Patrick J. Keane

Emerson, Romanticism and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of all our Day”

Patrick J. Keane, Emerson, Romanticism and Intuitive Reason: The Transatlantic “Light of all our Day”. Colombia and London: Missouri University Press, 2005. 555 pp. ISBN: 0826216021 (hardback). £35.50 (UK), $54.95 (USA).

Reviewed by Ashley Hales, Providence Christian College (online, August 2008)

Patrick J. Keane’s extensive project on transatlantic Romanticism traces the connections and influence between Emerson, Wordsworth and Coleridge. In Keane’s words, he is interested in “exploring the tension between tradition and innovation, the ‘filterings’ and ‘vampings’ that define a genuine writer’s relationship to his or her precursors” (8). “Vamping” becomes an apt word to describe Keane’s study as it has the connotations of refurbishing, accompanying (as in music), seducing, and even preying upon. In each sense of the word, vamping takes an original work and drastically changes it to create an entity in which the original is still glimpsed under the new veneer. As such, it is a potent word choice that is useful, not only for reevaluating Emerson—that American author who so prized originality—but also for concretizing the abstracted notion of the transatlantic often found in contemporary literary criticism.

Rather than writing yet another “influence study,” Keane understands his purpose as exploring the “elective affinities, family resemblances, and analogies binding together in a visionary company a number of highly individual writers especially…Milton, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Emerson” (20). Using a variety of metaphors (such as echoing, tracing, family resemblance, direct influence, and analogy) to discuss his principal authors, Keane examines the lineage of German Romanticism as it is filtered through Coleridge, expressed in Wordsworth, and finally comes to form the basis for Emersonian Transcendentalism.

Keane’s study is broken into four sections. The first, “Preliminaries,” lays the foundation for the book by defining its principal concepts and tracing the transatlantic influence of Coleridgean philosophy on Emerson’s thought. Here, Keane explains Emerson’s “intuitive reason”—which differs from discursive reason—in terms of Coleridge’s synthesis and vamping of the writings of Kant and Milton (particularly Book Five of Paradise Lost). Keane skillfully untangles Coleridge’s borrowings from Kant, such that “what for Kant (intuition without understanding) was blind…became, for the British Romantics and American Transcendentalists, precisely Coleridge’s ‘seeing light,’ Wordsworth’s ‘master light of all [their] seeing:’ the faculty divine that in effect usurped what Kant meant by pure reason” (59). This borrowing of terms extends beyond what Emerson learned from the triad of “Milton, Coleridge & the Germans,” to Emerson’s own writings. Gesturing to his next section on polarities, Keane describes how Emerson’s public writings are rife with “erasures” of Wordsworth and Coleridge (although Emerson privately wrote of his indebtedness to them), and work instead to buttress a concept of American originality. Keane then deftly “trace[s]…echoings of Coleridge and Wordsworth” in Emerson’s writing (15).

Section Two, “Polarities,” takes up polarity as a concept that is essential to both the Coleridgean and the Emersonian mode of thinking. Here Keane turns to a wider picture of British and American Romanticism by examining, in three chapters, the apparently antagonistic ideas of quotation and originality, tuition and intuition, and passivity and activity.  In the chapter “Powers and Pulsations: Quotation and Originality,” Keane traces the Kantian undercurrents in Coleridge’s work and clearly illustrates how Emerson translates the “dialectical-polar-reconciliationist concept” into his own notion of “Self and the Over-Soul” (155). In the last chapter of this section, “Passivity and Activity,” Keane considers how all three authors are caught between passivity and activity when experiencing the creative impulse. Keane elaborates, for example, how an emphasis on polarized thinking came to Emerson from Coleridge, the author who also opened up Wordsworth to Emerson (269). In examining Wordsworth in relation to Emerson, Keane succeeds in identifying the “dialectical progression of reception, use and new creation” inherent in transatlantic connection, and thus moves beyond a flattened influence study where one author uncomplicatedly inherits the mantle of his or her predecessor (181). As a result, the figure of Wordsworth undergoes a sea change as Emerson appropriates Wordsworth’s work and thought for a different time and a different nation.

Section Three, “Divinities,” explores the concept of “Divinity Within,” particularly the struggle between turning inward and the need for a social, activist self (Keane particularly addresses Emerson’s abolitionist activities). Keane also gestures to those influenced by Emerson, namely Hitler and Nietzsche, calling the god-like divinity of Hitler “High Romanticism gone sour” (278). Setting the triad of Coleridge, Wordsworth and Emerson against the triumphant egoism of Hitler, Keane comments that his authors “retained a belief in autonomy, freedom, and idealism without forgetting that the needs of a humane society…were incompatible with selfish…individualism” (278). Keane’s great strength as a scholar is in examining Coleridge, Emerson, and Wordsworth’s works while simultaneously tracing the various borrowings, filterings and vampings of one author upon another. For example, in the chapter “Emerson among the Orphic Poets,” Keane enriches our understanding of Emerson as a self-reliant figure by placing Nature “in its larger, international Romantic context, looking back to Coleridge and Wordsworth and ahead to Nietzsche and Stevens” (394). In so doing, Keane complicates the notion of a national poet, or even the “genius” of a self-reliant writer, by articulating the central paradox of originality, namely that no writer creates ex nihilo, but rather in conversation with his or her antecedents.

The final section, “The Art of Losing,” turns principally to Wordsworth, as Emerson grapples with the early deaths of his loved ones. As Coleridge had provided Emerson with a version of German Romanticism and idealist philosophy, so now Wordsworth provides the poetic consolation (primarily through his “Intimations Ode”) necessary for Emerson to assert that “it is not without hope we suffer and we mourn” (“Elegiac Stanzas”). Addressing Emerson’s characteristic optimism, Keane posits that, rather than seeing Emerson as unfeelingly stoic upon the death of his father, brother, wife, and young son, one should attend to the equilibrium he sought to obtain between the “Me” and the “Not Me” as enfolded in a “circulatory and heart-centered vision that transcends the separation between the self and others” (423).

In Keane’s view, Wordsworth and Coleridge are not only the authors from whom Emerson learns of, augments, and borrows particular concepts—such as intuition—but also the authors with whom he experiences and reflects upon the life of the individual and mourns personal loss.  Although it would perhaps have been helpful for Keane to limit himself to several potent metaphors (vamping, echoing, tracing, and translating are only a few used) in order to more concisely theorize Anglo-American literary relations, his fine contextualization and interesting, competent critical analysis of both primary and secondary texts make for a generous picture of Emerson, his literary precursors, and his heirs.

© Symbiosis, 2008