Transcendentalism: The Luminous Allusion of Emerson’s School

August 12, 2015 § Leave a comment

Consider this complicated image of transcendentalism, courtesy of Google Books.

There is somewhat in this image–“somewhat” (by the way) is an Emersonian phrasing for some thing, some part–that reiterates and anticipates our focus in this course on “transcendentalism” in the work of a major American writer, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his influence on (his relation to, his “education” of) numerous writers or “students” who read and follow him, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, William James, W.E.B. DuBois, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ralph Ellison, Annie Dillard, Mary Oliver, and others. What is transcendentalism?

The cover of the book, a brief anthology of selected work from Emerson and Thoreau, suggests one primary association. Transcendentalism has something to do with nature–with writers interested in nature, a love for nature.  This interest will indeed be found in Emerson and the writers and artists that follow him. But the tree become head, or the head becoming a tree, offers something other than a familiar image of nature (familiar neither to tree nor to man); it’s interesting, but also somewhat unsettling. It makes me think of Emerson’s reference (in his second essay on “Nature”) to Nature as an incarnation or precipitation of mind.

The divine circulations never rest nor linger. Nature is the incarnation of a thought, and turns to a thought again, as ice becomes water and gas. The world is mind precipitated, and the volatile essence is forever escaping again into the state of free thought. Hence the virtue and pungency of the influence on the mind, of natural objects, whether inorganic or organized. Man imprisoned, man crystallized, man vegetative, speaks to man impersonated. That power which does not respect quantity, which makes the whole and the particle its equal channel, delegates its smile to the morning, and distills its essence into every drop of rain. Every moment instructs, and every object: for wisdom is infused into every form. It has been poured into us as blood; it convulsed us as pain; it slid into us as pleasure; it enveloped us in dull, melancholy days, or in days of cheerful labor; we did not guess its essence, until after a long time. [Emerson, “Nature”]

That imagery and idealism was caricatured in Emerson’s time, but also embraced. Transcendentalism is a cultural context for these writers (ideas and thinking from the mid-nineteenth century in America, particularly in the northeast where all three live and work); so it is one lens we can use. [and for more background on this lens, I refer you to Martin Bickman’s helpful overview of Transcendentalism]. But transcendentalism is also famously hard to characterize or fix into any final form or definition. That will also serve us as somewhat of a lens through which to read Emerson,  since I will argue that Emerson conceives of a literature and a writing/reading experience that is luminous and allusive. This is the language from “American Scholar” we will encounter in our first assignment:

One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. Every sentence is doubly significant, and the sense of our author is as broad as the world. We then see, what is always true, that, as the seer’s hour of vision is short and rare among heavy days and months, so is its record, perchance, the least part of his volume. The discerning will read, in his Plato or Shakespeare, only that least part,–only the authentic utterances of the oracle;– all the rest he rejects, were it never so many times Plato’s and Shakespeare’s.

This sense of allusive (and elusive?) luminousness suggests both a problem and a potential for reading and grasping and learning from Emerson. That’s our primary goal–to learn from Emerson such that we, liberal arts scholars of the very sort Emerson often addressed in his lectures, may put his ideas to work in our scholarship; our secondary goal is to consider how others’ reading and learning from Emerson has shaped their work and more broadly, the current of American culture. (A tertiary goal, for me, as a scholar doing work on Emerson and his rhetoric of liberal education, is to engage you with some of these educational ideals shared between Emerson and the liberal arts tradition and see what I can learn from you in the process). Those writers and readers and learners have long pointed out the challenge of learning from an Emerson who is concerned precisely with how we learn, worried about the ways we are schooled. One well-known version of this recognition is given by Walt Whitman, who characterized “Emersonianism” in a piece titled luminously “Emerson’s Books (The Shadows of Them)”:

The best part of Emeronianism is, it breeds the giant that destroys itself. Who wants to be any man’s mere follower? lurks behind every page. No teacher ever taught, that has so provided for his pupil’s setting up independently–no truer evolutionist. (Whitman: Poetry and Prose [Library of America] 1055)

And, always, there is Emerson himself to reckon with. “I have been writing and speaking what were once called novelties, for twenty five or thirty years,” Emerson writes in an 1859 journal, “and have not now one disciple”: “Why? Not that what I said was not true; not that it has not found intelligent receivers but because it did not go from any wish in me to bring men to me, but to themselves. I delight in driving them from me…. This is my boast that I have no school and no follower” (JMN 14: 258).

Our primary critical guide throughout the course, the Emerson scholar Lawrence Buell, characterizes this challenge in this way: “Emerson as Anti-Mentor.”

To begin a seminar in this way is a matter of provocation. This is an Emersonian place to begin.

