In what way is Emerson's Self Reliance an example of Romanticism? Explain with quotes.

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teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While "Self Reliance" leans into strands of religious nonconformity that pre-date Romanticism, I would locate a very deep debt to Romanticism in Emerson's essay in its faith in the individual soul to discern its own path. I am reminded when I read this essay of Wordsworth, in the poem "My Heart Leaps Up," stating that "the child is the father of the man" or his statement in "Intimations of Immortality" that "trailing clouds of glory do we come/ From God who is our home." For at the heart of "Self Reliance" lies the belief, deeply Romantic, that if we can just get away from the confining, limiting strictures of corrupted society and the ceaseless social pressure to conform, we can find our true path, our true vocation, the one destiny God has formed us to pursue. As in Wordsworth's poetry (and Wordsworth is the poet possibly most closely associated with Romanticism) we see that the inner person is purer than the social conformist, closer to God, less tainted by society. (The sense of society as corrupting runs very deeply as well through Rousseau.) Emerson's essay differs in belief from religious nonconformity in that nonconformist religious groups, many of whom populated New England, broke from high church ritual but yet relied on group discernment, at least in part, to determine God's will. Here Emerson falls over into the Romantic camp in his complete emphasis on the individual. He writes, famously, in this essay: "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string." Not trust yourself in consultation with your group, but simply "trust thyself." He writes as well, "Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind."

Like the Romantics, he will put an enormous emphasis on being original, saying "imitation is suicide," and valorize the idea of the lone, misunderstood genius, another Romantic concept, writing, "Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther ... To be great is to be misunderstood." 

The essay comes alive with its passionate believe in the importance of the individual forging his own destiny.  


Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In my mind, the most pressing example of Romanticism in Emerson's work is the call to break from the conformist chains that bind and constrict the individual.  The Romantic tendency to distrust society and to praise the independent nature of the individual is the underlying basis of Emerson's work.  The ability to find one's own voice and stand for it away from what others in the social order might believe is a Romantic tendency.  The notion of Transcendentalism's desire to integrate emotions within the paradigm is highly Romantic, so it would make sense that everything based off of it might be Romantic, as well.  When "trust thyself" is repeated so often, one need only recognize its call for subjectivity over all else as part of the Romantic movement.

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