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Ralph Waldo Emerson

Criticism on Nature

from Eric Wilson's Emerson's Sublime Science

Introduction: Poetry Realized in Nature

"Ralph Waldo Emerson ascended the pulpit of Boston's Second Church on 9 September 1832 to deliver his last sermon as pastor. His theme was the Lord's Supper, a rite he no longer felt compelled to administer. He explained to his congregation that he must resign his office, for he could not continue to offer an ordinance that he found not only unsanctioned by scripture but also spiritually dead. This day, this sermon, proved the turning point of Emerson's young life. On this autumn Sunday, he broke from the forms of the church. Henceforth, he was no longer the kindly parochial pastor, but the cosmopolitan minister of terrible simplicity, preaching the laws of nature, in his words dispensing nature's perpetual force.

'The Lord's Supper', the title of that day's sermon, was until recently the only Emerson sermon to find its way into print. His son Edward reports in the 1904 edition of Emerson's works that his father did not want his sermons to be published. The Emerson family, however, saw fit to print this sermon, as '[a] record of a turning-point in his life', showing 'at once his thought and his character' (W 11:547). Indeed, in this text we find the seeds of the ideas that would blossom four years later into the exuberant landscape of Nature.

Emerson struggled mightily with this monumental decision to resign his pastorship. In leaving the ministry, he would not only be renouncing the profession of his father but disappointing severely his beloved Aunt Mary Moody as well as his loyal congregation. In July of 1832, he had withdrawn into the White Mountains of New Hampshire to meditate on his decision. From there he wrote his Aunt Mary that he was 'not prepared to eat or drink religiously' (L 1:354). However, as Emerson's recent biographer Robert D. Richardson, Jr. claims, he did not leave the church merely because of his dissatisfaction with Communion. For spiritual and intellectual reasons, he had already been pondering a separation from formal religion. His break with the church, Richardson correctly observes, [3] did not betoken a loss of faith; it signified too much. FN Emerson found the dogmas and rituals of the church narrow, suffocating; his faith was wide, expansive as the White Mountains from which he contemplated his break. The God he believed in inhabited not old buildings. He lived in the fields of nature. He was best studied not by the preacher but by the scientist. Emerson left the pulpit so he could practice true religion.

Emerson primarily objected to Communion on the ground that it was a form without life. Supernumerary to moral growth, it had become a mere habit of belief and potentially dangerous to salvation if overemphasized. While '[f]orms are as essential as bodies', Emerson warns in his sermon that 'to exalt particular forms, to adhere to one form a moment after it is outgrown, is unreasonable, and it is alien to the spirit of Christ'(W 11:20). Obedience to such an outmoded form is self-imposed slaved: 'Freedom', Emerson proclaims, 'is the essence of this faith. It has for its object simply to make men good and wise. Its institutions should be as flexible as the wants of men. That form out of which the life and suitableness have departed should be as worthless in its eyes as dead leaves that are falling around us'(W 11:212).

Emerson feared that Communion and by extension church dogmas bind Christians to fabricated, inflexible forms. Jesus taught not that we should carve our souls to fit the Procrustean beds of set forms but that we should 'seek our well-being in the formation of the soul' (W 11:22). Forms that do not grow organically from the soul, that are not elastic enough to change as nature does, are mere shadows, worthless ciphers. In the 'eye of God there is no other measure of the nature of any one form than the measure of its use' (W 11:23).

For Emerson, ecclesiastical forms correspond to Coleridge's idea of mechanical form, a rigid structure that results 'when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material' (CC 5.1: 495). In contrast, the 'formation of the soul', the proper spiritual life for Emerson, is an organic form: 'it is innate, it shapes, as it developes, itself from within, and the fullness of its developement is one & the same with the perfection of its outward form, such as the life is, such is the Form' (495).

