the tone of Nature by Emerson?

In Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson employs both a philosophical tone to appeal to his readers' intellect and a poetic tone to delight their emotions. Let's look at a couple of examples of each.

The philosophical tone appears when Emerson sets up the scenario of the stars that only “appear one night in a thousand years.” He invites his audience to consider how they should feel in that case and what they might think if they were able to see the stars. He suggests that they would “believe and adore,” long remember that night, and tell future generations about it. He then asserts that we have the opportunity to see the stars every night, yet we fail to appreciate them, because they are too familiar. The stars stand as a symbol of nature, which is largely ignored even though it provides the best of benefits to human beings. The argument appeals to our reason as well as our emotions, for we can see the logical sense of it.

Emerson's philosophical tone also appears in sentences like “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature,” and “We mean [by nature] the integrity of impression made by manifold natural objects.” He follows the latter sentence with a logical explanation that the landscape one views may be “made up of some twenty or thirty farms,” each owned by different people, yet it takes a poetical turn of mind to “integrate all the parts” into a meaningful whole.

Indeed, Emerson reveals that he has a poetical mind, and he waxes poetic in his tone many times. “The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of a child,” he declares. He speaks of the “perfect exhilaration” he has found as he crosses “a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky.” With these vivid words, we can picture the scene and share, at least a little, in Emerson's exhilaration.

His delightful poetic tone continues with sentences like “I become a transparent eye-ball.” There is, perhaps, a slight shock here as readers try to uncover Emerson's meaning, but we quickly realize that he is expressing his complete openness to nature. He is transparent to allow nature to flow into and through him, yet he desires to notice and appreciate every aspect of the natural world. His poetic tone appears again as he declares that “nature is not always tricked in holiday attire.” Rather, depending upon the viewer's perspective, the same natural scene can be either glittering bright and cheerful or “overspread with melancholy.”

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