This article concerns the question of influence evident in the transatlantic relationship between William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson. I argue that influence is linked vitally to light—celestial or the northern lights (i.e. aurora borealis)—, which is evident in the prose and poetry by Wordsworth and Emerson. Electromagnetic energy conducts a circuit; this is reflected also in the transatlantic crosscurrent of the precursor and progeny. Notably, Wordsworth’s “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” (1798) and his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802) influence Emerson’s The Poet (1844), which has been informed also by Michael Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity (1839). The matter pertaining to influence is inextricably connected to electromagnetism, light, and aurora borealis that appear in the work by Wordsworth and Emerson. Inspiration, then, ultimately can be derived from a celestial source in relation to the terrestrial.
The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence.Emerson, Nature
The question of influence, especially, Wordsworth’s influence upon Emerson has been a longstanding question addressed over the course of nearly a century by numerous critics such as John Brooks Moore, Stephen Whicher, Perry Miller, Harold Bloom, Robert Weisbuch, Joel Pace, Richard Gravil, and Patrick Keane. Moore’s salient essay “Emerson on Wordsworth” (1926) seems to disavow literary indebtedness—Emerson’s debt to Wordsworth—based upon this delineation: “. . . still he [Emerson] leaves us in not the least doubt that nature is secondary, God within us being primary. Wordsworth scarcely conveys any such distinction in the poems of his early period” (187). Moore apparently corroborates Emerson’s vision of the “American Scholar” whose “day of dependence” and “long apprenticeship to the learning of other lands, draws to a close” (Emerson, Essays and Lectures 53). Although Moore notes that Emerson quoted within his journal from five of Wordsworth’s poems in 1828 and Whicher identifies a quote of Wordsworth by Emerson in 1833, there seems to be at best a “nebulous impression of close kinship” (Moore 179). However, in Wordsworth’s mature poetry, particularly, The Prelude, Wordsworth asserts the primacy of the “mind of man” and exalts this over Nature. As a “prophet of Nature” (rather than prophet of God), Wordsworth exclaims in Book 14: “Instruct them [mankind] how the mind of man becomes / A thousand times more beautiful than the earth / On which he dwells, above this frame of things / . . . In beauty exalted, as it is itself / Of quality and fabric more divine” (14: 448-454). Virtually, Wordsworth associates the “mind of man” with divinity as that which supersedes Nature. Here, Wordsworth closes his epic with the “mind of man” as opposed to the mind of God in the primary position. Likewise, the exaltation of the “mind of man” is evident in Emerson’s work too, as I argue elsewhere; Emerson’s vision in Nature (1836) pertaining to the “transparent eyeball” indicates a revision of Puritan theocentrism that perceives not only the divine in nature, but also the divine within the self—“I become part or particle of God.” Essentially, Perry Miller’s study “Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism” (1961) indicates a shift regarding “America’s initial hostility to Wordsworth . . . and then of his gradual acceptance” (149). In addition, Miller continues to discuss how Emerson in the 1820s had been “repelled by him” until later in 1838 when a so-called “conversion” occurred to recognition of Wordsworth’s “great & steadily growing dominion” and, clearly, his influence on Emerson’s writing (149).
Bloom’s TheAnxiety of Influence (1973) and Map of Misreading (1975) feature Emerson’s American sublime and its “swerve” away from its literary precursor: the Wordsworthian egotistical sublime. In Experience (1844), Emerson writes that “the mind goes antagonizing on, and [it] never prospers but by fits” (Essays: Second Series 483). Accordingly, the American mind “prospers” through antagonism often when it wrestles with its literary precursors—the great antagonists—or agon from the past. In the case of Weisbuch’s Atlantic Double-Cross (1986), the burden of Britain weighs heavily upon the American mind: “Emerson’s entry encourages an antagonistic model of Anglo-American literary relations” (Weisbuch 12). He notes several times from Emerson’s English Traits how Emerson does not only look “directly to nature for inspiration,” but rather “he himself is looking instead to the English Romantics,” namely Wordsworth and Coleridge (Weisbuch 25). Although Weisbuch does not cite these times, clearly in 1833 and 1848 when Emerson visited Wordsworth, the elder bard left an impression “of a narrow and very English mind” upon the younger progeny, especially evident in the chapter on “Literature”: “The exceptional fact of the period is the genius of Wordsworth” (Emerson, Essays and Lectures 906). Arguably, these entries fifteen years apart do not indicate self-contradiction in as much as this is rather indicative of Emerson’s steady ambivalence towards his British precursor. Further, Pace’s major premise centers on how “Emerson’s Wordsworthian nurture” led to a “Wordsworthian Nature,” which has been substantiated through numerous cross references between Wordsworth’s verse—Ode: Intimations on Immortality, Yarrow Revisited, and Tintern Abbey—and evidence of quotes in his journal as well as marked lines in his personal edition of Wordsworth’s poetry from TinternAbbey (Pace 138). Gravil’s Romantic Dialogues (2000) offers a defense of Emerson’s work pertaining to the issue of literary indebtedness where Emerson’s Nature (1836) is perceived as “something other than plagiarism,” which asserts “in prose as no English Romantic successfully did, the high Romantic argument concerning nature” (99). For Gravil, the transatlantic relationship is a reciprocal one where British Romanticism is not the same once the light of its influence has been refracted by its American counterparts (e.g. Emerson, Thoreau, Cooper). In Patrick Keane’s Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic ‘Light of All Our Day’ (2005), his study examines the Coleridge-Emerson connection evident through Keane’s distinction between “intuitive reason” (i.e. angelic), where one sees with immediacy and quickness, as opposed to “discursive reason” (i.e. human) based upon rational faculties, which reflects Emerson’s delineation between Reason and Understanding in the chapter on “Discipline” in Nature (1836). Keane’s subtitle, “The Transatlantic ‘Light of All Our Day,’” alludes directly to Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality where light becomes the master trope in Keane’s text pertaining to the influence of Wordsworthian light; Emerson quotes salient lines from the Ode (e.g. “Those shadowy recollections / . . . Are yet the fountain light of all our day, / Are yet a master-light of all our seeing” ll. 149-152) in a lecture first published in the North American Review in April, 1866 (Keane 69-70). My own study attempts to extend the discussion by asserting how matters of influence are connected to illumination from light—celestial light or the northern lights. Wordsworth and Emerson allude to aurora borealis in their literary works indicating how electromagnetic energy conducts not only a circuit, but also animates a transatlantic crosscurrent between the precursor and progeny—the Lake District bard and the Concord sage.
