Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean. —Patrick J. Keane
Transatlantic Transcendentalism: Coleridge, Emerson, and Nature
Samantha C. Harvey
218 pages, $120
By 1798, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, though by then largely disenchanted by the course of the French Revolution, were still considered dangerous radicals by the Pitt government, which had set spies on them. In that year, hopping a looming draft into the militia, the two poets and Dorothy Wordsworth sailed to Germany. The Wordsworths hunkered down in Goslar during the coldest winter of the century, where William began work on what would eventually become his great autobiographical epic, posthumously published a half-century later as The Prelude. In contrast, the gregarious and convivial Coleridge travelled to university towns, omnivorously ingesting German philosophy and German beer. Once back in England, armed with his own version of the thought of Immanuel Kant and of other German Idealists, Coleridge was uniquely positioned to shape the philosophy behind British Romanticism, and to become the principal transatlantic conduit of these ideas to America.
To let the cat out of the bag right off, the book under review is a remarkable study. Transatlantic Transcendentalism is a richly-informed and luminously intelligent exploration of this complex but crucial subject. Thorough yet concise, dense yet lucid, it reflects an impressive knowledge of the primary and secondary texts, yet relentlessly focuses on what the author designates “the Romantic triad.” This distinguishable yet integrated trinity of Nature, Spirit, and Humanity preoccupied Romantics on both sides of the ocean. It also provides Samantha Harvey with her main theme and organizing principle in tracing the transformative impact of the philosophic, theological, and critical thought of Coleridge on his American disciples—principally Ralph Waldo Emerson, but also James Marsh, who introduced Coleridge to New England, then (a development of special interest to many connected with Numéro Cinq) restructured the University of Vermont on Coleridgean principles.
Harvey’s study of the Coleridge-Emerson connection is the most recent volume in the “Edinburgh Studies in Transatlantic Literatures” series (a study of Emily Dickinson and British Victorian poets is forthcoming). The sixteen books in the series range widely in subject, but all are globally oriented, exploring ideas and texts unconfined by temporal or national boundaries. One crucial example of an overarching Romantic and Transatlantic subject is the one that matters here: Coleridge’s committed and pivotal mediation of the categories of nature, spirit, and humanity. Harvey’s book is in fact organized on the basis of this Romantic triad. Following a general introduction, and flanked by two historical chapters tracing Coleridge’s impact on Transcendentalism in Boston (Chapter 2) and Vermont (Chapter 8), Harvey devotes one chapter (beginning with “Nature”) to each category of the triad, with a pause midway. That chapter, “The Landing Place,” alludes to Coleridge’s description of a spiral staircase, with its various “landing-places” analogous to the perspective-gaining pause before continued cognitive mounting. Here, Harvey surveys Coleridge’s “method” and practice of “distinguishing without dividing,” before moving on to chapters on “Humanity” (5) and “Spirit” (6). The penultimate chapter focuses on Emerson’s seminal book Nature (1836), a text structured on Coleridge’s distinctions, “method,” and the categories of the Romantic triad. Despite this culmination, the final chapter, on Coleridge’s influence on curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, is anything but anticlimactic.
A primary emphasis in the Edinburgh series is the dialectic between “affinity and contrast,” and this study is no exception. “Coleridge’s influence on Emerson reveals a complex blend of the categories of contrast and affinity, particularly the way in which key ideas endured and yet were substantially modified as they crossed the Atlantic” (12). Harvey traces not only Emerson’s immense indebtedness to Coleridge, but the ways in which the American Transcendentalist’s appropriation and assimilation of his benefactor stimulated his own creativity: the sine qua non for an apostle of self-reliance and originality. In Harvey’s wonderfully well-chosen lead epigraph, Emerson advises us to “take thankfully and heartily all” our succession of teachers “can give.” Eventually the “dismay” that attends an “excess of influence” will be withdrawn, and the benefactor “will be no longer an alarming meteor, but one more bright star shining serenely in your heaven, and blending its light with all your day” (1).
