“To my friend I write a letter, and from him I receive a letter.It is a spiritual gift, worthy of him to give, and of me toreceive.” — Emerson
“What the writer did actually mean, the thing he then thought of,the thing he then was.” — Carlyle
At the beginning of his “English Traits,” Mr. Emerson, writing ofhis visit to England in 1833, when he was thirty years old, saysthat it was mainly the attraction of three or four writers, ofwhom Carlyle was one, that had led him to Europe. Carlyle’s namewas not then generally known, and it illustrates Emerson’s mentalattitude that he should have thus early recognized his genius,and felt sympathy with it.
The decade from 1820 to 1830 was a period of unusual dulness inEnglish thought and imagination. All the great literaryreputations belonged to the beginning of the century, Byron,Scott, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, had said their say.The intellectual life of the new generation had not yet foundexpression. But toward the end of this time a series ofarticles, mostly on German literature, appearing in the Edinburghand in the Foreign Quarterly Review, an essay on Burns, anotheron Voltaire, still more a paper entitled “Characteristics,”displayed the hand of a master, and a spirit in full sympathywith the hitherto unexpressed tendencies and aspirations of itstime, and capable of giving them expression. Here was a writerwhose convictions were based upon principles, and whose wordsstood for realities. His power was slowly acknowledged. As yetCarlyle had received hardly a token of recognition from hiscontemporaries.
He was living solitary, poor, independent, in “desperate hope,”at Craigenputtock. On August 24, 1833, he makes entry in hisJournal as follows: “I am left here the solitariest, stranded,most helpless creature that I have been for many years... Nobody asks me to work at articles. The thing I want to write isquite other than an article… In all times there is a wordwhich spoken to men; to the actual generation of men, wouldthrill their inmost soul. But the way to find that word? Theway to speak it when found?” The next entry in his Journal showsthat Carlyle had found the word. It is the name “Ralph WaldoEmerson,” the record of Emerson’s unexpected visit. “I shallnever forget the visitor,” wrote Mrs. Carlyle, long afterwards,“who years ago, in the Desert, descended on us, out of the cloudsas it were, and made one day there look like enchantment for us,and left me weeping that it was only one day.”
At the time of this memorable visit Emerson was morally not lesssolitary than Carlyle; he was still less known; his name hadbeen unheard by his host in the desert. But his voice was soonto become also the voice of a leader. With temperaments sharplycontrasted, with traditions, inheritances, and circumstancesradically different, with views of life and of the universewidely at variance, the souls of these two young men were yet insympathy, for their characters were based upon the samefoundation of principle. In their independence and theirsincerity they were alike; they were united in their faith inspiritual truth, and their reverence for it. Their modes ofthought of expression were not merely dissimilar, but divergent,and yet, though parted by an ever widening cleft of difference,they knew, as Carlyle said, that beneath it “the rock-strata,miles deep, united again, and their two souls were at one”
Two days after Emerson’s visit Carlyle wrote to his mother: —
“Three little happinesses have befallen us: first, a piano-tuner,procured for five shillings and sixpence, has been here,entirely reforming the piano, so that I can hear a little musicnow, which does me no little good. Secondly, Major Irving, ofGribton, who used at this season of the year to live and shoot atCraigenvey, came in one day to us, and after some clatter offeredus a rent of five pounds for the right to shoot here, and eventabled the cash that moment, and would not pocket it again.Money easilier won never sat in my pocket; money for deliveringus from a great nuisance, for now I will tell every gunnerapplicant, ‘I cannot, sir; it is let.’ Our third happiness wasthe arrival of a certain young unknown friend, named Emerson,from Boston, in the United States, who turned aside so far fromhis British, French, and Italian travels to see me here! He hadan introduction from Mill, and a Frenchman (Baron d’Eichthal’snephew) whom John knew at Rome. Of course we could do no otherthan welcome him; the rather as he seemed to be one of the mostlovable creatures in himself we had ever looked on. He stayedtill next day with us, and talked and heard talk to his heart’scontent, and left us all really sad to part with him. Jane saysit is the first journey since Noah’s Deluge undertaken toCraigenputtock for such a purpose. In any case, we had acheerful day from it, and ought to be thankful.”
