Emerson and the Poets

In 1832, the philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson was at something of a crossroads in his life. For one thing, he was not yet either philosopher nor poet. He was cut with grief after suffering the loss of his young wife the previous year, and was spending his days in perpetual dejection. His work as a pastor in a prominent Boston church suffered: his sermons became increasingly dour, and his own faith in God and religion had been irrevocably shaken by his loss. Disillusioned, he could no longer find the strength or conviction to continue with his pastoral commitments, and found himself temporarily resigned from both work and faith. He was fast approaching his thirtieth birthday, and had not yet embarked on the life of letters and lectures for which we now remember him. Emerson was without love, employment, religious conviction, or a true sense of purpose. In need of distraction, and finding no good reason to remain rooted in New England, Emerson spontaneously turned his attention to Old England: his bags packed, he boarded a ship on Christmas day, 1832, and embarked on his first journey to Europe.*

As he stared out over the dark, wintry Atlantic Ocean, Emerson may well have had ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in mind. Emerson’s confessed aim was, after all, to meet face-to-face with a number of his intellectual heroes, including Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Already he had taken a great interest in poetry and philosophy, though at that point he had written little of great merit. But his interests had guided him to Europe and to British Romanticism, to Wordsworth and to Coleridge. By early 1833, the year in which Emerson arrived in England, Wordsworth and Coleridge were already well established as poets and thinkers, and were celebrated members of the British literary scene. The two had lived in close company over thirty years prior, first as neighbours in Nether Stowey in Somerset, next in neighbouring villages in the Lake District. It was in Somerset that they had collaborated on their great joint work, the Lyrical Ballads of 1798. That work was a collection of the two men’s poetry, which aimed to “choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men” (as Wordsworth put it in his famous ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads). Its influence was — and still is — enormous; its emphasis on religious encounters with nature, its attempts to sketch and to capture fleeting moments of vivid feeling, and its choice of an ‘ordinary’ language over elevated poetic diction helped to set into motion the literary and artistic notions that add up to our modern invention of ‘Romanticism’. We cannot imagine a Romantic canon without Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, or Wordsworth’s sombre reflections in ‘Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’. It established the two young poets as serious artists and thinkers, and signifies one of the happier, more harmonious, and most productive moments in both men’s lives.

NPG 4211; William Wordsworth by Sir William Boxall
Wordsworth, painted in 1831. By Sir William Boxall, National Portrait Gallery, London.

But, by 1833, Wordsworth and Coleridge were changed men. They had all but fallen out of contact, and the idyllic life of a poet amongst nature was over for Coleridge, who had long since moved to London. After the early days with Wordsworth, he had suffered ongoing battles with opium addiction, weight gain and loss, unhappy marriage, unrequited love, the death of a child, and near-intolerable depression. He was publishing much, though his work was met with tepid reviews, and he would never fully recapture the glory of the 1790 period. He had lived in London for much of his life after the early years of the nineteenth century, which was when his relationship with Wordsworth had first begun to sour. Coleridge was in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, but he had his own wife and children to think about and to care for. The Wordsworths felt Coleridge was neglecting his responsibilities as husband and father, and saw that he was growing increasingly selfish. His ongoing relationship with opium made him difficult company, but it was not until 1810 that the bitterest blow was dealt to Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship. Coleridge caught wind of rumours that Wordsworth had been describing him, amongst other things, as an unreliable “drunkard”; humiliated, Coleridge returned to London and temporarily cut off contact with the Lakes. Though they would be reconciled some years later and would go on to speak of each other with some affection, their friendship never regained its former profound closeness. Wordsworth, though, was still living amongst the Lakes when Emerson came to call, but his life was also very different to the productive younger years. By the time he met Emerson, he had already written, with something like despair, that “The Muse has forsaken me” — he felt all too keenly that his finest verse was behind him, and was increasingly coming to realize that he would never finish his planned epic poem, ‘The Excursion’. Forced by the need to provide for his family, he was now working as the distributor of stamps for the Penrith area of the Lakes. This was a government position that would find him derided by the later Romantic poet Shelley in ‘To Wordsworth’:

In honoured poverty thy voice did weave

Songs consecrate to truth and liberty,—

Deserting these, thou leavest me to grieve,

Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.


