Saturday, April 04, 2009

Emerson in England — winter months, 1848

There are no journal entries or letters from Ralph Waldo Emerson on April 4, 1848. This gives me an opportunity to give some background information on his travels of 1847-48. An editor of the journals, Merton M. Sealts, Jr., provides some useful information. He spent eight months abroad, mostly in England, having arrived in November '47 and departing in June '48. Much of the time he spent in company with prominent personages but he kept up his habit of writing down experiences and his thoughts about them for later use in his lectures and publications, and, in fact, drew from this source most of the 1856 book, English Traits.

The winter and spring of '47-'48 were eventful, not just for Emerson, but for Europe and America as well. While he was abroad, the Mexican-American war came to a close, revolutions against autocratic and monarchial rule rule broke out on the Europe continent; the Chartist Movement for democratic reforms in England, culminated in mass demonstrations in London and delivery of a huge petition to Parliament; and agitation for unification of Italy grew closer to successful conclusion. Also while he was away, the California gold rush had its beginnings; the potato crop failed in Ireland, leading later to the Irish famine; and there were epidemics in the U.S. (cholera) and Europe (influenza). Directly after his return, a precedent-setting women's rights convention took place at Seneca Falls, New York. Of symbolic, but nonetheless great significance was publication on February 21 of The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Engels.

Sealts writes:
Travel abroad provided a needed change for Emerson in 1847 as it had done on previous occasions, though with his usual discounting of the values of mere change of place he was slow in deciding to make the trip. Discouragement with the prevailing political climate at the time of the Mexican War and the old uncertainty about his own proper role in the "Lilliput" of American society were much on his mind as the year began. In March he thought of withdrawing temporarily "from all domestic & accustomed relations" — preferably to enjoy "an absolute leisure with books," thought he also recognized the want of some "stated task" to stimulate his flagging vitality; in July he finally agreed to accept a long-standing invitation to visit England as a lecturer. As matters turned out, a full schedule of lectures and travel, unexpectedly heavy social engagements along the way, and proliferating correspondence left Emerson little time for reading but did not prevent him from filling his journals with sharp observations on the passing scene.
This excerpt from a letter from Thomas Carlyle shows some of the warmth with which Emerson was welcomed onto the British scene:
Chelsea, 28 feby, 1848 —

Dear Emerson,

We are delighted to hear of you again at first hand: our last traditions represented you at Edinburgh, and left the prospect of your return hither very vague. I have only time for one word tonight: to say that your room is standing vacant ever since you quitted it, — ready to be lighted up with all manner of physical and moral fires that the place will yield; and is in fact your room, and expects to be accounted such. I know not specially what your operations in this quarter are to be; but whatever they are, or the arrangements necessary for them, surely it is here that you must alight again in the big Babel, and deliberately adjust what farther is to be done. Write to us what day you are to arrive; and the rest is all already managed. . . .

Yours ever

T. Carlyle
Early in March, Emerson began a long, newsy letter to his wife describing all his busy activity and its impact on him. Here is the start:
LONDON, 142 STRAND, March 8, 1848.

Dear Lidian: . . . My own pursuits and calling often appear to me like those of an Astronomer Royal, whose whole duty is to make faithful minutes which have only value when kept for ages, and in one life are insignificant.

I have dined once with Carlyle, and have found the Bancrofts again very kind and thoughtful for me. Mr. B. has supplied me with means of access to both Houses of Parliament, and Mrs. Bancroft sends me a card to Lady Morgan's soirees, where she assures me I shall see good people. Bancroft shares, of course, to the highest point, in the enthusiasm for the French. So does Carlyle in his way, and now for the first time in his life takes in the Times newspaper daily. ... I also read the Times every day.

I have been to the House of Lords one evening, and attended during the whole sitting; saw Wellington. Once also to the Commons; to the British Museum, long an object of great desire to me. . . .

Last night, by Carlyle's advice, I attended a meeting of Chartists, assembled to receive the report of the deputation they had sent to congratulate the French Republic. It was crowded, and the people very much in earnest. The Marseillaise was sung as songs are in our abolition meetings. London is disturbed in these days by a mob which meets every day this week, and creates great anxiety among shopkeepers in the districts where it wanders, breaking windows and stealing. London has too many glass doors to afford riots.. . . Yet, though there is a vast population of hungry operatives all over the kingdom, the peace will probably not be disturbed by them; they will only, in the coming months, give body and terror to the demands made by the Cobdens and Brights who agitate for the middle class. When these are satisfied, universal suffrage and the republic will come in.