The “burden of the past” constitutes an inescapable and invariably unbearable weight that the latecomer poet shoulders under the pressure of the literary tradition. Bate argues that when the writer’s “anxiety has to do with the all-important matter of his craft, and his achievement or fear of impotence, he naturally prefers to wrestle with it privately or to express it only indirectly” (8). For Emerson’s craft, retrospectively, he wrestles privately with an anxiety of influence that his Journal states (1845): “We are candidates; we know we are, for influences more subtle & more high than those of talent & ambition. We want a leader; we want a friend whom we have not seen” (Emerson, JMN 9:339). By 1833, however, Emerson has traveled to England to meet Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Carlyle of whom he has seen. Emerson desires influences that are “more subtle” and “more high” or exalted than the talent and ambition he has met with thus far. In 1841, Emerson publishes Self-Reliance in his First Series of Essays where he discloses a higher source of influence in an epigraph from Beaumont and Fletcher’s Honest Man’s Fortune:
Man is his own star; and the soul that can
Render an honest and a perfect man,
Commands all light, all influence, all fate;
Nothing to him falls early or too late. (emphasis mine)
Implicitly, through the epigraph, Emerson declares “man is his own star” capable of self-guidance and self-determination radiating with light, influence, and fate where “currents of the Universal Being circulate” through the inner man (Nature 10) evident in what Whicher calls “transcendental egoism” (55). Here, it is important to note Emerson’s personal interest in electromagnetism and galvanism. Eric Wilson contends, “Relinquishing egotism, Emerson suddenly participates in the abysmal Universal Being that manifests itself in polarized currents” (Emerson’s Sublime Science 136). His own being conducts the “currents,” which circulate through and beyond him pulsating, alternating, and oscillating with positive and negative charge filling the infinite space. That which circulates within mirrors the confluence of the human with the natural—the corporeal and incorporeal, materiality and immateriality—which invariably reflects Emerson’s sense of the ME and NOT ME. This passage could be interpreted, perhaps, as the semblance of neo-Platonic idealism or simply as electromagnetic waves, which pass through him. Keane observes, “‘Strange alternation of attraction and repulsion!’ Emerson exclaims in ‘Character’ . . . . ‘Character’ has its natural place in the North; ‘feeble souls are drawn to the south or negative pole’” (155). Accordingly, the North is clearly associated with character, positivity, and strength in the soul. There is a correlation between the binaries of external and internal, outward and inward, divine and human, north and south, positive and negative evident in the polarities that correspond to matters pertaining to influence. Outward observation of natural phenomena has moved inward—noumena—for Emerson who now admonishes in “Self-Reliance” that “man should learn to detect and watch that gleam of light which flashes across his mind from within, more than the luster of the firmament of bards and sages” (Essays: First Series 259). The “gleam of light” or gnosis—faint and fleeting—passes from the mind only to find its brilliance fade and recede from the “luster” of bards and sages. For Emerson, the mantra of self-reliance, which is “trust thyself,” signifies the importance of harnessing the energy within the mind.
In 1844, Emerson publishes The Poet in his Second Series of Essays as the first essay that functions as the integral link between the two series, which records in an epigraph, once again, the value of a higher source of influence:
A moody child and wildly wise
Pursued the game with joyful eyes,
Which chose, like meteors, their way,
And rived the dark with private ray:
They overleapt the horizon’s edge,
Searched with Apollo’s privilege;
Through man, and woman, and sea, and star,
Saw the dance of nature forward far;
Through worlds, and races, and terms, and times,
Saw musical order and pairing rhymes. (emphasis mine)
Meteorum signifies an astronomical phenomenon akin to a shooting or falling star that leaves a trail of incandescent light, which rives through the atmosphere with a “private ray” or piercing beam where, according to Bloom, “the flowing from the stars upon our fates and our personalities is the prime meaning of ‘influence’” (Anxiety of Influence xii). Here, children like meteors choose their way, which has been infused or instilled within the child by the inflow from the stars to guide, direct, and shape one’s course indicating the cosmos and humanity are governed by laws (e.g. natural law and moral law). The child as seer peers into the natural order, musical order, and poetic order suggestive of the poet who “sees and handles that which others dream of, traverses the whole scale of experience, and is representative of man, in virtue of being the largest power to receive and impart” (Emerson, The Poet 448). From which source does the poet receive? What is the effect upon the poet? In an uncanny way, Emerson’s perception of the child as seer echoes William Wordsworth’s Ode: Intimations of Immortality (1807) depicting the child as a “Mighty Prophet” and “seer blest”; further, Emerson’s discussion of poetic duties indicates sublimation of Wordsworth’s characterization of the poet in the third edition of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1802), which returns unrepressed and unacknowledged within the folds of Emerson’s The Poet.