Shelley’s criticism, essentially that Wordsworth was a ‘sellout’, was unkind, but not entirely untrue. Both poets were, by 1830s, tamer beasts than their younger, wilder selves. Their political radicalism was behind them, their experiments in poetic language displaced by more formal voices, their mystical relationship with divinity replaced by an orthodox adherence to Christianity. In short, they had become Victorian poets.

Emerson, seasick and sorrowful aboard his creaking vessel, arrived in Valetta in Malta with some relief, in early February, 1833. Immediately he began to feel the removal of a weight from his spirit, as things brightened for him in the southern European climes. From Malta he wound slowly on to Sicily, up through mainland Italy, and on through France. He journeyed slowly, savouring the delights and delicacies of the continent, but always kept on the horizon the idea of Great Britain. It was not until August that year that Emerson arrived in London, disdainfully calling it “immense city, very dull city”. His only real reason for staying in the city was to visit Coleridge, which he wasted no time in doing. On the 5th of August he arrived at the Grove, Highgate, and made arrangements to meet with the great poet.

Though Coleridge was apparently enjoying a day spent in bed, he agreed to be up and dressed by one o’clock, and Emerson was duly welcomed into his apartment at the appointed hour. Hauling himself up to the second floor, Emerson entered and found Coleridge in a cramped apartment, overflowing with papers and books, and littered with letters and manuscripts. There was a single window that overlooked Hampstead Heath, a framed version of the wild and endless landscape that had coloured his youthful writings. Emerson remembers seeing “a short, thick old man, with bright blue eyes and fine clear complexion”. And, like Coleridge’s famous ‘Wedding Guest’, Emerson was quickly caught up in a barrage of typically one-sided Coleridgean conversation. Emerson reports a lengthy and roaming discussion of the Unitarian faith by his host, but details quickly become scant. Emerson was finding it increasingly difficult to hold on to the disparate threads of conversation offered by Coleridge, who all the while was wildly gesticulating and animatedly expounding his views. Coleridge talks, and then talks some more, and, when Emerson rises to leave, he begins to recite some lines of his verse, before once again talking. All the while, Emerson tells us, Coleridge is “freely” taking snuff. In doing so, he liberally powders his clothing and apparently spoils a good cravat, generating a cloud of the stuff about himself like pepper around the cook in Alice in Wonderland, like a cloud of his own thick and obfuscatory conversation.

Emerson reflects: “I was in his company for about an hour, but find it impossible to recall the largest part of his discourse”. Overwhelmed by the rapid pace and digressional nature of Coleridge’s speech, Emerson compares it to “so many printed paragraphs in his books” — referring to the abstruse, convoluted, and often esoteric arguments that baffle modern readers of Coleridge’s prose works. The poet Keats, who similarly met Coleridge on just the one occasion, most famously remarked on the older poet’s effusive verbosity: “I heard his voice as he came towards me — I heard it as he moved away — I heard it all the interval”. This seems true of the Coleridge that Emerson met. Stepping back out into the cool London afternoon, sooner than he might have hoped, he finds himself a little disappointed. He’d barely managed to get in a word in exchange for Coleridge’s verbal generosity, and thinks to himself that the poet “was old and preoccupied, and could not bend to a new companion and think with him”. He was regretting the fact that he’d left little impression on the poet. “As I might have foreseen”, he concludes, “the visit was a spectacle rather than a conversation, of no use beyond the satisfaction of my curiosity”.

