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CARLYLE'S LONDON AND LONDON'S CARLYLE: AN AMERICAN TRANSCENDENTALIST VISION

Albena Bakratcheva

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London was never an attraction to the American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. He would gladly go to Oregon, but not to London, as it is noted in his Journal. Fascination with American wilderness made him a devoted "walker" and kept him from becoming a traveler, so he never crossed the Atlantic like his fellow Emerson, never wished to make the return journey from New England to England. But if it was not London, it was a Londoner, who truly attracted Thoreau's mind and made him produce his only piece of literary criticism.

The essay "Thomas Carlyle and his Works" was written in 1845 at Walden Pond. Thoreau was in the process of composing his masterpiece-to-become - WALDEN, or Life in the Woods - and the essay simultaneously followed for a while the same creative impulse. Beside the fact that these two works trace the steps of Thoreau's acquiring his own literary voice, they share another distinctive feature: both are preoccupied with the notion of the "genius loci".

Though Walden Pond is never mentioned in the essay, it obviously provides Thoreau's perspective towards Carlyle and his works. Thoreau was at the time entirely devoted to his experiment in living which was to become probably the most famous one in American history. He had gone to the woods, because, as he states in WALDEN, he "wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life" and not to live "what was not life". Walden Pond was his place for true living and thus turned to be the emblem of a lived philosophy of living. It was Thoreau's transcendentalist art-life choice. His VISION from the midst of Nature. Therefore Thoreau could not be but a WALDENER. And in the vision of this Waldener Thomas Carlyle could not be but justified as a LONDONER.

Thoreau had left his hometown Concord wishing to experiment with his own life. He had moved from the distractions of the city to the concentration provided by Nature. He had realized the need for changing the place in order for him to fulfil his intention. Place was crucial to him, the true place for true living being Nature. No wonder then that the notion of the place constantly occupied his mind and that the title of his spiritual autobiography naturally became the name of the place that made it possible, Walden. Such a disposition immediately shapes Carlyle as primarily a Londoner and clearly outlines the choice of place as the only ground for Thoreau's dissatisfactions with Carlyle. Because London was the place chosen by the Scotsman Carlyle and Thoreau was thinking about this choice after having made the right choice for himself. In other words, the fact that the Carlyle essay was written at Walden Pond and during the experiment underlies Thoreau's preoccupation with the "genius loci" and provides him with a special perspective in his speculating on Carlyle and his works. This perspective usually tends towards comparisons in terms of place and relation to place, thus drawing a kind of a topical borderline between the two otherwise alike transcendental minds.

Thoreau would either see the Scotsman Carlyle as more of a Londoner than the native-born Londoners and reflect on his ideas, language and style as possible only in London and nowhere else, or would consider Carlyle's London-centrism from the viewpoint of the less explicit, though strongly persistent in the essay American transcendentalist notion of "the Americanness" and its advantages.

"As we read his books here," - writes Thoreau - "in New England, where there are potatoes enough, and every man can get his living peacefully and sportively as the birds and bees, and need think no more of that, it seems to us as if BY THE WORLD HE OFTEN MEANT LONDON, at the head of the tide upon the Thames, the sorest place on the face of the earth, the very citadel of conservatism." Obviously, this passage is both a comparison and a comment, leaving no hesitation on the part of the reader as to which is the place preferred. Moreover, spatial fixation is considered here as imposing its limitations over spiritual breadth.

"He has spent the last quarter of his life in LONDON, writing books" -   goes on Thoreau. - "He especially is THE LITERARY MAN OF THOSE PARTS. You may imagine him living in altogether retired and simple way, with small family, in a quiet part of London, called CHELSEA, a little out of the din of commerce, in "CHEYNE ROW"... Here (in his spacious workshop) he sits a long time together, with many books and papers about him...". It is worthwhile here to imagine Thoreau imagining Carlyle: Thoreau in his Walden Pond cabin with all the nature around him thinking of Carlyle by narrowing the perspective from the city to the part of the city, then to the street and finally to the workshop. In this thinning spatial chain it is only the spacious workshop that is associated with physical space. In order for this space to immediately get walled in by "BRICK AND PAVEMENT", since in Thoreau's image this is what Carlyle sees out of his windows. Brick and pavement can be left behind for a while, continues Thoreau, by taking a short walk of a mile or so through the suburbs out into the country. Though so short a trip might not take Carlyle to "VERY SYLVAN OR RUSTIC PLACES". Once again Carlyle's space is shown as quite limited, the romantic strive towards sylvan and rustic places being physically unachievable for Carlyle the Londoner.

Moreover, transcendental space or Carlyle's transcendental vision is also considered in the essay in terms of limitations - the limitations imposed upon the transcendental scope by the walled-in physical space. Carlyle is seen by Thoreau as being "THOROUGHLY ENGLISH IN HIS LOVE OF PRACTICAL MEN AND DISLIKE FOR CANT, AND ARDENT ENTHUSIASTIC HEADS THAT ARE NOT SUPPORTED BY ANY LEGS...". Carlyle is too down-to-earth for Thoreau. Not that the author of WALDEN has always tended towards mysticism or that American Transcendentalism as a whole was far too distant from practical matters. Quite on the contrary - all New England transcendentalists did have a touch of practicism in them and proved themselves, in their different ways, to be practitioners as well. Which was actually not the case with most of their English counterparts, the Romantics. And Carlyle among them, of course. What bothers Thoreau is, in fact, Carlyle's preoccupation with history and heroes and his absolute lack of interest towards poetry and poets. And here once again we step upon London. "CARLYLE IN LONDON ... SEES NO OCCASION FOR MINSTRELS AND RHAPSODISTS THERE... HE LIVES IN CHELSEA, not on the plains of Hindostan, NOR ON THE PRAIRIES OF THE WEST, where settlers are scarce, and a man must at least go whistling to himself." Thoreau is drawing a clear distinction between East and West, between closed spaces and open spaces - both physical and spiritual. And he would never ever separate the spiritual from the physical spaciousness.

