Craigenputtock Blog


Emerson at Craigenputtock

Ralph Waldo Emerson made several trips to Craigenputtock to visit the Carlyles. The upstairs bedroom where Emerson stayed while at Craigenputtock has since been known as Emerson's room. The following is an account of one of Emerson's trips taken from The Correspondence Between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Thomas Carlyle by Tillotson.

Let us stand beside Emerson as he reached out with one hand and grasped the knocker on the old wood front door of Jane and Thomas Carlyle’s farmhouse, close to the border with Scotland, sixteen miles from the small town of Dumfries “amid the wild and desolate heathery hills”. In his other hand Emerson held the letter of introduction he received a few weeks before from John Stuart Mill at the India House where he worked for the East India Company. Emerson’s pilgrimage had been long and arduous with many changes of carriage and inquiries for directions. It was August 25th, 1833. Both men, Emerson 30 and Carlyle 37, were still relatively unknown, obscure writers trying to find or establish their place in the world. Both were destined to be ministers but renounced the profession. Both tried their hands at teaching, but found it not to be their calling. Both had recently lost someone close to their heart—Emerson, his wife Ellen and Carlyle, his father. Both had uncompromising, fearless minds in the search for truth. Both had, to use Carlyle’s phrase, “great antique hearts”, devotional, reverential and brim full of brotherly love. John Sterling wrote of Carlyle in this manner saying that, “his passionate sorrow for the common people throughout history, their sufferings, press upon his soul like personal calamities.” While both relished solitude, each longed for real intellectual companionship. The loneliness of solitary foreign travel was getting to Emerson. “It will not do”—he wrote in his journal. Carlyle the night before Emerson’s visit penned in his journal:

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 is quite other than an article…In all times there is a word which spoken to men, to the actual generation of men, would thrill their inmost soul. But the way to find that word? The way to speak it when found?”

Mill had written Carlyle of the American’s intended visit, but could not have developed great expectations in Carlyle’s mind about meeting Emerson since Mill had professed, “I do not think him a very hopeful subject.”

Looking at their photographs, both Emerson and Carlyle had intensely powerful eyes which as Plato taught, emanate as well as receive light. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son Julian wrote of how penetrating Emerson’s eyes were during his lectures when for emphasis he would clench his right fist—knuckles upward, arm bent at the elbow—then deliver a downward blow of the forearm, full of power bridled. Emerson would accompany this dramatic flair with, “such a glance of the eye as no one ever saw except from Emerson: a glance like the reveille of a trumpet.” So, what was the shared experience when these two intellectual giants locked eyes for the first time? Emerson emphasizes the nature of the eye and its powers throughout his writings, calling the eye the first circle. Earlier in his trip he wrote in his journal, “To an instructed eye the universe is transparent.” He congratulated the astronomer who was able to make the earth his moveable observatory,--enabling him to change his place in the universe “as if this planet were a living eye sailing through space to watch the stars and planets.” He loved the saying by Tacitus that, “in battle the eye is first conquered.” For Emerson the eye was the great symbol for wisdom. In an oft-quoted passage from his first recognized written work, Nature, where he shares a mystical experience, his whole being morphs into a floating, spherical eye-ball:

Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God.

For Emerson the knowing glance of spiritual recognition was one of the most transcendental of human experiences. As he wrote, "One of the most wonderful things in nature is a glance of the eye; it transcends speech; it is the bodily symbol of identity." Perhaps it is an experience of soul recollection, of déjà vu, of having crossed paths sometime long ago. As Emerson writes in another place,

There are some occult facts in human nature that are natural magic. The chief of these is the glance. The mysterious communication that is established across a house between two entire strangers, by this means moves all the springs of wonder.

Jane and Thomas were sitting down for dinner when Emerson arrived. Carlyle with his gleaming Scottish glance embraced Emerson immediately, invited him to stay the night, and sent the driver back to Dumfries. As Carlyle reported to his mother, “Of course we could do no other than welcome him; the rather as he seemed to be one of 10 the most lovable creatures in himself we had ever looked upon.” Later, Carlyle wrote Mill on “Emerson, your Presentee”:

A most gentle, recommendable, amiable, wholehearted man…A good ‘Socinian’ understanding, the clearest heart; above all, what I loved in the man was his health, his unity with himself; all people and all things seemed to find their quite peaceable adjustment with him, not a proud domineering one, as after doubtful contest, but a spontaneous-looking, peaceable, even humble one.

To further enhance the mental picture of Emerson the man there is this description by a newspaper editor who went to hear one of his lectures:

…tall, angular, loose-limbed, with an olive complexion, large features, especially the nose, and a blue or grey eye that has a mysterious and undefinable light in its depth…He is not graceful, but he carries a weight grace and culture alone could never supply. He stands at an acute angle towards his audience, and limberly, and has barely a gesture beyond the motion of the left hand at his side, as if the intensity of his thoughts was escaping, like the electricity of a battery, at that point.

Emerson in writing to a friend described Carlyle as

…tall and gaunt, with a cliff-like brow, self-possessed, and holding his extraordinary powers of conversation in easy command; clinging to his northern accent with evident relish; full of lively anecdote, and with a streaming humor, which floated everything he looked upon.

