George Willis Cooke, comp. The Poets of Transcendentalism: An Anthology. 1903.
Introduction: Transcendentalism and American Poetry
By George Willis Cooke (18481923)
THE TRANSCENDENTAL movement yet remains the most important influence that has affected American literature. Whatever were its defectsand they were manyit was a creative power, and it gave us our greatest poetry. It is unjust to regard it as an importation from Europe, that might have been excluded by laws against aliens. If the influence of Carlyle, Coleridge, Goethe, and Cousin was considerable, the seed they sowed fell upon good ground here, and speedily germinated. The soil was already prepared for it, and it sprang up as if it were indigenous. Indeed, it is more just to our poets to claim that transcendentalism was native to America than to assert of it that it came from abroad. Its qualities had been in the American mind for generations, perhaps from the first coming of the Puritans. It tempered the teachings of Jonathan Edwards, and it was even in the sermons of Peter Bulkeley, Emersons earliest American forbear. The New Divinity of the eighteenth century was touched by it, and Channing was deeply informed by its life and spirit.
It is not true to what is known as the transcendental movement, however, to say that it was a thing by itself or a manifestation of a particular type of thought. It was democracy in contact with Puritanism, to define it historically. The free spirit awakened by the establishment of national independence on a basis of liberty and the rights of man, coming into contact with the deep religiousness of Puritanism, and its profound faith in God, gave origin to this movement. It was helped to its formation, but not created, by European philosophy. English and German thinking precipitated the older elements, and gave us the new compound, it may be; but this result was certain to come to pass, even without the foreign aid.
Transcendentalism was a movement of inquiry, revolt against conventionality, and assertion of the worth and dignity of man. It declared that religion is natural to man, that he may trust his own instincts, that individual freedom is essential to a large and wise living, and that spiritual insight is a direct revelation from God. The movement thus developed had a large influence upon American poetry. It may be justly said to have been the formative power that produced our best literature. It is impossible to separate it from the names of Emerson, Lowell, Thoreau, Whittier, Whitman, and a large company of our lesser poets and prose writers. That phase of it shown in the teaching of Wordsworth deeply touched the poetry of Bryant, and Longfellow was by no means outside its movement and its spirit.
This movement influenced not only poetry, but all forms of writing and thinking. It was not less creative in the results it produced upon religion than upon literature. It showed itself in a splendid outburst of oratory, that carried its temper and its convictions widely throughout the country. It manifested its idealism in numberless movements for social amelioration and practical reforms. It was often fanatical, sometimes crude and pretentious; and it was even arrogant and domineering. With all its limitations, however, it was full of life and inspiration,noble in motive, wise in conception, and heroic in its loyalty to human welfare. Its tendencies and purposes, especially as seen in the poetry it produced, may claim from us a just recognition.
The transcendentalist maintained that the one reality is spirit. Spirit is a unity, but it is also universal. In the deepest sense spirit is one, though it may have many manifestations. God is the heart of all creation, said Emerson; and the heart of every creature. The one spirit shines in every human soul, which is nothing apart from that through which it lives. For the individual soul the universe has existence only through the Universal Spirit, which is the essence of the being of both the individual and the universal.
The transcendentalists often appear to deny the personality of man, to make him only a manifestation of God. In reality, they laid the greatest emphasis upon personality, and made of each individual man a distinct and unique expression of the Infinite Spirit. The Over Soul is one in all men, and yet its manifestation in each is positive and radical. That which makes man to be man, to have a character and personality of his own, to be different from all other creatures and men, is his immediate connection with the Universal Spirit, which manifests itself in him in a unique manner. The Spirit blossoms out in a new form in each individual man, indeed, as a fresh and distinct creation. The connection of the individual soul with the Over Soul is continuous. When the individual so wishes, when he keeps his mind clear and his heart pure, and when his soul is freely open to the life of the Spirit, inspiration will come to him according to his need. He may shut out this light because he refuses to accept it, or because he does not make himself fit for the inflowing of this higher life; but when his soul is open and his life pure he can always have the indwelling of the Spirit.
