In the 19th-century, poetry was used as a means of self-expression and exploration of the inner self. Many poets of this era were influenced by a new literary and philosophical movement called Transcendentalism. The movement valued intuition and individual experience over reason and logic and affirmed the innate goodness of people and nature over all else.
The poetry of the Transcendentalist movement is characterized by its focus on the individual, the natural world, and the search for truth and meaning. Transcendental poetry often celebrates nature, the individual self, and the spiritual world and is typically marked by its simple use of language and lyrical style.
The major influencers of the Transcendentalism movement included Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman. The influence of the movement in literature can be seen in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and Herman Melville, among others. But what sets the movement apart from all other literary movements is that it was never truly “organized”. There were no official meetings or membership dues, and the only commonality between Transcendentalists was their shared belief in the importance of intuition and individual experience.
This decentralized self-nature is what led Transcendental poetry to often celebrate nature, the individual self, and the spiritual world. Similarly, transcendental poetry is typically marked by its simple language and lyrical style, which parallels the ideology the movement perpetuated.
Given the movement’s rich history and its ongoing influence on national and transnational poetry, I have compiled a list of what I believe are the ten of the most memorable transcendentalist poems from the 19th-century that capture the spirit of this movement:
- “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “The Rhodora” by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
- “I Sing the Body Electric” by Walt Whitman
- “To a Skylark” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- “Ode to the West Wind” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- “To a Nightingale” by John Keats
- “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats
- “The Cloud” by Percy Bysshe Shelley
- “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth
While not comprehensive, the list is illustrative of the transcendentalist poetry that was both popular in its own time and, in my reading, bore a major impact. What do you think of our list? Do you have any 19th-century poems that resonate with you? We would love to hear from you and learn more about the poems of that period that mean a lot to you. Just drop a message on Facebook or Twitter!