For Wordsworth, the poet has a “more comprehensive soul” who is a “man speaking to men” in the common language of men with a “more lively sensibility” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads 603). Aside from the shift in the audience, subject matter, and poetic diction, a pervasive theme of the Preface emphasizes the “lively sensibility” of the poet representing depth of emotion, keenness of thought, acute perception, and tender sympathy for humankind expressed in the poetry to move the reader. As the observer and interpreter of human nature and nature itself, the poet as harbinger has been endowed to translate the significance of human lived experience and natural phenomena into the “real language of men.” Abrams declares that “the born poet is distinguished from other men particularly by his inheritance of an intense sensibility and a susceptibility to passion” (102). Instead of logic and reason, sensibility and passion emanate from the poet as inborn gifts in which the soul stretches beyond the physical to the metaphysical or from the logical to the paralogical (i.e. beyond logos) and contemplates “similar volitions and passions [to his own passions and volitions] as manifested in the goings-on of the Universe” (Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads 603). The poet, hence, internalizes the cosmography by mirroring this through his poetry, which is based upon the shifting positions of the celestial objects that interestingly have some sort of bearing on human existence (e.g. Strange Fits of Passion Have I Known, She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways, A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal, Intimations of Immortality). The celestial orbs, life, fate, and transcendence are each intricately intertwined to become the foci of poetic expression. In essence, knowing thyself breeds knowledge of other selves that constellate around the self reflecting a terrestrial and celestial relationship, which signifies self-awareness and recognition of the influence that celestial bodies can shed on humanity. In the “Prospectus” to The Recluse, Wordsworth writes of his “Song”: “With star-like virtue in its place may shine / Shedding benignant influence” (Wordsworth ll. 89-90). Accordingly, there is an association of the “star-like virtue” of his verse to influence upon subsequent writers such as Emerson. The poet becomes the channel by which men come into contact with the spirit of life where other lives revolve around his ever-evolving pervasive influence to “create [volitions and passions] where he does not find them” as the poet observes and interprets the cosmography.
The basis for the creative poetic act focuses on Wordsworth’s presumptions about what constitutes “good poetry.” The shift from decorum, form, and heroic couplets to the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” indicates several revolutionary principles. First, the spontaneity of poetic composition is based on long and deep meditation of the poetic subject, which can be relatively unstructured in resistance to poetic convention that often adheres to poetic form. The poet composes with the distinct purpose of expressing one’s own passions and feelings as that which relate to the passions and feelings of other men. Second, “powerful feelings” characterize the verse to evoke strong emotion as well as sympathy from the reader collectively that becomes an act of universal commiseration over the subject poeticized such as: Martha Ray in “The Thorn” (1798), the forlorn woman in “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” (1798), Margaret in The Ruined Cottage, Vaudracour and Julia in Book 9 of The Prelude (1805), or hapless Ellen in Book 6 of The Excursion (1814). Each female figure evokes sympathy for the plight of deserted or abandoned women due to infidelity, famine, or war alluding starkly to Wordsworth’s own abandonment of Annette Vallon and Caroline in 1793 upon England’s declaration of war against France during the Reign of Terror. As a form of persuasion, the poet appeals to the readers emotionally through powerful feelings infused in the verse to call attention to the significance of the poetic subject—mad mothers, idiot boys, discharged soldiers, and beggars among others— who then mark the pages of the text as expressions of human tragedy. These figures also reify themselves as specular images, which thereby impress themselves on the poetic consciousness. Third, the contention that these feelings “overflow” presupposes that the poet’s passions cannot be contained mainly within the receptacle of the human mind at work in deep meditation over the subject. In effect, the superabundance of passionate feeling wells up, teems, and fills the poetic consciousness, so that an excess is produced and expressed subsequently through words in the “language of common man”—an inexact attempt to express the yearnings of the poet.
The writer records the excess, and the reader perceives the excess in print within the poem, which does not adequately represent the depth and breadth of thought and feeling residing within the poetic mind still at the point of composition. Rather, the poetry merely contains the remainder or remnant of the contemplative thought; this remains by and large lodged deep within the cavity of the poetic mind unexpressed, perhaps, because it is quintessentially beyond creative expression in words (i.e. “language as counter-spirit”). Wordsworth states: “For our continued influxes of feelings are modified and directed by our thoughts, which are indeed the representatives of all our past feelings” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads 598). Influxus represents inflowing or fusing; these “influxes of feelings” meld with the poet’s thought that then shape the direction and expression of the feeling. The inflow of feelings and outflow of poetic thought through composition signify, as Wordsworth argues here, “representatives of all our past feelings,” however inadequately they may be expressed. The mind, then, acts as a repository for “emotion recollected in tranquility,” which will be distilled poetic thought on paper (Preface to Lyrical Ballads 611). Poetic verse attempts, thus, to ascertain and embody the extent of past feelings that elide and evade complete representation through language.
Subsequently, it has been noted that Wordsworth read Samuel Hearne’s Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean in 1797, which is the source material for his ballad “The Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” published in Lyrical Ballads (1798). Wordsworth depicts aurora borealis through a vision:
In sleep I heard the northern gleams;
The stars, they were among my dreams;
In rustling conflict through the skies,
I heard, I saw the flashes drive,
And yet they are upon my eyes,
And yet I am alive;
Before I see another day,
Oh let my body die away!