Individuality was the one essential word and thought of the transcendentalists, and it was what the word connotes in which they believed most strongly. Emerson insisted in his Fate that each man must be himself, live his own life, and think his own thought. He would not have the individual dependent upon the activities and interests of other men, as he declares in Suum Cuique; but he would have them ever self-centred and independent. Hence it was that he preached self-reliance with an insistence that sometimes makes it seem the only teaching he had to offer. He carried this doctrine to such positive statement as to appear to isolate the individual, and to give him no genuine relations with other men. The atomic social theory was stated in plainest terms by Christopher P. Cranch in his Gnosis, when he declares:
We are spirits clad in veils;
Man by man was never seen;
All our deep communing fails
To remove the shadowy screen.
Heart to heart was never known;
Mind with mind did never meet;
We are columns left alone
Of a temple once complete.
Like the stars that gem the sky,
Far apart though seeming near,
In our light we scattered lie;
All is thus but starlight here.
This conception of the individual as an isolated atom with reference to other individuals, with which it can have no intimate connection, showed itself in a frequent insistence upon the right of a man to act independently of other men. For the sake of individual perfection, in order that the full measure of development may be reached, the individual ought to ignore social restrictions, and insist upon his own right to personal expression. This was emphatically stated by Thoreau in his Conscience, wherein he said,
I love a soul not all of wood,
Predestinated to be good,
But true to the backbone
Unto itself alone,
And false to none.
The last clause appears to qualify the emphatic individualism of this position, and to give recognition to social obligations; but the insistence upon the right to personal development and assertion is so strong that all else disappears in comparison. To be ones self is made the absolute controlling interest and purpose of life.
This metaphysical atomism is almost inevitable, in view of the transcendentalists doctrine of continuous inspiration to the soul that is fit therefor. When the source of truth is not human, the result of experience and of social growth, but of direct contact of the individual soul with the Over Soul, it follows that the individual seeks in himself truth and guidance. What other men think does not concern him. To the universal experiences of the race he is indifferent. Racial inspiration he regards as impossible, and for the genius of a people he has no concern. But let us not overlook the actual faith of the transcendentalist. In reality, Emersons self-reliance is God-reliance. It is trust in the inward truth that comes to the soul from its immediate contact with the Over Soul. The Problem is a statement of this doctrine of direct personal inspiration, which is the source, according to Emerson, of all genius as manifested in art, literature, or religion.
For the genius this is true, in the thought of the transcendentalist; and for the common man not less. Whatever of life and capacity is in either is the result of his inspiration received from the Over Soul. In himself he can do nothing. It is the Over Soul that does all things through him, using his powers for other ends than his own. The Voice is always speaking, says Lowell in Bibliolatres, and whoever will listen intently enough, in the right way, will hear its word of life. Not only are the Bibles of the world its utterances, but in all times and in all men it speaks its divine word. Thoreau held that the poet cannot sing truly without this inward contact with the Over Soul. It brings him gift of song, and it gives him eternal things to sing.
Lowell was deeply influenced in his early life by this conception of the mission of the poet. He seems to have believed that there can be no true poetry written without the direct aid of the Over Soul. His biographer says of the period when he was writing his Conversations on Some of the Old Poets, that he more than once hinted darkly that he was not writing the book, but was the spokesman for sages and poets who used him as their means of communication. That he was the spokesman of the Over Soul was Lowells strong belief at this period, for we find him writing in a letter, I have always been a very Quaker in following the Light, and writing only when the Spirit moved. In September, 1842, he described a conversation in which this feeling of divine contact was almost overpowering. I had a revelation last Friday evening. As I was speaking the whole system rose up before me like a vague Destiny looming from the abyss. I never before so clearly felt the spirit of God in me and around me. The whole room seemed to me full of God. The air seemed to wave to and fro with the presence of Something, I knew not what. I spoke with the calmness and clearness of a prophet.
