WITH OR WITHOUT PRINCIPLE: TRANSCENDING TRANSCENDENTALISM. AESTHETIC CONTROVERSIES, RECEPTIONAL MODES
"Every poem, it is said, should inculcate a moral... - Edgar Allan Poe remarked in a lecture, delivered in his home New England. - We Americans - he went on, - especially have patronized this happy idea; and we Bostonians, very especially, have developed it in full." Poe's audiences may not have known he was born in Boston, but they could hardly have avoided knowing of his contempt for Frogpondia - Poe's name for the Boston-Cambridge axis. "He must be blind, indeed, - Poe claimed further, - who does not perceive the radical and chasmal differences between the truthful and the poetical modes of inculcation. He must be theory-mad beyond redemption who in spite of these differences still persists in attempting to reconcile the obstinate oils and waters of Poetry and Truth." This lecture, published later as "The Poetic Principle", clearly outlined a fundamental discrepancy in American mid-nineteenth century aesthetical thinking - a DISCREPANCY IN PRINCIPLE, that obviously could not but result in mutual disrespect on both sides. To label "blind" the New England transcendentalists, the people mostly preoccupied exactly with "vision" and eagerly insisting on a "visibility beyond the visible" as the major achievement of the poetic mind, - and, moreover, to do that in Boston, the very heart of Transcendentalism, - was no less than to radically come up with a personal "declaration of independence". Poe's reasons were no other but entirely artistic; what he stood for was the poem per se, or "the poem written solely for the poem's sake" - i.e. not any more for the sake of a moral, which to him was already a sake outside artistry. Poe would therefore necessarily emphasize on the incompatibility of Poetry and Truth. While it was exactly Truth, or the insight to Truth that the transcendentalists treasured mostly; moreover, they treasured it as both religious and poetical domain. Poetry and Truth were not only compatible to them, but actually inseparable. Emerson's Poet was the "Truth-speaker", the one capable of "true naming". No wonder then that it was Emerson, the speaker of the "truth-speaker", to respond to the advocate of poetry per se by naming him, scornfully enough, "the jingle man" - and not a poet at all, be he jingle or not. Neither were the transcendentalists poets in Poe's opinion - he had already written, scornfully enough as well, of "the so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists".
Considering this complicated situation of artistic, moral and psychological discrepancies in mid-nineteenth century America, in what follows I shall be suggesting that, first, what actually provoked them was a discrepancy of another kind - namely that between poetical theory and poetical practice, approached differently by the two opponent sides, - and second, that these very discrepancies predetermined the different receptional biographies the works of Edgar Allan Poe and of the New England transcendentalists acquired later on.
In fact, Poe was not opposing truth; all that he said in defense of what he called "the poetic principle", was said "with as deep a reverence for the True as ever inspired in the bosom of man". His "principle" was that poetry should be an end in itself and not an end beyond, or rather outside itself. Poe's major concern was with truth having nothing to do with poetry and with Beauty being the true and only province of the poem. (Shall we say - of the TRUE poem?) What Poe was actually doing was attach separate "offices" to what he saw as the three distinctions dividing the world of mind, namely the Intellect, Taste and the Moral Sense. "Immediately obvious" as it seemed to Poe, this division more than obviously points at something else: namely, the conscious effort on Poe's part to oppose the prevailing aesthetical situation of his time by taking the artefact out of the complex religious-artistic approach of the transcendentalists and assigning it a province of its own. Thus, clustering the Intellect with Truth and the Moral Sense with Duty, it followed only logically that it is Taste that informs us of the Beautiful - or rather, that the Beautiful should be considered as belonging to a realm that has nothing to do with either truth or morals. In an age still dominated by the Puritan idea of character - though already touched by the influence of early 19th century individualism, - Ralph Waldo Emerson had no problem in stating that the Imagination "reads Nature to the end of delight and of moral use" (W, VIII, 22); neither did he have any problem to call the beholder of Imagination, or the Poet, "the Man of Beauty" and at the same time claim him isolated among his contemporaries by nothing else but... Truth. To Poe this was already the croak of the Frogpondia; in order to silence it he chose to endow poetry with the voice of a "Rhythmical Creation of Beauty". If, in other words, the New England transcendentalists, all coming from the Unitarian stock, were faithfully continuing to justify Art on religious grounds, Poe made the step further by already justifying Art, i.e. Poetry for its own sake alone. Practically, he achieved that in the interplay of sonorous effects to the extent of profound suggestiveness. Theoretically, he did it by sticking to "The Poetic Principle", or rather to what he called "The Philosophy of Composition".
