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EMERSON'S INDEBTEDNESS TO COLERIDGE
BY FRANK T. THOMPSON
The Kantian revival has tended to focus our attention once more upon the development of the Transcendental movement in New England. This paper in part is an effort to trace the nature, period, and extent of Emerson's acceptance of Coleridge's interpretation of the Kantian metaphysics. But we shall find that the problem of determining the extent of Coleridge's influence upon Emerson is more complex than accounting for his use of German philosophy. An entry in Emerson's Journals for August 20, 1837, eleven days before the delivery of "The American Scholar" address, will serve to make this clear: "Carlyle and Wordsworth now act out of England on us,-Coleridge also." The influence which Emerson here acknowledges was of no temporary nature. Besides, what he gained from these three men is so closely woven together that we are almost tempted to exclaim with Cabot that it is useless to attempt to trace the influences exerted upon Emerson. But an inspection of Emerson's Journals reveals that a solution of the problem is neither useless nor unduly complicated.
For our purpose we may think of Coleridge as the philosopher, psychologist, and literary critic, Carlyle as the transmitter of German Romance, and Wordsworth as the sanest and most original poet since Milton. As a philosopher Coleridge influenced both Carlyle and Wordsworth before Emerson became acquainted with either one of them. As a psychologist and literary critic he has largely shaped all subsequent criticism of Wordsworth, including that by Emerson. Coleridge is a pivotal figure in determining the nature of the Romantic influences exerted upon Emerson.
When we come to a determination of the period of Emerson's Romanticism, we shall see that here, too, Coleridge is a pivotal figure. The Journals for 1826 give an extensive criticism of the effort of Wordsworth and Coleridge to produce a new type of poetry in the Lyrical Ballads. Those were the days when Emerson devoted his attention largely to Plato, Homer, Sophocles, Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope. He was frankly a Platonist. He says that the only thing he likes about Wordsworth's poetry is the Platonism of the "Ode." Emerson never overcame this antipathy
for Coleridge's poetry, and but for Coleridge's work as a critic he might never have accepted Wordsworth's nature poetry.
Nothing more is heard of Coleridge in Emerson's journal until the fall of 1829 when Emerson first read Aids to Reflection and The Friend. What he has to say of Coleridge at this time forms the foundation of any effort to trace the influence of the English philosopher and critic. But before we consider this material, let us glance rapidly at the way in which the influence derived from Carlyle and Wordsworth intertwines with that from Coleridge.
In 1830 Emerson began reading Carlyle's translation of Wilhelm Meister. The following year Emerson read widely in the poetry of Wordsworth and was quite friendly in his criticism of it. In 1832 came a closer reading of Carlyle. This more than anything else turned Emerson's steps to Europe in 1833, where he met Coleridge, Carlyle, and Wordsworth. The visit to Coleridge was disappointing to Emerson. But during the years 1834-36 he gave unremitting attention to the works of all these Englshmen. In 1834 he returned to The Friend and took up the study of the Biographia Literaria. As a result of his renewed interest in Coleridge, especially after Coleridge's death in July of 1834, Emerson mastered the distinctions upon which these books depend: the distinction between the Understanding and the Reason, between Talent and Genius, and between the Fancy and the Imagination. During the years 1834-36 Emerson also accepted Wordsworth as the greatest poet since Milton. The friendship with Carlyle was cemented; Sartor Resartus was published with an introduction by Emerson. The period closed with the publication of Nature and the formation of the Transcendental Club in 1836.
We have reviewed briefly the ten years following Emerson's criticism of Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1826. I hold that this is the period that we need to consider for a vital interpretation of Emerson as a man of letters, but more particularly as a Romanticist. As we have seen, seven of these ten years are concerned with an intimate contact with three of the greatest literary figures of his age. Since Coleridge was the first one of the three to whom Emerson turned with enthusiasm, it is fitting that we begin our study of Emerson's Romanticism by looking more directly than we are accustomed to do at what Coleridge gave to Emerson.
In a letter to his aunt, Emerson wrote in December of 1829, "I am reading Coleridge's Friend. You don't speak of it with respect. He has a tone a little lower than greatness-but what a living soul, what a universal knowledge! . . "1 A second letter, written three days later, informs us that we may expect much from the influence of Coleridge:
I say a man so learned and a man so bold, has a right to be heard, and I will take off my hat the while and not make an impertinent noise. At least I became acquainted with one new mind I never saw before,—an acquisition to my knowledge of man not unimportant, when it is remembered that so gregarious are even intellectual men that Aristotle thinks for thousands, and Bacon for his ten thousands, and so, in enumerating the apparently manifold philosophies and forms of thought, we should not be able to count more than seven or eight minds. 'Tis the privilege of his independence and of his labour to be counted for one school. His theological speculations are, at least, God viewed from one position; and no wise man would neglect that one element in concentrating the rays of human thought to a true and comprehensive conclusion. Then I love him that he is no utilitarian, nor necessarian, nor scoffer, nor hoc genus omne, tucked away in the corner of a sentence of Plato.2
We cannot tell from these quotations exactly what Emerson found in Coleridge of such vast importance. But we can tell that he had become acquainted “with one new mind" that he had never seen before. His reference to Coleridge's theological speculations leads us to think that he had read carefully the Aids to Reflection, mention of which is made in the reading lists for 1829. Evidently, too, Emerson sympathized with Coleridge's open hostility toward Rousseau. Furthermore, we can find no entries in the Journals prior to the fall of 1833 which indicate that Emerson had at this time paid attention to Coleridge's distinction between the Understanding and the Reason, the distinction which holds the central place in the philosophy of the Transcendentalists. Nor can
In The Teachers of Emerson, John S. Harrison has paid fitting tribute to Coleridge's interpretation of Bacon and Plato for Emerson. But as Emerson Grant Sutcliffe says (Emerson's Theories of Literary Expression), Harrison completely ignores the fact that Emerson had previously read and re-read such things from Bacon as the Essays, The Advancement of Learning, and the Novum Organum.