Emerson had been assiduously reading Coleridge between his marriage to Ellen Tucker in 1829 (she would tragically die in 1832) and his resignation three years later. James Marsh's popular 1829 [3] American edition of Coleridge's Aids to Reflections (1825) taught Emerson that the forms of organisms are evolved from an 'invisible central Power', an 'unseen Agency' that 'weaves its magic Eddies' through plants, animals, humans, animating and metamorphosing them. It is the 'germinal Power of the Plant' that 'transmutes the fixed air and the elementary Base of Water into Grass or Leaves, and on these the Organic Principle in the Ox or Elephant exercises an Alchemy still more stupendous'. The matter that we perceive is 'the translucense of invisible Energy (CC 9:398). These claims, Coleridge emphasizes, 'are not fancies, conjectures, or even hypotheses, but facts'. He could sanction this confidence with the electrochemistry of his friend Humphry Davy and the electromagnetism of the Danish scientist H. C. Oersted. Their experiments, as well as those of other scientists, had recently revealed 'the dynamic spirit of the physical sciences,' showing that the 'particles' that constitute the 'visibility of an organic structure are constantly in flux'. Organic forms are like 'columns of blue smoke' or a 'steadfast-seeming cloud' in a driving air current -- they are evolving patterns of spirit (398). FN

Emerson also gathered from Aids that the mind is comprised of two faculties, the Reason and the Understanding. (While Coleridge did not render these words, borrowed, as everyone knows, from Immanuel Kant, with capital letters in Aids, Emerson did persistently; therefore, I shall write the words with capitals throughout this study.) The Reason is 'the speculative or scientific power...the nous or mens of the ancients'; Understanding, its attendant power, is the discursive power, for proving and analyzing the insights of Reason (CC 9:223-4). Coleridge stresses that 'there can be no contrariety between the revelation [of Reason] and the understanding' (395). The intuitions of the Reason, in other words, are proven by physical phenomena. The Reason comprehends the invisible spirit underlying organisms; the Understanding relates the spirit to the processes and functions of the organisms. Reason is the ground of all truth; as Marsh glosses Reason in his preface to Aids: 'The first principles, the ultimate grounds of [philosophy, morals, and religion] must be sought in the laws of our own being or they are not found at all'. FN The Understanding, the empirical faculty, finds evidence for these intuited primary principles.

Coleridge's statements on form and on the nature of the mind only exacerbated Emerson's trouble with Communion and the church, arousing the young American's faith in his own intuitions.[4] Church forms, Emerson thought, are overly mechanical; the formation of the soul, an organic process. Likewise Coleridge's remarks on Reason must have inspired Emerson's most emphatic objection to Communion: it did not seem suitable to him: 'It is my own objection. This mode of commemorating Christ is not suitable to me. That is reason enough why I should abandon it' (W 11:19). This confidence comes from his faith in Reason, his trust that his ownmost thoughts are true, ready to be proven by the Understanding.

Emerson's budding interest in the forms of nature, his nascent curiosity in the powers of the individual mind: these energized his resignation from the church. Coleridge's theories of organic form and the intuitive mind offered synthesizing visions the church lacked. While the church could impose forms on the body, it could not stimulate the spirit. While it could ground dogmas on the authority of scripture, it could not generate fresh ideas on the relationship between mind and matter, human and nature.

Science, on the other hand, as described by Coleridge, was synthesis. It attended to mergings of body and spirit. It honored the visions of the Reason, but not without proving them with the evidence compiled by the Understanding. Science as Coleridge rendered it was poetic, uncovering relations between vision and logic, subject and object, mind and matter, energy and form. Coleridge's famed method, described in The Friend (1818) (already read by the young Emerson) could be used by scientist and poet alike, both of whom should study organisms not only for their own sake but also to find their relation to each other and to man. It is

natural to the mind which has become accustomed to contemplate not things only, or for their own sake, but likewise and chiefly the relations of things, either their relation to each other, or to the observer, or to the state and apprehension of the hearers. To enumerate and analyze these relations, with the conditions under which they are discoverable, is to teach the science of Method.  (CC 4.1:451)

