Ralph Waldo Emerson: Emerson and Thomas Carlyle

Ralph Waldo Emerson: Emerson and Thomas Carlyle

Thomas Carlyle was Emerson’s primary guide to German literature, his great discovery of the early 1830’s. Carlyle first came to Emerson’s notice in 1830, by way of his translation of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, but it was not until 1832 that Emerson was able to put a name to this "Germanick new-light writer." Various essays by Carlyle in the Edinburgh Review were deeply appreciated by Emerson in 1832, and by 1833 he had set out for Europe in hopes of meeting Carlyle in Scotland, which he did. It was the beginning of a life-long friendship and correspondence.

The relationship between Emerson and Carlyle was based in a deep stratum, for "in the irrational depths of their own minds there was a profound identity between them." (Harris, 3)[ Include bibliography of Harris, Kenneth Marc. Carlyle and Emerson: Their Long Debate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978. Note Note.] They both attempted to find a skepticism-refuting faith and to combine philosophy and theology with literature. They both promoted idealism in a rationalistic age. Carlyle, like Coleridge, was a proponent of the Reason/Understanding dichotomy so important to Emerson’s development: In Novalis he refers to "the recognition, by these Transcendentalists, of a higher faculty in man than Understanding; of Reason (Vernunft), the pure, ultimate light of our nature." (Carlyle Works, 27: 27) They both possessed a certain distaste for hyper-rational, systematic metaphysics. Carlyle, eight years Emerson’s senior, developed his notions sooner, partly due to his superior knowledge of German and access to German works. The form of idealism that Emerson developed was not extreme, retaining some few elements of rationalism, a quality shared with Carlyle. In Novalis, Carlyle regards an idealist as being one who "boasts that his Philosophy is Transcendental, that is, 'ascending beyond the senses' . . . To a Transcendentalist, Matter has an existence, but only as a Phenomenon: were we not there, neither would it be there." (Carlyle Works, 27:24-5) Carlyle’s essays Signs of the Times and Novalis were particularly important to Emerson, along with, of course, Sartor Resartus Web Site(especially the chapter entitled "Natural Supernaturalism.") However, stylistically, Nature has little in common with Sartor Resartus.

Carlyle was a bit of a dilettante philosophically, whereas Emerson was more focused on his goal. They also differed greatly in the use of humor in their works, Emerson being so much more earnest. Their relationship began to drift apart in the late 1830’s as Carlyle grew out of his earlier transcendental phase. Emerson distrusted the lack of profundity on Carlyle’s part. Carlyle found Emerson a bit too mystical for his taste: "You tell us with piercing emphasis that man’s soul is great; shew us a great soul of a man, in some work symbolic of such: this is the seal of such a message." (Slater, 215)[Include bibliography for Slater, Joseph, ed. The Correspondence of Emerson and Carlyle. New York: Columbia University Press, 1964.Note Note.] These men, at first fascinated with one another, simply grew apart.

Both Emerson and Carlyle expressed a deep admiration for so-called "Great Men," for "all things that we see standing accomplished in the world are properly the outer material result, the practical realization and embodiment, of thoughts that dwelt in the Great Men sent into the world." (Carlyle, Heroes, 6)[Include bibliography for Carlyle, Thomas. Heroes and Hero Worship. Chicago: Donohue, Henneberry & Co., [No Date Given]. ] Carlyle, though, by this point was drifting away from his transcendental ideas, and thus tended to regard greatness as more an act of the individual will, whereas for Emerson greatness always lay in the hero’s ability to allow the one will to flow through him. Carlyle was more a man of action and Emerson more a man of thought, though of course this is a gross generalization. Carlyle also possessed a greater need for the teeming life of the sprawling metropolises, and was more concerned with his role as a critic of society.

Carlyle, more than anyone else, introduced Goethe to Emerson, both through his essays upon and advocacy of Goethe and his translations. They shared a profound admiration for Goethe, though Emerson had serious qualms about Goethe’s worldliness that Carlyle did not share.

The passing years saw them drift apart in inclination, as well as politics. Carlyle was becoming increasingly authoritarian, and Emerson was not. Their dialogue remained constant, however, and they remained friends, agreeing to disagree. In essence, Carlyle "forces us to admit the truth, [Emerson] allows us to entertain the illusions which make the truth endurable." (Harris, 171)[Include bibliography for Harris, Kenneth Marc. Carlyle and Emerson: Their Long Debate. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978. Note Note.]

Carlyle’s influence upon American Transcendentalism was profound, yet less faithful to its German inspirations than that of Coleridge. Carlyle was simply not the philosopher that Coleridge was. His prime model was Goethe, and he tended to lump the German philosophers together under the Goethean banner. He was, however, the main channel through which Goethe and other German poets and novelists flowed into America, as well as an important influence in his own right.

Emerson's 1843 review of Carlyle's Past and Present in the Dial

Bryan Hileman, VCU
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