But it is not this which you will wish to hear now. The most wonderful thing I see is this London, at once seen to be the centre of the world; the immense masses of life, of power, of wealth, and the effect upon the men of running in and out amidst the play of this vast machinery; the effect to keep them tense and silent, and to mind every man his own. It is all very entertaining, I assure you. I think sometimes that it would well become me to sit here a good while and study London mainly, and the wide variety of classes that, like so many nations, are dwelling here together. . . .
On March 10, Carlyle wrote a letter to his friend Moncton Milnes which indicates how Emerson was being perceived among the social and literary elite of Britain:
Chelsea, 10 March, 1848 —

Dear Milnes,

I dare say, by a little exertion of your influence you could get Emerson admitted, upon the footing of a "distinguished stranger," to have access to the Athenaeum during his stay here? It would be very kind, fit, and hospitable in you to do so. E. is perfectly a "gentleman," and what is still more interesting, of the American type (a rare species, I think!): a man produceable in any society, and whom it will not be disgraceful but honourable to recommend.*

Pray think of this, like a good fellow as you are, — and tell Emerson that it is done, on Tuesday Evg when you see him at Bancroft's; for I know he wants it, and will take it as a real kindness of you. For the rest, he knows nothing of this project; having only asked me to introduce him to some such thing as the Reading Room of the London Library, which I had to tell him was not possible.

Finally if you cannot do what I suggest, tell me to whom else I can apply.

If you are doing nothing on Sunday Evg, I rather think Emerson will be here; — but you, I suppose, are comforting Louis-Philippe, or studying the stupendous spectacle of Jupiter de Lamartine, and have little leisure for sublunary matters! Are not these rare times for Royalty and its judicious friends? —

Ever yours /

T. Carlyle
Emerson's long letter to his wife continues:
March 23. . . . I have seen a great many people, some very good ones. . . . I dined with Macaulay, Bunsen, Lord Morpeth, Milman, Milnes, and others. . . . At Mr. Milman's I breakfasted with Macaulay, Hallam, Lord Morpeth, and a certain brilliant Mr. Charles Austin. . . . Then there is a scientific circle of great importance. Mr. Owen, who is in England what Agassiz is in America, has given me a card to his lectures at the College of Surgeons, and shown me the Hunterian Museum. His lecture gratified me the more, or entirely, I may say, because, like Agassiz, he is an idealist in physiology.

Then Mr. Button, to whom Harriet Martineau introduced me, carried me to the Geological Society, where I heard the best debate I have heard in England, the House of Commons and the Manchester banquet not excepted; Buckland (of the Bridgewater treatise), a man of great wit and sense and science, and Carpenter, and Forbes, and Lyell, and Daubeny being among the speakers. I was then presented to the Marquis of Northampton, who invited me to his soiree. These people were all discoverers in their new science, and loaded to the lips, so that what might easily seem in a newspaper report a dull affair was full of character and eloquence.

Some of these above-named good friends exerted themselves for me to the best effect in another way, so that I was honored with an election into the Athenaeum Club during my temporary residence in England, a privilege one must prize. . . . Milnes and other good men are always to be found there. Milnes is the most good-natured man in England, made of sugar; he is everywhere and knows everything. He told of Landor that one day, in a towering passion, he threw his cook out of the window, and then presently exclaimed, "Good God, I never thought of those poor violets!" The last time he saw Landor he found him expatiating on our custom of eating in company, which he esteems very barbarous. He eats alone, with half-closed windows, because the light interferes with the taste. . . .

Macaulay is the king of diners-out. I do not know when I have seen such wonderful vivacity. He has the strength of ten men, immense memory, fun, fire, learning, politics, manners, and pride, and talks all the time in a steady torrent. You would say he was the best type of England. . . .

March 24. . . . French politics are incessantly discussed in all companies, and so here. Besides the intrinsic interest of the spectacle, and the intimate acquaintance which all these people have with all the eminent persons in France, there is evidently a certain anxiety to know whether our days also are not numbered. . . . Carlyle declaimed a little in the style of that raven prophet who cried, "Woe to Jerusalem," just before its fall. But Carlyle finds little reception even in this company, where some were his warm friends. All his methods included a good deal of killing, and he does not see his way very clearly or far. The aristocrats say, "Put that man in the House of Commons, and you will hear no more of him." It is a favorite tactics here, and silences the most turbulent. There he will be permitted to declaim once, only once; then, if he have a measure to propose, it will be tested; if not, he must sit still.

