Moby Dick

Emersonian Implosion: The Self-Reliant Man in Moby Dick and Keats' Poetry

Ralph Waldo Emerson's optimistic ideal of the “self-reliant man” in nature resonated in the literature of many of his contemporaries. Although many agreed with Emerson's principles, however, two major writers, Herman Melville and John Keats, chose not to emulate him in their major works. Rather, they critiqued him. In the following essay, I will show, first, how Melville's Moby Dick is a critique of the ideals of man illustrated by Emerson in his essays “Self-Reliance” and “Nature.” Through Captain Ahab's failure and Ishmael's survival, Melville shows how Emersonian ideals can be perverted and destructive in the search for truth. Second, the Romantic poet Keats also shows a potential for the darker side of self-reliance in his poem “La belle Dame sans Mercy,” in which the knight, in attempting to capture elusive truth, ultimately fails.

For sake of chronological order, I will begin my analysis with Keats’ “La Belle Dame sans Mercy.” The belle of this poem can be viewed as the mysterious, non-human other, and paralleled to Moby Dick in the sense that the attempt to encapsulate and capture this elusive truth destroys the truth-seeker. As truth-seekers, Ahab and the knight both project their distorted version of...

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