Episode 21: The Sphere of Art

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Ralph Waldo Emerson, about 1831

Ralph Waldo Emerson, about 1831

The last of the legacies of the Concord Idealists that we will consider is that if their impact on the artistic life of America and the world, specifically in the areas of poetry and music.  And again, it pretty much all goes back to Emerson.  His address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society of Harvard in 1837 (before he was banned a year later) has been called America’s “Intellectual Declaration of Independence” by Oliver Wendell Holmes, and while it is aimed primarily at scholars, it also challenges artists to find their own connection to the Ideal and then create from it.

Help must come from the bosom alone. The scholar is that man who must take up into himself all the ability of the time, all the contributions of the past, all the hopes of the future. He must be an university of knowledges. If there be one lesson more than another, which should pierce his ear, it is, The world is nothing, the man is all; in yourself is the law of all nature, and you know not yet how a globule of sap ascends; in yourself slumbers the whole of Reason; it is for you to know all, it is for you to dare all.

Mr. President and Gentlemen, this confidence in the unsearched might of man belongs, by all motives, by all prophecy, by all preparation, to the American Scholar. We have listened too long to the courtly muses of Europe.

….A nation of men will for the first time exist, because each believes himself inspired by the Divine Soul which also inspires all men.

Emerson was, of course, a word man himself, and that is where his influence can be seen most clearly.  He was a poet as well as an essayist, although it is ironic that in addition to quoting mostly Europeans in his essays, his verse is very traditionally structured in its meter and rhyme schemes.  Even his poem Threnody, which is about the devastating loss of his young son Waldo, is very rigid in its meter and aabb rhyme scheme, as if he were trying to keep his emotions under control.

The theme of Man’s divinity runs throughout his poetry, an early example being Gnothi

Emerson's Letter to Whitman

Emerson’s Letter to Whitman on “Leaves of Grass”

Seauton (Know Thyself) from 1831, and we have already seen how the same theme is found in his contemporaries such as Jones Very and others.  But Emerson’s real legacy came in the person of Walt Whitman, who sent him an early copy of “Leaves of Grass” in 1855.  Emerson’s recognition was immediate–he knew this was the poet for whom he had been preparing the way, even though most people were shocked or stupefied by Whitman’s work.  Robert Richardson puts it this way:

For years Emerson was nearly alone in his admiration for Whitman.  He was for Emerson the poet who had grasped more clearly than anyone else the idea that the poet is representative.  Whitman was indeed the poet Emerson had called for in “the Poet,” the person who claimed little or nothing for himself but got his material and his strength by acting as the conduit and spokesman–the representative–of everyone he had ever met or heard or read about.¹

And Emerson’s regard for Whitman was reciprocated.  Richardson quotes from Horace Traubel’s With Walt Whitman in Camden:

His usual manner carried with it something penetrating and sweet beyond description.  There is in some men an indefinable something which flows out and over you like a flood of light–as if they possessed it illimitably–their whole being suffused with it.  Being–in fact that is precisely the word.  Emerson’s whole attitude shed forth such an impression…  Never a face more gifted with power to express, fascinate, maintain.

It is also safe to say that another of Emerson’s legacies was Emily Dickinson, although of course he never got to read any of her poetry (hardly anyone did until after her death).  But in her own way she also is a “representative poet,” and one can imagine the other Transcendentalists smiling with approval at works such as this, her #27:

Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses–past the headlands–
Into deep Eternity–

Bred as we, among the mountains,
Can the sailor understand
The divine intoxication
Of the first league out from land?

It is not, I think, hyperbole to say that all American poetry comes from these two streams: Whitman’s roaring river and Dickinson’s clear and gentle brook.²

The influence of the Transcendentalists on music can be seen in that of Charles Ives.