Luminous Allusion

December 11, 2011 § 18 Comments

Critical Readings in Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson

Volume 2: December 2011


[To submit your final project to this class magazine, reply with the link from your blog; include in the comment the title of your essay]

Transcendental Afterlives

December 5, 2011 § Leave a comment

We have already seen some ways Whitman and Emerson live on in commercials.

Consider the recent film “Tree of Life” by the director/writer Terence Malick. It strikes me as filled with a transcendentalism that echoes with Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson–right down to an interest (as far as I can tell) in Emerson’s idea of the radical correspondences between spirit and matter, mind and world. This makes it alternately beautiful  to watch and difficult to grasp. It is out on DVD, and at least worth a look over the winter break. Here is a review of the film in The New Yorker that compares watching the movie to reading Emerson’s “Over-Soul.” Another review that directly links the director and this film to Emerson and transcendentalism, and yet another; another that links specifically to Emerson’s vision of “History.; another. As you can see, Emerson seems to live on through the lens of this screen writer and director–one who studied philosophy at Harvard (with the Emersonian Stanley Cavell, in Emerson Hall, no less) before giving it up to go into film.

Consider also a project by a poet, translating Emily Dickinson’s poems (apparently all of them) from English into English. The project is described in this recent article in the Chronicle.

Transcendental Works and Days: The Theory of This Particular Wednesday

November 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

I did some further reading in Emerson. The essay is titled “Works and Days,”collected in the 1870 volume Society and Solitude. I had forgotten that I had read it about two years ago; in fact, I discovered that I had already read it (remembered that I had forgotten it…) by finding some notes I saved on the web. Our thoughts come back to us, so Emerson says, with an alienated majesty.

My current, primary interest in this essay now is that it contains a vision and a vocabulary of technology that the 20th century media theorist, Marshall McLuhan, puts to use. Emerson writes of technological tools here as “extensions” of the human body. McLuhan borrows the very word in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. So, one of my current projects is to pursue further this interesting and somewhat unlikely association, Emerson and McLuhan. I have been planning and composting for some time an essay that explores Emerson in relation to digital technology, something I have carried by the handle, Googling Emerson: is the web, I wonder, or Google Books, more specifically, the logical extension of Emerson’s notion of creative reading, of luminous allusion? McLuhan’s connection may give me one way to frame the critical narrative.

Of such stuff critical readings are made. So, for the final project, think about going forward (into unlikely connections and comparisons, links) as well as going back. Critical readings, good arguments, are built upon experiment and surprise.

I would suggest, in the end, that the vision (and version) of transcendentalism we have explored, by way of Emerson, Whitman, and Dickinson, also makes an argument for, and toward, experiencing and experimenting with the surprising and the spiritual–the enigmatical, as Emerson names it–in the everyday world of Wednesday. Here is Emerson toward the end of “Works and Days.”

And him I reckon the most learned scholar, not who can unearth for me the buried dynasties of Sesostris and Ptolemy, the Sothiac era, the Olympiads and consulships, but who can unfold the theory of this particular Wednesday. Can he uncover the ligaments concealed from all but piety, which attach the dull men and things we know to the First Cause ? These passing fifteen minutes, men think, are time, not eternity; are low and subaltern, are but hope or memory ; that is, the way to or the way from welfare, but not welfare. Can he show their tie ? That interpreter shall guide us from a menial and eleemosynary existence into riches and stability. He dignifies the place where he is.’ This mendicant America, this curious, peering, itinerant, imitative America, studious of Greece and Rome, of England and Germany, will take off its dusty shoes, will take off its glazed traveller’s-cap and sit at home with repose and deep joy on its face. The world has no such landscape, the aeons of history no such hour, the future no equal second opportunity. Now let poets sing ! now let arts unfold !

One more view remains. But life is good only when it is magical and musical, a perfect timing and consent, and when we do not anatomize it. You must treat the days respectfully, you must be a day yourself, and not interrogate it like a college professor. The world is enigmatical, – everything said, and everything known or done, – and must not be taken literally, but genially. We must be at the top of our condition to understand anything rightly. You must hear the bird’s song without attempting to render it into nouns and verbs. Cannot we be a little abstemious and obedient ? Cannot we let the morning be ?

And lest we think that Emerson urges us here into a simplistic view of simplicity, he complicates the picture in the very next paragraph:

Everything in the universe goes by indirection. There are no straight lines…. Well, human life is made up of such transits. There can be no greatness with-out abandonment.

I suggest, in the end, that we find in Whitman and Dickinson, as in Emerson, a practice of indirection (a very Whitmanian word here) and the slanting of no straight lines (Dickinson) informed by a poetic theory of abandonment: understanding and writing and transcending the enigmatical world not literally, but genially.

