Emerson and the poets

Chris Townsend
January 14, 2016
Coleridge, 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London.

In 1832, the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was at  something of a crossroads in his life. For one thing, he was not yet  either philosopher nor poet. He was cut with grief after suffering the  loss of his young wife the previous year, and was spending his days in  perpetual dejection. His work as a pastor in a prominent Boston church  suffered: his sermons became increasingly dour, and his own faith in God  and religion had been irrevocably shaken by his loss. Disillusioned, he  could no longer find the strength or conviction to continue with his  pastoral commitments, and found himself temporarily resigned from both  work and faith. He was fast approaching his thirtieth birthday, and had  not yet embarked on the life of letters and lectures for which we now  remember him. Emerson was without love, employment, religious  conviction, or a true sense of purpose. In need of distraction, and  finding no good reason to remain rooted in New England, Emerson  spontaneously turned his attention to Old England: his bags packed, he  boarded a ship on Christmas day, 1832, and embarked on his first journey  to Europe.*

Emerson in 1846. By Eastman Johnson, Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA.

As he stared out over the dark, wintry Atlantic Ocean, Emerson may  well have had ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in mind. Emerson’s  confessed aim was, after all, to meet face-to-face with a number of his  intellectual heroes, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William  Wordsworth. Already he had taken a great interest in poetry and  philosophy, though at that point he had written little of great merit.  But his interests had guided him to Europe and to British Romanticism,  to Wordsworth and to Coleridge. By early 1833, the year in which Emerson  arrived in England, Wordsworth and Coleridge were already well  established as poets and thinkers, and were celebrated members of the  British literary scene. The two had lived in close company over thirty  years prior, first as neighbours in Nether Stowey in Somerset, next in  neighbouring villages in the Lake District. It was in Somerset that they  had collaborated on their great joint work, the Lyrical Ballads  of 1798. That work was a collection of the two men’s poetry, which aimed  to “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or  describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of  language really used by men” (as Wordsworth put it in his famous  ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads). Its influence was — and still  is — enormous; its emphasis on religious encounters with nature, its  attempts to sketch and to capture fleeting moments of vivid feeling, and  its choice of an ‘ordinary’ language over elevated poetic diction  helped to set into motion the literary and artistic notions that add up  to our modern invention of ‘Romanticism’. We cannot imagine a Romantic  canon without Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, or Wordsworth’s sombre  reflections in ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’. It  established the two young poets as serious artists and thinkers, and  signifies one of the happier, more harmonious, and most productive  moments in both men’s lives.

But, by 1833, Wordsworth and Coleridge were changed men. They had all  but fallen out of contact, and the idyllic life of a poet amongst  nature was over for Coleridge, who had long since moved to London. After  the early days with Wordsworth, he had suffered ongoing battles with  opium addiction, weight gain and loss, unhappy marriage, unrequited  love, the death of a child, and near-intolerable depression. He was  publishing much, though his work was met with tepid reviews, and he  would never fully recapture the glory of the 1790 period. He had lived  in London for much of his life after the early years of the nineteenth  century, which was when his relationship with Wordsworth had first begun  to sour. Coleridge was in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, but he  had his own wife and children to think about and to care for. The  Wordsworths felt Coleridge was neglecting his responsibilities as  husband and father, and saw that he was growing increasingly selfish.  His ongoing relationship with opium made him difficult company, but it  was not until 1810 that the bitterest blow was dealt to Wordsworth and  Coleridge’s friendship. Coleridge caught wind of rumours that Wordsworth  had been describing him, amongst other things, as an unreliable  “drunkard”; humiliated, Coleridge returned to London and temporarily cut  off contact with the Lakes. Though they would be reconciled some years  later and would go on to speak of each other with some affection, their  friendship never regained its former profound closeness. Wordsworth,  though, was still living amongst the Lakes when Emerson came to call,  but his life was also very different to the productive younger years. By  the time he met Emerson, he had already written, with something like  despair, that “The Muse has forsaken me” — he felt all too keenly that  his finest verse was behind him, and was increasingly coming to realize  that he would never finish his planned epic poem, ‘The Excursion’.  Forced by the need to provide for his family, he was now working as the  distributor of stamps for the Penrith area of the Lakes. This was a  government position that would find him derided by the later Romantic  poet Shelley in ‘To Wordsworth’:

In honoured poverty thy voice did weave

Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,—

Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,

Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.

