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William Blake's American legacy: transcendentalism and visionary poetics in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman

Elliott, Clare Frances (2009) William Blake's American legacy: transcendentalism and visionary poetics in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Abstract

This thesis examines William Blake's American legacy by identifying a precise American interest in Blake that can be dated from Ralph Waldo Emerson's early reading of Songs of Innocence and Experience in 1842. Chapter one will show that the New England Transcendentalists - primarily Emerson, but also Elizabeth Peabody and readers of the transcendentalis publication The Harbinger - were reading Blake's Poetical Sketchse in the 1840's. This American interest in Blake's poetry will be presented against a background of British neglect of the English poet until after 1863 and the publication of Alexander Gilchrist's Life of William Blake. Chapter one provides details of Emerson's reading of Blake. According to Walter Harding, Emerson owned a copy of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience. This was given to him by Elizabeth Peabody in 1842, is inscribed 'R.W. Emerson from his friend E.P.P.', and has notes throughout in Emerson's hand. Indeed, a diary entry of Henry Crabb Robinson (1848) refers to discussions between himself, Emerson and James John Garth Wilkinson about Blake. Drawing on the Transcendentalists' reading of Blake's poetry, chapter two will read Emerson's essay in light of his interest in the English poet. Some critical attention has been given elsewhere to Blakean passages in Emerson's essays, but it has been fleeting. Richard Gravil is the critic who makes the most effort to record Emerson's interest in Blake, but does so sporadically and mainly as a footnote to a larger point about transatlantic Romanticism more generally. Richard O'Keefe's 1995 study, Mythic Archetypes in Ralph Waldo Emerson claims that Emerson was not reading Blake until after 1863; this thesis will challenge that assumption. Chapter two also examines Emerson's later essays and offers a new reading of Society and Solitude (1870) and Letters and Social Aims (1875) by placing these collections alongside a consideration of Blake's prophetic poems, Poetical sketches (1783) and Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794). Chapter three will then show that, in 1868, a transatlantic discussion about the affinities between Whitman's and Blake's poetry emerged simultaneously. Algernon Charles Swinburne opened the discussion in Britain with the publication of his study William Blake, which ended with a long proclamation on the merits of the American poet, Walt Whitman, whose Blakean affinities Swinburne identified as being worthy of critical attention. That same year, in the United States, John Swinton, editor of the New York Times, was reading Blake's poetry aloud at social gatherings and passing off Blake's poems as Whitman's work to audiences familiar with Leaves of Grass. These discussion concerning the similarities between Blake's and Whitman's poetry dwindled into a critical silence in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but are reopened here in the form of a transatlantic discussion of Whitman's Leaves of Grass. This thesis queries why a readership of Blake's poetry should have featured so ealry in New England when the British appetite for it was not whetted until after the Gilchrist revival in 1863. My argument suggests that by reading Blake, Emerson and Whitman together, new readings of each of them can profitably be made. By exploring the Blakean affinities in Emerson and Whitman, their visionary qualities - like those found in Blake's prophetic works - become freshly apparent. It will also be argued that something distinctly American can be discerned in Blake's poetry. This original approach to Emerson and Whitman challenges their critically ingrained reputation as writers of America individualism by reinstating them as the heirs to Blake's American legacy.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PS American literature
P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General) > PN0080 Criticism
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Schmidt, Prof. Michael
Date of Award: 2009
Depositing User: Mrs Marie Cairney
Unique ID: glathesis:2009-753
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 07 May 2009
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:25
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/753

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