Sitting with Emerson by the Fire
In 1832, the architect of American intellectual culture, Ralph Waldo Emerson, was going through a dark patch in his life. He had just lost his first wife to tuberculosis, and he was only 29 – same age as me; he was, at the time, the Unitarian minister of a prominent Boston church, and his ministry was suffering as a result. Full of grief, and feeling lost for purpose, he took to his pulpit each Sunday to berate his congregation. His sermons were becoming increasingly gloomy and stern. He was burning bridges fast, falling out with parishioners left, right, and centre. Ralph Waldo Emerson may well be the most important Unitarian to ever have lived, and yet here we find him in a very destructive mode of being, embittered at the world. It’s always interesting I think to read about great people of history at their darkest moments. From our historical omniscient vantage point, we know that things get a lot better for Emerson; we know he has about fifty years ahead of him being a very successful writer and speaker, but in this moment he does not know that. For Emerson, in the light of his pain and uncertainty, the world seems to be closing in. He felt unrooted, lonely, and his job seemed uncertain, and so he threw in the towel, packed his bags, and on Christmas day 1832 embarked for England. In the early 1800s getting from Boston to England would have meant six gruelling weeks at sea. When he eventually arrived in England in 1833 he visited both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. I don’t think we can underestimate the significance this voyage has had upon Unitarianism, and even upon the world. Without this journey, the world is unimaginably different. That may seem like an over exaggerated assertion, but given the shift this pilgrimage prompted in Emerson, and the subsequent impact he had upon religious philosophy, literature, national identity, politics, and the Unitarian movement itself, it is not an unreasonable claim. Without this voyage, what worship looks like each Sunday here in the meeting house would be very different; indeed we may not even be here at all.
By the time Emerson did arrive in England, Coleridge and Wordsworth were both in their 60s, and well established on the literary scene. The poem ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’, or ‘Daffodils’ as it is more popularly known, was already a celebrated English poem. Coleridge and Wordsworth were both leading lights of British Romanticism. Romanticism was an artistic and literary movement of this period, the early 1800s. It was basically a reaction against the industrial revolution, and the hard-headed rationalism of people like John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. In other words, it was resisting the kind of cold rationalism that reduced us to being merely cogs in a machine, or numbers on a screen to be manipulated. Romanticism wanted to elevate the value of our subjective sense of things. It’s a conflict society and organisations repeatedly knock up against when making decisions - should we be basing them solely on what makes most economic or business sense, or should we be allowing our intuitive sense, or other more metaphysical claims like the inherent value of humanity, or the inherent value of sentient life, to have a bearing on our decision-making process also? Since the industrial revolution these kinds of questions have never not been pertinent, but in recent months, in light of the Grenfell tower fire for instance, societal consciousness in this area seems to have risen.
Following the enlightenment, the notion of gods sitting on other planes of existence, rewarding the good, and punishing the bad, became intellectually unsatisfying. The danger was, many intellectuals extrapolated that to mean that the world was therefore a soulless place, red in tooth and claw, an ever-unfolding Darwinian battle, a cold machine suited to some cold hard logic. The trouble is, people cannot live in a world like that. Romanticism was an attempt to redress that imbalance, an attempt to hold rationalism in one hand, while at the same time recognising the great value of love and beauty: the value of poetry and words, the value of ‘how it sits with you’, and ‘what your gut sense tells you’, the value of spiritual language, the value of feelings, and hopes, and dreams, and in so doing, elevating the significance of ‘Nature’. Communing with our primordial self through nature, or communing with God through nature; ‘God’ for Wordsworth being a metaphor for mystery, or like Spinoza, a word to be equated with Nature or everything. But again, the line between a ‘belief in God’, and Atheism, is incredibly thin. Coleridge called Wordsworth a ‘Semi-Atheist’. For Wordsworth then, a belief in God was essentially when individual people turn their hearts towards love and the good for no logical reason. That is God.
Okay, back to Emerson’s visit to England. He first visited Samuel Taylor Coleridge in London, and was very disappointed. 60-year-old Coleridge was a large, bombastic man, and Emerson said “the visit was more spectacle rather than a conversation, of no use beyond the satisfaction of my curiosity”. Coleridge merely spouted nonsense for about an hour, before Emerson was able to escape back onto London’s streets. His encounter with Wordsworth was far more satisfying. Finding his way to the lake district, he moved along the picturesque tracks. Feeling inspired and uplifted by the countryside, he walked to Dove Cottage resting in a thickly wooded hillside, where William Wordsworth lived. He knocked unannounced at the door. Wordsworth was a plainly dressed, elderly man with white hair. He was kindly and serene, warm, and generous with his time. Emerson was invited in, and they sat talking by the fire. Their conversations meandered where you would imagine, they talked about Coleridge, and the fact that his poetry was unnecessarily complicated, they talked about politics of course - Wordsworth lamented that America seemed obsessed with money in a very unhealthy way. Wordsworth recited some of his poetry to Emerson, poetry Emerson was very familiar with, and some new poetry, never yet recited. When it was time for Emerson to leave, Wordsworth walked along with him, accompanying him for a mile before turning back ‘with great kindness’.
The Emerson who returned to America later that year was a changed man. Within three years, he had begun giving his lectures, married his second wife, and written his most significant book, ‘Nature’. He was doing the important work of the poet, which Emerson described as ‘that insightful [person], who can pierce this rotten diction, and fasten words again to visible things.’ Weaving new meanings, and new narratives. He formed the Transcendental club, to discuss, in an open and free manner, issues of spirituality and philosophy. Transcendentalism empowered individuals to do no less than weigh religion for themselves, to form their own faith as their conscience led. Ralph Waldo Emerson directly inspired many artists, writers, visionaries, and poets, none more so than Henry David Thoreau. If Emerson was the architect of American intellectual culture, setting forth the theoretical framework, Henry David Thoreau was the man who lived it, and embodied it. But for that chapter, you’ll need to wait till next week…