Charles and Harmony Ives

Harmony & Chas. Ives, ca. 1946 outside their summer home in West Redding, CT [credit: Halley Erskine, from the Charles Ives Papers in the Irving S. Gilmore Music Library of Yale University

Although Ives was born in 1874, and so never met any of the Concord circle, he was intimately familiar with the spirit of their work as heard in his Piano Sonata #2.  He obviously shared a common belief in the importance of revelation in the life of the artist, and had these experiences himself, as can be seen in this passage from his “Essays Before a Sonata:”³

Emerson seems to use the great definite interests of humanity to express the greater, indefinite, spiritual values–to fulfill what he can in his realms of revelation. Thus, it seems that so close a relation exists between his content and expression, his substance and manner, that if he were more definite in the latter he would lose power in the former,–perhaps some of those occasional flashes would have been unexpressed–flashes that have gone down through the world and will flame on through the ages–flashes that approach as near the Divine as Beethoven in his most inspired moments–flashes of transcendent beauty, of such universal import, that they may bring, of a sudden, some intimate personal experience, and produce the same indescribable effect that comes in rare instances, to men, from some common sensation.  In the early morning of a Memorial Day, a boy is awakened by martial music–a village band is marching down the street, and as the strains of Reeves’ majestic Seventh Regiment March come nearer and nearer, he seems of a sudden translated–a moment of vivid power comes, a consciousness of material nobility, an exultant something gleaming with the possibilities of this life, an assurance that nothing is impossible, and that the whole world lies at his feet. But as the band turns the corner, at the soldiers’ monument, and the march steps of the Grand Army become fainter and fainter,  the boy’s vision slowly vanishes–his “world” becomes less and less probable–but the experience ever lies within him in its reality. Later in life, the same boy hears the Sabbath morning bell ringing out from the white steeple at the “Center,” and as it draws him to it, through the autumn fields of sumac and asters, a Gospel hymn of simple devotion comes out to him–“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy”–an instant suggestion of that Memorial Day morning comes–but the moment is of deeper import–there is no personal exultation–no intimate world vision–no magnified personal hope–and in their place a profound sense of a spiritual truth,–a sin within reach of forgiveness–and as the hymn voices die away, there lies at his feet–not the world, but the figure of the Saviour–he sees an unfathomable courage, an immortality for the lowest, the vastness in humility, the kindness of the human heart, man’s noblest strength, and he knows that God is nothing–nothing but love! Whence cometh the wonder of a moment? From sources we know not. But we do know that from obscurity, and from this higher Orpheus come measures of sphere melodies flowing in wild, native tones, ravaging the souls of men, flowing now with thousand-fold accompaniments and rich symphonies through all our hearts; modulating and divinely leading them.

As Whitman did with poetry, Ives took a look at the rulebook for music and casually tossed it over his shoulder. The range of expression in the Concord Sonata shows his understanding of the range of the Transcendentalists—from the wild dissonances of the Emerson movement to the comfortable homeiness of the Alcott.4 Also like Whitman he was a catalog, grabbing bits of folk tunes, college songs, Beethoven, and military marches, but still creating a unity from them. He can combine the raucous raging river of Whitman and the pure spring of Dickinson in the same piece.  We may not “like” the result, but we know we are standing in the presence of someone who has heard the “melodies flowing in wild, native tones, ravaging the souls of men….”

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Robert D. Richardson Jr., Emerson: The Mind on Fire, University of California Press, 1995

²Emerson’s influence on literature still continues, of course, as can be seen in this quote about J. D. Salinger by Lillian RossEmerson was a touchstone, and Salinger often quoted him in letters. For instance, “A man must have aunts and cousins, must buy carrots and turnips, must have barn and woodshed, must go to market and to the blacksmith’s shop, must saunter and sleep and be inferior and silly.” Writers, he thought, had trouble abiding by that, and he referred to Flaubert and Kafka as “two other born non-buyers of carrots and turnips.”

³ Ives also has this to say about Emerson:  Perhaps, if all of Emerson–his works and his life–were to be swept away, and nothing of him but the record of the following incident remained to men–the influence of his soul would still be great. A working woman after coming from one of his lectures said: “I love to go to hear Emerson, not because I understand him, but because he looks as though he thought everybody was as good as he was.” Is it not the courage–the spiritual hopefulness in his humility that makes this story possible and true? Is it not this trait in his character that sets him above all creeds–that gives him inspired belief in the common mind and soul? Is it not this courageous universalism that gives conviction to his prophecy and that makes his symphonies of revelation begin and end with nothing but the strength and beauty of innate goodness in man, in Nature and in God, the greatest and most inspiring theme of Concord Transcendental Philosophy, as we hear it.

4A fine contemporary interpreter of Ives is Jeremy Denk, who often speaks of him in his blog Think Denk.