Saturday, December 30, 2006

Emerson on English Literature

Today we have Emerson's take on English Literature. English here does not mean the language, but the country. And following along with his other essays in English Traits, he does not hesitate to name the good, the bad, or the ugly.

What made English lit great, and you will notice the past tense here which we will get to later, according to Emerson are English traits he has expounded on in various guises already. The English are a common sense, practical people who "delight in strong earthy expression" and whose "muse loves the farmyard, the lane and market." The English have "accurate perceptions" that take "hold of things by the right end." They are materialist--just the facts--but when materialism meets the "exalted sphere of the intellect" we are graced with the genius that is Shakespeare and Milton.

Emerson sees two lines of thought through English literature. The first, Platonic, Emerson sees as "the poetic tendency." The mind of the Platonist loves analogy, is aware of resemblances, and climbs "on the staircase of unity." In the Platonic tradition reside the greats, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon. The Golden Age of English literature Emerson marks as 1575-1625. Since then it's been on a downhill slide into the second line of thought which Emerson blames on Locke.

Lockean thought, the "so-called scientific," is "poisonous." It is facts, facts, facts and nothing but facts. It is mean, infertile, and does not employ "high speculation." It keeps the English from generalizing and from the universal. Nothing poetic will ever come out of Lockean thought and Emerson even finds fault with its science:

The science is false by not being poetic. It isolates the reptile or mollusk it assumes to explain; whilst reptile or mollusk only exists in system, in relation. The poet only sees it as an inevitable step in the path of the Creator. But, in England, one hermit finds this fact, and another finds that, and lives and dies ignorant of its value.
Emerson admits to there being exceptions, but these are few and English science, but especially its literature, is in sad straits. I understand his argument and like to think that there is more balance these days, at least in some of the arts and sciences. In others there is still, definitely, a bit of a divorce but I don't think it is across the board.

Emerson with his transcendental ideals, is merciless in ripping apart English writers. Hume is neither "deep or wise;" Dr. Johnson's "abstractions have little value;" Dickens has a "preternatural apprehension of the language of manners" but is too "local in his aims;" Thackeray "finds that God has made no allowance for the poor thing in his universe;" and Walter Scott has written a "rhymed traveller's guide to Scotland." Emerson speaks highly of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Carlyle, but they too fall short. The best thing he could say about contemporary (to him) English literature is:
While the constructive talent seems dwarfed and superficial, the criticism is often in the noblest tone and suggests the presence of invisible gods.
That's like going to a party at the White House or the UN and saying "at least the food was good." Ah Emerson, you gotta love him in spite of his prickliness.

Next week's Emerson: The "Times" and Stonehenge (this one should be good because he visited it with Carlyle whom he has previously called crazy)

And a heads up to all, I will be moving over to a new location in a day or two. Yup, I finally decided to go with wordpress and my own domain. More on this tomorrow or Monday.