Early Romanticism and Transcendentalism:
A Philosophical Comparison
of William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson
In the late eighteenth-century and the early part of the next, Blake was not read. Far from being popular, he was scorned and written off as an eccentric or a lunatic. He was not a part of the literary conversation. On the other side of the
Both Blake and Emerson wrote independent of the influence of the other. Emerson was strongly influenced by other Romantic poets of the era (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelly) but Blake was not. Swedenburg was an influence on both writers. He was accepted with reservation by Blake, but was later disregarded after Blake’s reading of Divine Love (Ergman 897). Emerson approved of Swedenburg’s doctrines.
Their backgrounds are also dissimilar. Emerson attended Harvard and seminary while Blake was mostly self-educated. Yet, somehow their philosophies on human spiritual potentiality became the same.
In “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”, Blake satirically throws the world upside down. Hell becomes desired and angels become derisive. Blake displays in metaphor a dynamic view of the structural failings of western culture. Reality is presented as being dualistic in nature. In plate 3, Blake states that, “without contraries there is no progression” (Blake 181). He believes that “attraction and repulsion, reason and energy, love and hate, are necessary to “human existence” (Blake 181). Evil is not presented as dark and fiery, but as liberating and creative. This non-traditional hell is a place where one can pursue his true passions and desires. Blake equates this place with creative energy and vitality.
The good, or his conceptualized heaven, is a place of rules, reason, stagnation, repression, and fear. One must be submissive to the system and fit in. Individual traits are subjugated for the greater good. Heaven is the predominant archetype of modern culture, and hell, the artistic side, is subjugated by propaganda about evil and sin from the moralizers and priests.
By presenting the world in such a bizarre and perverse manner, the reader starts to sense the incongruity between truth and perception. Blake presents such excellence as Milton and even Jesus as being “of the devil’s party” (Blake 182). Blake also describes “the enjoyments of genius” as appearing to be “torment and insanity” (Blake 181). This is especially clear in the didactic proverbs of Proverbs from Hell. Here, action, passion, individualism, and strength are valued while patience, passivity, morality, and dependence are abhorred. The dualistic nature of reality is emphasized with stark believability.
What Blake means to do is to have a society or a man that is able to enlist both sides and thereby encompasses the whole. This man he calls the poetic genius. This is a man who, in a sense, denies nothing. He is in touch with his inner self and expresses it, making him an artist. He pursues his passions but is able to balance such pleasures with a sense of reason and rationality. He takes the liberty to find proof within himself to any moral laws and only living by such laws as he can experience, making him a nihilist.
It is in comparison with the poetic genius that Emerson comes closest to Blake. In The Poet, Emerson creates the contemporary American transcendental hero. The Poet is a call to the American spirit and a guide to spiritual maturity for a people yet without a hero. Emerson conjures a meaningful archetype through a seemingly erroneous progression. Understanding who his poet is can be challenging. At times, he is describing the poet as a writer and other times as an artist. He is also introduced as “the genius” and “the complete man” (Emerson 205). Emerson’s faults are due to his own biases as a poet, and thus he taints the clarity of his archetype.
Emerson’s true poet is the archetypal hero; he is the man who is to be the epitome of American humanity. This true poet is one that is able to “report the conversation [he] has had with nature” (Emerson 205). This connection to nature and the advanced imagination are emphasized early on and are elemental in what Emerson’s archetype will be.
To build his true poet, Emerson constructs a trinity. The characteristics of the true poet are drawn out and contrasted against those of like supreme figures. Emerson calls the members “the Knower, the Doer, and the Sayer” (Emerson 205). The true poet is first the Sayer, or the one who “takes[s] all from the muse” (Emerson 223). He is “the namer” and shows the “beauty” of the world through his creations and expressions (Emerson 205). Emerson believes that “man is only half himself, and the other half is his expression” (Emerson 204). This structure becomes very problematic for the reader because it limits the true poet and constricts the very interpretation Emerson wishes to encourage.
Traditionally, The Doer is the archetype of the hero. Remember, the true poet is Emerson’s hero archetype. This is a seeming contradiction, and it is here, in the distinctions and disparagements amongst the trinity, that Emerson finds himself muddled within his own design. His true poet, the Sayer is now opposed to the traditional hero, the Doer. So anxious to describe the importance of the creative faculties of the literal poet (or artist), that which Emerson believes himself to be, he too often blends his language, confusing the meanings of the word poet to mean different things. Often, whether he is describing the poet as a poet, or as an artist, or as his hero/true poet, the reader can hardly discern.