In this science of method, Emerson discovered a way to interweave his most heart-felt concerns. He could unify revelation and nature, life and form, insight and expression. He could be both naturalist and poet, scientist and preacher. It was this method that metamorphosed him from a writer of sermons to the author of Nature. [5]

Emerson followed his break with the Church in 1832 by leaving for Europe some two months later, on Christmas Day, to begin a pilgrimage to the great writers and scientists of his day, including Coleridge. This trip, almost a year in length, was decisive in his move from the quiet life of a preacher to the agitated one of an essayist. He drew poetic inspiration (not, ironically, from Coleridge, or Wordsworth) from conversations with Thomas Carlyle in Scotland, and experience the beauty of science while looking through the achromatic microscope of Giovanni Battista Amici in Florence.

Poetics and science merged powerfully for him while he strolled through the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. There he was fascinated by the cabinets of botanical and zoological specimens classified according to internal function by A. L. Jussieu and G. L. Cuvier, among others. He saw that nature was a book whose form and content are inseparable, outward form a pattern of inward energy. Like Goethe beholding in the gardens of Palermo the Urpflanze, the primal botanical form, Emerson stood awed before the specimens. His revelations was at hand.

The Universe is a more amazing puzzle than ever as you glance along this bewildering series of animated forms, -- the hazy butterflies, the carved shells, the birds, beasts, fishes, insects, snakes, -- & the upheaving principle of life everywhere incipient in the very rock aping organized forms. Not a form so grotesque, so savage, nor so beautiful but is an expression of some property inherent in the observer, -- an occult relation between the very scorpions and man. I feel the centipede in me -- cayman, carp, eagle, & fox. I am moved by strange sympathies, I say continually, "I will be a naturalist'. (JMN 4: 199-200) FN

Emerson had been prepared for such an epiphany ever since that momentous fall Sunday in Boston. It, contextualized by Coleridge's work, was a catalyst for his sublime science, his merging of intuitive vision, empirical science, and poetry. It was the scientific revelation out of which his Nature grew.

This experience in the Jardin instructs readers of Emerson to take his interests in science seriously. His vow to be a naturalist was not idle. Upon his return from Europe, he immediately began to attend assiduously to the emerging sciences of his day and to lecture on scientific subject. His attention to science, energized by his other reading in the great hermetic thinkers (Bruno, Boehme, [6] Swedenborg) and in Romantic writers (Goethe and Coleridge), constituted his literary apprenticeship. It became a primary inspiration for his Nature, which is grounded -- in spite of its metaphysical tendencies -- on very specific scientific information. In Nature, terms like 'currents', 'spirit', 'life', 'nature' are not simply adrift in a speculative realm. Rather, they are moored to the palpable by recently scientific discovery. Emerson, like Goethe and Coleridge before him, was not content to leave poetry separate from science: he wished for a universal science that married the many to one, matter to mind, fact to poetry. He wanted to be a Romantic scientist.


Romantics like Goethe, Coleridge, and Emerson thrilled in harvesting disparity into unity, the many into the one. Division, atomization, alienation: all were conditions of the Romantic hell, the universe of death. Shoring fragments against their ruin, the poets, philosophers, scientists of the Romantic age dreamed of a universal science that would reveal a force binding the most diffuse phenomena, gathering the specimens of the biologist, the elements of the chemist, the thinker's arguments, the tropes of the writer. Bifurcations of mind and matter, words and things, poetry and science were to the Romantic unnatural severings destined to dissolve the cosmos into its former chaos. Redemption lay in the demiurgic activity of forging chaotic energy into dynamic forms, the transformation of the facts of science into the figures of poetry.