Even more distinctly was this conception of immediate revelation that of Jones Very, who maintained that he was only the spokesman of the higher powers. He claimed that his sonnets on religious subjects contained a message given him by the Spirit. In sending to Emerson the manuscript of his essays and poems, he wrote: I am glad at last to transmit what has been told me of Shakespeare. You hear not mine own words, but the teachings of the Holy Ghost. What he wrote, was his belief, came to him, and was not the product of his own mind. The Voice uttered itself through him, and he was but the medium of its expression. He said of what he had written: I value these verses, not because they are mine, but because they are not. This conception of immediate contact with the Over Soul was widely accepted by the transcendentalists, and it had a large influence upon their poetry and its literary content.
They also held that this inward conception of life is one of large hope to the toiler, and of patience to those who cannot labor. It is the source of life, the joy of living, in every one who truly lives. In so far as he dwells in the Over Soul does he realize in himself the meaning and the worth of life. And it was this conception of mans relations to the Over Soul that made Emerson say, that all we can learn by travel is to be known at home. Europe can give us nothing of life that is unknown in Concord, simply because the deep experiences of life, those that enrich mind and heart, are the gift of the Spirit. They are not the result of contact with other men, the study of the social products of ages of human endeavor in the past, but of immediate touch with the informing spirit of life. It is not man who is our teacher, but the Over Soul. We need not have the highest truths mediated to us through art, literature, philosophy; but the spirit informs us out of its own rich and abundant life. The Over Soul can reach us at home as readily, and even with greater certainty, than in foreign lands. What the Soul reveals cannot be added to by going up and down in the world. It is even true that the outward shows hinder us from the true things of the inward life. In quietness and humbleness of spirit we learn what cannot be revealed amidst the noises and distractions of the world. It is this conception of the worth of inward human experiences that made Ellery Channing say, in his Confessio Amantis, that he knew all that even the greatest men have gained from life.
It is this conception of the relations of the poet to the Over Soul that makes him a seer and a prophet. This oracular mood is in much of Emersons writing, and it is in that of many of the other transcendentalist writers. It gives peculiarity to the works of Thoreau, Alcott, Margaret Fuller, and many others. They are speaking with the authority of a higher life than their own. This gives them an attitude of immense egotism on occasion. If the individuality is not too insistent, it gives force, dignity, power, to the words they employ; and a high ethical quality. Emerson often seems to speak in tones of command, to utter eternal words. We tire of this quality when it is too persistent, however, for the lofty height, the demand for what we have not attained, repels us, and makes rebellion necessary. We joy in it at times, but we cannot always breathe the mountain air. And yet, Emerson is so much the rebel against all that is presumptuous, dogmatic, opinionated, that he takes sides himself against whatever is authoritative in his own words. He is a seer, but not one who commands the loyalty of other men to his own beliefs.
Inwardness is a frequent note of the transcendental poet. He loves nature, but he lives in his own thoughts. The outward as outward does not appeal to him. It is the indwelling of the Universal Spirit that sustains him; and he turns from the objective world, especially from social forms and religious conventionalisms, to find in himself, as the dwelling-place of the Spirit, that which is beautiful and inspiring. Lowell could not find true nobleness in the men and women around him; but he was bade
Look inward through the depths of thine own soul,
and then he found it, even in others. Very saw on earth another light than that his eye revealed, which
Came forth as from my soul within
And from a higher sky;
and it is this inward light to which he goes for guidance.
It shone from God within.
Another poet said it is not in nature we are to find God, but the inner eye reveals him to us.
Nature all concealing,
Dim her outer light,
Finite forms revealing,
Not the infinite.
