Saturday, October 5, 2013

Memorization Test: The Apology

The other day as I was walking from appointment to appointment when I noticed that autumn had arrived. Right under my nose it had been delicately painting the trees, starting with the highest leaves and trickling to the bottom. While traveling beneath the limbs that extended over the sidewalks I was struck by all the deep seasonal colors.

Looking toward the mountains I noticed that the night before a slight snow had bleached some of the cliffs. The mixtures of whites, browns, oranges, yellows and greens were breathtaking. Where had the summer gone and how did I not notice nature's firework display until that morning?

As luck would have it, in the library there was an exhibit featuring Romanticism inspired by national parks. I can't believe how many incredible writers America produced during this period. In the display, writings from these authors on the importance of the interaction between man and nature. Among them were some words from Ralph Waldo Emerson. 

Emerson was born in Boston and it is a small wonder that he fell in love with nature there. An autumn in Boston is definitely on my bucket list. 

He went to Harvard College at 14. When he turned 23 he moved south, looking for warmer climates first in South Carolina and then in Florida. There he befriended the nephew of Napoleon Bonaparte and engaged in enlightening discussion about religion and philosophy. At the same time he witnessed the brutality of the slave trade, still thriving in Florida.

Emerson faced trauma in his private life. Several of his siblings died while they were still relatively young. His first wife died from tuberculosis only two years after their marriage. After her death he left his job as minister of a church, arguing that the structure of worship there only allowed the commemoration of Christ in an antiquated fashion. In reality, the death of his wife shook him out of his stalwart convictions. He craved the freedom to pursue a badly needed catharsis. 

He toured Europe, meeting other influential authors like William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Stuart Mill. When he returned to the States he married again and bought a house in Concord, Massachusetts, which he named Bush. There he spent out the rest of his life.

Emerson was a pioneer of the transcendentalist movement. At the time the movement was considered a blend of atheism and individualism. Personally though, I question the criticism that Emerson faced regarding his opinions on deity. He was opposed to the established order of worship at the time. He was also opposed to the theories developed about Jesus throughout historic theological scholarship. He rightly recognized gaps in the doctrine and the established practice. 

The Emerson Clan
He had revolutionary ideas that assessed the motives for which men make their pursuits. You could say he was an advocate of nature, but for him it wasn't about nature; it was about philosophy. It's not about just appreciating nature's beauty; it's understanding the role of self in the scheme of something much larger. He was interested in going beyond the socially constructed expectations for mankind and learning, from something more perfect, what he was meant to understand.

I appreciate Emerson's ideas because they remind me to look beyond what is expected. In his poem, The Apology, he contrasts the ambition of industry with the extra bounty available everywhere but left unnoticed. 

I hope I can live the spirit of this poem better and learn to reap a second crop from the acres of my life.

The Apology

Think me not unkind or rude
   That I walk alone in grove and glen;
I go to the god of the wood
   To fetch his words to men.

Tax not my sloth that I
   Fold my arms beside the brook;
Each cloud that floated in the sky
   Writes a letter in my book.

Chide me not laborious band
   For the idle flowers I brought;
Every aster in my hand
   Goes home loaded with a thought.

There was never mystery
   But 'tis figured in the flowers;
Was never secret history 
   But birds tell it in the bowers.

One harvest from thy field
   Homeward brought the oxen strong;
A second crop thine acres yield,
   Which I gather in a song.

- Ralph Waldo Emerson