Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Old Manse and Transcendentalism

A manse is a house that is or was inhabited by a minister. The Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts was built in 1770 for the minister William Emerson, the grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 
As a connection to a prior post, Paul Revere left Boston on April 18, 1775 for a midnight ride to warn the inhabitants of the countryside that British soldiers were coming to seek rebel supplies and leaders. One of his primary destinations was Concord where a large store of military provisions was held. The next day, April 19, 1775, one of the first military engagements of the Revolutionary War occurred at the North Bridge over the Concord River, a short distance from and in easy sight of the Old Manse.
Jumping forward 59 years, in October 1834, Ralph Waldo Emerson moved to Concord to live with his step-grandfather at the Old Manse. Emerson was previously educated at Harvard Divinity School and later became a junior pastor of Boston’s Second Church, a Unitarian church. However, impacts of Biblical criticism and the rationality of the enlightenment, combined with the difficulties surrounding the death of Emerson’s first wife in February 1831, caused Emerson to doubt his religious beliefs and he resigned as pastor in 1832. He spent about a year traveling in Europe, meeting with luminaries such as John Stuart Mill, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Thomas Carlyle and his interests turned toward science. When he visited France’s largest botanical garden he got special “insight into the interconnectedness of things.” He began to connect his thoughts about religion to his learning of science.  In an upstairs room of the Old Manse, Emerson drafted his essay on “Nature” which provided the foundation for the Transcendentalism movement. 
Transcendentalism looked more broadly for religious enlightenment. It looked to the religions of the Far East, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, as well as nature, for inspiration. It was less rational and based more on intuition and inspiration.  

I read Nature, and much of it was gibberish to me. However, some thoughts I connected with or enjoyed: True theories will be their own evidence. They “will explain all phenomena.” The “lover of nature…has retained the spirit of infancy…In the presence of nature, a wild delight runs through the man…In the woods, we return to reason and faith.”  
“Nature is medicinal and restores” the tone of body and mind. “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again…The succession of native plants…The tribes of birds and insects…[As I read these words I thought of my experience last year visiting Hayfield Road on a regular basis and noting changes in the vegetation as it progressed from spring to summer]” The “visible creation is the terminus or the circumference of the invisible world.” That is, “visible nature…[has] a spiritual and moral side.” The “Supreme Being does not build up nature around us, but puts it forth through us, as the life of the tree puts forth new branches and leaves through the pores of the old…[M]an has access to the entire mind of the Creator, is himself the creator in the finite. The world…is a remoter and inferior incarnation of God, a projection of God in the unconcscious…It is…to us, the present expositor of the divine mind.” And finally, “[b]uild…your own world. As fast as you conform your life to the pure idea in your mind, that will unfold its great proportions.”

About the time he wrote “Nature,” Emerson wrote the words to a poem that were sung as a hymn, the Concord Hymn, at a ceremony to mark the dedication of the Concord Monument on July 4, 1837 
(although the monument states 1836):
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood,
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Emerson attracted other luminaries to Concord. Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia, began their married life there on their wedding day, July 9, 1842, living at the Old Manse. John David Thoreau planted a vegetable garden for them there as a wedding present. 
Less than two months later, on September 1, 1842, Hawthorne wrote, “Mr. Thorow dined with us yesterday. He is a keen and delicate observer of nature…and nature, in return for his love, seems to adopt him as her especial child, and shows him secrets which few others are allowed to witness.” 
I’ll have a post on Thoreau and Walden Pond in the near future. Finally, in the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, not too far from the Old Manse, there is an area known as Authors Ridge where Emerson, Hawthorne, Thoreau and other authors are buried, very close to each other. I loved Emerson's marker because it was a tribute to nature. 
Unlike the other markers in the cemetery, Emerson's was a large rock, 
a boulder really, simple, but big and powerful and beautiful, truly a one-of-a-kind marker. 

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