This kind of symbolism is natural because it is found in nature and because the objects which have symbolic meaning are thought to have it naturally and inherently, not depending on the human mind to give it to them. One of the classic statements of this position is Emerson's: "It is not words only that are emblematic; it is things which are emblematic. Every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact." The notion is attractive, it suggests that man does not inhabit a blank and irrelevant universe, but one which is somehow congenial to him, reflecting his mind in its own structure and its component parts, providing incessant material analogies to the human spirit. The visible surface of nature is eloquent. As Emerson goes on to say, "Who looks upon a river in a meditative hour and is not reminded of the flux of all things? Throw a stone into a stream, and the circles that propagate themselves are the beautiful types of all influence." The mountains seem to speak of aspiration and nobility, sunrise and sunset of birth and death, the stars of permanence and order. There are sermons in stone, books in the running brooks. Attractive though it may be, the existence of a natural symbolism has to remain a matter of faith alone, since the conditions for submitting it to proof are nearly impossible to obtain. In order to prove it one would have to find a person whose mind was uncontaminated by any previous notions of natural symbolism, explain to him somehow, without predudicing the experiment, what one was trying to do, and then confront him with an allegedly symbolic natural object to see whether he would spontaneously find meaning in it. What actually happens is that we are already conditioned to see certain meanings in objects by our cultural tradition, meanings that have been read into, not out of, these objects.
- Charles B. Wheeler
The Design of Poetry