Emerson, Imagination and a New American Poetry

  • Linden Peach


Critics have recognised that Coleridge and Carlyle were important to the development of American literature because they introduced Americans to the new ideas from Germany.1 In the 1820s and 1830s many American intellectuals who had little direct knowledge of German literature were indebted to the essays of Carlyle (published in the Edinburgh Review and Fraser’s Magazine) and Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria and Aids to Reflection. James Marsh used Coleridge’s Aids to Reflection as an introduction to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and subsequently wrote an introduction to the American edition of Coleridge’s book. James Freeman Clark first read Coleridge at Harvard and ‘it confirmed his longing for a philosophy higher than that of John Locke and David Hartley. Coleridge proved to him from Kant that though knowledge begins with experience it does not come from experience’.2 William Channing’s knowledge of transcendental philosophy came mainly from Coleridge.3


American Literature German Literature Transcendental Philosophy Critical Essay Creative Faculty 
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  1. 1.
    Two works have explored this debt: William S. Vance, ‘Carlyle and the American Transcendentalists’, Diss. Chicago, 1941;Google Scholar
  2. Two works have explored this debt: William S. Vance, ‘Carlyle and the American Transcendentalists’, Diss. Chicago, 1941; Stanley M. Vogel, German Literary Influences on the American Transcendentalists (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955).Google Scholar
  3. 5.
    Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. E. W. Emerson and W. E. Forbes (London: Constable, 1909), 11, 207. This letter is not cited in the definitive edition of the Journals I have used elsewhere.Google Scholar
  4. 8.
    The Early Lectures of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Stephen E. Whicher and Robert E. Spiller (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), 1, 327.Google Scholar
  5. 9.
    Frank Thompson’s discussion of Emerson’s indebtedness to Coleridge for the distinctions between Reason and Understanding, Talent and Genius, Fancy and Imagination, does not adequately explore Emerson’s use rather than importation of them. F. T. Thompson, ‘Emerson’s Indebtedness to Coleridge’, Studies in Philology, 23 (January, 1926), 55–76.Google Scholar
  6. 12.
    Robert Duncan, ‘Two Chapters from H.D.’, Tri Quarterly 12 (Spring, 1968), 67–98.Google Scholar
  7. 13.
    James Benziger, ‘Organic Unity: Leibniz to Coleridge’, PMLA, 66, No 2 (March 1951), 25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 14.
    Edwin Fussell, Lucifer in Harness: American Meter, Metaphor, and Diction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 11.Google Scholar
  9. 15.
    Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 39.Google Scholar
  10. 17.
    See, for example, Charles Olson, ‘Projective Verse’ in Human Universe and Other Essays (New York: Grove Press, 1967).Google Scholar
  11. 22.
    The passive, receptive eye in Emerson’s work is discussed by Tony Tanner, The Reign of Wonder: Naivety and Reality in American Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), p. 29.Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    Carlyle was himself drawing upon the eighteenth-century bardic tradition and further literary sources for Emerson’s concept of the poet as a bard or seer, were Gray, Mason and MacPherson. But considering Emerson’s enthusiasm for Carlyle he was probably the primary source. Emerson’s concept of the poet as a bard was further strengthened by his friendship with Thoreau who was very enthusiastic about Ossian. Nelson F. Adkins, ‘Emerson and the Bardic Tradition’, PMLA, 63 (June 1948), 662–7.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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© Linden Peach 1982

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  • Linden Peach

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