Dickinson and Howe

November 15, 2011 § Leave a comment

I chose Howe’s My Emily Dickinson for some critical perspective on the poet. However, I also have it in mind as an example, in Howe’s own writing and thinking, of a descendant of Dickinson. And of Emerson. Howe’s book strikes me as very much in the mode of whatever Emerson means by “creative reading” in “American Scholar”: one must be an inventor to read well. I think Howe is reading Dickinson well by reading inventively. This is insightful criticism; this isn’t easy to read or grasp, at the same time.  Among the initial insights I think we–in this course–can grasp: for Dickinson, as for Emerson before her, and Wallace Stevens after her, “Poetry is the scholar’s art” (15). Howe surely demonstrates this mix of scholarship and poetics in her writing about Dickinson. What have we seen of this scholar’s art in Dickinson? What does that mean, a poetry written as a scholar’s art?

For Howe, this means Dickinson deals with her language not just as a poet, but as a scholar deals with language. I recognize this in the final line of part one: Forcing, abbreviating, pushing, padding, subtracting, riddling, interrogating, re-writing, she pulled text from text. (29)

Here is Susan Howe’s recent poem, That This. It sheds some light on Howe’s langauge poetics; for more on Howe and language poetry, visit her page at I hear in these pronouns variations on Dickinson’s interest in the markers of relation–this, then, here–that bridge eternity with the very moment of the poem, the general with the specific. In this sense, since we as readers are related in that relation, situated in the “this” of the poem we are hearing now in our brains, or holding in our hands, this that serves something like Whitman’s “you.” Here, hear.

For audio of Howe reading and briefly discussing “My Life had stood–a loaded gun,” the poem central to My Emily Dickinson.

Elements of Dickinson’s Poetics

November 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Dickinson's handwritten manuscript of her poem...

Image via Wikipedia

To see the Summer Sky

Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie–

True Poems flee–      [#1472]

Here are some elements of Dickinson’s poetics, her grammar. For Dickinson, it seems, poetry is and isn’t formal, can and can’t be captured in a structure: it lies in a book–thus hearing one of her poetic elements, the play on lie. This tension between the formal and the resistance to form should sound familiar, given its prominence in Emerson’s thinking and Whitman’s example.

  • Form: there is form, and the resistance to form. As we know from Professor Folsom’s article on “Transcendental Poetics,” Higginson thought of Dickinson as struggling a bit with formlessness, in need of help–but not as wildly formless as he viewed Whitman: phrase without form. Our foray into Dickinson scholarship and its more recent interests in the manuscripts of Dickinson, in the implications of her variants, suggests one way to think of Dickinson’s riddle of formless form. Her writing in its materiality (her physical use of the page) is both formal and at the same time, resistant to form.
    • For an overview of Dickinson’s manuscripts, visit this page of the Dickinson museum.
  • Rhetoric: Like Whitman and Emerson before her, I would argue that we have another poet interested in the argument of poetry as much, if not more, than in particular conventions of poems. In other words, there is rhetoric for us to reckon with.
    • Compression: A prominent rhetorical element of her poetry I would identify as its compression. This is, on one hand, a formal element: her poems take place in short space; this is not Leaves of Grass. But compression is also a key rhetorical figure, one associated in particular with metonymy. [In his lecture Art and Criticism, Emerson identifies “compression” (and metonymy) as key virtues of rhetoric: “The silences, pauses, of an orator are as telling as his words.1 What the poet omits exalts every syllable that he writes.”] Metonymy figures association and reference by way of compression, reduction. Something is taken out, elided, in the process of making the connection, leaving the reader with relation that is suggestively partial, somewhat elliptical. For example, one might imagine: “In my emotional state I felt as though the mourner who feels overwhelmed in her head attending a funeral” becomes “I felt a funeral in my brain.” This extreme sort of elliptical metonymy is known by the rhetorical term metalepsis, figuring by way of remote association–the poet skips a step or two in suggesting the relationship, or crosses (transgresses) narrative boundaries. (In film,, for example, metalepsis is evident when a song playing on the radio in a scene becomes part of the film soundtrack, or the reverse). A vivid example of this sort of transgression  comes in another famous opening figure: My life had stood a loaded gun. This example is so wildly remote in association as to be unconventional and trangressive. The rhetorical term for that is catechresis: basically, a mixed metaphor or other misapplication of a word or figure according to conventional standards.
      • In comparison to Whitman and to Emerson, there is a good deal more metaphor we reckon with in Dickinson. True. And yet, there is more metonymy than some might think–particularly if we think of the ways many of her figures, seemingly metaphors (like a loaded gun) may be more metonymic (associational, contextual), just with the association having been removed or compressed or condensed.
    • Consider this electronic poem, “This is Not a Poem,” for elements of the way Dickinson’s poems compress–and also, perhaps, desire to flee from the page.
  • Punctuation.
    • The dashes, of course. Perhaps another marker of transgression and compression. I like the idea that some in the class have begun to explore, that Dickinson writes and wants to be read more dynamically, dramatically. The dashes, from this perspective, signal movement in her poetry and mark places not to read, but to perform or play the poem.
  • Diction.
    • I notice the ways her word choice moves from very specific, capitalized nouns (in the manner of German) that are uncommon or unusual in some form: Sagacity, Crucifixion, Circuit, Circumference. And then others, such as the relative pronoun “this” or the adverb/adjective “then” that leave things rather suggestively vague. The “then” at the end of “I felt a funeral”–is it an adverb, marking time, or an adjective, indicating a next step that has been cut off by the dash? Or in the same poem, the word “here” which rhymes with ear, thus evoking its homonym, hear, at the same time that it signals its location–here, this poem, this reading, this hearing .Or “this” in any location, when used without a clear referent: suggests the possibility, always, of this poem, her writing, sitting in her room. Something like Whitman’s “you.”
      • from the perspective of linguistics and semiotic theory (the study of signs), words such as “here” and “this” (like “I” or “you”) can be thought of as indexes–a sign that points to something. For more on indexicality.
    • When not confusing or vague, there is the simple oddity of a word choice that strikes me. To the point where Dickinson’s imagery, her conceits, seem almost metaphysical, in the manner of a poet like John Donne. Consider: I hear a fly buzz when I died–the way the fly is “interposed” in the middle of the poem.
  • Sight.
    • A theme, among others: Dickinson’s interest in the eye. Some of that seems to be biographical–Dickinson experienced severe problems with her vision at one point in her life. But there is also a way to think about sight as one of her poetry’s senses, given the ways her poems exist on the page: both in terms of the manuscripts and the printed versions. The visual form matters for any poem; for this poet, it seems crucial. For a compelling and insightful critical look at sight in Dickinson, in relation to nineteenth-century photography, read Marta Werner’s digital essay.
  • Sound.
    • We spoke initially of Dickinson’s use of common meter, of the highly metrical element of her poetry, but always at some sort of slant: for example, the use of slant or half rhymes–where the rhyme is almost there, but partially…missing, emerging, compressed? I note from “This world is not conclusion” the tension or difference the poet draws between music and sound: music is invisible, but sound is positive.
      • The American composer Aaron Copland’s version of “I felt a funeral in my brain” (note the last stanza is missing). It helps us think about the performance of the poetry as necessary for reading.
  • Syntax
    • As Donna Campbell points out on her Dickinson site, there are different kinds of Dickinson poems, often marked with a different syntax in the opening.
      • What kinds of poems did she write?
        According to William Shullenberger and Sharon Cameron, Emily Dickinson has characteristic ways of opening poems:

          1. Definitions: S LV SC form.
            • “Pain has an element of blank.
            • “This was a Poet–It is that
            • “Longing is like the Seed”
          2. Riddles, some with lack of specific referents for pronouns.
            • “I like to see it lap the miles”
            • “A narrow fellow in the grass”
          3. Declarations: “I’m wife–I’ve finished that”
          4. Landscape descriptions.
          5. Tales, parables, allegories
          6. Requests
          7. Complaints
          8. Confessions
          9. Prayers

Dickinson: Higginson’s occupation

November 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

What vision of poetry was Higginson, was Dickinson, occupied with?

In “Transcendental Poetics,” Ed Folsom provides us with this insight regarding Higginson’s view of poetry that influences his understanding (and posthumous editing) of Dickinson. For Higginson, poetry had to be “perfected” before being printed. Poetry, above all, required form. For Higginson, Whitman’s poetry was formless, it had phrase but not form. Dickinson was, for him, more formal–but ultimately (from his later perspective), her poetry lacked poetic form. This sets up another vivid example in Professor Folsom’s argument of the way Whitman and Dickinson are not transcendental poets so much as creators of a transcendental poetics that relates to but ultimately resists the formal vision of transcendental poetry: Higginson’s transcendental vision of poetry mentors Dickinson, helps bring her into print, but largely by offering her a model of poetry that she subverts in her own poetics.

As we turn to looking at the manuscript origins of Dickinson’s poetry, her fascicles and their variations, we can think more about this tension between the formless and the form. One argument, we will see, is that Dickinson isn’t “formless” in Higginson’s pejorative sense of the word; rather, she is resisting, in her more fluid form, the print implications of perfection–of being finished, of having a final form.

Some further reading on the Dickinson-Higginson connection:

Higginson’s 1862 article “Letter to a Young Contributor”, the one that Dickinson reads and responds to with her April 15 letter: are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?

page from the article where he emphasizes  perfection before printing.

Higginson on Dickinson’s letters to him (published after her death)

Scan of Dickinson’s first letter to Higginson.

Site that looks at Dickinson and Higginson, with excerpts from two leters.


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