Emerson and Eliot at the still point of the turning world

Date of Completion

January 1996


Literature, Comparative|Literature, American|Literature, English




The consensus is that Emerson, the American romantic idealist, and Eliot the modern classicist who disavowed America, are on opposite poles. Fueling this belief is Eliot's statement about his "sustained distaste for Emerson," his disregard of him in his essays, and his sarcastic references in a couple of poems. Despite that, one finds Eliot steeped in Emersonian thinking. As a youth he was required to study Emerson, and as an adult he taught Emerson. Could that have affected him? This study ventures to find if my sense about Eliot Emersonizing is true.^ Curiously, both were raised in New England, were Harvard graduates who were offsprings of a puritan ancestry that converted to Unitarianism, but neither found satisfaction in Unitarianism. Emerson's refuge was Transcendentalism and Eliot's was Anglo-Catholicism, which, interestingly, he mixed with Transcendentalism.^ An analysis of Emerson's and Eliot's epistemological views reveals that Eliot's Objective Correlative is rooted in Emerson's correlatives between the "Not Me" and "Me," and Emerson's fusion between feelings and thoughts is defined in Eliot's Unification of Sensibility. Further, they both agree that the object, the "Not Me," only has a "relative" meaningless existence without the subject, that the subject is trapped in its relativities due to the continuous flux, and that the knowledge derived from "experience" is "relative" due to the two time orders. Man, Eliot concludes, is a finite centre locked in his "prison of glass," as Emerson concedes. Both, thus, searched for the key, the Absolute, the Still Point of the world.^ Whereas the modernists and Bradley looked for the empirical Absolute that might define fragmented experiences, Eliot's spiritual transcendental Absolute was closer to Emerson's. The study reveals that Emerson's radiant way up that preaches self reliance, embodies God reliance, and Eliot's dark night of the soul, the way down, that preaches God reliance, means self reliance, and both, via very similar routes, lead to the same Still Point. "It would be the same at the end of the journey," as "Little Gidding" avows.^ Emerson was Eliot's personal encumbrance. He was the ghost of Eliot's "Jolly Corner," the ghost of what he was. ^