The Over Soul is revealed in the outward world, but rather as a foil than as an expression of its highest life. When man would know the largest measure of being, he must turn away from nature, and seek it in his own soul. When he turns inward, and puts away selfishness and all regard for material things, humbly submits himself to the guidance of the Spirit, he will then find the divine life he seeks. Many of our poets agree with Wordsworth in the conviction that the world is too much with us, and they turned away from it to find in the soul the light that never was on sea or land. Nature is of value to man because it reflects himself to himself, and enables him to look at his own life as it is mirrored back to him from the physical world. It is capable of interpreting man to himself because it is an expression of the Over Soul in another kind. It has the same life that is in man, but without his individuality and liberty. Its permanence, its want of emotion, its passive acceptance of the Spirit that in it finds manifestation, shows man the need he has for integrity of soul and imperturbability of spirit.
All around himself he lies,
said Alcott of man, for nature is the reflection of man, and man the measure of nature.
Nature s the eyeball of the Mind,
said Alcott again. It is this unity of man and nature, the marvelous way in which they reflect and interpret each other, that gives origin to the doctrine of correspondences, which was accepted in greater or less degree by all the transcendental poets. This theory was fully stated by Cranch in his declaration:
All things in Nature are beautiful types to the Soul that will read them;
Nothing exists upon earth but for unspeakable ends.
Every object that speaks to the senses was meant for the spirit;
Nature is but a scroll, Gods handwriting thereon.
According to this theory there is between the material and the spiritual worlds an intimate relation; and the spiritual is interpreted to man by means of the material, which is its image or eidolon. It is as such an expression of the Over Soul that nature is of chief interest to our poets. They may love it for its beauty, but it is of greater worth to them as a manifestation of the spirit that shines through it. Nature is a perfect image of God in its own kind, without freedom of will or ethical liberty. Reason is absent from it, and it is also without the defect of vice, crime, and sin. It is not God, but God is reflected in it as in a mirror. We catch glimpses of his image therein, and they charm and console us. There in some measure is his law written, and there we come into intimate sympathy with him and his abundant life.
The transcendentalists conception of the relations of mind and body, and his belief not only that mind is fundamental but that it is the only reality, led him to a degree of asceticism. He looked upon the body as the servant of the mind, and therefore he would keep it in strictest subjection. This subordination of the physical part of man led to a strict regimen, to the practice of temperance, and even to abstemiousness. The mind ought to dominate the body, and if it is true to itself the body will know no ill. It is sin of mind that makes disease of body, according to the transcendentalist. When the mind dwells in the body with poise and integrity, the body will be sound and whole. This doctrine is well stated by Very:
Not from the earth, or skies,
Or seasons as they roll,
Come health and vigor to the frame,
But from the living soul.
Is this alive to God,
And not the slave to sin?
Then will the body, too, receive
Health from the soul within.
For He who formed our frame
Made man a perfect whole,
And made the bodys health depend
Upon the living soul.
According to Emerson the soul is the man, and it uses the functions of the body for its purposes. It is the background of our being, the light that shines through the bodily form. When the mind is sound the body is whole, and all defect of body is first of all defect of mind. The remedy for ills of the physical nature is the setting the mind in order and the living in harmony with its laws.
The transcendentalist is always an optimist. Because he believes in the Over Soul he is confident that evil is but temporary, and that it will pass away as the spirit is more perfectly revealed in the evolution of man. While he sometimes accepts the lapse philosophy, as did Alcott, and maintains that man has through self-will fallen from a more perfect state, he always believes in the gradual recovery of the higher nature, or the development of man until he shall fully attain to the things of the spirit and live a noble life. He believes that the future is better than the past, that Paradise is before and not behind. This belief is definitely stated by Miss Clapp:
Eden with its angels bold,
Love and flowers and coolest sea,
Is not ancient story told,
But a glowing prophecy.
It was this confidence in the development of man that made one of these poets sing of a present heaven, and another of the workers as coming surely to their own, the best the world contains. Heaven is of the present as well as of the future, and begins here to show its quality and its worth.
