Parallels, Comparisons, and Contrasts of Emerson's "Nature" and Carlyle's "Signs of the Times"

Anglo-American Transcendentalism

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2013
19 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Replacing the Book of God

3. Approaching Nature
3.1 Nature and Man
3.2 Nature and Spirit
3.3 Nature and Mind

4. Appealing to the Reader

5. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

Many literary scholars are currently handling the issue of the influence of British Romanticism on American Transcendentalism, and have found many clear connections which the two nations’ philosophies have in common. In this respect, they regard Carlyle’s influence upon Emerson’s writings as noteworthy. Both writers became significant representatives of the Victorian Age due to their numerous achievements in literature at the time. While Carlyle attained great success in New England and became “the leader and spokesman of New England Transcendentalists” (Thompson 452), Emerson was “America’s great philosopher-psychologist-poet of the Self” (Mott 61). Both of them came to hold a dominant presence in the still developing culture of a new age and gained significant notoriety within literary circles. For example, Frank Thompson vividly argues how works of Carlyle may have influenced Emerson’s early development. Emerson’s reading of Wilhelm Meister, which reflected German emotionalism, Corn-Law Rhymes, in which Carlyle skillfully demonstrated “the development of a style best suited to express inner man” (Thompson 439), Sartor Resartus, or even Signs of the Times, which also deals with spirituality, made him fascinated with Carlyle. It is Emerson who “began his serious consideration of Carlyle’s power as a writer” (Thompson 441). Patrick Keane also deals with the issue of Carlyle’s impact on Emerson by establishing a link to German philosophy, which both writers possibly share in their writings. He states that it is Carlyle who brought German philosophy to England, which Emerson then adopted. In his words, it is Emerson who “is able in a spirit of a keen delight, to derive almost the whole of his philosophy from European Romanticism (above all, from Coleridge…and Carlyle)” (13). German idealism, which Emerson found in Carlyle’s works, inspired him strongly. It is due to Carlyle and British Romanticism that Emerson brought German thought to the developing culture in America. According to Barbara Packer, who also acknowledges German idealism in Carlyle’s and Emerson’s writings, both writers share idealistic patterns in their works and strive toward spiritualism, or, to put it differently, toward an immaterial world; both of them recognize spiritual religion as an inseparable part of human existence (cf. 36f).

While spiritualism is what these two prose-writers hold most in common, their particular methods of presenting the transcendental philosophy is what may be called into question. Emerson and Carlyle may differ in the style and manner of their writings, which is most obviously expressed in Signs of the Times and Nature. Thompson observes a gap in their writing manner, pointing out that Emerson is not really keen on Carlyle’s style of writing. As he puts it: “The intellectuality that Carlyle disliked in Emerson, or the attempt to be philosophical, was the quality that Emerson wished Carlyle to acquire” (Thompson 453). Len Gougeon also finds a clash between Emerson and Carlyle emphasizing their philosophical and temperamental differences. He calls Emerson “a transcendental idealist and optimist”, while Carlyle is “more practical than idealistic” (Geon 403). Packer is talking about the ways in which Emerson and Carlyle express their transcendentalism. In her view, Emerson tends to present things in a way so as to endure the truth, while Carlyle brings things as they are; he is talking about the truths of life which one has to accept (cf. Packer 34). Therefore, Emerson’s language might be more similar to that of Coleridge rather than to that of Carlyle. Emerson regards Coleridge as “his major thinker” and as “a conduit to the distinctions and dialectics of German-Romantic idealism” (Keane 4f). It was Emerson who “turned to Coleridge rather than to Carlyle as an interpreter of Transcendental philosophy” (Thompson 453).

Considering all essential facts about Emerson’s and Carlyle’s major literary contributions, this paper will investigate how Emerson’s Nature and Carlyle’s Signs of the Times can be compared thematically, and how these two writers, who share a common vision of religion and a similar approach to nature, emphasize the spiritualism and sensibility of Anglo-American Transcendentalism in their works. This paper will also reveal how these two prose-writers can be contrasted by specifically and individually expressing this spiritualism in their style and manner of writing, which will be dealt with in the last part of this paper.

2. Replacing the Book of God

The first major theme Emerson and Carlyle deal with in their essays is religion and their attitude toward it. Both Emerson and Carlyle share the common idea of the rejection the Calvinistic notion of religion. Both of them can be partly contrasted with Edwards and Wesley, who were supporters of Calvinism. Edwards believes in “God’s relation to nature…religious experience, the presence of Christ and the perfected human community” (Brantley 9); and so similarly believes Wesley. Both of them emphasize a belief in God as a universal being, who is invisible, and appeal to love and the glorification of God due to his power to damn human life. While both of them come to the point that the salvation of humanity can only be achieved by a belief in Jesus, Emerson and Carlyle reject this idea by placing the belief in the external world and inner self in the foreground. For example, in his essay Nature, Emerson claims that nature is a divine source of religion and thus rejects the supernatural character of Jesus and the biblical visions:

[Nature] shall hint or thunder to man the laws of right and wrong, and echo the Ten Commandments. Therefore is Nature ever ally of Religion: lends all her pomp and riches to the religious sentiment. Prophet and priest, David, Isaiah, Jesus, have drawn deeply from this source (23).

