Emerson on Carlyle and Tennyson

by Edwin Watts Chubb

On Christmas day, 1832, Emerson sailed out of Boston harbor to pay a visit to Europe. His health needed a change of work and scene. His wife had died, he had separated from his congregation, he manifestly was in need of some recreation, and so his friends had advised him to take a trip abroad. On the 2d of February he landed at Malta. From there he traveled through Italy and finally entered England, ready to make the acquaintance of English celebrities whom he had long admired.

He writes in his journal: "Carlisle in Cumberland, Aug. 26. I am just arrived in merry Carlisle from Dumfries. A white day in my years. I found the youth I sought in Scotland, and good and wise and pleasant he seems to me, and his wife a most accomplished, agreeable woman. Truth and peace and faith dwell with them and beautify them. I never saw more amiableness than is in his countenance."

This passage, of course, refers to his visit to Carlyle, to visit whom Emerson had driven over from Dumfries to Craigenputtock, where Carlyle had been living for the last five years. In this connection it is interesting to read what the man visited had to say about his visitor: "That man," Carlyle said to Lord Houghton, "came to see me. I don't know what brought him, and we kept him one night, and then he left us. I saw him go up the hill; I didn't go with him to see him descend. I preferred to watch him mount and vanish like an angel."

Ralph Waldo Emerson

From a wood engraving of a life photograph

In writing of this interview, Mr. Cabot, one of the biographers of Emerson, says: "To Emerson the interview was a happy one, and gratified the chief wish he had in coming to England, though he did not find all that he had sought. He had been looking for a master, but in the deepest matters Carlyle, he found, had nothing to teach him. 'My own feeling,' he says in a letter to Mr. Ireland a few days afterwards, 'was that I had met with men of far less power who had got greater insight into religious truth.' But he had come close to the affectionate nature and the nobility of soul that lay behind the cloud of whim and dyspepsia, and he kept to that, and for the rest, confined his expectations thenceforth to what Carlyle had to give. 'The greatest power of Carlyle,' he afterwards wrote, 'like that of Burke, seems to me to reside in the form. Neither of them is a poet, born to announce the will of the god, but each has a splendid rhetoric to clothe the truth.'"

During this first visit Emerson dined with Lafayette and a hundred Americans. By the time he made his second visit Emerson was a far more distinguished man than during his first trip. His second visit was made in 1847. This time he was a lion among men. He again calls on the Carlyles. This time the door is opened by Jane.

"They were very little changed (he writes) from their old selves of fourteen years ago, when I left them at Craigenputtock. 'Well,' said Carlyle, 'here we are, shoveled together again.' The flood-gates of his talk are quickly opened and the river is a great and constant stream. We had large communication that night until nearly one o'clock, and at breakfast next morning it began again. At noon or later we went together, Carlyle and I, to Hyde Park and the palaces, about two miles from here, to the National Gallery, and to the Strand—Carlyle melting all Westminster and London down into his talk and laughter as he walked. We came back to dinner at five or later, then Dr. Carlyle came in and spent the evening, which again was long by the clock, but had no other measure. Here in this house we breakfast about nine; Carlyle is very apt, his wife says, to sleep till ten or eleven, if he has no company. An immense talker he is, and altogether as extraordinary in his conversation as in his writing—I think even more so. You will never discover his real vigor and 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 last been taken by surprise.... Carlyle and his wife live on beautiful terms. Nothing could 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."

In another place he writes:

"I had good talk with Carlyle last night. He says over and over for years, the same thing. Yet his guiding genius is his moral sense, his perception of the sole importance of truth and justice, and he too says that there is properly no religion in England. He is quite contemptuous about Kunst (art) also, in Germans, or English, or Americans.... His sneers and scoffs are thrown in every direction. He breaks every sentence with a scoffing laugh—'windbag,' 'monkey,' 'donkey,' 'bladder;' and let him describe whom he will, it is always 'poor fellow.' I said 'What a fine fellow you are to bespatter the whole world with this oil of vitriol!' 'No man,' he replied, 'speaks truth to me.' I said, 'See what a crowd of friends listen to and admire you.' 'Yes, they come to hear me, and they read what I write; but not one of them has the smallest intention of doing these things.'"

While Emerson was in London he was elected to membership in the Athenæum Club, during his stay in England. Here he had the opportunity of meeting many famous men. He writes:

"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 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. He has lately heard of some tribe in Crim Tartary who have the practice of eating alone, and these he extols as much superior to the English.... 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."

Of Tennyson he writes: "I saw Tennyson, first at the house of Coventry Patmore, where we dined together. I was contented with him at once. He is tall and scholastic looking, no dandy, but a great deal of plain strength about him, and though cultivated, quite unaffected. Quiet, sluggish sense and thought; refined, as all English are, and good-humored. There is in him an air of great superiority that is very satisfactory. He lives with his college set, ... and has the air of one who is accustomed to be petted and indulged by those he lives with. Take away Hawthorne's bashfulness, and let him talk easily and fast, and you would have a pretty good Tennyson. I told him that his friends and I were persuaded that it was important to his health to make an instant visit to Paris, and that I was to go on Monday if he was ready. He was very good-humored, and affected to think that I should never come back alive from France; it was death to go. But he had been looking for two years for somebody to go to Italy with, and was ready to set out at once, if I would go there.... He gave me a cordial invitation to his lodgings (in Buckingham Palace), where I promised to visit him before I went away.... I found him at home in his lodgings, but with him was a clergyman whose name I did not know, and there was no conversation. He was sure again that he was taking a final farewell of me, as I was going among the French bullets, but promised to be in the same lodgings if I should escape alive.... Carlyle thinks him the best man in England to smoke a pipe with, and used to see him much; had a place in his little garden, on the wall, where Tennyson's pipe was laid up."