"Art is the path of the creator to his work." This statement could have well belonged to Poe. Though it doesn't. Central in Emerson's essay "The Poet", it can be seen as a shared general assumption quite differently considered by the two authors. While for Emerson "the paths or methods are ideal and eternal", for Poe the composition of the poem proceeds "to its completion with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem"; while Emerson insists on inspiration in the creative process, Poe renders it no value at all; while Emerson's poet "pursues a beauty, half seen, which flies before him", Poe's stresses on forethought as the prerequisite of poetic beauty. A work of Art, Emerson insists, lasts "in proportion as it was not polluted by the willfulness of the writer, but flowed from his mind after the divine order of cause and effect" (W, XII, 466); "the extent of a poem, Poe responds, may be made to bear mathematical relation to its merit". It is amazing how the two authors use the same "mathematical" idiom to express their contrastive positions: Emerson to recommend a sort of automatic writing and Poe to contradict any "Aeolian harp" approaches and to insist on the mere technique of the poem-making. What is even more amazing, though, is that both authors, different as they are, finally come up with quite the same understanding of the what they call the "true poetical effect" - this being the "ELEVATION OF THE SOUL".
Clearly, the huge hiatus is mostly a matter of "HOW" rather than of "WHAT". Emerson exposes the Poet as the center of all creativeness and sees him as radiating the "electricity" of a "liberating God"; Poe is concerned with the world of the mind only as much as he can thus isolate the province of Poetry per se, so that, after having secured it against pollutions of whatsoever kind, he can focus on the technicalities of poem-construction. Both authors consider the approach of the other damaging: either in regard to the sacred divine truthfulness of the artistic-religious revelation, or in regard to the chaste beauty of poetry per se. Emerson's tone is zealously rhetorical, while Poe's is calmed down and analytical. Moreover, Emerson's zealous rhetoric is aimed at worshiping the Poet in inspiration - in this sanctum sanctorum of the poetic creation, that can only be praised in hymns of a similar inspiration; while Poe goes right into rationalistically dissecting the creative process, depriving it of whatsoever divine energies. The originality of a poem, Poe convincedly declares, "is by no means a matter, as some suppose, of impulse or intuition" - but rather in accurately preconsidered rhythmical innovations. The "some" mentioned can obviously be no other but the inspired bards of Imagination - the Bostonians who recognized "no will in composition" and took, in Bronson Alcott's words, the "spirit within" to be "the only writer" (JA, 206).
In fact, there never was a big aesthetical debate; obviously, both sides considered the claims of the other superficial to what was to them the true essence of poetical creation: no wonder, after all, that the mutual nicknaming went on in the terms of "croakings" and "jinglings". So I would argue here that, behind the visible disagreements, there was actually a DISCREPANCY BETWEEN ARTISTIC THEORY AND ARTISTIC PRACTICE where ARTICULATION AND SILENCE were experienced quite differently. Like Emerson, all the transcendentalists were enamored of the IDEA of inspiration and hastened to ascribe as much as possible to it, while at the same time demanded satisfaction from the finished product and worked on it in a very careful and disciplined manner - just as carefully though, they avoided speaking of this conscious work as if scared not to commit blasphemy. Poe, on the contrary, did not hesitate to talk of the prerequisites of the poetic construction - only post factum, though: "The Philosophy of Composition" succeeds in time "The Raven" and obviously could do no analytical harm to it. Poe would never speak though of how "he who shall simply sing" comes "to prove his divine title"; the creative process for him was not an abstraction, but the sacred lonely abode of his own he would never touch with words. SACREDNESS and the ARTICULATION of it were for Poe absolutely incompatible; sacredness, he insisted, can only be SUGGESTED.
It is exactly suggestiveness, or "the under-current of meaning", which for Poe "imparts to a work of art so much of that richness... which we are too fond of confounding with the ideal". No wonder then that the "rendering of the upper instead of the under-current of a theme", he would consider exactly what "repels the artistical eye", and would therefore scornfully reject the "so called poetry of the so called transcendentalists" as distinctively antipoetical. Decades later D.H. Lawrence as if echoed Poe, observing as an outstanding quality of American literature that "the deliberate ideas of the man veil, conceal, obscure that which the artist has to reveal"; this for Lawrence was against the "art-language", as he called it. Against artistry it already was for Poe in his mid-nineteenth century America, so he came up with and followed his "poetic principle". His fellow Americans did not only take this as jingling nonsense, but must have also considered it quite un-American: in a time, mostly preoccupied with the notion of Americanness, Poe must have seemed desperately insensitive to the great message of place-identity, so enthusiastically articulated by the Emersonian poet-priest. Poe recognized neither the message of whatsoever kind as inherent to the province of poetry, nor did he share the ways it was delivered; the "supreme nobleness" of Art he found not outside, but inside it. Poe was thus doubly unacceptable to the prevailing aesthetical disposition of his time and country. Not to the novel aesthetical dispositions in Europe a few decades later, though: it was exactly on the grounds his unacceptability in his contemporary America, that the French symbolists recognized Poe as the founding father of European Modernism. The fact speaks for itself, that in most European countries translations of Poe's poetry appeared simultaneously with their symbolist movements. Bulgaria makes no exception here.