Emerson himself memorably depicts the dangers of extreme atomization some four years after his Paris epiphany in 'The American Scholar' (1837):

The old fable covers a doctrine ever new and sublime; that there is One Man,--present to all particular men only partially, or through one faculty; and that you must take the whole society to find the whole man. Man is not a farmer, or a professor, or an engineer, but he is all. Man is priest, and scholar, and statesman, and producer, and soldier. In the divided or social state, these functions are parcelled out to individuals, each of whom aims to do his stint of the joint work, whilst each other performs his. The fable implies, that the individual, to possess himself, must sometimes return from his labor to embrace all other laborers. But [7] unfortunately, this original unit, this fountain of power, has been so distributed to multitudes, has been so minutely subdivided and peddled out, that it is spilled into drops, and cannot be gathered. The state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters, -- a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man. (CW 1:53)

The American Scholar works to remedy this atomization by becoming 'Man Thinking', a student of nature, past, present, and future, whose interdisciplinary researches transform him into the ideal teacher detailed in the 'Divinity School Address' (1838), one who 'shall see the world to be a mirror of the soul; shall see the identity of the law of gravitation with the purity of the heart; and shall show that the Ought, that Duty, is one thing with Science, with Beauty, and with Joy' (CW 1:93).

Many of Emerson' s Romantic predecessors in Europe aspired to become this ideal teacher, to discover the identity of the 'law of gravitation' (a scientific issue) with the 'purity of heart' (a concern of poetry, philosophy, religion). Both Romantic poet -- a Goethe, a Coleridge, a Wordsworth -- and Romantic scientist -- a Humboldt, an Oersted, a Davy, a Faraday -- chose for their main region and haunt the laws of nature, which included not only the behaviors of stars, forces, lightning, and plants, but also the relationships between mind and matter; human and nature, words and things. Romantic poetry, with its heightened attention to detail, its passion for truth, its reliance on energy, constituted a science; Romantic science, in its efforts to find the source of life, in its translations of natural fact into moral imperative, proved poetic. Coleridge, writing of the 'charm of chemistry', offers the definitive account of this correspondence:

It is the sense of a principle of connection given by the mind, and sanctioned by the correspondency of nature. Hence the strong hold with in all ages chemistry has had on the imagination. If in SHAKESPEARE we find nature idealized into poetry, through the creative power of a profound yet observant meditation, so through the meditative observation of a DAVY, a WOLLASTON, or a HATCHETT. . . . we find poetry, as it were, substantiated and realized in nature: yea, nature itself disclosed to us . . . as at once to poet and the poem. (CC 4.1:471)

[8] Goethe, in his authority as a Shakespeare and Davy, perhaps the only major poet actually to contribute successfully to the history of science, forges this relationship as well: "They [the critics of his botanical work] forgot that science arose from poetry, and did not see that when times change the two can meet again on a higher level as friends'. FN

In conducting the invisible, ubiquitous forces of nature into texts meant to reveal the grandeur of the cosmos, Romantic poets inaugurated a revival of the universal science dreamed of by the hermetic alchemists of the Renaissance, those equally ambitious experimenters who toiled in their smoky laboratories toward a universal synthesis of science, art, and religion. The magi, like Giordano Bruno or Jacob Boehme, employed the science of alchemy, the chemistry of their day, to uncover the spirit coursing through matter, hoping to find in their alembic God's perfection, which they would imitate in their own souls. Hermetic thinkers moved to science for religious reasons, practicing their sacred art to clear their path toward God. The fountainheads of Romantic theory, Goethe and Coleridge, latched onto the science of their day for the same reason that the magi did: to find evidence for their intuitions of the one, an empirical practice for their intuited theory. Goethe actually practiced alchemy as a young man and carried alchemical concerns and imagery over to his mature scientific work on plants and optics. Coleridge thought Davy the father and founder of 'philosophic Alchemy' and accordingly placed him in a tradition of thinkers including Bruno, Boehme, Swedenborg, and the Goethe-inspired German Naturphilosophen. Emerson, in his scientific and religious quest for unity in nature and art, is firmly in this tradition of 'Romantic science', what might well be called a 'new hermeticism'.