That last phrase is a transparent allusion to Emerson’s favorite line in his favorite poem, Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality…,” a poem that haunted the American Transcendentalists as much as it did Coleridge. But often, most obviously in Nature, Emerson went out of his way to cover his tracks. Nevertheless, as Harvey notes, some contemporaries “recognized his massive and largely unacknowledged debt to transatlantic sources” (3). Recent studies have tracked these debts—to Carlyle, to Wordsworth, and, above all, to Coleridge, both as original thinker and (even more than Carlyle and Victor Cousin) as Emerson’s principal filtering conduit to German philosophic thought. Harvey is perfectly aware of Emerson’s re-filtering, his “selective assimilation” of his principal benefactor. “Coleridge’s eclectic amalgamation of Christian, Platonic, and German idealist concepts fundamentally shaped Emerson and the development of Transatlantic Transcendentalism.” But “key ideas” of Coleridge were “appropriated” by Emerson and other liberal American thinkers, who separated those ideas from Coleridge’s Anglican conservatism, while “discarding many metaphysical subtleties and secularizing his theological language” (96). Though Emerson’s splendid essay-lecture, “Quotation and Originality,” is almost the last word on the fascinating and paradoxical subject of thankful inheritance and creative innovation, I’m delighted to be in accord with Samantha Harvey when she writes, “I agree with Patrick Keane that Emerson could very well be the best example of Thomas McFarland’s ‘originality paradox’ in which a profound indebtedness can enable, and even enhance, the originality of a writer” (3).
This raises the issue of Harvey’s own originality. The Edinburgh promotional literature describes Transatlantic Transcendentalism as “the first book devoted to Coleridge’s influence on Emerson and the development of American Transcendentalism.” And Harvey herself twice repeats the verb “devoted” in claiming that “to date no book has devoted itself to elaborating Coleridge’s vital role for Emerson and Transatlantic Transcendentalism, a lacuna which this book endeavors to remedy”; and, again, that, however well-known to Romantic scholars the “connection between Coleridge and Emerson,… surprisingly there is no single monograph devoted entirely to the subject” (19). With those caveats registered, I agree wholeheartedly with Harvey’s and Edinburgh’s claim. And not only is this the first book-length monograph devoted solely to the connection, it’s one that I suspect (despite Harvey’s modest anticipation of fuller studies to come) will prove hard to improve upon.
When it comes to transatlantic studies in general, and even to the Romantic triad in particular, Samantha Harvey is, as a good Emersonian, “thankfully” generous to her co-workers in the field. She praises such transatlantic “pioneers” as Robert Weisbuch, Leon Chai, and Richard Brantley; notes the work of James Engells and others on Emerson’s adoption of Coleridge’s creative misreading of Kant; acknowledges that her formulation of the Romantic triad itself is “beholden to scholarship by M. H. Abrams, Thomas McFarland, Seamus Perry, and John Beer”; and remarks on the “deep influence” on her book, especially her chapter on “Spirit,” of Abrams’s landmark Natural Supernaturalism (1971) with its “elaboration of the underlying spiritual paradigms” adapted, altered, and, generally and most dramatically, secularized by the Romantics (16).
I was happy to be included in such distinguished company when it came, specifically, to the galvanizing impact of Coleridge on Emerson: “Patrick Keane has done the most work on the pair in Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason . I agree fundamentally with Keane’s approach, which he describes as ‘an exploration of elective affinities, family resemblances, and analogies binding together [many creative individuals] in a visionary company.” But, she adds, by including Milton, Wordsworth, and others, I “obscured Coleridge’s crucial impact on Emerson in a profuse tangle of interrelations” (19). Guilty as charged. Of course, I was writing a different book than hers; but the result is indeed a “profuse” comparative study. More to the immediate point: for those seeking an informed, illuminating, carefully laid-out analysis focused on the Coleridge-Emerson relation, the one indispensable book to read, for now and the foreseeable future, is not mine but Samantha Harvey’s.