Sutcliffe (op. cit.) has much to say about the distinction between the Understanding and the Reason in its relation to Kant. But after estab
we find any discussion of the distinction between the Imagination and the Fancy. Considering the extent to which Emerson made use of these distinctions in the years 1836-43, we might well wonder at their absence in 1829 if we did not know that the philosophy of Plato had already won a permanent place in his heart and mind. Emerson, we must conclude, was not prepared to accept Coleridge's Transcendentalism until he had read such books as Wilhelm Meister and Carlyle's Life of Schiller.
The most important result of Emerson's study of The Friend from our present point of view is, however, the stimulus afforded Emerson for the appreciation of Wordsworth's poetry. Coleridge's criticism of his friend is full of the spirit of the days of the Lyrical Ballads. Fresh from a perusal of "The Prelude," in which Wordsworth had closed with a splendid tribute to his friendship with Coleridge, Coleridge quotes two of the best-known passages in the poem, the Skating Scene and the tribute to France." It was to these passages that Emerson referred when he visited Wordsworth in 1833: "I told him how much the few printed extracts had quickened the desire to possess his unpublished poems." Coleridge also quoted from many of Wordsworth's shorter poems, and praised "The Ode to Duty" and the "Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood." That Emerson went back to Wordsworth with the praise of Coleridge ringing in his ears is evident from what he wrote in regard to the "Character of the Happy Warrior" in November, 1831, "Almost I can say Coleridge's compliment, quem quoties lego, non verba mihi videor audire, sed tonitrua."
lishing the fact that Emerson owed his conception of this distinction to Coleridge, he goes no farther with his study of Kant's influence; nor does he take into consideration the distinction between the Imagination and the Fancy and the part that Coleridge played as a critic, especially as a critic of Wordsworth, in shaping Emerson's theory of criticism. For Sutcliffe the influence of Swedenborg looms large. This Swedenborgian influence is emphasized just where we should expect influence from Coleridge and Wordsworth, and where I believe it does exist to a very large extent.
The Friend, pp. 205-06, 338-39.
English Traits, p. 23.
* Journals, Vol. 2, pp. 429-30.
Cf. The Friend, p. 169: “But if my readers wish to see the question of the efficacy of principles and popular opinions for evil and for good proved
What Emerson gained from Coleridge and Wordsworth in 1831 takes on a deeper significance when we remember that in February of this same year Ellen died. The Journals show that he often went to the "Ode" for assurance as to Ellen's immortality. And if he found consolation in this assurance, it was because he knew that what was true for her was also true for himself. In this strain he writes:
Let me not fear to die
But let me live so well
As to win this mark of death from on high,
That I with God, and thee, dear heart, may dwell."
At the same time Emerson gives voice to his desire to live forever with Ellen in another poem entitled Tvet Zeavτóv, written in the measure of the "Ode" and resonant with its deep undertone of music and mystery. What we should note about this poem is that its inspiration is as much from Coleridge as it is from Wordsworth. As an introduction to the ninth stanza of the "Ode," the favorite stanza of Emerson, Coleridge writes:
Under the tutorage of scientific analysis, haply first given to him by express revelation,
E coelo descendit, Γνῶθι σεαυτόν
he separates the relations that are wholly the creatures of his own abstracting and comparing intellect, and at once discovers and recoils from the discovery, that the reality, the objective truth, of the objects he has been adoring, derives its whole and sole evidence from an obscure sensation which he is alike unable to resist or to comprehend, which compels him to contemplate as without and independent of himself what yet he could not contemplate at all, were it not a modification of his own being.
This quotation gives us the core of Coleridge's conception of the distinction between Romanticism and Classicism. He plays on the theme in various ways. At one time he compares Kant and Plato. At another time he seeks to show the distinction between objective
and illustrated with an eloquence worthy of the subject, I can refer them with the hardiest anticipation of their thanks to the late work concerning the relations of Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, by my honored friend, William Wordsworth, quem quoties lego, non verba mihi videor audire, sed tonitrua."
'Journals, Vol. 2, p. 394, July 6, 1831. "The Friend, p. 460.