During the Romantic age, many poets and philosophers were fervently interested in science; likewise, many scientists were passionate to versify or philosophize. A kind of hermeticism revived, inspiring a collective and interdisciplinary effort to reveal a holistic force with palpable arts. Polymaths abounded: Goethe, exemplar of the age, was rightfully respected as poet, botanist, anatomist, physicist, geologist, and meteorologist; Davy, discovered of chemical affinity, pioneer in electrochemistry, wrote verse that gained the respect of Coleridge; Alexander von Humboldt chose to combine botany and travel narrative in his Personal Narrative (1814-25); John Henry Green, the great British anatomist, wrote a book of [9] Coleridgean philosophy, Spiritual Philosophy: Founded on the Teaching of the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1862). Of course, Coleridge, in incorporating the dynamic science of Davy and Oersted into his philosophy and literary theory, and Emerson, who based his theory of the sublime and poetics and rhetoric on scientific fact, avidly participate in this eclectic tradition.

Still, it is easy to see why readers have generally tended to locate in the Romantic movement the first rifts between the two cultures of science and literature. Keats, with science in mind, could ask rhetorically in 'Lamia', 'Do not all charms fly / At the mere touch of cold philosophy?' The question is quickly answered: 'Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings, / Conquer all mysteries by rule and line, / Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine / Unweave a rainbow'. FN Likewise, Wordsworth memorably claimed in 'The Tables Turned' that science 'murder[s] to dissect'. FN Coleridge consistently relegated materialism, the ostensible domain of science to the 'Vaunted Mechanico-Corpuscular philosophy' that produced a 'universe of death' (CC 9:398).

Yet, we now know that those poets largely had in mind the Romantic version of Newton's thought. Goethe, in his Farbenlehre (Color Theory) (1810), inaugurated this anti-Newton tradition in his intense attacks on Newton's overly abstract, purely mathematical and experimental Opticks (1704, 1717). Coleridge became a critic of Newton as well, excoriating Newtonian notions of mechanism, atomism, and action at a distance in several places, most notably in his Aids to Reflection. FN Goethe and Coleridge were most upset by Newton's cosmology, which pictured matter as comprised of impenetrable atoms held together by gravity that acted from a distance, and his equation of truth with mathematics, which reduced the fecundity of nature to number. Romantic thinkers tended to favor a more holistic view of matter, conceiving of it as inseparable form the spirit, energy, or force that animates it, that is immanent in it. Likewise, as A. N. Whitehead has observed, Romantic thinkers generally rejected mathematical explanations in favor of more concrete, empirical ones, wishing to understand nature by passionately engaging it outdoors, not abstracting from it with pencil and paper. FN Romantic poets and philosophers valued science for its potential as a principle of Bildung --for its capacity to improve the self, in truth, beauty, goodness -- by connecting it to primary principles of nature through intense attention and enthusiastic understanding. The poet wanted his science blooded, his truth fertile.

[10] Keeping in mind Romantic dreams of a hermetic unified theory of science, religion, and art, we should not be surprised when we learn that the important philosophical and poetical ideas of Goethe, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Emerson, among others, refer to very specific scientific information of their day. Perhaps readers of Romanticism should turn archaeologists, unearthing forgotten scientific subtexts. Marilyn Gaull makes such a call, rightly observing that scientific ideas may reveal forgotten dimensions to key Romantic terms, ideas, and motifs. For example, she observes that '[t]he idea of photosynthesis...with its emphasis on respiration, may tell us more about the imagery of "correspondent breezes", of Aeolian Harps, of West Winds, of inspiration than hermetic philosophy, German idealism, or political radicalism'. FN Indeed, the Romantic period, with its craving for amalgamation of disciplines, particularly of poetry and science, is particularly fertile ground for an archaeological excavation of forgotten scientific nuances. Romantic uses of 'spirit', 'energy', 'force', 'attraction' may have specific scientific subtexts buried underneath, undercurrents that do not reduce the meaning of the words, but give them more density, more scope, literary power.