In my mind, comparing the stature of their character to the mountainous formations of the Earth, Emerson stands as breath-taking and majestic as Yosemite’s sweeping golden granite face of El Capitan, and Carlyle rises as formidable and intimidating as the dark, precipitous cliffs of the north face of the Eiger. As John Nichols, a friend and biographer of Carlyle’s wrote:

I knew Carlyle, and I aver to you that his heart was as large and generous as his brain was powerful; that he was essentially a most lovable man, and that there were depths of tenderness, kindliness, benevolence, and most delicate courtesy in him, with all his seeming ruggedness and sternness, such as I have found throughout my life rarely in any human being.

Both men loved to walk and as they hiked over hill and dale their talk flowed freely, covering the gamut from the ingenuity of Carlyle’s pig to the immortality of the soul. In twenty-four hours they went, as Carlyle said, “thro’ the whole Encyclopedia.” As Emerson wrote his friend Alexander Ireland a week later:

I found him one of the most simple and frank of men, and became acquainted with him at once. We walked over several miles of hills, and talked upon all the great questions that interest us most. The comfort of meeting a man is that he speaks sincerely; that he feels himself to be so rich, that he is above the meanness of pretending to knowledge which he has not, and Carlyle does not pretend to have solved the great problems, but rather to be an observer of their solution as it goes forward in the world.

The sky was so clear that day that, as Carlyle pointed out, you could see all the way down into Wordsworth country. It was Carlyle’s prophetic voice denouncing the materialism of the age and calling for a new age of the mind, a new age of “dynamism” that drew Emerson on this odyssey. He had to meet the man who wrote in Signs of the Times, “The truth is men have lost their belief in the Invisible, and believe only in the Visible; or to speak it in other words: This is not a Religious age. Only the material, the immediately practical, not the divine and spiritual is important to us.”

Finally after walking over long green hills the two men sat down and Emerson, somewhat cautiously and embarrassingly began to talk about the immortality of the soul. As Emerson wrote later,

It was not Carlyle’s fault that we talked on the topic, for he has the natural disinclination of every nimble spirit to bruise itself against the walls, and did not like to place himself where no step can be taken. But he was honest and true, and cognizant of the subtle links that bind ages together, and saw how every event affects all the future. ‘Christ died on the tree,’ said Carlyle, ‘that built Dunscore kirk yonder: that brought you and me together. Time has only a relative existence.’

For both these men in a formative stage this was the beginning of a friendship of true minds that over the next forty years of correspondence was capable of transcending numerous impediments. When the gig from town arrived Carlyle chose not to ride with his guest to the top of the hill, but “preferred to watch him mount and vanish like an angel.” Jane felt the same way and in writing to a friend said that, “It was like the visit of an angel…and though he staid with us hardly twenty four hours, yet when he left us I cried—I could not help it.” Emerson’s one day visit etched so deeply in Carlyle’s mind that over forty years later he asked an American friend to, “Give my love to Emerson. I still think of his visit to us at Craigenputtock as the most beautiful thing in our experience there.” That night when Emerson returned to the inn in Dumfries he wrote, “A white day in my years, I found the youth I sought in Scotland, and good and wise and pleasant he seems to me.”

Strong winds postponed Emerson’s sail from Liverpool. He had been away from America for nine months and was anxious to return home. As he wrote in his journal, “If the vessel do sail they say we shall be drowned on the lee shore; if she do not sail I perish waiting.” Amidst the wind and the rain he thought of his new friend and wished he were there to keep him company, as Emerson writes in his journal, “Ah me! Mr. Thomas Carlyle, I would give a gold pound for your wise company this gloomy eve.” Emerson had met the best and brightest that England could offer (Coleridge, Mill, Wordsworth and Carlyle) and felt that he could easily hang with the British home-boys. In fact, in his journal he made the uncharitable estimation that “not one of them is a mind of the very first class.” Yet, Emerson always had high expectations and found flaws in all his representative men. He had come to Europe initially looking for a teacher and a guide, but in Carlyle he had found an intellectual friend and a spiritual companion. Uprooted from career and family life, Emerson also came seeking purpose and place. As he sat waiting for his ship to set sail gleamings of purpose and crystallizations of place began to shimmer and formulate in his mind. The vision of cosmic harmony that Emerson experienced looking up at the starry heavens on his journey over, opened up the mystic path of the poet; and his penetrating perception into the order of nature’s kingdoms at the French botanic gardens encouraged him to follow the path of the naturalist. Like two serpents intertwined around a central caduceus, Emerson was being called to liberate divinity from established religion on the one hand, and reason from empirical science on the other. The monumental task he sensed before him was the divine reconciliation of man and nature. As he waited in his room in Liverpool he began to sketch ideas and principles that would direct his thinking and life’s course:

I feel myself pledged to demonstrate that all necessary truth is its own evidence: that no doctrine of God need appeal to a book; that Christianity is wrongly received by all such as take it for a system of doctrines...it is a rule of life not a rule of faith…the eminent men of each , Socrates, á Kempis, Fenelon, Butler, Penn, Swedenborg, Channing, all say the same thing.

The purpose of life seems to be to acquaint a man with himself.

These ruling aphorisms rise to an affirming crescendo of democratic individualism: “The highest revelation is that God is in every man.” Finally the winds relented and the ship sailed. As he wrote:

I saw the last lump of England receding without the least regret. I am bound home to a land without nobility or wigs or debt / No castles, no cathedral and no kings / Land of the forest.

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