Non-Sequaciousness (Emerson; also Carlyle)



‘The Non-Sequaciousness of Ralph Waldo Emerson’ – Irish Monthly, July 1900



non-sequaciousness ANNOTATED




Close reading recently of works by and about Walt Whitman have gotten me to think about the influence of Ralph Waldo Emerson on Whitman. It is well known, and has often been commented upon, that there was such an influence.

The other day, I attempted to read Emerson’s essay “The Poet.” It seems likely that this essay, originally a lecture by Emerson, influenced Whitman — greatly, one would say. Whitman attended Emerson’s lecture, “Nature and the Powers of the Poet,” as a reporter for the New York Aurora. in Manhattan in 1842. Whitman was a journalist then. The great American poet whom Emerson was envisioning — the poet yet to come — seems (as Emerson described him) to prefigure the future poet Walt Whitman.






I mentioned Emerson to a close friend of mine (a friend, importantly, who is one of the few I can share my readings and ideas with) who, at some point in the conversation — I think beforehand, actually — had mentioned that he had come across a few quotations from Emerson in blog posts of mine and had found them to be actually irritating. I forget just what he said or implied, but the gist was that Emerson’s prose was perplexing, unclear, and annoying on that account — not worth trying to decipher. I was more or less simultaneously having the same experience trying to read “The Poet.” I had been telling myself for a while that I should make a point of reading Emerson’s major (at least) essays — in part because of his influence on Whitman and also because of his fame and importance as an essayist.

I made the following note to myself recently. I don’t know if it is accurate, although I think there is at least truth in it. To verify this (and perhaps as fodder for a future essay of my own), I thought of rereading Whitman’s prose works and of taking it upon myself to read Emerson. My note to myself read as follows:

when it comes to exposition

to expository prose

Whitman as essayist/prose writer

sounds an awful lot like Emerson in the latter’s essays

the similarities are striking

the style is punchy, yet the tone is elevated (besides vigorous) — not arch or pompous, but very lofty, abstract … thoughts, ideas, the intended meaning are expressed in a somewhat elliptical manner

In the case of Whitman’s prose, I was thinking mostly of Whitman’s Preface to the first (1855) edition of Leaves of Grass and of his later work Democratic Vistas. The 1855 Preface begins with the following paragraph:

America does not repel the past or what it has produced under its forms or amid other politics or the idea of castes or the old religions . . . accepts the lesson with calmness . . . is not so impatient as has been supposed that the slough still sticks to opinions and manners and literature while the life which served its requirements has passed into the new life of the new forms perceives that the corpse is slowly borne from the eating and sleeping rooms of the house . . . perceives that it waits a little while in the door . . . that it was fittest for its days . . . that its action has descended to the stalwart and wellshaped heir who approaches . . . and that he shall be fittest for his days.






Then I came across Patrick Dillon’s essay on Emerson’s style; on Emerson the writer; and the applicability of the author (Dillon’s) analysis to essay-writing in general:

“The Non-Sequaciousness of Ralph Waldo Emerson”

by Patrick Dillon

The Irish Monthly

Vol. 28, No. 325 (July 1900), pp. 415-421


The essay is posted above as a PDF file. Also posted here (above) is a Word document containing the complete text of the essay annotated by me.






This essay (Dillon’s) is a seminal one that addresses crucial issues about expository writing. I have been thinking about such issues myself as of late. I would like to write an essay in which I more closely consider the prose writings of writers such as Emerson and Thomas Carlyle, who seem to have marked similarities. But, first, I need to read their works carefully, as is my habit, rather than just perusing them.

Another writer, a brilliant one, who presents a challenge for the reader, is Edmund Burke. I am reading his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke can be difficult to follow because of his way of attacking subjects from so many different angles; his convoluted (though, paradoxically, very clear), “dense” prose; his intricate sentence structure. I would be inclined to describe his writing as elliptical, as opposed to non-sequacious — complex but not (one would never say) illogical.






Here is the opening paragraph from The History of England from the Accession of James II by Thomas Babington Macaulay:

I purpose to write the history of England from the accession of King James the Second down to a time which is within the memory of men still living. I shall recount the errors which, in a few months, alienated a loyal gentry and priesthood from the House of Stuart. I shall trace the course of that revolution which terminated the long struggle between our sovereigns and their parliaments, and bound up together the rights of the people and the title of the reigning dynasty. I shall relate how the new settlement was, during many troubled years, successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how, under that settlement, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power, compared with which every other maritime power, ancient or modern, sinks into insignificance; how Scotland, after ages of enmity, was at length united to England, not merely by legal bonds, but by indissoluble ties of interest and affection; how, in America, the British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro had added to the dominions of Charles the Fifth; how in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire not less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.

It certainly illustrates what was said in Dillon’s essay about the clarity and directness of McCauley’s prose. This is not Carlyle.






A final thought. I have wondered about Montaigne’s quotations. Sometimes they seem tedious. I have to read more of him.



— Roger W. Smith

   August 2020

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