Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic "Light of All Our Day"

Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic "Light of All Our Day"

Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic "Light of All Our Day"

Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic "Light of All Our Day"

Synopsis

Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason is a comparative study in transatlantic Romanticism, focusing on Emerson's part in the American dialogue with British Romanticism and, as filtered through Coleridge, German Idealist philosophy. The book's guiding theme is the concept of intuitive Reason, which Emerson derived from Coleridge's distinction between Understanding and Reason and which Emerson associated with that "light of all our day" in his favorite stanza of Wordsworth's "Ode: Intimations of Immortality." Intuitive Reason became the intellectual and emotional foundation of American Transcendentalism. That light radiated out to illuminate Emerson's life and work, as well as the complex and often covert relationship of a writer who, however fiercely "self-reliant" and "original," was deeply indebted to his transatlantic precursors. The debt is intellectual and personal. Emerson's supposed indifference to, or triumph over, repeated familial tragedy is often attributed to his Idealism-a complacent optimism that blinded him to any vision of the tragic. His "art of losing" may be better understood as a tribute to the "healing power," the consolation in distress, which Emerson considered Wordsworth's principal value. The second part of this book traces Emerson's struggle-with the help of the "benignant influence" shed by that "light of all our day"-to confront and overcome personal tragedy, to attain the equilibrium epitomized in Wordsworth's "Elegiac Stanzas": "Not without hope we suffer and we mourn." As a study in what has been called "the paradox of originality," the book should appeal to those interested in the Anglo-American Romantic tradition and the innovations of the individual talent-especially in the capacity of a writer such as Emerson not only to absorb his precursors but also to use them as a stimulus to his own creative power.

Excerpt

"Every author," William Wordsworth observes in the "Essay, Supplementary to the Preface" to Poems (1815), as far as he is "great and at the same time original, has had the task of creating the taste by which he is to be enjoyed." He was concurring with a remark made to him by his "philosophical friend," Samuel Taylor Coleridge, whose word Genius he takes up next. "The predecessors of an original Genius of a high order will have smoothed the way for all that he has in common with them;—and much he will have in common; but, for what is peculiarly his own," he will, like Hannibal in the Alps, "be called upon to clear and often to shape his own road." Where does the "real difficulty" lie "of creating that taste by which a truly original Poet is to be relished?" Does it consist, Wordsworth asks rhetorically, "in divesting the Reader of the pride that induces him to dwell upon those points wherein Men differ from each other, to the exclusion of those in which all Men are alike, or the same…?" Does it lie, above all, in establishing "that dominion over the spirits of Readers by which they are to be humbled and humanized, in order that they may be purified and exalted?"

If these ends are to be attained "by the mere communication of knowledge," the difficulty "does not lie" in "Taste," a "metaphor, taken from a passive sense of the human body, and transferred to things which are in their essence not passive,—to intellectual acts and operations" associated with "IMAGINATION," our "noblest" faculty. But authorial imagination still requires an "auxiliar impulse": the "exertion of a co-operating power in the mind of the Reader." Of course, that correspondent power can be evoked only by the power of the poet, a power requiring "Genius," which Wordsworth, again borrowing from Coleridge, defines as "the introduction of a new element into the intellectual universe," or, at least, "the application of powers… to produce effects hitherto unknown." And what, he asks, again rhetorically, is all this "but an advance, or a conquest, made by the soul of the Poet?" Is it to be supposed that, passively, "the Reader can make progress of this kind…? No, he is invigorated and inspirited by his Leader, in order that he may exert himself, for he cannot proceed in quiescence, he cannot be carried like a dead weight. Therefore to create taste is to call forth and bestow power, of which knowledge is the effect; and there lies the true difficulty. . . ."

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