How does Harvey go about her project? With good reason, she attends closely to the familiar Coleridgean distinctions inherited by Emerson (between Reason and “mere” Understanding; between active, creative natura naturans and passive, static natura naturata, between Genius and “mere” Talent, as well as between the “primary” and “secondary” Imagination). But she rightly devotes even more attention to Coleridge’s “method.” This orchestrated mode of inquiry permanently shaped Emerson’s own cognitive processes, and was to have a pervasive influence among the Vermont Transcendentalists led by James Marsh, and thus (158-59) on the subsequent pragmatism of John Dewey. Emerson enthusiastically concurred in Coleridge’s high valuation of his “Essays on the Principles of Method” in The Friend. There he presents, as the indispensable introduction and “basis of my future philosophical and theological writings,” a “method” of thinking (at once intellectual, spiritual, and literary) that was coherent, progressive, and ever-ascending: a dynamic mode of inquiry immensely appealing to Emerson for those very reasons. Method commenced “with the most familiar truths…gradually winning its way to positions the most comprehensive and sublime.” Nothing will “more aptly prepare the mind for the reception of specific knowledge” than “the full exposition of a principle which is the condition of all intellectual progress, and which may be said to even constitute the science of education, alike in the narrowest and in the most extensive sense of the word” (67-68, citing The Friend 1:445-46).
Samantha Harvey has her own “method” when it comes to elucidating difficult texts. Coleridge and Emerson can be obscure, even self-contradictory—whether exhilaratingly or maddeningly. Though also true of Emerson, for whom consistency was famously the hobgoblin of mediocre minds, Coleridge’s dense and sinuously dialectical thought, always moving (sometimes staggering) toward a projected synthesis, can be confusing in the course of enacting that process. Opposites are reconciled only to generate yet more opposites, to be reconciled in turn at a higher level. Yeats spoke of “images that yet/ Fresh images beget,” and Coleridge, more exuberantly than apologetically, said his thoughts “bustle along like a Surinam toad, sprouting out of back, side, and belly,” elsewhere describing the prose in which these thoughts were conveyed as spawning parentheses resembling Surinam toadlings. Coleridge’s organic Dynamic Philosophy is both reflected in, and often made more difficult by, the sheer length and complexity of many of his progressive and digressive sentences. In the Dedication to Don Juan, Byron, no man for toads, depicted the author of Biographia Literaria as “a hawk encumbered by his hood,” expounding in darkness “metaphysics to the nation—/ I wish he would explain his Explanation.”
Leaving Byron’s delightful irreverence aside, there is no question that in reading Coleridge, there are syntactical nettles that need to be grasped and worked through before “Explanation,” let alone evaluation, can begin. Enter Samantha Harvey, whose characteristic pattern, or “method,” is to cite a passage of Coleridge (or of Emerson) at some length, then paraphrase and unpack it. Emulating Coleridge and Emerson, Harvey has an enviable gift for apt quotation; and, like Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism, she eschews glib and “knowing” citation. She always quotes sufficiently, reproducing enough of a passage not only to preserve its context but to generously invite the reader to work and learn along with her. Her explanations can come at a cost. “Nothing is got for nothing,” as Emerson famously reminds us; and Harvey’s repeated rhythm of quotation followed by explication leads to some redundancy. Yet it is a cost more than offset by the resulting clarification. Her careful and informed explications and synopses are invariably models of astute comprehension conveyed with lucidity.
Having just mentioned explication, I have to add that it seems a shame that a close reader as astute as Harvey, in the commitment to her major focus, has denied herself, and us, much attention to poetry, though she knows (84-89) that the “Poet-Prophet” is the most elevated figure in the Romantic pantheon. Emerson’s best poetry was in prose; but there are no better embodiments of the reconciliation of nature, spirit, and humanity than the major poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Wordsworth is the master-poet of the ultimate unity of nature, spirit, and humanity, but that unity was distilled in a single exclamation— “O! the one Life within us and abroad”—by Coleridge, Harvey’s chief celebrant of the Romantic triad, who added that line in 1817 to “The Eolian Harp,” a poem originally written in 1795.