Wordsworth, painted in 1831. By Sir William Boxall, National Portrait Gallery, London.

Shelley’s criticism, essentially that Wordsworth was a ‘sellout’, was  unkind, but not entirely untrue. Both poets were, by 1830s, tamer  beasts than their younger, wilder selves. Their political radicalism was  behind them, their experiments in poetic language displaced by more  formal voices, their mystical relationship with divinity replaced by an  orthodox adherence to Christianity. In short, they had become Victorian  poets.

Emerson, seasick and sorrowful aboard his creaking vessel, arrived in  Valetta in Malta with some relief, in early February, 1833. Immediately  he began to feel the removal of a weight from his spirit, as things  brightened for him in the southern European climes. From Malta he wound  slowly on to Sicily, up through mainland Italy, and on through France.  He journeyed slowly, savouring the delights and delicacies of the  continent, but always kept on the horizon the idea of Great Britain. It  was not until August that year that Emerson arrived in London,  disdainfully calling it “immense city, very dull city”. His only real  reason for staying in the city was to visit Coleridge, which he wasted  no time in doing. On the 5th of August he arrived at the Grove,  Highgate, and made arrangements to meet with the great poet.

Though Coleridge was apparently enjoying a day spent in bed, he  agreed to be up and dressed by one o’clock, and Emerson was duly  welcomed into his apartment at the appointed hour. Hauling himself up to  the second floor, Emerson entered and found Coleridge in a cramped  apartment, overflowing with papers and books, and littered with letters  and manuscripts. There was a single window that overlooked Hampstead  Heath, a framed version of the wild and endless landscape that had  coloured his youthful writings. Emerson remembers seeing “a short, thick  old man, with bright blue eyes and fine clear complexion”. And, like  Coleridge’s famous ‘Wedding Guest’, Emerson was quickly caught up in a  barrage of typically one-sided Coleridgean conversation. Emerson reports  a lengthy and roaming discussion of the Unitarian faith by his host,  but details quickly become scant. Emerson was finding it increasingly  difficult to hold on to the disparate threads of conversation offered by  Coleridge, who all the while was wildly gesticulating and animatedly  expounding his views. Coleridge talks, and then talks some more, and,  when Emerson rises to leave, he begins to recite some lines of his  verse, before once again talking. All the while, Emerson tells us,  Coleridge is “freely” taking snuff. In doing so, he liberally powders  his clothing and apparently spoils a good cravat, generating a cloud of  the stuff about himself like pepper around the cook in Alice in Wonderland, like a cloud of his own thick and obfuscatory conversation.

Emerson reflects: “I was in his company for about an hour, but find  it impossible to recall the largest part of his discourse”. Overwhelmed  by the rapid pace and digressional nature of Coleridge’s speech, Emerson  compares it to “so many printed paragraphs in his books” — referring to  the abstruse, convoluted, and often esoteric arguments that baffle  modern readers of Coleridge’s prose works. The poet Keats, who similarly  met Coleridge on just the one occasion, most famously remarked on the  older poet’s effusive verbosity: “I heard his voice as he came towards  me — I heard it as he moved away — I heard it all the interval”. This  seems true of the Coleridge that Emerson met. Stepping back out into the  cool London afternoon, sooner than he might have hoped, he finds  himself a little disappointed. He’d barely managed to get in a word in  exchange for Coleridge’s verbal generosity, and thinks to himself that  the poet “was old and preoccupied, and could not bend to a new companion  and think with him”. He was regretting the fact that he’d left little  impression on the poet. “As I might have foreseen”, he concludes, “the  visit was a spectacle rather than a conversation, of no use beyond the  satisfaction of my curiosity”.