One thing is certain: that if the peace of England should be broken up, the aristocracy here or, I should say, the rich are stout-hearted, and as ready to fight for their own as the poor; are not very likely to run away. . . .

You will wish to know my plans. Alas, I have none. As long as I have these fine opportunities opening to me here, I prefer to use them and stay where I am. France may presently shut its doors to me and to all peaceful men; so that I may not go there at all. But I shall soon spend all my money if I sit here, and I have not yet taken any step in London towards filling my pocket. How can I? I must soon decide on something. I have declined such lecturing as was offered me. . .

I shall, no doubt, remember many traits and hues of this Babylonish dream when I come home to the woods.

{Lamartine in front of the Hôtel de Ville de Paris, on the 25 February 1848, by Félix Philippoteaux}

{A Chartist gathering such as the one Emerson attended: The Chartist Convention, Literary and Scientific Institute, 23 John Street, Fitzroy Square. The London Illustrated News, April 15, 1848.}






{Jane Carlyle}

{Chronology of Remarkable Events January to April 1848, from the London Illustrated News}

Wikipedia entries for some of the people mentioned:

* Note:

Writing soon after his arrival, Carlyle's wife, Jane, was less generous in her assessment of Emerson and so she reported Thomas to be:
Thursday [28 October 1847]

“Dearest” Lady. — “Oh no NO NO! for Heaven's sake! — I did not, could not have said that; or if I did,—forget it; it was a slip of the tongue!”

He is come then, — is here this Yankee-Seraph! We have seen him “face to face and (over-) soul to (over-) soul”!1 for two days I have lived on the manna of his speech, and now I have escaped to my bedroom to bathe my head in cold water, and report progress to you.

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 Seraphic 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,’2 the one young, refined, almost beautiful, radiant with — what shall I say? — “virtue its own reward”!3 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,4 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”5 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.6 . . .

Ever most truly / Yours

Jane Carlyle

Editor's notes:
1. See Emerson's essay “The Over-Soul” (1841). The first part of the quotation may be from 1 Cor. 13:12.

2. Produced by a magic lantern, one view growing dim and then gradually replaced by another.

3. Coterie speech; see Froude, LM 2:125.

4. Samuel Rogers (1763–1855; DNB), poet, banker, and renowned breakfast-giver; see 8:322. Elizabeth Bancroft, b. Davis, 2d wife (m. 1838) of George Bancroft (1800–1891; see 10:99–100), American historian and U.S. minister to Gt. Britain, 1846–49; see 21:161. Elizabeth Bancroft had separately encountered Rogers and Emerson at the National Gallery, 27 Oct., when Rogers “renewed his request that I would bring my son to breakfast with him” and invited her companions “as friends and countrymen. … I was thankful Mr. Emerson had chanced to be with me at that moment as it procured him a high pleasure” (Letters from England [1904] 144–45). For Emerson's account of the breakfast, see Rusk 3:425–26.

5. 1 Henry IV 3.1.

6. Emerson wrote to his wife, 27 Oct.: “Here in this house we breakfast about 9, and Carlyle is very apt, his wife says, to sleep till 10 or 11, if he has no company. An immense talker he is, & altogether as extraordinary in his conversation as in his writing. I think even more so. You will never discover his real vigor & range, or how much more he might do than he has ever done, without seeing him. I find my few hours discourse with him in Scotland, long since, gave me not enough knowledge of him; and I have now at least been taken by surprise by him. He is not mainly a scholar, like the most of my acquaintances, but a very practical Scotchman, such as you would find in any sadler's or iron dealer's shop, and then only accidentally and by a surprising addition the admirable scholar & writer he is. … [A]ll his qualities have a certain virulence, coupled though it be, in his case, with the utmost impatience of Christendom & Jewdom, and all existing presentments of the good old story. 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. … Carlyle and his wife live on beautiful terms: Nothing can be more engaging than their ways, and in her book case all his books are inscribed to her, as they came from year to year, each with some significant lines” (Rusk 3:424).

Some sources:

The Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Volume X, 1847-1848, edited by Merton M. Sealts, Jr.

The Carlyle Letters at Duke University.

A memoir of Ralph Waldo Emerson, by James Elliot Cabot (Cambridge, Printed at the Riverside Press, 1887)

Ralph Waldo Emerson; his life, genius, and writings. A biographical sketch, by Alexander Ireland (London, Simpkin, Marshall, 1882)

English Traits, by By Ralph Waldo Emerson; edited by Edward Waldo Emerson (reprint, Unit Library, 1903)

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