Performing a similar scientific dig on the Victorian period, Gillian Beer shows that many words in the novels of George Eliot, like 'variation' and 'dynamic', refer to the Darwinian science of her historical moment, information now largely overlooked by modern readers. FN Just as Wordsworth may have had Joseph Priestly's work on photosynthesis resounding in his head when he wrote of plants enjoying the air they breathe, so George Eliot may have had the phrases of the Darwin's evolutionary theory echoing in hers as she recorded interactions between character and environment. Beer sees one of her critical tasks as recovering this information in order to read the literary efforts of her period within their scientific context, thus restoring forgotten densities of meaning, cultivating texts to fuller semantic fruition. FN

Following this work on British literature, recent scientific excavations of nineteenth-century American authors have set a standard for my present study. Laura Dassow Walls has shown the Thoreau was keenly aware of scientific issues, proposing theories late in his life that parallel those of Darwin. FN Likewise, Lee Rust Brown has revealed how Emerson's pragmatic thinking and his related compositional practices were his ingenious deployments of the scientific methods of nineteenth-century French naturalists. FN

[11] I wish to extend Brown's work by performing such a scientific excavation on the work of the young Emerson. Emphasizing confluence more than influence, I track the flow of several scientific currents coursing primarily through Nature (1836), secondarily through journal entries and lectures between 1832 and 1836. I attend generally to the Romantic, hermetic synthesizing tendencies that shaped his thought, detailing the scientific information that runs underneath Emerson's uses of such terms of 'spirit', 'energy', 'force', 'attraction', 'repulsion', 'electricity'. More specifically, I describe a primary scientific idea that powerfully impacted Emerson's early development: the emerging science of electromagnetics, which flows through his conception of the sublime and his correspondent theory of composition. Emerson learned from the science of electricity that things are not discrete and static but condensations of vast systems of force -- a discovery that struck the young Emerson as sublime. It urged him to translate this scientific insight into a sublime writing style meant to agitate readers as nature excited him, to shock and attract them into a recognition of the relationship between matter and spirit. Emerson's own book of nature, his Nature, is not only a prophetic treatise unveiling the connection between matter and spirit, form and energy, but is itself a pattern of nature's force.

I am also concerned with how Emerson's engagement with the science of electricity inspired him to revise the scientific and philosophical speculations of his European Romantic forebears with undeniable facts: in Emerson's mind, this science had evidenced the synthesizing force philosophized by Goethe and Coleridge. It had confirmed the existence of spirit and registered its charge. During his famous Wanderjahr to Europe in 1833, Emerson simply did not find the Romanticism in Europe sufficiently galvanizing. In his descriptions of his visits to Wordsworth and Coleridge during this visit (CW 5:5-7, 9-12), Emerson reveals his disappointment in the heroes of his youth, finding them narrow-minded, cranky, old, acquiescent to the trivial and the ordinary. FN Leaving Europe, he sailed back to America to embark on his own quest for a holistic force. With scientific fact as his rudder, he would search for his own synthesis of the three grand concerns of Romanticism: energy, nature, language.

Tracking the confluence of European Romanticism and electromagnetism in the young Emerson's work reveals an Emerson who remained unsatisfied with mere speculation about the animating principle of life, one who wanted hard scientific proof for the ideas [12] of his Romantic predecessors, one who may have had very specific scientific information in mind when celebrating 'energy' in nature and language. Following this electric current in Emerson allows us to gain deeper understanding of his Romantic conflation of dynamic things and active words. He wanted his words to be not signs, but polarized intensities; his essays, not expositions, but fields of force. This electromagnetic Emerson, in his desire for the concrete, the verifiable, not only takes a backward, revisionary glance toward his European Romantic fathers, but also a forward gaze, galvanizing a renaissance in the America of his own century and perhaps sparking key literary ideas in our own. Emerson's theories and practices were influenced by the electromagnetic theory that significantly shaped the twentieth-century scientific paradigms of Einstein and Heisenberg, paradigms that in turn impacted the Modernist poetics of writers like Joyce, Stevens, Pound. Emerson, then, is not only an innovative Romantic thinker, literally electrifying organicism, but also a potential source of several currents in more recent poetics, like imagism, vorticism, the ideogram. He stands on the threshold between Romanticism and Modernism, stealing, like Prometheus, the lightning form the Romantic age, using it to mesmerize his own age, sending it vibrating through ours.


