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Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving and Thanatopsis by William Bryant: the Ideas of Early American Romanticism and Transcendentalism

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In the two works, “Rip Van Winkle” by Washington Irving and “Thanatopsis” by William Bryant, nature and mankind are two of the principal subjects, like many other works created during the romantic period. In both works, nature and mankind’s desire to be in communion with one another due to nature’s attracting aesthetics of romanticism; the sublime, beautiful and picturesque. The sublime evokes a sense of awe and wonder and is characterized by sharp edges and dark scenery, while the beautiful evokes a calming sensation and is characterized by soft edges and scenery.

In Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” Rip, or mankind desires to be in and connect with nature due to its power and beauty. When Rip speaks of a mountain range, the Kaaatskil mountains, he describes them as “swelling up to a noble height, and lording it over the surrounding country” and “when the rest of the landscape is cloudless, they will gather a hood of grey vapors about their summits, which, in the last rays of the setting sun, will glow and light up like a crown of glory” (Irving 1004). Here, nature is personified when Irving illustrates them having a “noble height,” “lording” and wearing a “hood” and a “crown of glory”. These all describe something inhuman having human attributes, revealing Rip’s personal, deep connection to nature. The implications behind “noble,” “lording” and “crown” all suggest royalty of some type. This reveals the mighty power and importance of nature to Rip. Irving paints a picture of what Rip saw when “he looked down into a deep mountain glen, wild, lonely, and shagged, the bottom filled with fragments from the impending cliffs, and scarcely lighted by the reflected rays of the setting sun. For some time Rip lay musing on this scene” (Irving 1008). The physical descriptions of “lonely,” “shagged, and “fragments from the impending cliffs” are all aspects of The Sublime; having a rough, sharp, or varied appearance. This aesthetic is known to evoke fascination and awe from the viewer and we can imply this for Rip. Also, Rip’s appreciation for the beauty of nature is shown when Irving reveals how he “lay musing” for a long while.

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William Bryant’s poem, “Thanatopsis,” is told in part from the perspective of nature, a woman, and highlights her desire to be in loving communion with mankind. In the opening line of the Poem, Bryant states “to him who in the love of nature / holds communion with her visible forms, she speaks / a various language” (Bryant 1-3). Here, Bryant uses “her” to describe nature as she “speaks,” personifying the force as a woman. In the next lines Bryant discloses nature’s response to man:

For (mans) gayer hours

She has a voice of gladness, and a smile

And eloquence of beauty, and she glides

Into his darker musings, with a mild

And healing sympathy, that steals away

Their sharpness, ere he is aware. When thoughts

Of the last bitter hour come like a blight

Over thy spirit, and sad images

Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,

And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,

Make thee to shudder, and grow sick at heart;—

Go forth, under the open sky, and list

To Nature’s teachings, (Bryant 3-15)

When mankind is in his “gayer hours,” gay meaning happy, nature replies with “a voice of gladness, and a smile”. In addition, when mankind is experiencing his “darker musings,” or is in a state of depression, she “glides (in)” and “steals away their sharpness,” sharpness in this context meaning intensity. This displays her loving and caring heart for mankind. Bryant describes “sad images” of “stern agony” and “breathless darkness” making man “grow sick at heart”. All these phrases imply human suffering. In response to these, nature wishes mankind would “go forth, under the open sky and list to Nature’s teachings”. Here, “list” means to listen, but nature is not simply commanding men to listen to nature, but to also go out and physically be with nature as she can reduce suffering with her beauty.

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