A Comparison between the View of the New World in Columbus’ Letter to Santangel and in Emerson’s Essay The Poet
Upon its discovery, the New World was regarded as a virgin and uncorrupt land, free from the pernicious influence of civilization. As it shall be seen, the two texts under analysis in this paper, Christopher Columbus’ letter to Luis de Santangel and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay The Poet, present significant similarities concerning the way in which the New World was represented in the imagination of its discoverers.
Columbus’ letter is a direct and descriptive account of the explorer’s discovery. It is widely known that the adventurer as well as the entire Europe was unaware that they had landed on an entirely new continent. Nevertheless, Columbus’ letter describes the new world with wonder, because of its richness and beauty. Seemingly, Columbus gives a positive account of the beauty of the islands and of the innocence and friendly nature of the Indians. In his view, the Indians are extremely generous and unpractical. They are naïve and offer the strangers everything they have, including some extremely valuable possessions: “The truth is that, once they gain confidence and lose this fear, they are so lacking in guile and so generous with what they have that no-one would believe it unless they saw it. They never refuse to give whatever they have, whenever they are asked.”(Columbus) Columbus relates that they exchange gold for glass beads and other trifles or that they simply give away valuable objects and provisions without asking for anything in return. For the Columbus and his companions, this absolute lack of awareness with regard to private property and material value is obviously a mystery. The Indians obviously hold at a much greater price the things which have an aesthetic appeal for them, such as the colorful glass trinkets or the pieces of lace: “There was a sailor who had a piece of gold weighing two and a half castellanos in exchange for a lace, and others got things worth much more for much less.”(Columbus) The adventurer gives yet other tokens of the Indians’ innocence and natural kindness. They seem to live together and share everything, especially food, without having any sense of property. Also, the natives have a strong physical constitution and they also have arms, yet they do not use their force against the strangers. Instead of attacking their invaders or simply resisting them, they wonder at their arrival, believing them to be divinities. Moreover, most of the natives, men as well as women, walk around naked, obviously unashamed at their condition. The state in which they live is so harmonious that all the different tribes speak the same language and thoroughly understand each other. All the elements of this description point to the almost heavenly state in which the inhabitants of the island live. They are innocent, unaggressive and extremely generous without being aware of material values and possessions. The world around them is equally unspoiled and beautiful. The natural abundance has not been marred by man and the earth breathes freely all around them. The natives are thus completely integrated into the natural environment that surrounds them, respecting the life of nature and letting themselves be guided by it. Columbus and his fleet are not openly aggressive, as the former declares, yet it is evident that they profit by the natives’ innocence and that they treat them with superciliousness. The Europeans believe in their right to take possession of the new found land and in the sacred mission of civilizing the natives.
Ralph Waldo Emerson seems to capture the very spirit of the natives and of the American land in its pristine form in The Poet. Apparently, the text deals primarily with the status of the poet in the world. It is a defense of poetry and art in general in the face of the world of action and material value. As a transcendentalist, Emerson does not see poetry as a lofty human endeavor, but rather as a natural part of the universe. According to him, beauty should not be seen as an isolated and self-standing part of creation. Beauty is actually the creative force in the universe and as such, it is the root of all things. In this context, beauty and nature are profoundly intermingled. The poet is the voice that is able to capture and express this divine force that underlies everything in the universe. The text also comes in defense of the timidity of America in front of the long standing art and culture of the old continent. In Emerson’s view, America is a poem in itself. Its beauty and natural richness are bound to inspire true poetry in its inhabitants: “Yet America is a poem in our eyes; its ample geography dazzles the imagination, and it will not wait long for metres. If I have not found that excellent combination of gifts in my countrymen which I seek, neither could I aid myself to fix the idea of the poet by reading now and then in Chalmers’s collection of five centuries of English poets”(Emerson 42). Emerson’s view of the new continent is thus strikingly similar to the spirit that the natives must have had before the conquest. To the world of action and to the complicated machinery of civilization, Emerson opposes the free spirit of nature which is the receptacle of truth in the universe. His belief is that everything in the creation is united by the presiding soul of nature. Art is only the interpretation of this great spirit of the universe: “I know not how it is that we need an interpreter; but the great majority of men seem to be minors, who have not yet come into possession of their own, or mutes, who cannot report the conversation they have had with nature. There is no man who does not anticipate a supersensual utility in the sun, and stars, earth, and water”(Emerson 26). True poetry will not be inebriated by artificial beauty, but only by the pure spirit of nature. The real poet is thus a man who is able to interpret and translate the feeling of wonder and communion with the natural elements. What Emerson perceives is that beauty and nature have a ‘supersensual utility’, one that surpasses the realms of material value.
Emerson views America therefore as it might have been had it not become rapidly corrupted in the hands of civilization. By rejecting tradition and proclaiming the reign of nature and innocence, Emerson represents the new world as a heavenly domain. For the transcendentalist, the values of civilization are encumbering for the human spirit rather than necessary in any way. Emerson senses that America should be kept in its pristine state and not allowed to deteriorate under the chains of civilization. By arguing that the poet is one of the most important men despite the fact that he does not produce anything material or palpable, Emerson attempts to eradicate the stubborn belief in action and possession. The poet’s act of revealing nature to our eyes is far more significant since nature is the only source of truth in the world. Obviously, Columbus’ representation of the New World and that of Emerson are not akin. Columbus inadvertently describes the new land and its inhabitants as an Eden-like world. His true view however is that this beautiful world will be made truly worthy of praise only through the influence of Christianity and civilization. In the actual state in which he finds it, it is savage and obviously far from the spirit of God. As opposed to this, Emerson dreams of a new world that would fit into these exact coordinates. In his opinion man should live in the empire of nature and attempt to maintain and renew his bond with the environment in every possible way. For Emerson, the volumes of culture and tradition that the civilized man brings are not of any value in themselves. America should find its voice in its innocence and natural beauty, which are the true values it possesses. The surrounding natural world should be its main driving force.
The two texts, Columbus’ letter to Luis de Santangel and Emerson’s essay The Poet, represent the New World in very similar terms, linking it with innocence and purity. Columbus’ fascination with the new land entices him to anticipate the inhabitants’ conversion to Christianity and their accommodation with the norms of civilization. Emerson, on the other hand, regards this very purity of America as a blessed condition which should be relished and celebrated as it is. According to him, America should not struggle to imitate Europe but actually to live in its absolute innocence.
Columbus, Christopher. “Santangel Letter”. 25 Jul. 2005. Early Modern Spain. King’s College London. 3 Feb. 2009. http://www.ems.kcl.ac.uk/content/etext/e022.html.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo and Eric W. Carlson. “The Poet.” Emerson’s Literary Criticism. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1979. 24-45.