The transcendentalist was confident of immortality. He not only had faith that man will live hereafter, but he was also possessed of knowledge, as he thought. I know I am immortal, was his confident assertion. His desire became, as it were, an intuition, and that he held was enough to assure him of the future.
I am immortal! I know it! I feel it!
was the strong declaration of Margaret Fuller.
Chance cannot touch me! Time cannot hush me!
Fear, Hope, and Longing, at strife,
Sink as I rise, on, on, upward forever,
Gathering strength, gaining breath,naught can sever
Me from the spirit of Life!
It was confident faith in Spirit that gave such assurance of futurity. It made Ellery Channing sing in that noble lineone of the finest in the language
If my bark sink, t is to another sea,
with a profound conviction based on the deepest faith. But Emerson struck another note on this subject, one less assertive, even if as trustful. As was characteristic of the man, he was reticent of dogmatic claims, and trusted the future without presumptive assertion. He once declared: We may hope for a future life, that will enable us to see things once, and then to pass on to something new. Such a statement, if less confident, is more rational.
A strong ethical tendency manifests itself in many of the transcendental poets, as in Sills Life, Hoopers True Nobleness, and Howes Warning. Their optimism did not relax the moral purpose, but made it even more vigorous and insistent. There was something heroic in their teaching, and they braced the soul for duty, and the mind to accept the whole of the truth. Emerson is one of the most ethical of teachers, and always preaches a gospel of courage, strenuous fidelity, and insistent loyalty. He ethically invigorates all who come into real contact with him, and helps them to face life without flinching and with joyous confidence.
This courage grows out of a profound trust in the Over Soul. The heart of the world is sound, and its will can be accepted without fear. Our poets therefore joyfully accept the ways of the Over Soul. They wait its manifestations with hope, and do not seek to make their own purposes overtop it. The universe is inherently good, and there is no call to despair for those who see it as it is. Tranquillity, peace of soul, moderation in desire, are virtues cultivated by those who put their trust in the ways of the Over Soul. There is no need to run up and down the world for beauty, or help, or truth, for all these the Spirit brings to those who need them.
I stay my haste, I make delays,
For what avails this eager pace?
I stand amid the eternal ways,
And what is mine shall know my face.
When Burroughs sings in this fashion he shows himself a true transcendentalist, for that is the attitude and temper of this faith. It does not question the ways of the Over Soul, which is one with its own highest good. It has no creed, no dogma, no ritual, no infallible scripture; but the soul trusts that what is true and right and just will assert itself, and will make itself clearly known. Therefore, it does not combat evil, but seeks the good. It is so trustful of the Over Soul that it will not strive or complain, but hopefully accepts what the Spirit gives.
The chief defect of the poetry of the transcendentalists is that it is too philosophical. Its largest intent is ethical or religious, and not artistic. Beauty is not its chief inspiration, but thought. It is not written to please, but to convince. It contains a gospel, and not an appeal to emotion and imagination. That this defect always presents itself it would not be just to say, and yet it is too often present. These poets are more concerned as to what they say than as to how they say it. They are not singers, but teachers. The problems of life much concern them, and how to reform the world is to them of great importance. The charm of their poetry is in the beauty of the thought, and not in the delight of the song they sing. The form is often rugged, the verse is halting and defective. Their metres stumble, and their rhymes are not correct. They are too metaphysical, subtle, and complicated in their thought to sing themselves clearly and strongly out into beautiful words. Their thought is involved, and often obscure. They are so charmed with what they have to say, and it is of such a complex and subjective nature, that they cannot find simple and direct speech for its utterance. Hence the halting nature of their verse, its crippled metres, and its defective rhymes. Too often in their verse they are not poets, but philosophers.