Wordsworth poeticizes Hearne’s recorded observation of the “northern gleams,” which refer to aurora borealis, through the dream of a forsaken Indian woman who has been abandoned. Interestingly, the natural phenomenon is not only visual; it is also audible as Wordsworth writes: “I heard the northern gleams,” and “I heard, I saw the flashes drive.” Certainly, here, the “rustling conflict” must indicate the collision of charged particles (i.e. electrons) with atoms in the earth’s upper atmosphere that emit light and what has been noted as a “crackling” sound in the northern latitude. Evidently, in Hearne’s A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean (1769-1772), he records this experience in the Northern Hemisphere of the Canadian region:
I do not remember to have met with any travelers into high Northern latitudes, who remarked their having heard the Northern Lights make any noise in the air as they vary their colours or position, which may probably be owing to the want of perfect silence at the time they made their observations on those meteors. I can positively affirm, that in still nights I have frequently heard them make a rustling and crackling noise, like the waving of a large flag in a fresh gale of wind.224
Apparently, the “rustling” and “crackling noise” of aurora borealis that Hearne compares to the furling of a large flag against the wind has made an impression upon Wordsworth who embeds this within his ballad. Although other travelers have not heard this sound, Hearne affirms the noise and attempts to explain the reason for the discrepancy:
It is, however, very probable that these lights are some times much nearer the Earth than they are at others, according to the state of the atmosphere, and this may have a great effect on the sound.224
Even though Hearne’s conjecture has not been scientifically validated as of yet, it is a reasonable assumption due to the proximity of the Earth to the sun at various times; upon which, the solar flares are emitted to traverse the Earth’s upper atmosphere that would clearly affect the sound to varying degrees. According to Eric Wilson, “electromagnetic induction” is not proven though until 1831 by Michael Faraday, the disciple of Sir Humphry Davy, who discussed this in Experimental Researches in Electricity (1839) and affirmed in “A Speculation Touching Electric Conduction and the Nature of Matter” in 1844 (“Coleridge, Emerson, and Electromagnetic Hermeticism” 134). Faraday’s study supports Hearne’s inference. Sound and sight are tangible and perceptible means by which nature instills its presence and influence through astronomical phenomena within the mind of the observer through its charged fields of energy (Emerson, The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson 8:4).
The reference to Faraday’s work comes clearly to the forefront in Emerson’s lecture “Poetry and English Poetry” (1854) edited by Joel Myerson. Emerson states: “Faraday, the most exact of natural philosophers, taught, that when we should arrive at the monads or primordial elements, the supposed little cubes or prisms of which all matter was built up, we should not find cubes, or prisms, or atoms at all, but spherules of force” (The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson 205). For Emerson, these “spherules of force” indicate electromagnetic charge within space. Faraday’s groundbreaking research regarding induction of electric current has been recorded in his three volume work Experimental Researches in Electricity published in 1839. In this study, he theorizes about “terrestrial magneto-electric induction” through an experiment he conducts using a brass globe to simulate the earth. Faraday writes:
As the electric currents are nowhere interrupted in the ball, powerful effects were expected, and I endeavored to obtain them with simple apparatus. The ball I used was of brass; it had belonged to an old electrical machine, was hollow, thin (too thin), and four inches in diameter; a brass wire was screwed into it, and the ball either turned in the hand by the wire, or sometimes, to render it more steady, supported by its wire in a notched piece of wood, and motion again given by the hand. The ball gave no signs of magnetism when at rest. A compound magnetic needle was used to detect the currents. It was arranged thus: a sewing-needle had the head and point broken off, and was then magnetized.48
Essentially, Faraday created a model that simulated the contrary poles of the earth by magnetizing the separate halves of the needles. Thereafter, the needles were adjusted according to the plane of a “magnetic meridian” and inserted at opposite ends. Faraday observed a current of electricity moving from north to south, which was measured by a galvanometer where what he called “negative electricity” collected at the equator and “positive electricity” resided at both poles. “Polarity is a law of all being. Superinduce the magnetism at one end of a needle,” according to Emerson, “the opposite magnetism takes place at the other end. If the south attracts, the north repels. To empty here, you must condense there” (Emerson, Journal and Miscellaneous Notebooks 5:30, 304). Clearly, Emerson must have read Faraday’s experiments about electromagnetism. Eric Wilson’s Emerson’s Sublime Science (1999) posits: “He [Faraday] concluded that these forces are not simply liquid flows pushing and pulling against one another, but rotary powers, positive poles circling one way, negative ones the other” (85). Based upon his experiment, Faraday concluded:
Upon considering the effects of terrestrial magneto-electric induction which have now been described, it is almost impossible to resist the impression that similar effects, but infinitely greater in force, may be produced by the action of the globe, as a magnet, upon its own mass, in consequence of its diurnal rotation. It would seem that if a bar of metal be laid in these latitudes on the surface of the earth parallel to the magnetic meridian, a current of electricity tends to pass through it from south to north, in consequence of the traveling of the bar from west to east by the rotation of the earth.52-53
Although Faraday may be conjecturing, his hypothesis and experiment became the basis for electromagnetic induction that indicated how a steady “current of electricity” flowed from south to north within a closed circuit filling the space above the earth in the upper regions of the atmosphere.