Critics have generally overlooked the currents of science in Emerson, especially his interest in electromagnetism. FNEmerson was especially taken with the work of Michael Faraday, whose experiments, Emerson wrote in his journal in 1833, had perhaps uncovered the 'secret mechanism of life & sensation' in the 'great long expected discovery of the identify of electricity & magnetism' (JMN 4:94). Galvanized by Faraday's possible discovery of the secret of life, the young Emerson attuned himself to the 'wonders' in 'Magnetism and Electricity' 'opened' by Faraday and others (EL 2:38).

Ultimately, for Emerson, Faraday's discoveries, complemented by those of faraday's scientific mentor, Humphry Davy, proposed the possibility that 'the forms of natural bodies depend on different arrangements of the same particles of matter; that possibly the world shall be found to be composed of oxygen and hydrogen, and that even these two elements are but one matter in different [13] states of electricity' (EL 2:29). This idea of electrically charged particles as the essentials of reality eventually led Emerson to write in a late essay a summation of his view of Faraday: nature

is one wheels, in transit, always passing into something else, steaming into something higher;...matter is not what it appears;...chemistry can blow it all into a gas. Faraday, the most exact of natural philosophers, taught that when we should arrive at the monads, or primordial elements...we should find not cubes, or prisms, or atoms, at all, but spherules of force. (W 8:4)

Emerson found in Faraday a modern version of the hermetic alchemist; he was a scientist who uncovered, through rigorous experimentation, the one pervading the many. This monumental discovery encouraged the young poet to become a new magus, to sublimate, through vigorous troping in the alembic of Nature, matter into the spirit pervading it. This rhetorical activity would, he hoped, consequently instill in the minds of his readers an apprehension of the sublime, an intimation of the infinite.

Faraday to be sure offered the possibility of a scientific sublime, suggesting a cosmology in which each element, from atom to ant to atmosphere, is an evolving pattern of vast fields of force, rightly seen, a window to the infinite. Scientific vision and the sensation of the sublime become one; in revealing a unifying spiritual force in electricity, Faraday's science suggested that the sublime vision --a vision of the relationship between matter and the spirit animating it -- is an insight into scientific fact. Through his reading in science, Emerson came to understand the sublime as an objective fact, not only a subjective feeling, apprehended only through a proper scientific understanding of natural process.

Emerson translated this sublime science into sublime essays constructed in the prophetic, hermetic vein, unveiling in content and embodying in form the spirit flowing through matter. Wishing his essays to bear the same qualities as nature, he crafted a style that is, to quote Ezra Pound's definition of powerful writing, 'charged with a force like electricity', 'capable of radiating this energy at a very high potentiality'. FN An electric universe called for an electric style. As Emerson often wrote, no doubt with Faraday in mind, powerful language is electric, capable of shocking and attracting readers, of overwhelming them with force, of inspiring sublime vision. While Emerson certainly learned from Goethe, Coleridge, and [14] Swedenborg that nature could be viewed as a book and words as things, he concretized this insight in his own writing only after he learned from nineteenth-century scientists like Faraday how the 'things' of nature actually function. He traded the symbol for the vector.

Unearthing the 'Electric Emerson' continues the recent revisions of Emerson -- what Michael Lopez, following Lawrence Buell, has corrected termed the 'de-transcendentalizing ' of him --that save him from the misreadings that have typified most of our century. FN As Newton Arvin has shown, from the First World War until recently, Emerson has been dismissed by most literary critics as an overly optimistic, mystical thinker with no sense of tragedy or evil. Recently, certain critics have radically revised this trend in demonstrating Emerson's primacy as a thinker and an artist whose dynamic, polysemous writing style expresses the tensions and energies of a problematic, complex worldview that is far from mystical. FN Uncovering the electricity coursing through Emerson's words help to legitimize this primary Emerson, figuring him as a fact-drive poet who harvested real lightning in his tropes, deployed to shock his age into gods on earth.