Amid such confusion and contradictions, Emerson finds resolution. He says, “These three are equal . . . and each of these three has the power of the others latent in him, and his own, patent” (Emerson 207). Understanding this, the true poet is truly all three; the trinity is secondary, solely a character delineation. Emerson declares that, “Words are also actions, and actions are a kind of words” (Emerson 206). Here the Sayer and the Doer are the same. This reconciliation rejuvenates his archetype construct and there also deconstructing the trinity.
The trinity is apt at describing the important elements of the true poet or hero: wisdom, action, and creation. While Emerson states that these are all of equal importance, the reader cannot fail to notice the writer’s tendency towards creation or expression. Little is ever described about his Doer and Knower. It is as if he expects his readers to easily accept the qualities of wisdom and bold action, but the power and value of creation and expression are under-appreciated and his explanation is necessary. To view an artist as one who reflects what he sees (expression) is a more common view than that of one who creates boldly with imaginative powers, creating language and images that have never existed and are beautiful without regard to their source matter. It is this latter opinion of the artist that Emerson views as a sovereign power.
The powers enlisted within the trinity are nothing more than words on paper if Emerson does not describe how the reader is to come to them. He writes, “every man is so far a poet as to be susceptible of these enchantments of nature; for all men have the thoughts whereof the universe is the celebration” (Emerson 210). He has just described the poet as one who sees wonder in nature. The reader is the poet insofar as he has the potential of such. It is this wonder and curiosity for nature that will lead and guide the spiritual path.
In theory, Emerson’s criteria are simple: one need only go into nature and open his imagination. Open your senses to perceptions that you can not find by using reason. “Nature has a higher end”, he writes, ”namely ascension, or the passage of the soul into higher forms” (Emerson 214). The true poet knows “the world is a temple whose walls are covered with emblems, pictures, and commandments of the Deity” (Emerson 211). Learning these symbols in nature, the poet harnesses the world to his own growth. Emerson teaches, “the low and high, honest and base, disappear when nature is used as a symbol" (Emerson 211). This is so because what is hidden in the meaning of the symbols is always eternity. This understanding of unity is highly enlightened theory and was gleaned by observing nature.
Here Emerson converges with Blake. The infinite is also a theme that permeates both works. Blake writes, “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite” (Blake 188).
Superficially, the two essays may not appear so similar. One describes a political and social condition while the other describes a man. Easily though, could that description be turned up-side down. Blake and Emerson’s essays parallel each other in many ways. These essays both begin with a poem. Each author uses their poem to a different function. Emerson’s verse is of the childlike nature and qualities of his true poet and the world that is perceived through his eyes. The child/poet is “wildly wise” and sees “musical order and pairing rhymes” (Emerson 203). Blake uses his verse to portray the disorder of the modern condition. He brings forth dualism with “the just man” and “the villain” and the non-ceasing struggle between them.
Both sections of verse serve to reflect its coming essay and also show the differences between the essays. Blake focuses less on the poetic genius and more on the dualisms of religious and social structure. Emerson builds his true poet. The dualisms are the hurdle the true poet must overcome and are thereby secondary. Blake would agree. In a sense, Blake is demonstrating the problem where Emerson gives the solution.
The two essays are greatly intertwined and connected. Emerson’s true poet is Blake’s poet-genius. They both call their archetype a prophet. Blake says, “The Religions of all Nations are derived from each Nation’s different reception of the Poetic Genius which is every where call’d the Spirit of Prophecy” ( Complete Blake 1). Such a prophet is Isaiah. Isaiah says,
“I saw no God. nor heard any, in a finite, organical perception; but my senses discover’d the infinite in every thing, and as I was then perswaded, & remain confirm’d; that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.” (Blake 186)
The voice of Blake’s God is the sound of Emerson’s imagination. Emerson writes, “The religions of the world are the ejaculations of a few imaginative men.” (Emerson 220). Emerson would view Isaiah as a highly imaginative man and nothing more.
Where Emerson’s poet is himself by his “very high sort of seeing,” or “the flower of [his] mind”, imagination; Blake’s poetic genius is himself by his obedience to his desires and energies. Those things deemed evil and sin by cultural norms, the poetic genius embraces. He is free. Emerson calls his poet “those who are free throughout the world” (Emerson 218).
Another way to see the connection is to examine a few of Blake’s Proverbs From Hell.
Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Class handout.
------------------. The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Ed. David Erdman.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth.
Emerson, Ralph. The Poet. Class Handout (ENLT 121).