In a sense, Faraday observed that the electromagnetic movement of the current was not necessarily a material equated to liquid of some sort; rather, Faraday argued that the current was rotary “in consequence of its [the earth’s] diurnal rotation” traced through “magnetic curves” above the surface of the earth (Faraday 56). This startling discovery provided the basis for his hypothesis about aurora borealis:
I hardly dare venture, even in the most hypothetical form, to ask whether the Aurora Borealis and Australis may not be the discharge of electricity, thus urged towards the poles of the earth, from whence it is endeavouring to return by natural and appointed means above the earth to the equatorial regions.Faraday 56
Faraday speculates, here, that aurora borealis and aurora australis each result from the “discharge of electricity.” Although Faraday may not have known the source at the time, clearly the discharge of electric energy has been attributed to the solar flares from the sun. He recognizes how the poles of the earth and the discharged electricity seemingly interact to produce the phenomenon of auroras in the stratosphere. This apparently is confirmed by Fox’s Philosophical Transactions (1831) and his experience with aurora borealis, as Faraday cites, to corroborate his theory:
The non-occurrence of it in very high latitudes is not all against the supposition; and it is remarkable that Mr. Fox, who observed the deflections of the magnetic needle at Falmouth, by the Aurora Borealis, gives that direction of it which perfectly agrees with the present view. He states that all the variations at night were towards the east, and this is what would have happened if electric currents were setting from south to north in the earth under the needle, or from north to south in space above it.57
For Faraday, “deflections” or disruption of Fox’s compass caused by the electromagnetic interference due to aurora borealis serve to confirm his hypothesis through his experiment about the movement of the electric current from north to south.
Faraday’s experiments with electromagnetic induction scientifically validate the directionality of the electric current within the earth’s upper atmosphere, which affirm Hearne’s raw observations in the 1770s. Quintessentially, it is clear that Wordsworth and Coleridge derived inspiration from Hearne’s observations near Hudson’s Bay in Northern Canada as a basis for their ballads, which anticipate and pre-date Faraday’s scientific findings. For Romantic poets, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, electricity represents a metaphor signifying animating power for the mind and the burst of creative energy. Just as the ions in the upper atmosphere conduct electricity through the electrons, which form bands of colored waves in the night’s sky, the influence of one writer upon another generates poetic production. Coleridge’s ballad “Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798) also includes an allusion to aurora borealis: “The upper air burst into life! / And a hundred fire-flags sheen, / To and fro, they were hurried about! / And to and fro, and in and out, / The wan stars danced between” (ll. 313-317). The “hundred fire-flags” bursting allude to Hearne’s simile of the sound and signify the electromagnetic current in the “upper air” reflecting the poetic magnetism clearly between Coleridge and his contemporary Wordsworth. These “fire-flags sheen” depict the furling of the wavy bands of light across the night’s sky with intermittent points of light radiating in the background due to the “stars danc[ing] between” the streams of light. Wordsworth writes in The Prelude Book 5: “Ye [dreamers] whom Time / And Seasons serve; all Faculties; to whom / Earth crouches, the elements are potter’s clay, / Space like a Heaven filled up with Northern lights; / Here, nowhere, there, and everywhere at once” (5: 553-557). Even Wordsworth’s mention of aurora borealis here suggests that seemingly empty “space like Heaven” has been “filled up” albeit with electromagnetic current that is pervasive—“here, nowhere, there, and everywhere at once.” The sort of attraction and repulsion among the electrons and atoms in the open space is quite evident, likewise, in the case of Wordsworth and his effect on Emerson.
One only has to recall Emerson’s famous diatribe against history and the shackles of the past that crimp the folds of the poet’s own originality. Emerson declares in 1836, “Our age is retrospective. It builds the sepulchres of the fathers. . . . Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?” (Nature 7). In Self-Reliance, he queries, “Whence, then, this worship of the past?” (270). Although Emerson alludes to Daniel Webster’s Bunker Hill speech of 1825, he is not interested in building the “sepulchres of the [literary] fathers” nor does he want to ruminate over and worship the “dry bones of the past” to live in the shadow of these sepulchres as he commemorates an important moment in American history. Rather, Emerson historicizes the “dry bones” to infuse within the empty marrow a life-giving force, life-sustaining virtue, and vitality that the American scholar via the poet can imbue. “Poetic strength comes,” Bloom claims, “only from a triumphant wrestling with the greatest of the dead, and from an even more triumphant solipsism” (Map of Misreading 9). Poetic strength signifies both an outward struggle via wrestling to overcome the legacy of the dead literary forefathers and a self-internalized angst of grappling with one’s inadequacy, doubt, or limitation to stake out a place in literary history. Emerson contends, “It is not metres, but a metre-making argument that makes a poem,—a thought so passionate and alive that, like the spirit of a plant or an animal, it has an architecture of its own and adorns nature with a new thing” (The Poet 450). “Passionate” and “alive” are the key words here, which, at once, allude poetically to Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballads and declare rhetorically the strength and fervor of the poet’s words discursively. Poetry is not composed only for poetry’s sake, but also for society, which is moved to act by the poet’s “metre-making argument” that resonates in their minds and adorns nature with the presence of the poet’s original vision.