In the first chapter, called 'Sublime Science', I demonstrate how Romantic thinkers merged empirical observation with sublime vision. I detail the methodology of Romantic scientists, who combined the sublime and science, intuition and observation, deduction and induction, Reason and Understanding, Plato and Bacon. I argue that the scientific and religious climate of Emerson's America did not encourage such blendings, being instead ruled by strict empiricism, a devotion to the visible. Emerson, passionate for the invisible in the visible, for an empiricism open to sublime vision, was forced to turn to Europe, especially to Coleridge, to find a framework to accommodate his more poetic science.

In Chapter 2, entitled 'The Hermetic Current', I discuss the role of hermeticism in the development of the science of electromagnetism. I demonstrate that Romanticism and the sciences of electricity that grew out of it are elements of a new hermeticism, a revival of this ancient tradition within more empirical frameworks. I follow Coleridge in locating parallels between the discoveries and activities of the hermetic thinkers, running from Bruno to Goethe, and the scientists of electricity, Oersted and Davy. These correspondences [15] set the stage for Emerson's appropriation of Faraday for his hermetic theory and practice.

In the third chapter, 'Electric Cosmos', I describe Emerson's participation in a major shift that took place in the nineteenth century at the hands of Faraday's science of electricity: the move from a world of matter to a world of force. Faraday's work suggested that each atom condenses the electrical energy of the entire solar system -- every particle, large and small, contains and reveals vast systems of force. This hermetic insight of the relationship between the part and the whole overwhelms beholders, charging them with the sublime epiphany.

I explain how Emerson grounded his poetics on Faraday's sublime cosmology in 'Electric Words', the fourth chapter. Attending to the science of electricity, Emerson came to believe that words should operate like electricity. Working against American theories of language, grounded on Bacon's dream of a strictly univocal scientific language. Emerson turned again to European influences, Swedenborg and Coleridge, to find a theory of ideal language that is as dynamic and multivalent as the things of nature from which it springs. Inspired by Swedenborg's and Coleridge's equation of words and things, he soon turned to Faraday's electromagnetic model of matter to electrify nature's book, coming to equate strong writing with electric force, attempting in Nature to channel nature's sublime forces into his charged tropes.

In Chapter 5, "The Electric Field of Nature', I closely read early sections of Nature to point out how its central metaphors and scenes vibrate with electromagnetic complexity. His vigorous, polysemous language does not merely signify, but dissolves into intense force-fields of signification. In these passages, Emerson fashions himself as a new prophet of nature, transcending Biblical vision through revisionary allusions, presenting electromagnetic nature as a new sacred text through his surcharged tropes. These sequences, the famous 'transparent eye-ball' passage conspicuous among them, work to shock readers into an awareness of the relationship between matter and spirit.

In 'Scientific Edification', the sixth chapter, I analyze less dense elements of Nature, focusing on the centripetal forces balancing the centrifugal ones of the visionary sites. I suggest that the extreme compression of the surcharged passages works to alter readers' interpretive habits, making them more aware of the density of language, urging them to attend avidly even to seemingly [16] discursive, logical parts of Nature. This investigation reveals that Emerson's most static-seeming passages do not, on scrutiny, provide clarity and comfort but rather cause uncertainty and insecurity, which work to stimulate readers into active, edifying thought.

Finally, in a conclusion entitled 'Innocence and Experience', I meditate on how Nature is far from Emerson's juvenile 'Song of Innocence' but instead inaugurates the profound tradition of his later masterpiece 'Experience,' a 'Song of Experience,' and thus joins in the strain of the great Romantic crises odes of Wordsworth and Coleridge."

Copied by permission of the author. See also excerpts on the transparent eyeball passage and a passage from "Language" in Nature.