His encounter with Wordsworth would prove a little more satisfying, beyond mere curiosity, and it apparently spanned several hours. It was a few weeks after he’d met Coleridge, and in the meantime Emerson had travelled up to Scotland to meet Thomas Carlyle and to indulge in the beauty of the northern landscape. From Scotland, Emerson travelled south once again towards Rydal Mount in the Lake District, where Wordsworth had been living with his family for more than twenty years. The family unit there comprised Wordsworth’s wife Mary, his sister Dorothy, and three of his surviving children: John, Dora, and William (though it is often forgotten that another child survived, a daughter from a youthful fling in France to whom Wordsworth was still sending a yearly allowance). He walked along rural tracks and across windswept fields before Rydal Mount became visible on the horizon, nestled into the thickly forested hillside. He walked up the path and knocked, unannounced. Emerson refers to meeting Wordsworth’s ‘daughters’, but he must have been mistaken — Catherine Wordsworth had died the same year as Wordsworth’s other son, Thomas, leaving Dora as the sole surviving daughter. Emerson then sees Wordsworth for the first time: “a plain, elderly, white-haired man, not prepossessing, and disfigured by green goggles”. These ‘goggles’ were a pair of the tinted spectacles Wordsworth took to wearing in later life, out of concern that he was losing his vision. They are missing from our common image of the poet, and from the numerous portraits of him, and it is strange to think of the eye that so famously saw “into the life of things” hidden behind an ungainly set of corrective lenses. Compared to Coleridge, Wordsworth speaks “with great simplicity”. Indeed, Coleridge’s own spoken and written manner is briefly discussed, with Wordsworth sighing that he “had always wished Coleridge would write more to be understood”. Emerson gives the impression of a kindly and serene Wordsworth, unhurried, generous with his time, a quietly engaging interlocutor. The pair sit in one of the warm, fire-lit, low-ceilinged rooms of Rydal, and discuss a variety of topics — with equal input and respect for one another. Education quickly arises in discussion, and Wordsworth is just as quick to dismiss it: “he thinks more of the education of circumstances than of tuition”, Emerson would remember. How fitting, from a poet who had once written the following lines, in ‘The Tables Turned’:

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.


The discussion of education leads into a discussion of American society, and Wordsworth moves freely and brusquely through his opinions on the matter. “There may be in America”, he tells Emerson, “some vulgarity of manner, but that’s not important”. What is important, he thinks, is that Americans have got their priorities all wrong: “I fear they are too much given to the making of money, and secondly, to politics; that they make political distinction the end and not the means”. We can only wonder what Wordsworth would make of the modern Western world. We cannot be sure, either, how the young American in front of him received these remarks concerning his home nation.

Coleridge, 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London.
Coleridge, 1814. By Washington Allston, National Portrait Gallery, London.

As the conversation moves on, Wordsworth suggests a brief walk, and leads Emerson out the backdoor of his house. The pair pass through the gardens of Rydal, and crunch their way out along a gravel path which cuts across the hillside. Emerson silently notices that Wordsworth’s eyes, behind his thick glasses, do indeed appear to be inflamed and sore. Wordsworth turns to the younger man and tells him that he has composed thousands of lines of verse along this very path, which leads Emerson to recall that the poet is renowned for his ability to hold hundreds of lines of verse in mind before so much as committing them to paper. Modern scholars are fascinated by this point, and arguments frequently erupt over whether or not this was ever possible — memorizing hundreds of lines of verse is one thing, but composing them and holding them in their rigidly-organized place with the mind alone is quite another. On that August day, looking out over the verdant woodland that leads down to the glittering surface of Rydal water, Emerson was to experience first hand the sharpness of Wordsworth’s memory. Earlier that year Wordsworth and his sister had gone on a walking tour around Scotland, and Wordsworth had, the day Emerson arrived, been mentally composing a few sonnets to commemorate his highland excursion. Suddenly — so suddenly that Emerson nearly bursts into surprised laughter — Wordsworth begins a solemn recitation:

Ye shadowy Beings, that have rights and claims

In every cell of Fingal’s mystic grot,

Where are ye? Driven or venturing to the spot,

Our fathers glimpses caught of your thin frames,

And, by your mien and bearing, knew your names;

And they could hear his ghostly song who trod

Earth, till the flesh lay on him like a load,

While he struck his desolate harp without hopes or aims.

Vanished ye are, but subject to recall;

Why keep we else the instincts whose dread law

Ruled here of yore, till what men felt they saw,

Not by black arts but magic natural!

If eyes be still sworn vassals of belief,

Yon light shapes forth a bard, that shade a chief.


The sonnets on the Cave of Staffa are perhaps not amongst his finest sonnets, and are rarely discussed today, but the fact that he recites three such sonnets in a row, each freshly composed and as yet unwritten, is deeply impressive in its own right, especially when we consider the careful and unforgiving structure of that delicately measured form. But Emerson still cannot help but see him in part as “like a school-boy declaiming”. He barely manages to contain his mirth, despite reminding himself that he came across the Atlantic to meet a poet, and a poet he has met. As they saunter on, the recitations continue, punctuating their conversation — which is now almost entirely dedicated to Wordsworth’s verse — with Wordsworth’s words echoing gently down the Rydal valley. Eventually, after much discussion, Emerson decides it is time he took leave of Wordsworth, but the poet encourages him to take a last turn around the Rydal Mount garden. When Emerson does set off, Wordsworth tells him there is a more suitable and direct route away than that which he’d planned to take. Wordsworth genially walks “a good part of a mile” along the path with Emerson, leaving him with one or two last lines of recited verse, before parting ‘with great kindness’ and disappearing back across a field and into the trees.