These poets do not sing for the joy of the singing; and yet it was their idealism, the fact that they were enamored of beautiful thoughts, that made them use the verse form instead of prose. Poetry was to all of them the occasional rather than the chief medium of expression. With the exception of Lowell, they were not poets by profession, and even with him prose was used oftener than verse. Although Emerson early declared that his calling was that of a poet, yet he gave to the lecture and the essay the preference. With Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Higginson, and Wasson, as well as others, poetry was occasional or incidental. To a larger number poetry was an accident, and they wrote one or two or a half dozen poems only. There was something in transcendentalism that made them poets in youth or at rare moments; but they were grave theologians or philosophers for the rest of their lives. They were so stirred by the joy of life or the beauties of nature that prose ceased to be a fit medium for their thoughts. When verse thus became necessary to them they used it with a considerable degree of success, and these rare utterances are far above the level of occasional verse, whatever their defects.
If poetry is an interpretation of life, the transcendental poets deserve a large recognition. If their metaphysics repels us, and their subjectiveness is too subtle and insistent, they saw life largely and sanely. We can forgive their defective rhymes in view of their noble optimism and their heroic ethical temper. With them the man is more than the verse, and the manhood shines through the stumbling metres. If there is too much philosophy in their poetry, the teaching is sound and it is sincere. It was indeed a gospel they gave to those who need it.
Transcendentalism no longer holds the place it once occupied. It is not now the inspirer of poets or the chief influence in our literature. While idealism is more firmly established and more widely accepted than ever, transcendentalism has lost its intellectual supremacy. Its defects are not far to seek, and its excesses have discredited much that it taught. That mind is all, and that the Over Soul speaks only to the individual mind, are assertions that are widely criticised at the present time. The intuitions of the transcendentalist find a saner interpretation in the subtle laws of heredity than in the explanation he gave them. Individualism gives way to a recognition of social forces. The atomic theory of the soul does not justify itself in view of our present knowledge of social interaction. But not all the transcendentalists were contented with the theory that the individual is an isolated expression of the Over Soul. The larger view was justly stated by George Ripley and William Henry Channing, who vigorously protested against Emersons individualism and what it implied. Self-reliance has its worth, but no man can isolate himself from his kind, even in the name of the Over Soul. A rather mountainous Me, as was said of Margaret Fullers self-assertion, shows itself in too many who accept the doctrine of self-reliance. They ignore the heredity that has determined their capacities, the social forces that have created their opportunities, and the spiritual ideals of the race that have given them their motives and their vision.
We may give to transcendentalism a generous recognition for what it was to the men and women who accepted it; but we must see in it a passing phase of American thought. It may be that there are a larger number of persons who accept this faith to-day than in the prime of the movement as it affected American literature; but it is now an echo. To no great men is it inspiration, and it develops no creative literary movement. The charm of it has passed away as a vital force. It is a beautiful memory that is precious and glorious, and that still charms and delights us.
That it will revive again we may be convinced. It represents one of the persistent types of human thought. To some minds it is always true, because there are always individuals who see the world in this manner. It rarely happens, however, that this form of thought is widely enough accepted to constitute a movement or to create a literature. When this occurs the legacy is precious, and we may well cherish it with care and with joy. We can delight in what it is and in what it accomplishes without accepting its philosophy. No one of to-day can put himself back into the full spirit of that movement and realize the complete measure of it; but to appreciate it, to give it large recognition and just credit for what it was, that is not essential. Every age has its own type and quality, and reproduces none that has gone before it; but it ought to be able to see largely and sympathetically what other men and other ages have accomplished. If their time is not our time, and their thought not our thought, we have a large duty that requires us to give them wise recognition and to credit them with the great debt we owe them. Thus it is we may applaud the transcendentalists, praise unstintedly their work, take large delight in what they accomplished for American literature, without accepting their ethical theories or their religious philosophy. They were deeply religious men, but we need a more scientific word than was theirs. That they were seers, we admit; but we cannot sit with them in the prophets garb. And yet, we praise them, for we are glad in their work. What they wrought of beauty, art, philosophy, religion, is ours; and we have no wish to turn aside from the inheritance. We take it as a goodly part of what the past has placed in store for us.