- Transatlantic Trio: Empiricism, Evangelicalism, Romanticism, Essays and Reviews 1974–2017 by Richard E. Brantley
For all her vaunted solitude, despite her ruthless omissions, Emily Dickinson's poems are surprisingly crowded. Within her stanzas, a wide range of words and ideas meet up; circulate; share a buzz or a song; attempt to seduce each other; oppose each other with fierce politeness; mock; laugh; wonder; converse. The notion of Dickinson as social butterfly on the page, if not in real life, comes in part from Richard Brantley's 2013 Emily Dickinson's Rich Conversation, which offered a compelling reading of Dickinson's intellectual world as packed with theologians, philosophers, scientists, and poets. Now comes Transatlantic Trio: Empiricism, Evangelicalism, Romanticism—which might have been titled Richard Brantley's Rich Conversation. This collection of Brantley's essays, written from 1974 – 2017, is remarkable not only for its wide-ranging erudition, but also for its warmth and wit. Although it is a weighty tome (about 750 pages), it has a light touch. Brantley is a genial companion—intellectually amiable, infinitely curious and profoundly insightful.
An epigraph for the preface quotes Czeslaw Milosz: "Early we receive a call, yet it remains incomprehensible, / and only late do we discover how obedient we were." Nested within another quotation (from Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss), these lines are emblematic of the book, both because of the tricky double quotation (Brantley never says no to an exponential allusion), and because they foretell the surprisingly straightforward through lines that pull these essays and reviews into harmony. Over four or five decades, Brantley has listened for the antiphonies—the musical call and response—among theologians, philosophers, scientists, and poets. As he explains, over his career he has made a "concerted effort… to compose a complex harmony of ideas-over-time." The ideas that run through his work are those of John Locke and John Wesley. In every essay or review, in one way or [End Page 94] another, Brantley finds an optimistic assent to both empiricism and evangelicalism in Anglo-American Romanticism.
The first section of the book, "Essays, First Series: Backgrounds of British and American Romanticism," includes essays on John Wesley, John Locke, and Jonathan Edwards; the fifth essay in this series is more of a brief summation, explaining that "Anglo-American Romanticism generated language at once empirical and evangelical." With that established, the second series focuses on British authors: Charles Wesley, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. These essays trace out the "methodistical habits" of the poets, their romantic to late-romantic permutations of the empirical sense-experience of inner, spiritual life.
The third series includes seven essays on Emily Dickinson. For Dickinson scholars, these essays may prove the most revelatory: Brantley starts by arguing that Dickinson's works are not only harbingers of twentieth-century modernism and postmodernism, but also (in a time travelling, reverse-causality twist), harbingers of late eighteenth-century romanticism.
Declaring that single Dickinson poems contain both Late Romantic and pre-Modern tones, in harmonic counterpoint, Brantley says he values both, but that he is "drawn to the Late Romantic level of her layered language not only because I like it, but because it is neglected." It is a winning formulation of Brantley's optimistically inclusive both / and methodology. Essays on Empiricism, Wordsworth, Wesleyan theology, and late Romanticism follow. The last of the Dickinson essays is the heart of the book. Toward the end of it, Brantley writes "In sum, Dickinson's friends and loved ones, her literary precursors and coevals, her literary beneficiaries, and her aesthetic self-projections define the possibility of personal access to otherness through others." This is the intellectually collaborative, social Dickinson that Brantley has described so well elsewhere, but here his description is focused on the strands of empiricism, evangelicalism, and Romanticism that run together through the collection. To conclude, Brantley glosses "The Soul selects her own Society –" (Fr409), remarking, "Just as society pertains to John Locke's social contract and to John Wesley's Societies alike, so too does this key word denote Dickinson...