Emerson in 1846. By Eastman Johnson, Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA.
Emerson in 1846. By Eastman Johnson, Longfellow House, Cambridge, MA.

Emerson made the long, arduous crossing back to America in October of that year, in many respects a changed man. By November, he had given a philosophical lecture composed of his recently percolated thoughts — it was to be the first of nearly 1,500 such lectures, the backbone of a life’s work. Within three years of this, he was happily married for the second time, and had published his landmark philosophical work Nature, in which he sketched a new religious understanding of the universe based on Romantic ideals:

“Idealism sees the world in God. It beholds the whole circle of persons and things, of actions and events, of country and religion, not as painfully accumulated, atom after atom, act after act, in an aged creeping Past, but as one vast picture which God paints on the instant eternity for the contemplation of the soul.”

Had his experience of the poets helped him through his crisis? Perhaps, or perhaps he’d learnt, like Wordsworth, the therapeutic pleasures of frequent travel by foot, and exercise for both the mind and body at once. Either way, consonant with our modern notion of the ‘gap year’, Emerson went to Europe to find not his poetic heroes but himself, and that is precisely what he found. Of the few things we can gauge of Emerson’s character from his own descriptions of his travels is that he remained unintimidated and certain of himself even when addressing his heroes. We share in the sense of disappointment that follows his meeting with Coleridge, who talks all over him and seldom acknowledges the younger man’s views. But, when Coleridge begins lambasting the Unitarian faith, Emerson is quick to point out to him that he himself was brought up a Unitarian, unafraid of the conflict of views. Likewise, when the ageing Wordsworth begins moralizing against the content of Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister — apparently, “full of all manner of fornication” — Emerson has none of it. He speaks in favour of Goethe’s writings, leaving Wordsworth to “courteously promise to look at it again”. It is difficult to imagine how we might feel, finding ourselves in the homes and company of the great writers of our age, but it is clear that Emerson is far from daunted. His strength of character and his resolve reaffirmed his views, helped him to shape his writing, and initiated the processes of thought that led to his greatest philosophical essays and his finest poetic works. In Emerson was met the self-assurance of Coleridge and the gentle, kind simplicity of Wordsworth. And in his verse we find traces of both.

And what do we learn about Wordsworth and Coleridge from Emerson’s encounters? We learn that the two men had indeed grown apart, that their serious intellectual engagement in the 1790s and early-1800s was indeed limited to those decades. But it is also irresistible to conclude that landscape impressed itself upon the poets in ways which even they had not seen. Here is Wordsworth, serene amongst nature, walking the hills and shores of the Lake District, with mind both composed and composing, and wandering, as much as is possible, like the clouds in his poetry. And here is Coleridge, in a London apartment cluttered with books and papers, overactive in mind and body, spending his days in bed secluded from the world, and away from friends and family. He had for the most part kicked the opium, but was separated from his wife, Sara, and infrequently saw his children. Though both poets felt, perhaps with some justification, that they had left behind them their finest works, Wordsworth had come a little closer to carving out a good thing for his ageing self in this world, ‘the place where, in the end, we find our happiness, or not at all!’. Wordsworth would live until 1850, to the ripe old age of 80, and enjoyed a brief but unproductive spell as Poet Laureate, finally dying after a spontaneous woodland walk in too-cold weather. Coleridge, though, died only a year after Emerson’s visit. Emerson’s encounters with the poets might ultimately say less to us about how to write or how to think than they tell us about happiness or contentment, and about how to live. Wordsworth never finished The Excursion, and Coleridge never brought to publication his projected Opus Maximum, but Wordsworth, hoarding lines in his head and, according to Emerson, “never […] in a haste to publish”, seemed to better understand poetry as, to borrow his phrase, “the end and not the means”.






*Emerson’s reflections on this tour I mainly draw from his book English Traits.

Chris Townsend is Articles Editor for the King's Review, and is a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of Cambridge. He writes broadly on literary history and the arts. @marmeladrome.