Sunday, November 05, 2006

Emerson Takes a Trip and Meets Famous People

Emerson took a back seat yesterday to grocery shopping, purchasing new dance shoes, enjoying the "warm" weather, and watching X-Men. But that's okay because he has been a perfect Sunday morning read. The next several weeks I'll be working my way through the chapters of Emerson's book English Traits. The book was published in 1856 and is based on a series of lectures he gave. Emerson first visited the UK in 1933. His health was poor, his first wife had died, and his brother had had a break down from over-work. Emerson had just resigned his position as pastor and was searching around for a new career. His second visit to the UK was in 1847. By that time he had published and was invited to travel by people who had read him and wanted to meet him. Chapter one of English Traits covers his first trip. Emerson claims not to remember much about the places he visited but regales us with stories about his visits with some famous people. Before he got to the UK, Emerson took a short tour of Italy. In Florence he met American sculptor Horatio Greenough, a man Emerson descibes as "handsome" and "well formed." Greenough spent much time discoursing on his theories of art and the classical Greeks. Greenough introduced Emerson to a Mr. Landor. As far as I can tell, it was Walter Savage Landor, an English writer and poet who spent a lot of time in Florence. Emerson describes him as "noble and courteous," and "decided in his opinions." Emerson was disappointed he "could not make him praise Mackintosh, nor my more recent friends; Montaigne very cordially--and Charron also, which seemed undiscriminating." And he was a little annoyed when Landor "pestered me with Southey; but who is Southey?" When Emerson got to London he visited "Mr. Coleridge," then a "short, thick old man, with bright blue eyes and fine clear complexion." To Emerson's dismay, Coleridge "took snuff freely, which presently soiled his cravat and neat black suit." Coleridge proceeded to hold court and Emerson could hardly get a word in edgewise. Coleridge lectured Emerson on the "folly and ignorance of Unitarianism." When the man paused for breath Emerson felt it necessary to inform him that while he valued Coleridge's explanations, he, Emerson, was "born and bred a Unitarian." Coleridge's response was " 'Yes, I supposed so' " and he continued on as before, complaining about Unitarian "quackery." Then Coleridge recited some new verses he had just composed on the anniversary of his baptismal, gave his opinions on the governments of Malta and Sicily, and Emerson departed. Emerson's assessment:

I was in his company for about an hour, but find it impossible to recall the largest part of his discourse, which was often like so many printed paragraphs in his book--perhaps the same--so readily did he fall into certain commonplaces. As I might have foreseen, the visit was rather a spectacle than a conversation, of no use beyond the satisfaction of my curiosity. He was old and preoccupied, and could not bend to a new companion and think with him.
Things went better with Carlyle, a man who "was tall and gaunt, with a cliff-like brow, self-possessed and holding extraordinary powers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northern accent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote and with a streaming humor which floated every thing he looked upon." They talked about books, the desperate state of literature, English pauperism, and the immortality of the soul while taking a long walk through the hills of Scotland. The final visit went to Wordsworth, a "plain, elderly, white-haired man, not prepossessing, and disfigured by green goggles." Wordsworth had much to say about America which "gave occasion for his favorite topic--that society is being enlightened by a superficial tuition, out of all proportion to its being restrained by moral culture." He worried that Americans were too much given to making money and politics. And he wanted to know the state of American newspapers because a friend of his had told him they were "atrocious." But soon the conversation turns to literature. Emerson asked if Wordsworth had read Carlyle's critical articles and translations and Wordsworth responds that he thought Carlyle "sometimes insane." Wordsworth took Emerson outside to the gravel walk where he had composed many lines of poetry and proceeded to recite several new poems he had composed a day or two before. Wordsworth was having inflammation troubles with his eyes but said it was no problem for writing since he composed his poems in his head first anyway. Emerson's final assessment of Wordsworth:
Wordsworth honored himself by his simple adherence to truth, and was very willing not to shine; but he surprised by the hard limits of his thought [...] Off his own beat, his opinions were of no value. It is not very rare to find persons loving sympathy and ease, who expiate their departure from the common in one direction, by their conformity in every other.
This first chapter was a lot of fun to read. Other than giving his opinions on the men he visited, Emerson relates and describes. There is no finely argued idea. His writing is loose and easy and he gives the impression of being a pleasant person to travel with. Will the rest of English Traits follow in this vein? I am very much looking forward to finding out. Next week's Emerson: English Traits, Chapters 2 (Voyage to England) and 3 (Land)