Similarly, in Signs of the Times Carlyle denies the traditional vision of religion, but, in comparison to Emerson, does not see the divinity in nature but rather claims that divinity should exist within every individual:

Religion in most countries, more or less in every country, is no longer what it was, and should be,- a thousand-voiced psalm from the heart of Man to his invisible Father, the fountain of all Goodness, Beauty, Truth, and revealed in every revelation of this; (49).

Here both quotes imply that religion does not come from tradition, the church, or any other external institution. At this point both writers share the common idea with Wesley and Edwards of protestant revivalism; which criticizes rituals and ceremonies of the church, pulls away from it and concentrates on the spirituality of religious life. This observation clearly refers to Richard Brantley’s religious belief in the significance of emotional experience, which he calls “philosophical theology shared by Wesley and Edwards” (73). Brantley provides a close comparison between Emerson and Carlyle that is common between Wesley and Edwards. He calls Signs of the Times a “version of Wesley’s doctrine of spiritual perfection” (50) and further believes that “Emerson resembles Wesley” (95) in his theological view. Brantley explores the “pure empiricism of Nature” (98) and sums up “its empirical themes” which are about “spiritual perfection”, “theistical natural religion” or “the doctrine of ‘spiritual sense’” (117f). Thus, both Emerson and Carlyle become advocates of natural religion which does not come from any religious form or the church, but rather from nature and the human heart.

Carlyle, again, clearly sympathizes with Emerson by his call for a spiritual philosophy. Both Signs of the Times and Nature share Arminian tendencies “to alter the received depiction of God and of the spiritual capacities of human nature” (Robinson 153). The core ideas in both essays include the endeavor for spirituality and the coalescence of spirit and human mind in order to achieve a balance of the inner self. Similarly, in Packer’s view, Emerson and Carlyle bring “the new light of transcendental philosophy” (37) in which there is no place for the Bible but rather for the individual. As she puts it:

[T]he quests for the historical Jesus or the historical Moses, are fruitless…they are rendered superfluous by the discovery that the divine is present here and now, in individual human beings, and that it requires of individuals only that they not deny those truths they inwardly perceive (37).

The essence of her argument provides a clear link with the religious vision that Emerson and Carlyle imply in their essays. Both writers deny the biblical narratives and favor the expansion of liberal religion.

However, these two writers may differ in opinion about the presentation of their religious ideas: while Emerson’s religious vision is more idealistic, Carlyle remains more realistic. Unlike Emerson, who more optimistically calls to see the divinity in nature, Carlyle remains more pessimistic, pointing out that humanity has wholly lost its belief in the divine and only relies on material methods. In contrast to Emerson, who urges one to see the universal being in nature, Carlyle criticizes humanity, saying that it is lacking to acknowledge the divine entirely and urges people toward conversion. Emerson writes, for example:

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 parcel of God (6).

In other words, Emerson introduces the concept of God who is incorporated within nature. Here Emerson puts emphasis on the unity of nature and religion and regards nature as a source of religion. He further points out the idea that God is present in all natural things and only by experiencing nature can one become an inseparable part of God. Similarly, David Robinson explains Emerson’s religious vision of nature and God:

In discussing nature as ‘discipline’, [Emerson] makes clear that nature serves as the moral manifestation of God; in understanding nature we also recognize the unity of being that underlies moral perception (160).

Thus, Emerson’s point is to urge humanity to see God within nature and to regard the universe as the manifestation of one’s mind. He also calls to see nature as a core basis for spiritual life and thus, a source of energy which inspires humanity. In his view, nature should also be a source of guidance which leads humans throughout life.

Emerson strongly urges us to believe in the presence and power of the soul and the significance of moral action. He unites religion with human thought and feeling - things which are immaterial and invisible. As he puts it: “The first and last lesson of religion is, ‘The things that are seen, are temporal; the things that are unseen, are eternal’” (32), or as he further explains: “Idealism sees the world in God” (33). In this respect, in his essay Emerson continuously refers to the immaterial world of the individual as the core foundation of his belief that helps him to discover natural religion.

Unlike Emerson, Carlyle more negatively regards the new religious era, which is evident in the way he expresses his thoughts by using critical and reasoned language. In his view:


Excerpt out of 19 pages


Parallels, Comparisons, and Contrasts of Emerson's "Nature" and Carlyle's "Signs of the Times"
Anglo-American Transcendentalism
Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
Transatlantic Romanticism
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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parallels, comparisons, contrasts, emerson, nature, carlyle, signs, times, anglo-american, transcendentalism
Quote paper
Alina Müller (Author), 2013, Parallels, Comparisons, and Contrasts of Emerson's "Nature" and Carlyle's "Signs of the Times", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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