Cultivating America And The American Identity

We often see two things present in American literature in the beginning: farming and religious quotes. We then see a shift from religious freedom to personal ones, but the importance of nature remained a significant part of the American identity. Even as I was growing up, my mom always taught me the lesson that if I did not work, I did not eat. I can only imagine two centuries ago when there were no stores or no food how parents taught their children to respect hard work and nature. In 1787, Jefferson wrote, “Cultivations of the earth are the most valuable citizens” (as cited by Gray).  In every culture, the same belief existed that nature was the most significant resource to fulfilling the American dream of life, liberty, and happiness.  Using that theme,  I will critique three poems that use this theme: Song of Nature, After Apple-Picking, and October. 

Song of Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson (1867)

“Mine are the night and morning, / The pits of air, the gulf of space, /

The sportive sun, the gibbous moon, / The innumerable days. (Emerson 1-4).

These first four lines give a reader the illusion of day, night, and many moons after that as if much time passed as I read. The use of descriptive language like gibbous lets us see the moon as he did when he wrote this poem. Moreover, he writes as if he were a part of it which is very comparable to other Transcendentalist’s work that taught that man was just another part of nature. He goes on to write,

“And many a thousand summers / My apples ripened well, / And light from meliorating stars With firmer glory fell” (Emerson 17-20).

The term meliorating shows how he saw the stars as a source of light. His use of apple growing shows how important food sources were, but there is a bit of humor in his use of a thousand summers that he says it took him to raise them.

“I moulded kings and saviours, / And bards o’er kings to rule;– But fell the starry influence short, / The cup was never full.”

With each line and verse, he references nature whether it was with the use of the moon or stars or the coral sea or the rarest flowers. He appreciated the beauty around him that nature was responsible. It is also apparent that he had a deep respect for it as well because he paid such attention to every way it influenced his life since he spoke of light, earth, and water in the poem.
After Apple-Picking by Robert Frost (1914)

“And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill / Beside it, and there may be two or three / Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough. / But I am done with apple-picking now. / Essence of winter sleep is on the night” (Frost 3-7).

This poem is a critical reminder that winter waits for no man when preparing for it. Him comparing his apple picking job to his wariness about the approaching signs of winter show his mind is filled with stressful wonder.

“I skimmed this morning from the drinking trough / And held against the world of hoary grass” (Frost 11-12). –

He also used creative language to fill the reader’s mind with creative imagery. His mention of clearing the morning from the trough seems to imply a top layer of ice. He then replies to the “hoary grass” which infers a grayish-white, dying grass all around him.  Families preparing for winter food supply did not have a calendar. Their “calendar” was the thin layer of ice and the hoary grass. His sore feet were also another sign of a long harvest he had to complete.

“Of apple-picking: I am overtired / Of the great harvest I myself desired. /There were ten thousand fruit to touch, / Cherish in hand, lift down, and not let fall. / For all / That struck the earth, /No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble, / Went surely to the cider-apple heap” (Frost 28-35).

I loved these lines. Every apple was considered precious, and even the ones that fell to the ground were used which shows how cultivation and harvest were essential to American lifestyles. Hard word was also primarily a part of the American identity. Frost captured the day in the life of an American who depended solely on his ability to harvest food for his family. The body was tired, but the family was comforted throughout the long winter. As soon as the farmer saw signs of spring, he repeated the process.

October by Louise Glück (1943)

“Is it winter again, is it cold again,/ didn’t Frank just slip on the ice, / didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted” (Glück 1-3).

I found the first three lines interesting. The use of winter as a metaphor to describe her loss, sadness, and depression over what seems like the seasonal change and the loss of Frank (which sounds like a death) shows she is trying to come to grips with loss and the realization that perhaps she is alone. In 1943, the WWII took place, so it makes me want to continue reading to find out what was the cause of her noticing winter and bringing about a flashback in a sense. Moreover, the title ‘October’ signifies she is dying, and when winter comes, it will bring her death. October is the month that the leaves fall and things begin to die.

“I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,/ in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted,/ didn’t vines climb the south wall” (Glück 14-16).

These lines infer confusion of the speaker. Did she plant and harvest the fields instead of Frank? She seems to recollect what it felt like to do it. It makes me think the speaker has lost something so great that it has damaged her psyche significantly. I lost my son, so I felt connected to the speaker’s turmoil in trying to grieve after a tragedy.

“didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth/safe when it was planted” (25-26).

She speaks as if there was an order to her life. Frank planted the seeds. He cared for the family’s needs. Once he died or left, she felt lost and alone. When the speaker speaks of the night, it seems she is talking about death, so it has wholly upended her life and the need to follow him so she feels whole again. Her connection to the earth signifies to me her respect for life. The night and winter mean to me she is contemplating death because of her experience of love denied her.

What I found interesting is that each of the three writers represents a different part of American literature. Over the century they represent, each of them used the earth as a basis to compare to their mood, set the scene, and develop a philosophy about the people who lived in their worlds. Earlier on, the male writers talked of harvesting and hard work. The female writer shows a change has taken place with gender, but she also captures the mental illness that was affecting the world during the WWII era. Writers began to focus more on mental illness and suicide which brought a significant shift in the way society saw it or addressed it with others. The American identity advanced because these American writers dared to define their hopes and dreams for the future of America as it grew. Collectively, their work showed their influence to make sure it did progress.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Song of Nature. Academy of American Poets. (n.d.). Acc 5 Apr 2018.
Frost, Robert. After Apple-Picking. Poetry Foundation. 2018. Acc 5 Apr 2018.
Glück, Louise. October. Academy of American Poets. (n.d.). Acc 5 Apr 2018.
Gray, Richard. “A History of American Literature.” Blackwell Publishers. 2nd Edition. 2012.


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