Emerson records an account of being “moved” himself through his own observations of genius in a young poet who composed and read hundreds of lines to an audience in Boston. “[The youth] could not tell whether that which was in him was therein told: he could tell nothing but that all was changed,” according to Emerson, “. . . How gladly we listened! How credulous! Society seemed to be compromised. We sat in the aurora of a sunrise which was to put out all the stars” (The Poet 451). Emerson compares the advent of youthful poetic genius to an aurora that marks the dawn of a new day; the new poet becomes the seer for a new age. The poet as change agent for social and moral reform acts like a celestial object to enlighten society. As the progeny or “aurora of a sunrise,” the new, strong poet has the vibrancy, vitality, and brilliance to eclipse the light of influence from the precursor and virtually “put out” or outshine “all the [other] stars” due to its radiance. Interestingly, J. C. Levenson’s “Christopher Pearse Cranch: The Case History of a Minor Artist in America” (1950) states Cranch published “To the Aurora Borealis” (1840) in the very first issue of the Dial (Levenson 419):
Cranch ll. 27-36
Who can name thy wondrous essence,
Thou electric phosphorescence?
Lonely apparition fire!
Seeker of the starry choir!
Restless roamer of the sky,
Who hath won thy mystery?
Mortal science hath not ran
With thee through the Empyrean,
Where the constellations cluster
Flower-like on thy branching lustre.
These phrases such as “electric phosphorescence” and “apparition fire” indicate Cranch’s attempt to depict the electromagnetic energy in the upper atmosphere. Hazen Carpenter’s “Emerson and Christopher Pearse Cranch” (1964) revealed a letter Cranch wrote to Emerson dated March 2, 1840: “I have owed to you more quickening influences and more elevating views in shaping my faith, than I can ever possibly express to you” (Carpenter 25). Subsequently, Cranch published his first volume of Poems (1844) with a dedication to Emerson. According to Carpenter, Emerson stated, “. . . he would like ‘to talk over with you [Cranch] very frankly this whole mystery and craft of poesy,’ that he intends to send Cranch his chapter on ‘The Poet,’ and that he considers these poems as a pledge of a more excellent life in the poet” (Carpenter 32). Although it is quite clear that Emerson influenced Cranch as J. C. Levenson, Perry Miller, and Hazen Carpenter argue, I would like to posit that Emerson may have been influenced by Cranch’s “To the Aurora Borealis,” which seems to be depicted in Emerson’s “The Poet.” Cranch or Thoreau may have been the poet that Emerson might have had in mind.
Nevertheless, Emerson views the new American poet as such: “I fancied that the oracles were all silent, and nature had spent her fires, and behold! All night, from every pore, these fine auroras have been streaming” (The Poet 451). Here, Emerson envisions aurora borealis projecting luminous bands of light that stream through the depth of the darkness and silence due to the ions from solar flares that collide with gas atoms to give off light in the electromagnetic field above the earth. According to the History of Vermont Astronomy, a “Most Remarkable Exhibition of Aurora Borealis” with a strong red hue occurred on January 25, 1837, which may have been known by Emerson. Silverman’s “New England Auroras, 1800-1849” describes a similar sighting on the same night in Boston, Massachusetts, “There was a magnificent display of this phenomenon in the evening, a broad belt from East to Westward—it lasted till after 10 o’ clock, but was most brilliant about 8 o’ clock. [I] never saw so great a light before, from such a cause. It had quite a red tinge and lighted to appearance of a large fire not far distant.” Furthermore, Carol Quinn’s “Dickinson, Telegraphy, and the Aurora Borealis” (2004) contends that “between 1835 and 1860, New England was subject to unusually frequent and intense displays of the northern lights” (58). “Indeed, through the rest of his career,” Eric Wilson writes, “Emerson consistently employed electromagnetic metaphors to detail a turbulent physical cosmos that manifests itself in polarized forms” (Emerson’s Sublime Science 136). The new strong poet, in effect, lights up the literary ionosphere with its own brilliance and conducts the flowing, circulating electric current infused within him to influence latecomer poets.
Emerson mentions the morning star or aurora in his poetry or prose, which may be a reference to his son Waldo who died in 1842 due to Scarlet Fever. Patrick Keane states and cites from a letter, “His [Emerson’s] intense mourning for little Waldo is seemingly contradicted by the famous refusal, or inability, to mourn: ‘I chiefly grieve that I cannot grieve’” (472). In a letter to his aunt Mary Moody Emerson on January 28, 1842, he confesses:
My boy, my boy is gone. He was taken ill of Scarlatina on Monday evening, and [he] died last night [Thursday night]. I can say nothing to you. My darling & the world’s wonderful child, for never in my own or another family have I seen any thing comparable, has fled out of my arms like a dream. He adorned the world for me like a morning star and every particular of my daily life.Letters 7
If Emerson immortalizes Waldo in the cosmos , then his references to the stars represent his attempts as a father to preserve the memory of his son, who has become emblazoned upon the night sky and embedded within his prose, which is reminiscent of the close of Shelley’s Adonais and Keats’s transcendence into the cosmos and these lines from Wordsworth’s Elegiac Stanzas mourning the death of his brother John in 1805: “Of all the sunbeams that did ever shine / The very sweetest had to thee been given” (ll. 23-24). For Emerson and Wordsworth, the “child” then becomes the “father of man” who signifies inspiration, influence, and potential for the poet whose eyes fix upon the brightness in the sky and whose ears remain attuned to the “primal warbling.” For, the duty of the poet entails being “so finely organized that we can penetrate into that region where the air is music, [so that] we hear those primal warblings, and attempt to write them down, but we lose ever and anon a word, or a verse, and substitute something of our own, and thus miswrite the poem” (Emerson, The Poet 449). Here, Emerson’s idealism suggests that poets “miswrite” the poem simply because they mishear, misread, or misinterpret the “primal warbling.” However, when the “soul of the poet has come to ripeness of thought,” according to Emerson, these poets succeed and send “away from it its poems or songs—a fearless, sleepless, deathless progeny” (The Poet 457). “Ripeness of thought” resonates with Wordsworth’s concept of “overflow” to indicate how poems detach from the poet, which is creative output. For Emerson, the poem rather than the belated poet is the “deathless progeny”—the source of influence on the subsequent poets.