I would here draw the attention to another expression of the aesthetical hiatus between Poe and the American transcendentalists, that in its turn explains the different modes of their European reception. The fact is that while Emerson and his fellow thinkers DELIBERATELY PERSONIFY the object of their aesthetical thinking, Poe, no less DELIBERATELY, DEPERSONIFIES his. The mere comparison of titles shows "The Poetic Principle" or "The Philosophy of Composition" as Poe's response to transcendentalist manifestoes like "The American Scholar" or "The Poet". Emerson's focus is the Man of Beauty, while Poe's is Beauty itself. In the beginning of "WALDEN" Thoreau echoes Emerson by stating that he requires "of every writer, first or last, a simple and sincere account of his own life". The "I" of the author with Poe remains silent, even erased by the overwhelming presence of the work of art per se; was he to make a personal statement, it would have sounded like this:
"To be away from home, and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world - such are a few af the slightest pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial natures which the tongue can but clumsily define. The spectator is a prince who everywhere rejoices in HIS INCOGNITO."
This could well have been Poe's own statement; though it isn't. The words belong to Charles Baudelaire depicting what he calls "the perfect Flaneur" as "The Painter of Modern Life". In Poe's author's incognito that renders all power to the artefact itself and not to the moral message or the messenger, Baudelaire must definitely have felt the already beating pulse of modernism; the bleakness of Poe's own life and the tragic incognito of his early death - a fate so unlike any of the transcendentalists', - must also have added a familiar touch of melancholy to "Flowers of Evil". "The Poetic Principle" was already destined to cast its sonorous spleen effects over the whole of European Modernism.
If Poe's "under-current of suggested meaning" was so intensely explored by all kinds of modernist writers everywhere, what was then the receptional fate of the "upper-current" works of American Transcendentalism? I will not address the question here towards changing contexts inside America and will not refer to either the Emersonian line in American literature, or Thoreau's influence on, say, the Beat generation or Martin Luther King. I would argue instead that the impact these works have had in different times both in America and in Europe - just like the impact they didn't have in certain periods, - has always been provoked by exactly the power of their direct message: religious or aesthetical, individualistic or social, ecological or political. Diverse as this message has proved itself to be, the influence of its directness has always been strikingly profound. It seems that inspired poet-priests, focused on ever-lasting "higher laws", on nature and the essentials of character-building, on individual and social reforming, have always been needed. A most recent example is provided by the Eastern European countries in the last years. In the process of spiritual emancipation which called forth the political change of 1989, the writings of especially Henry David Thoreau acquired a peculiar, hardly ever expected significance in Eastern Europe. Thoreau's social ideas and the spiritual horizons of his philosophy of life closely corresponded to the painful need of the individual in the so-called "socialist countries" for outward and inward emancipation: a need most torturous for the intellectuals. It was these unique receptional circumstances provided by Eastern-European totalitarian regimes' stability and crash that turned WALDEN into a bible for spiritual survival first, and then "Civil Disobedience" into the slogan of our "velvet revolutions". This was - and still is - all good soil for the art-life equation of the New England transcendentalists. It was no time at all for "The Poetic Principle"; it was the right time though for a Thoreauvian "Life Without Principle", focused on the essentials of being that had long enough been carefully obliterated by the institutionalized "principles" of totalitarianism. In other words, the transcendentalist "upper-current of meaning" appeared to be desperately needed in a time when the significance of the individual was turned into less than an "under-current of suggested meaning". The existential message of the American transcendentalists still powerfully unfolds its truthfulness in the complicated, sometimes even misleading circumstances that we, Eastern Europeans, are faced with nowadays.
Alcott 1973: Alcott's Journal. // Buell, Lawrence. Literary Transcendentalism. Ithaca and London: Cornell Univ. Press, 1973.
Baudelaire 1964: Baudelaire, Charles. The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. Trans. and ed. Jonathan Mayne. 1964.
Emerson 1903-1904: The Complete Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 12 vols. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1903-1904.
Emerson 1990: Emerson, Ralph Waldo. Selected Essays, Lectures and Poems. Ed. Robert D. Richardson, Jr. New York: Bantam Books, 1990.
Lawrence 1923/51: Lawrence, D. H.. Studies in Classic American Literature, 1923; rpt. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1951.
Poe 1984: Poe, Edgar Allan. Essays and Reviews. Ed. G. Richard Thompson. 1984.
Thoreau 1962: Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. New York: Washington Square Press, Inc., 1962.
Thoreau 1990: The Essays of Henry David Thoreau. Ed. Richard Dillman. Albany, NY, 1990.
© Albena Bakratcheva