Friday, February 29, 2008

Many Things Passing Through My Head

I spent three posts on some words of Ralph Waldo Emerson; it's only fair I spend some time on those of his receiving correspondant, Thomas Carlyle.

Emerson to Carlyle, 15 Aug 1842 - letter missing

Carlyle to Emerson, 29 Aug 1842

"Thanks for asking me to write you a word in the Dial. Had such a purpose struck me long ago, there have been many things passing through my head,--march-marching as they ever do, in long-drawn, scandalous Falstaff-regiments (a man ashamed to be seen passing through Coventry with such a set!)--some one of which, snatched out of the ragged rank, and dressed and drilled a little, might perhaps fitly have been saved from Chaos, and sent to the Dial. In the future we shall be on the lookout."

Unfortunately Carlyle lost this letter of Emerson, but we get the picture. Emerson had taken over editorship of the Dial (which was the reason for his having difficulty getting to writing his chapter on poetry), and requested that Carlyle contribute something--for no compensation due to the magazine's finances. You see Carlyle's answer. He did eventually send something to Emerson to include.

I like what Carlyle says about the difficulty of capturing ideas and turning them into marketable copy. I don't even pretend to understand the Falstaff reference, so let me simplify what Carlyle said: "...there have been many things passing through my head, march-marching as they ever do, in long-drawn...regiments...some one of which, snatched out of the ragged rank, and dressed and drilled a little, might perhaps fitly have been saved from Chaos...." This describes me to a tee. Now, don't take me wrong, I am not comparing my feeble skills or finished product with the great Carlyle, but the ideas of something to write about go through my head faster that cars on the Interstate. Oh for a traffic jam that would slow them down! allowing me to look at and listen to one for a while, kick the tires and peer in the windows, and see if it might be a vehicle for publishing.

I love Carlyle's metaphor: ideas marching like new military recruits--ragged, stretched out, undisciplined, headed to chaos. He recognizes that, given a purpose, he could have captured some of them and made them fit for publishing, but he didn't. Was it the lack of a purpose? Maybe, but Carlyle was seldom without a writing project. As he wrote this letter, he was researching for a history of Oliver Cromwell and the Commonwealth era. He never quite wrote the history, though he did publish Cromwell's letters and speeches, with elucidations. Also at this time he was working on his classic Past And Present, a treatise on what he saw as the sad state of affairs in the British Isles brought on by the Industrial Revolution. I started this book some years ago, but put it aside as being more difficult to grasp than I wanted at that time. So, maybe Carlyle did pull out of the ranks the ideas that seemed to be marching straightest, tallest, that showed the most promise for dressing and drilling.

Was it lack of desire that caused Carlyle not to do something with those many ideas, at least capture them in a notebook for possible training at a later date? Or was it because he saw, at the age of 47, that he had enough ideas already captured to take him the full distance to the end of his writing life? Sometimes I feel like that. If I found time to write every novel, every non-fiction book, every short story, every political essay, every historical-political newspaper column currently whirling through my head, and mix in a poem from time to time, and if I had no day job, no family responsibilities, no church responsibilities, no Savior to worship, I would have to live to 100, never slacking the pace or research, writing, revision, selling, and marketing to complete them all. Again, I'm no Carlyle, but I get his drift.

Oh to pluck a few more ideas from the ranks and begin to dress them and drill them and save them from Chaos.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I've enjoyed your exploration of this excerpt...another reason for reading authors like Emerson - they ignite deeper reflection. Blessings ~ RLS