Wordsworth, as the strong poet, is the standard bearer for the subsequent generation of Romantic and American poets. Emerson resists influence, history, and memory that romancing the bard entails in order to establish, primarily, an American literary tradition with himself at the center and core around which all other writers will constellate (e.g. Thoreau, Fuller, Whitman, Channing, and Stevens among others). David Bromwich’s “From Wordsworth to Emerson” (1990) centers on the theme of self-trust that Emerson is “happy to declare” as Wordsworth is “reluctant to admit,” which elicits the question of the tenuous balance between self-reliant individualism and collective community. For Wordsworth, the exuberance of self-trust and raw individualism expressed in the spirit of the French Revolution weighs in against his familiarity and commitment to English provincialism wherein lies the strange ambivalence that he recounts in his “Lines” written in 1798 near Tintern Abbey—“like a man / Flying from something that he dreads” (ll. 70-71)—that marks the final poem in his edition of LyricalBallads. What does the poet dread? To what extent is it political or personal or poetical? Essentially, William cannot forget and will not forget such that he exhorts Dorothy not to forget too—“wilt thou remember me” (l. 145)—at the very close of the poem. William Wordsworth’s poetic legacy is memory that privileges haunting reminders from the past that shape his present and those he loves best. For Emerson though, as Bromwich argues, “his departure from Wordsworth is connected with his own violent hatred of memory” (215). This can be seen best at the end of The Poet where Emerson states: “Thou [O poet] shalt not know any longer the times, customs, graces, politics, or opinions of men, but shalt take all from the muse. . . . Thou true land-lord! Sea-lord! Air-lord! . . . wherever are outlets into celestial space, wherever is danger, and awe, and love, there is Beauty” (467-468). Forgetfulness, thus, is the breeding ground for genius and beauty through the “outlets of celestial space.” For Emerson, inspiration—whether it is borrowed or self-generated—ultimately derives from a celestial source in relation to the terrestrial, which is the basis of influence.
Dewey W. Hall is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Foreign Languages at the California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. His research interests focus upon the English Enlightenment and English Romanticism with papers presented at national and international conferences. He has articles published in Studies in Puritan American Spirituality, English Literary History, and the European Romantic Review. His current book project is “Eco-Romanticism and the Transatlantic Exchange.”
Moore notes that Emerson quoted within his journal from these poems by Wordsworth in 1828: Dion, Ode: Intimations of Immortality, Ecclesiastical Sonnet X, Lines Left upon a Seat in a Yew Tree, Sonnet I, to the River Duddon (181). Whicher states Emerson quoted these lines from Wordsworth in 1833 that Emerson quotes again forty years later for his essay on “Inspiration”: “‘T is the most difficult of tasks to keep / Heights which the soul is competent to gain” (99).
My article “From Edwards to Emerson: A Study of the Teleology of Nature” (1995) discusses the shift in Emerson’s orientation from a theocentric to humanistic standpoint. Donald E. Pease’s Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings of Cultural Context lays the groundwork for my observations.
Even though Emerson does not mention nor acknowledge Wordsworth’s influence when he records “crossing a bare common,” Weisbuch queries: “Is it possible to imagine that experience in that way without having read William Wordsworth? . . . Emerson is simply covering his tracks in the New England snow, in part because any acknowledgement of influence will damage the freshness of the assertions and wreck his rhetoric” (“Post-colonial Emerson and the Erasure of Europe” 206-207). Clearly, Weisbuch perceives Wordsworth’s presence within Emerson’s writing.
It is important to note Emerson’s “First Visit to England” recorded in English Traits (1856) as a significant transatlantic moment between Wordsworth and Emerson—see also Robert Richardson’s Emerson: The Mind on Fire (1995) Chapter 24 “A White Day in My Years.”
Whicher contends that Emerson oscillates between transcendental egoism and Platonic idealism in Nature (1836).
For information about the theory of influence, the following texts are indispensable: Walter Jackson Bate’s The Burden of the Past and the English Poet; Harold Bloom’s The Anxiety of Influence and A Map of Misreading; Robert Weisbuch’s Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson; Richard Gravil’s Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776-1862; Joel Pace and Matthew Scott’s Wordsworth in American Literary Culture.
Here, I am referencing Abrams’s classic study The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (1953).
I have in mind Wordsworth’s salient Essays upon Epitaphs and Frances Ferguson’s Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit (1977).
Lane Cooper’s “A Dissertation upon Northern Lights” (February 1906) recognizes the importance of aurora borealis in Wordsworth’s verse.