His encounter with Wordsworth would prove a little more satisfying,  beyond mere curiosity, and it apparently spanned several hours. It was a  few weeks after he’d met Coleridge, and in the meantime Emerson had  travelled up to Scotland to meet Thomas Carlyle and to indulge in the  beauty of the northern landscape. From Scotland, Emerson travelled south  once again towards Rydal Mount in the Lake District, where Wordsworth  had been living with his family for more than twenty years. The family  unit there comprised Wordsworth’s wife Mary, his sister Dorothy, and  three of his surviving children: John, Dora, and William (though it is  often forgotten that another child survived, a daughter from a youthful  fling in France to whom Wordsworth was still sending a yearly  allowance). He walked along rural tracks and across windswept fields  before Rydal Mount became visible on the horizon, nestled into the  thickly forested hillside. He walked up the path and knocked,  unannounced. Emerson refers to meeting Wordsworth’s ‘daughters’, but he  must have been mistaken — Catherine Wordsworth had died the same year as  Wordsworth’s other son, Thomas, leaving Dora as the sole surviving  daughter. Emerson then sees Wordsworth for the first time: “a plain,  elderly, white-haired man, not prepossessing, and disfigured by green  goggles”. These ‘goggles’ were a pair of the tinted spectacles  Wordsworth took to wearing in later life, out of concern that he was  losing his vision. They are missing from our common image of the poet,  and from the numerous portraits of him, and it is strange to think of  the eye that so famously saw “into the life of things” hidden behind an  ungainly set of corrective lenses. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth  speaks “with great simplicity”. Indeed, Coleridge’s own spoken and  written manner is briefly discussed, with Wordsworth sighing that he  “had always wished Coleridge would write more to be understood”. Emerson  gives the impression of a kindly and serene Wordsworth, unhurried,  generous with his time, a quietly engaging interlocutor. The pair sit in  one of the warm, fire-lit, low-ceilinged rooms of Rydal, and discuss a  variety of topics — with equal input and respect for one another.  Education quickly arises in discussion, and Wordsworth is just as quick  to dismiss it: “he thinks more of the education of circumstances than of  tuition”, Emerson would remember. How fitting, from a poet who had once  written the following lines, in ‘The Tables Turned’:

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

The discussion of education leads into a discussion of American  society, and Wordsworth moves freely and brusquely through his opinions  on the matter. “There may be in America”, he tells Emerson, “some  vulgarity of manner, but that’s not important”. What is important, he  thinks, is that Americans have got their priorities all wrong: “I fear  they are too much given to the making of money, and secondly, to  politics; that they make political distinction the end and not the  means”. We can only wonder what Wordsworth would make of the modern  Western world. We cannot be sure, either, how the young American in  front of him received these remarks concerning his home nation.

As the conversation moves on, Wordsworth suggests a brief walk, and  leads Emerson out the backdoor of his house. The pair pass through the  gardens of Rydal, and crunch their way out along a gravel path which  cuts across the hillside. Emerson silently notices that Wordsworth’s  eyes, behind his thick glasses, do indeed appear to be inflamed and  sore. Wordsworth turns to the younger man and tells him that he has  composed thousands of lines of verse along this very path, which leads  Emerson to recall that the poet is renowned for his ability to hold  hundreds of lines of verse in mind before so much as committing them to  paper. Modern scholars are fascinated by this point, and arguments  frequently erupt over whether or not this was ever possible — memorizing  hundreds of lines of verse is one thing, but composing them and holding  them in their rigidly-organized place with the mind alone is quite  another. On that August day, looking out over the verdant woodland that  leads down to the glittering surface of Rydal water, Emerson was to  experience first hand the sharpness of Wordsworth’s memory. Earlier that  year Wordsworth and his sister had gone on a walking tour around  Scotland, and Wordsworth had, the day Emerson arrived, been mentally  composing a few sonnets to commemorate his highland excursion. Suddenly —  so suddenly that Emerson nearly bursts into surprised laughter —  Wordsworth begins a solemn recitation:

Ye shadowy Beings, that have rights and claims

In every cell of Fingal’s mystic grot,

Where are ye? Driven or venturing to the spot,

Our fathers glimpses caught of your thin frames,

And, by your mien and bearing, knew your names;

And they could hear his ghostly song who trod

Earth, till the flesh lay on him like a load,

While he struck his desolate harp without hopes or aims.

Vanished ye are, but subject to recall;

Why keep we else the instincts whose dread law

Ruled here of yore, till what men felt they saw,

Not by black arts but magic natural!

If eyes be still sworn vassals of belief,

Yon light shapes forth a bard, that shade a chief.