Spiritual spaciousness for Thoreau, as for all the American transcendentalists, is a synonym of POETRY. Therefore it is always associated with vision, the true transcendental vision for them being the poetical one. The key-figure for the elitist New England circle, as described by its leader Ralph Waldo Emerson, is the Poet - always written with a capital "p". The Poet in Emerson's understanding is necessarily a Seer, i.e. he is capable of achieving visibility beyond the visible or of transcending the senses towards revealing the generally not seen. Thoreau did not simply share Emerson's understanding of the Poet, but took it upon himself to actually LIVE as a Poet and make Poetry out of his own life. Such was the motivation for his Walden Pond enterprise. Quite expectedly then comes Thoreau's estimation that "CARLYLE IS NOT A SEER, but a brave LOOKER-ON and REVIEWER...". Thoreau is dissatisfied with the fact that Carlyle has written nothing concerning poetry and has actually banned the poets, but his major concern seems to be that Carlyle is not the Poet he could have been.   Since for Thoreau he "indicates a depth, which he neglects to fathom". In other words, according to the American transcendentalist Carlyle should set free the penetrating vision he is capable of. "To do himself justice, and set some of his readers right, remarks Thoreau, HE SHOULD GIVE US SOME TRANSCENDENT HERO AT LENGTH, to rule his demigods and Titans; develop, perhaps, his reserved and dumb reverence for Christ, NOT SPEAKING TO A LONDON OR CHURCH OF ENGLAND AUDIENCE MERELY." Obviously for Thoreau to produce a transcendent hero in London is a contradiction in itself. If Carlyle is to fulfil such an expectation he should definitely set himself free from the "genius loci" of London. Audience is pointed out here as another hindrance imposed by London on Carlyle's talent together with the bricks and plaster. So Thoreau, following the general impulse of his essay, comes up with the suggestion, that "possibly... in the silence of THE WILDERNESS and the desert he might have addressed himself more entirely to his true audience posterity...". Thus the opposition, underlying Thoreau's work on Carlyle as a whole, is clearly outlined here in terms of impossibility against possibility - provided respectively by London and the Wilderness - of acquiring the true poetic vision.

As it was already mentioned, "Thomas Carlyle and his Works" is exactly the piece, that more than clearly traces the process by which Thoreau began to acquire his own literary voice. The stylistic exuberance of Carlyle freed him to attempt the complex interplay of sentence lengths and of levels of diction which was to distinguish WALDEN. Thoreau was not only challenged and motivated by Carlyle's style, but truly fascinated. It is not too much to say, that he actually admired Carlyle for his style. Though critical on certain grounds, Thoreau never failed to express his reverence and admiration for Carlyle's style and language. And interestingly enough, this attitude provides another example of the spatial dichotomy that runs throughout the essay.

"Indeed, for fluency and skill in the use of the English tongue," - Thoreau observes -   "Carlyle is a master unraveled. His felicity and power of expression surpass even any of his special merits as a historian and critic. Therein his experience has not failed him, but furnished him with such a store of winged, aye, and legged words, as ONLY A LONDON LIFE, perchance, could give account of; we have not understood the wealth of the language before." No higher estimation can be given. Moreover, it is expressed in a style, that is aiming at the excellence of its object. And here, as if subdued to an inner mechanism, Thoreau could not help mentioning London. Entirely positively this time, though only on the rational level of London life giving account of Carlyle's stylistic prolificacy. But when it comes to praising the beauty of this style, then London life is no more a helpful perspective for him.

"Such a style - so diversified and variegated!" - exclaims Thoreau as if under a spell. - "It is like the face of a country; it is like a New England landscape, with farm-houses and villages, and cultivated spots, and belts of forests and blueberry-swamps round about it, with the fragrance of shad-blossoms and violets on certain winds."

This passage clearly outlines at least two things. First, that while writing the Carlyle essay Thoreau had reached the point of turning into one of America's masters of style. And secondly, that when considering beauty, he can take his comparisons from nowhere else but Nature. Moreover, Thoreau's nature is not any nature; his Nature is entirely American, or more precisely, it is always the nature of his native New England.

Henry David Thoreau wrote the essay "Thomas Carlyle and his Works" while living in the woods. He had left the city in order to experiment with life. It was exactly the time when the change of place to live was a matter crucial to him. By choosing Nature to the city he had provided himself with the only possibility to live, in his own words, "at the height of his own conceptions". The man of Concord had chosen to become Waldener. Hence the perspective towards Carlyle living and writing in London; hence the perspective towards London as the place for Carlyle to live and write.

 

 

© Albena Bakratcheva, 2001
© Publisher LiterNet, 12. 11. 2002
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First edition, electronic.

The Literature Meta-conference: "Infinite Londons", Lucian Blaga University of Sibiu, Romania, October 18-21, 2001.