Emerson's Time in Britain

by Daniel Koch

Ralph Waldo Emerson visited Britain twice – in 1833 and again in 1847. On his first visit, as a young and unpublished writer, he travelled to meet the men whose works had inspired him – one of these giants was Thomas Carlyle, the ‘lonely scholar’.

When Emerson showed up as a complete stranger at Thomas and Jane Carlyles’ isolated home in the Scottish wilderness in 1833, so began a long, personal and complicated connection. On arrival, Emerson bore a letter of introduction from a French socialist and friend of Carlyle, Gustave d’Eichthal, whom Emerson had met by chance in Rome. At the time, Carlyle was still a relatively unknown writer in his late thirties, with nearly all of his important work still ahead of him. Emerson’s desire to meet him — and willingness to go to surprising lengths to do so — sprung from having read Carlyle’s critical work in the Edinburgh Review. The friendship and correspondence between Emerson and Carlyle endured until the latter’s death in 1881, though, as we will see later, it would become severely strained at points.

Emerson’s first trip to Britain had been at a time of deep emotional anguish following the death of his first wife Ellen in 1831. At that time, Emerson was in his late twenties and had not yet embarked upon a literary career. He had led a conventional life, having followed in his father’s footsteps in attending Harvard, pursuing divinity studies, and finally becoming a Unitarian minister in 1829 in the one part of the world where Unitarianism was the religion of the mainstream — Boston. By 1832, Emerson was in a state of deep depression. He visited his dead wife’s grave every day, even opening her tomb on one occasion. His family and friends were concerned. Emerson was also in a career crisis. He no longer felt that he could administer communion in good faith, and had begun to doubt the very foundations of his ministry. He resigned formally from the Second Church in Boston in the autumn of 1832. He was already beginning to think about a new career as an editor for a new literary-philosophical journal, but recognised that he was too mired in sorrow to go forward. In order to escape, he decided, suddenly, to go to Europe. He sailed out of Boston in December 1832.

Emerson gives no concluding remarks on the overall significance of his first visit to England or Europe in his travel memoir English Traits. His description of the four great figures whom he met on the trip, and who were so generous in giving their time to the wandering American (though obliged by his letters of invitation) — Landor, Coleridge, Wordsworth and, of course, Carlyle — is a mixture of mild praise and sometimes less than subtle judgement. The fact that Emerson was somewhat disappointed comes through most clearly in the journal entries that he wrote while awaiting his return ship in Liverpool. He concluded that these great men were ‘all deficient.’ Each lacked ‘an insight into religious truth.’ The entries he wrote while at sea imply that the great religious truth, which he perceived each of these writers to lack, was not a traditional adherence to a denominational faith, but rather a belief that ‘God is in every man.’

Emerson’s experience helped him to get his life back in order. He returned to Massachusetts in an improved mental state and with a new set of plans. Within months he would begin in earnest to pursue his new career in letters, aided by the modest income from the estate of his wife. He was stimulated by what he had seen at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, and began delivering lectures on natural history to general audiences. His first great philosophical work, Nature, would be written and published soon thereafter. Personally, he was able to move on from his loss, to re-marry and start a family. He married Lidia (later Lidian) Jackson in 1835. The trip also emboldened him in his conviction that there was no unbridgeable gap separating him from the great writers of the old world in terms of moral strength, personal power, or ability. He wanted to deliver his message — his prophesy — about God’s presence in all to a wider audience than the Church could provide. Emerson’s career as a writer and lecturer on the secular circuit began immediately upon his return.

In the fourteen years that followed Emerson became a literary phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic. When he returned to England in 1848 to embark on an extensive lecture tour, his great renown had preceded him. He was no longer an unknown, obscure tourist, but rather a cultural beacon belonging in the spotlight. However, the sense of despair, confusion, and melancholia that drove him to Europe in 1832 was not permanently eradicated. Indeed, his return in 1847 could still be attributed to it.

When Emerson arrived back in England in October 1847, he had nearly a fortnight before his lecture series was due to commence in Manchester on 3 November. During this time he eagerly sought out Carlyle. Since their brief meeting in 1833, Emerson had worked diligently and unpaid as Carlyle’s literary agent in America. Carlyle, for his part, had written an introduction to the English edition of Emerson’s first volume of essays in 1841, lending his name and prestige to a writer yet completely unknown in Britain. Soon after his October arrival in Liverpool, Emerson received a forwarded letter from Carlyle demanding that he come to London at his first convenience. On the 25th, taking up the invitation, he travelled to London via Manchester. At ten o’clock that night, Carlyle, and his wife Jane, received a knock on their door at 5 Cheyne Row, Chelsea. Emerson had just stepped out of the cab from Euston Station. Their initial meeting in 1847, however, did not go well and exposed major disagreements.