In the one exception to this neglect of the poetry, Harvey connects Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode” with Emerson’s comparison of our changing “moods” to “many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue,” so that “we animate what we can,” and see “only what we animate,” since “all depends on the mood of the man.” Though she doesn’t cite the lines about “that inanimate cold world” unilluminated by the inner light issuing “from the soul itself,” Harvey does note Coleridge’s insistence, later in this same stanza of the Ode, that “we receive but what we give,/ And in our life alone does Nature live.” (89). Wordsworth also insisted on the epistemological and emotional reciprocity of giving and receiving and (continuing the adaptation of Kant he inherited from Coleridge) asserted the ultimate subordination of external nature to the sovereign mind and imagination: “The kingdom of man over nature,” as Emerson puts it in the finale of the book paradoxically, even misleadingly, named Nature.
Harvey’s citation of the Dejection Ode occurs in the course of her discussion of Emerson’s adherence to Coleridge’s fruitful misreading of Kant’s distinction between Reason and Understanding. Like Coleridge, Emerson privileges intuitive Reason, making it synonymous with the Romantic creative Imagination (an equation puzzling to inexperienced readers of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Emerson). Thus interpreted, Coleridgean Imagination “placed the poet-prophet at the center of the Romantic triad, gazing out at the natural world, reading it for spiritual meaning, embodying those perceptions in literary form,” and transmitting those perceptions to the rest of us. For Emerson, this imagination acts as a “lens through which nature is viewed, depending on “the special abilities of the poet-prophet.” (89)
I am not suggesting that Samantha Harvey should join me in the ranks of the diffuse by putting at risk her thematic focus. But that very focus, by her own account, is best exemplified in the work of the “Poet-Bard.” However we judge his poetry, Emerson considered himself “a poet in the sense of a perceiver & dear lover of the harmonies that are in the soul & in matter, & especially of [their] correspondences” (65-66, quoting from an Emerson letter). Harvey’s comment—“Literature would prove the best medium for reconciling the Romantic triad poetically, rather than systematically”—is reinforced in the following chapter, “Humanity,” in which the “Reconciliator” is specified as “Art”: “If philosophic and metaphysical resolutions of the Romantic triad were hard to resolve systematically,” then it was up to “the poet’s imaginative powers” to evoke the “spirit of unity” (76, 82, italics added)
Though something of a lacuna, the inattention to poetry is finally a quibble considered in the full context of what Harvey so brilliantly does attend to: the crucial role of Coleridge’s distinctions and dynamic “method” in “galvanizing Emerson’s thought at a critical moment in his intellectual maturation” (141). Indeed, the extraordinary impact of Coleridge’s thinking on the whole of New England can hardly be overstated. Along with the curricular and philosophic developments in Vermont, that thought simultaneously shaped Concord and Boston Transcendentalism. Since Samantha Harvey deals rigorously and clearly with concepts that are difficult but central to an understanding of the development of American philosophy and literature, her book deserves a wide audience. Specialists will appreciate it. But, precisely because she is so good at elucidating passages that initially may seem opaque, paradoxical, occasionally even incoherent, Transatlantic Transcendentalism should appeal to newcomers seeking entrance to what Coleridge brought to America. What he introduced and clarified for his disciples on the other side of the Atlantic were the often mysterious but always intriguing interactions among the three permanent but dynamically fluid elements in the Romantic triad. The result was not only New England Transcendentalism, but an American Renaissance.
—Patrick J. Keane
Patrick J. Keane is Professor Emeritus of Le Moyne College. Though he has written on a wide range of topics, his areas of special interest have been 19th and 20th-century poetry in the Romantic tradition; Irish literature and history; the interactions of literature with philosophic, religious, and political thinking; the impact of Nietzsche on certain 20th century writers; and, most recently, Transatlantic studies, exploring the influence of German Idealist philosophy and British Romanticism on American writers. His books include William Butler Yeats: Contemporary Studies in Literature (1973), A Wild Civility: Interactions in the Poetry and Thought of Robert Graves (1980), Yeats’s Interactions with Tradition (1987), Terrible Beauty: Yeats, Joyce, Ireland and the Myth of the Devouring Female (1988), Coleridge’s Submerged Politics (1994), Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of All Our Day” (2003), and Emily Dickinson’s Approving God: Divine Design and the Problem of Suffering (2007).