The Theme of Nature in Literary Works
In his Poetics, Plato contemplates the nature of aesthetics and
existence. He postulates that for every existing object and idea there is
an absolute "ideal" which transcends human experience. He further
concludes that art, including literature, is an aesthetic representation of
real objects and ideas that is used to better understand their "ideals."
In theory, as an object becomes closer ideal it also becomes a better
subject for the artist. American artists in particular have been given an
invaluable opportunity to explore this realm of the Platonic ideal.
Because the American continent and its wilderness was primarily unsullied
by the ravages of civilization, the natural world found there by early
settlers was much closer to being "ideal" than anywhere else on Earth. For
this reason, nature has become one of the most important subjects of
American art, especially Literature. Specific examples from American
literature including the works Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry
Finn, Walden, and "To a Waterfowl" can show how American authors explore
the ideals of human existence through aesthetic representations of nature.
William Cullen Bryant, who has been called "the father of American
poetry," is one of the earliest artists to capture the essence of nature in
America and apply it to the human experience. In his poem "To A Waterfowl"
he uses the example of a waterfowl to reach a better understanding of human
existence. In the poem, the waterfowl is portrayed as a near-perfect
creation, and it is treated with a sense of reverence. The first stanza
Whither, midst falling dew,
While glow the heavens with the last steps of day,
Far, though their rosy depths, dost thou pursue
Thy solitary way?
Though it is not curious that a bird would be flying in the
morning, Cullen presents the fowl in flight as being nearly supernatural.
The bird emerges from the "heavens" almost like an angel and the persona
addresses it in an extremely respectful tone. It can be presumed that the
persona would agree that nature, embodied in the fowl, is close to what
Plato would call an "ideal." Bryant, through his aesthetic presentation of
the bird, then deepens his understanding of human experience. The persona
and, as an extension, Bryant eventually conclude, through rumination over
the flight of the waterfowl, that the higher "Power" that guides the fowl
also guides them.
This use of nature to better understand certain "ideals" is not
limited to positive examples or the representation of good forces like the
Power in "Waterfowl." Herman Melville illustrates the ambiguity of nature
in his novel Moby Dick by representing certain evil elements of human
existence with comparable elements in nature. His use of the shark is
exemplary of this. He portrays the shark as the epitome of what a cannibal
is. Through the...