A Chelsea Interior, Robert Tait, 1857

Carlyle had been rushing to finish an article on some unpublished letters of Oliver Cromwell to send to Fraser’s Magazine before Emerson arrived. The following morning they walked two miles north to Hyde Park, then via Buckingham Palace, St James’s Palace, and the Mall to Trafalgar Square, where a column bearing Admiral Nelson’s statue had recently been installed. Behind it lay another massive addition to the London cityscape, which had appeared in the interval since Emerson’s last visit: the new building into which the National Gallery had relocated in 1838. They visited the collection. Leaving, they turned left past St Martin-in-the-Fields and came into The Strand. They went into the bookshop of John Chapman, Emerson’s London publisher, at number 142. It was in this building that Emerson would reside during the spring and summer of 1848.

Emerson recorded his observations of Carlyle over the day in his journals and letters, taking particular notice of his intensity, frustration, and gloominess. He had a strong, virulent ‘religious tinge . . . coupled . . . with the utmost impatience of Christendom & Jewdom. . . . He talks like a very unhappy man, profoundly solitary, displeased & hindered by all men & things about him, & plainly biding his time, & meditating how to undermine & explode the whole world of nonsense which torments him.’ The Carlyles began to resent Emerson’s presence nearly immediately. On the 28th Jane Carlyle wrote a backbiting letter while Emerson was still in the house to her aristocratic friend, Lady Harriet Baring. The letter is so good, below is a full transcription:

 …So far, all has gone better than you predicted; they do not hate one another yet; C still calls Emerson ‘a most polite and gentle creature! a man of really quite Sepharic nature! tho’ on certain sides of him overlaid with mad rubbish’  And Emerson still (in confidence to me) calls C ‘a good Child(!) in spite of all his deification of the Positive, the Practical – most astonishing for those who had first made acquaintance with him in his Books.’!

Polite and Gentle, this Emerson certainly is; he avoids with a laudable tact, all occasions of dispute, and when dragged into it, by the hair of his head, (morally speaking) he gives under the most provoking contradictions, with the softness of a feather-bed.

For the rest; I hardly know what to think of him, or whether I like him or not. The man has two faces to begin with which are continually changing into one another like ‘dissolving views,’ the one young, refined, almost beautiful, radiant with – what shall I say? – ‘virtue its own reward’! the other decidedly old, hatchet-like, crotchety, inconclusive – like an incarnation of one of his own poems! In his speech he is not dogmatical the least in the world, nor anything like so fantastical as his letters give one to suppose; in fact, except for a few phrases consisting chiefly of odd applications, of the words ‘beauty’ and ‘child’; he speaks simply and clearly, but without any eloquence or warmth – What I should say he failed in is what the Yorkshire wool-cleaner called ‘natur’ – He is genial, but it seems to be with his head rather than his heart – a sort of theoretic geniality that (as Mazzini would say) ‘leaves me cold.’ He is perhaps the most elevated man I ever saw – but it is the elevation of a reed – run all to hight without taking breadth along with it. You will not I think dislike him as you expected, but neither will you like him – He is to breakfast with Rogers tomorrow morning under the escort of Mrs Bancroft, and goes to Liverpool I believe tomorrow night, to lecture ‘all about.’ When he returns to London, as a Lecturer, I fancy he will go into Lodgings –

I am sure C. Is disappointed, thinks him, if he would ‘tell the truth, and shame the Devil’ a man of no sort of significance – but he is still under the restraining grace of Hospitality, and of a certain regard to consistency: besides he has had no opportunity of unbosoming himself to me on the subject, as we have literally not been five minutes alone together since Emerson arrived: he (Emerson) sits up after me at nights and is down before me in the mornings, till I begin to feel as if I had got the measles or some such thing…. Ever most truly / Yours / Jane Carlyle… / Please burn the letter

At some point during the visit a dispute erupted. Emerson did not share Carlyle’s understanding of Oliver Cromwell, the puritan dictator and subject of his recent work, as the great hero of the seventeenth century. He wrote home that when he discussed his inability to appreciate Cromwell in the same way Carlyle, in response, turned ‘quite fiercely’ upon him. One version of the story, recorded by George Searle Phillips, who came to know Emerson later in the year, reads: ‘he [Carlyle] rose like a great Norse giant from his chair — and, drawing a line with his finger across the table, said, with terrible fierceness, “Then sir, there is a line of separation between you and me as wide as that, and as deep as the pit!”’

The Carlyle-Emerson friendship was never the same after this visit. Carlyle summed up his impressions of Emerson in his letters. He was ‘a rather thinner man than was expected.’ Speaking of his coming lectures in the North, Carlyle predicted failure. Emerson’s messages were ‘too airy and thin for the solid practical heads of the Lancashire region.’ Carlyle’s prediction was that Emerson would turn over no soil and have no impact in England — ‘by none such was the Thames ever burnt!’ He had come, Carlyle opined, with a ‘rake rather than a shovel.’ He wrote that Emerson was far less talented than anticipated, and finally concluded that, ‘Friends, it is clear, we can never in this world, to any real purpose, be.’

Piece crossposted with the I.B. Tauris blog


About the Author:

Daniel Koch is the author of Ralph Waldo Emerson in Europe, which charts Emerson’s lecture tour of Europe between October 1847 and June 1848, and reveals the ways in which Emerson’s experience – which coincided with Chartist protests, the abdication of Louis Philippe in France and the German uprisings – profoundly influenced the future direction of his work on race, slavery and politics.