On the next Sunday, a week after his visit, Emerson wrote thefollowing account of it to his friend, Mr. Alexander Ireland.
“I found him one of the most simple and frank of men, and becameacquainted with him at once. We walked over several miles ofhills, and talked upon all the great questions that interest usmost. The comfort of meeting a man is that he speaks sincerely;that he feels himself to be so rich, that he is above themeanness of pretending to knowledge which he has not, and Carlyledoes not pretend to have solved the great problems, but rather tobe an observer of their solution as it goes forward in the world.I asked him at what religious development the concluding passagein his piece in the Edinburgh Review upon German literature(say five years ago), and some passages in the piece called‘Characteristics,’ pointed. He replied that he was not competentto state even to himself, — he waited rather to see. My ownfeeling was that I had met with men of far less power who had gotgreater insight into religious truth. He is, as you might guessfrom his papers, the most catholic of philosophers; he forgivesand loves everybody, and wishes each to struggle on in his ownplace and arrive at his own ends. But his respect for eminentmen, or rather his scale of eminence, is about the reverse of thepopular scale. Scott, Mackintosh, Jeffrey, Gibbon, — even Bacon,— are no heroes of his; stranger yet, he hardly admires Socrates,the glory of the Greek world; but Burns, and Samuel Johnson, andMirabeau, he said interested him, and I suppose whoever else hasgiven himself with all his heart to a leading instinct, and hasnot calculated too much. But I cannot think of sketching evenhis opinions, or repeating his conversations here. I willcheerfully do it when you visit me here in America. He talksfinely, seems to love the broad Scotch, and I loved him very muchat once. I am afraid he finds his entire solitude tedious, but Icould not help congratulating him upon his treasure in his wife,and I hope he will not leave the moors; ‘t is so much better fora man of letters to nurse himself in seclusion than to be fileddown to the common level by the compliances and imitations ofcity society.”
Twenty-three years later, in his “English Traits,” Emerson oncemore describes his visit, and tells of his impressions ofCarlyle.
“From Edinburgh I went to the Highlands. On my return I camefrom Glasgow to Dumfries, and being intent on delivering a letterwhich I had brought from Rome, inquired for Craigenputtock. Itwas a farm in Nithsdale, in the parish of Dunscore, sixteen milesdistant. No public coach passed near it, so I took a privatecarriage from the inn. I found the house amid desolate heatheryhills, where the lonely scholar nourished his mighty heart.Carlyle was a man from his youth, an author who did not need tohide from his readers, and as absolute a man of the world,unknown and exiled on that hill-farm, as if holding on his ownterms what is best in London. He was tall and gaunt, with acliff-like brow, self-possessed and holding his extraordinarypowers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northernaccent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote, and with astreaming humor which floated everything he looked upon. Histalk, playfully exalting the most familiar objects, put thecompanion at once into an acquaintance with his Lars and Lemurs,and it was very pleasant to learn what was predestined to be apretty mythology. Few were the objects and lonely the man, ‘nota person to speak to within sixteen miles, except the minister ofDunscore’; so that books inevitably made his topics.
“He had names of his own for all the matters familiar to hisdiscourse. Blackwood’s was the ‘sand magazine’; Fraser’s nearerapproach to possibility of life was the ‘mud magazine’; a pieceof road near by that marked some failed enterprise was ‘the graveof the last sixpence.’ When too much praise of any geniusannoyed him, he professed hugely to admire the talent shown byhis pig. He had spent much time and contrivance in confining thepoor beast to one enclosure in his Pen; but pig, by greatstrokes of judgment, had found out how to let a board down, andhad foiled him. For all that, he still thought man the mostplastic little fellow in the planet, and he liked Nero’s death,Qualis artifex pereo! better than most history. He worships aman that will manifest any truth to him. At one time he hadinquired and read a good deal about America. Landor’s principlewas mere rebellion, and that, he feared, was the Americanprinciple. The best thing he knew of that country was, that init a man can have meat for his labor. He had read in Stewart’sbook, that when he inquired in a New York hotel for the Boots, hehad been shown across the street, and had found Mungo in his ownhouse dining on roast turkey.