Emerson, Romanticism, and Intuitive Reason is a comparative study in transatlantic Romanticism, focusing on Emerson’s part in the American dialogue with British Romanticism and, as filtered through Coleridge, German Idealist philosophy. The book’s guiding theme is the concept of intuitive Reason, which Emerson derived from Coleridge’s distinction between Understanding and Reason and which Emerson associated with that “light of all our day” in his favorite stanza of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality.” Intuitive Reason became the intellectual and emotional foundation of American Transcendentalism. That light radiated out to illuminate Emerson’s life and work, as well as the complex and often covert relationship of a writer who, however fiercely “self-reliant” and “original,” was deeply indebted to his transatlantic precursors.
The debt is intellectual and personal. Emerson’s supposed indifference to, or triumph over, repeated familial tragedy is often attributed to his Idealism—a complacent optimism that blinded him to any vision of the tragic. His “art of losing” may be better understood as a tribute to the “healing power,” the consolation in distress, which Emerson considered Wordsworth’s principal value. The second part of this book traces Emerson’s struggle—with the help of the “benignant influence” shed by that “light of all our day”—to confront and overcome personal tragedy, to attain the equilibrium epitomized in Wordsworth’s “Elegiac Stanzas”: “Not without hope we suffer and we mourn.”
As a study in what has been called “the paradox of originality,” the book should appeal to those interested in the Anglo-American Romantic tradition and the innovations of the individual talent—especially in the capacity of a writer such as Emerson not only to absorb his precursors but also to use them as a stimulus to his own creative power.