Cooper contends that in an earlier version of Wordsworth’s “Complaint of a Forsaken Indian Woman” (1798), lines 5 and 6 were printed as: “In sleep did I behold the skies, / I saw the crackling flashes drive” (45). Paul Gilmore’s “Romantic Electricity, or The Materiality of Aesthetics” states, “The political sense of electricity is exemplified in Coleridge's ‘Sonnet: To William Godwin’ (1795), where he describes Godwin as ‘form'd t' illume a sunless world forlorn, / As o'er the chill and dusky brow of Night, / In Finland's wintry skies, the Mimic Morn / Electric pours a stream of rosy light.’ Just as the aurora borealis pours electric light onto the winter of Scandinavia (the Northern Lights were one of many phenomena understood in terms of electricity in the eighteenth century), so Godwin's revolutionary political thought enlightens a ‘forlorn’ world, and makes ‘OPPRESSION, terror-pale, / Since, thro' the windings of her dark machine, / Thy steady eye has shot its glances keen’” (Gilmore 476). Here, Coleridge’s allusion to aurora borealis anticipates Wordsworth’s allusion, which suggests influence.
Hartman’s Wordsworth’s Poetry: 1787-1814, especially Part I “The Halted Traveller” (3-30), and also Michael’s “Emerson’s Chagrin: Benediction and Exhortation in ‘Nature’ and ‘Tintern Abbey’” (December 1986) are essential here.
- Abrams, M. H. The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1953.
- Bate, Walter Jackson. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1970.
- Bloom, Harold. A Map of Misreading. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1975.
- Bloom, Harold. The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1973.
- Bromwich, David. “From Wordsworth to Emerson.” Romantic Revolutions: Criticism and Theory. Eds. Kenneth R. Johnston, Gilbert Chaitin, Karen Hanson, and Herbert Marks. Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990. 202-218.
- Carpenter, Hazen C. “Emerson and Christopher Pearse Cranch.” The New England Quarterly 37.1 (1964): 18-42.
- Cooper, Lane. “A Dissertation upon Northern Lights.” Modern Language Notes 21.2 (1906): 44-46.
- Cox, James M. “Ralph Waldo Emerson: The Circles of the Eye.” Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1985. 45-60.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 12 Volumes. Ed. Edward Waldo Emerson. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Ralph H. Orth, and Alfred R. Ferguson. 16 Volumes. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1971.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Ralph Waldo Emerson: Essays and Lectures. Ed. Joel Porte. New York: The Library of America, 1983.
- Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Selected Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Ronald A. Bosco and Joel Myerson. Athens: The University of Georgia P, 2005.
- Ferguson, Frances. Wordsworth: Language as Counter-Spirit. New Haven: Yale UP, 1977.
- Gilmore, Paul. “Romantic Electricity, or The Materiality of Aesthetics.” American Literature 76.3 (2004): 467-494.
- Gravil, Richard. Romantic Dialogues: Anglo-American Continuities, 1776-1862. New York: St. Martin’s P, 2000.
- Hall, Dewey W. “From Edwards to Emerson: A Study of the Teleology of Nature.” Studies in Puritan American Spirituality. Ed. Michael Schuldiner. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen P, 1995. 123-147.
- Hartman, Geoffrey. Wordsworth’s Poetry: 1787-1814. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.
- Hearne, Samuel. A Journey from Prince of Wales’s Fort in Hudson’s Bay to the Northern Ocean. Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971.
- Keane, Patrick. Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic ‘Light of All Our Day.’ Columbia: U of Missouri P, 2005.
- Levenson, J. C. “Christopher Pearse Cranch: The Case History of a Minor Artist in America.” American Literature 21.4 (1950): 415-426.
- Michael, John. “Emerson’s Chagrin: Benediction and Exhortation in ‘Nature’ and ‘Tintern Abbey.’” Modern Language Notes 101 (1986): 1067-1085.
- Miller, Perry. “Thoreau in the Context of International Romanticism.” The New England Quarterly 34.2 (1961): 147-159.
- Moore, John Brooks. “Emerson on Wordsworth.” PMLA 41.1 (1926): 179-192.
- Owen, W. J. B. and Jane Smyser, Eds. Essays upon Epitaphs in The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Volume II. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1974.
- Pace, Joel. “‘Lifted to genius’? Wordsworth in Emerson’s nurture and Nature.” Symbiosis 2 (1998): 125-140.
- Pace, Joel and Matthew Scott, Eds. Wordsworth in American Literary Culture. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.
- Pease, Donald E. Visionary Compacts: American Renaissance Writings of Cultural Context. Madison: The U of Wisconsin P, 1987.
- Quinn, Carol. “Dickinson, Telegraphy, and the Aurora Borealis.” The Emily Dickinson Journal 13.2 (2004): 58-78.
- Richardson, Robert Jr. Emerson: The Mind on Fire. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.
- Rusk, Ralph. Ed. The Letters of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Volume III 1842-1847. New York: Columbia UP, 1939.
- Silverman. “New England Auroras, 1800-1849.” http://nssdcftp.gsfc.nasa.gov/miscellaneous/aurora/new_england_auroral_obs_1720_1948/ane800t.rtf.
- Weisbuch, Robert. Atlantic Double-Cross: American Literature and British Influence in the Age of Emerson. Chicago: Chicago UP, 1986.
- Weisbuch, Robert. “Post-colonial Emerson and the Erasure of Europe.” The Cambridge Companion to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Eds. Joel Porte and Saundra Morris. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1999. 192-217.
- Whicher, Stephen. Freedom and Fate: An Inner Life of Ralph Waldo Emerson. New York: A. S. Barnes & Company Inc., 1953.
- Wilson, Eric. “Coleridge, Emerson, and Electromagnetic Hermeticism.” The Wordsworth Circle 32.3 (2001): 134-138.
- Wilson, Eric. Emerson’s Sublime Science. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
- Wordsworth, William. The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth. Ed. Stephen Gill. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1984.