The sonnets on the Cave of Staffa are perhaps not amongst his finest  sonnets, and are rarely discussed today, but the fact that he recites  three such sonnets in a row, each freshly composed and as yet unwritten,  is deeply impressive in its own right, especially when we consider the  careful and unforgiving structure of that delicately measured form. But  Emerson still cannot help but see him in part as “like a school-boy  declaiming”. He barely manages to contain his mirth, despite reminding  himself that he came across the Atlantic to meet a poet, and a poet he  has met. As they saunter on, the recitations continue, punctuating their  conversation — which is now almost entirely dedicated to Wordsworth’s  verse — with Wordsworth’s words echoing gently down the Rydal valley.  Eventually, after much discussion, Emerson decides it is time he took  leave of Wordsworth, but the poet encourages him to take a last turn  around the Rydal Mount garden. When Emerson does set off, Wordsworth  tells him there is a more suitable and direct route away than that which  he’d planned to take. Wordsworth genially walks “a good part of a mile”  along the path with Emerson, leaving him with one or two last lines of  recited verse, before parting ‘with great kindness’ and disappearing  back across a field and into the trees.

Emerson made the long, arduous crossing back to America in October of  that year, in many respects a changed man. By November, he had given a  philosophical lecture composed of his recently percolated thoughts — it  was to be the first of nearly 1,500 such lectures, the backbone of a  life’s work. Within three years of this, he was happily married for the  second time, and had published his landmark philosophical work Nature, in which he sketched a new religious understanding of the universe based on Romantic ideals:

“Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole  circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and  religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act,  in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture which God paints on  the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul.”

Had his experience of the poets helped him through his crisis?  Perhaps, or perhaps he’d learnt, like Wordsworth, the therapeutic  pleasures of frequent travel by foot, and exercise for both the mind and  body at once. Either way, consonant with our modern notion of the ‘gap  year’, Emerson went to Europe to find not his poetic heroes but himself,  and that is precisely what he found. Of the few things we can gauge of  Emerson’s character from his own descriptions of his travels is that he  remained unintimidated and certain of himself even when addressing his  heroes. We share in the sense of disappointment that follows his meeting  with Coleridge, who talks all over him and seldom acknowledges the  younger man’s views. But, when Coleridge begins lambasting the Unitarian  faith, Emerson is quick to point out to him that he himself was brought  up a Unitarian, unafraid of the conflict of views. Likewise, when the  ageing Wordsworth begins moralizing against the content of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister  — apparently, “full of all manner of fornication” — Emerson has none of  it. He speaks in favour of Goethe’s writings, leaving Wordsworth to  “courteously promise to look at it again”. It is difficult to imagine  how we might feel, finding ourselves in the homes and company of the  great writers of our age, but it is clear that Emerson is far from  daunted. His strength of character and his resolve reaffirmed his views,  helped him to shape his writing, and initiated the processes of thought  that led to his greatest philosophical essays and his finest poetic  works. In Emerson was met the self-assurance of Coleridge and the  gentle, kind simplicity of Wordsworth. And in his verse we find traces  of both.

And what do we learn about Wordsworth and Coleridge from Emerson’s  encounters? We learn that the two men had indeed grown apart, that their  serious intellectual engagement in the 1790s and early-1800s was indeed  limited to those decades. But it is also irresistible to conclude that  landscape impressed itself upon the poets in ways which even they had  not seen. Here is Wordsworth, serene amongst nature, walking the hills  and shores of the Lake District, with mind both composed and composing,  and wandering, as much as is possible, like the clouds in his poetry.  And here is Coleridge, in a London apartment cluttered with books and  papers, overactive in mind and body, spending his days in bed secluded  from the world, and away from friends and family. He had for the most  part kicked the opium, but was separated from his wife, Sara, and  infrequently saw his children. Though both poets felt, perhaps with some  justification, that they had left behind them their finest works,  Wordsworth had come a little closer to carving out a good thing for his  ageing self in this world, ‘the place where, in the end, we find our  happiness, or not at all!’. Wordsworth would live until 1850, to the  ripe old age of 80, and enjoyed a brief but unproductive spell as Poet  Laureate, finally dying after a spontaneous woodland walk in too-cold  weather. Coleridge, though, died only a year after Emerson’s visit.  Emerson’s encounters with the poets might ultimately say less to us  about how to write or how to think than they tell us about happiness or  contentment, and about how to live. Wordsworth never finished The Excursion, and Coleridge never brought to publication his projected Opus Maximum,  but Wordsworth, hoarding lines in his head and, according to Emerson,  “never […] in a haste to publish”, seemed to better understand poetry  as, to borrow his phrase, “the end and not the means”.


*Emerson’s reflections on this tour I mainly draw from his book English Traits.


All by
Chris Townsend