NOTE: The excerpt is from a book to be published in 1996 by Oxford UP.
Fraser's account of the magical and religious views of mankind is unsatisfactory; it makes these
views look like errors. . . . But it will never be plausible to say that mankind does all that out of
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Occasions
The words "sensibility" and "sentiment" name a momentous cultural shift whose terms were defined in the eighteenth-century. The event all but founded the novel, and it produced an upheaval in the way poetry was conceived and written. Both romanticism and modernism organized themselves in relation to the traditions of sensibility and sentiment.
So far as high culture is concerned, however, these traditions remain something of an embarrassment -- at best a topic of academic interest, at worst a perceived threat to the practise of art.
The understanding of poetry has suffered most from the situation. This happened because the twentieth-century critique of the sentimental tradition focussed on poetry. The scholastic success of this critique not only disappeared a large corpus of vital and important poetry, it obscured the conventions that supported such poetry. The twentieth-century reader's access to this kind of writing was short-circuited from the start.
This book is therefore an attempt to recover a somewhat lost world. My point of departure is institutional modernism, which ordered the academic horizon of writing for most of the twentieth-century and spent much of its energy fighting against the poetic styles I will be examining. The central figure in that campaign was T. S. Eliot, whose defense of a classical tradition, as he saw it, entailed a corresponding assault upon the new and decidedly anti-classical styles of poetry founded in the eighteenth-century.
But Eliot was not alone. The antipathy to "sentimental" styles went broadcast. Of the imposing modernist writers, only Gertrude Stein kept perfect faith with this line of work.
Literary history has represented this story as the struggle of modernism against romanticism. The latter was viewed -- in some respects correctly -- as an advanced state of sentimentalism. That version of events quickly proved intolerable, however, and today it is a scholastic commonplace that modernism draws upon romanticism in fundamental ways.
Which of course it does. But when later twentieth-century scholars reconstructed that relationship, they also worked to preserve the classicist approach to reading and writing. To the extent that criticism has managed to incorporate romanticism into the (classicist) idea of "tradition", it has continued to obscure the naive-and-sentimental heritage bequeathed to all later culture by the eighteenth-century. The acts of incorporation were executed by reading romanticism through its most conservative venues, where "the balance and reconciliation of opposite and discordant qualities" would be emphasized. Roads of excess were roads not taken, and that has made all the difference.
Along with this selective reading of the past went a carefully censored version of modernism itself. Because the moving spirit remained classical, the literary histories that emerged tended to emphasize the continuities pursued by a classicist ideology rather than the contradictions it generated. So we were directed by works that bore titles like Modern Poetry and the Tradition. This general approach to reading and writing established its authority in the schools, which continue to rediscover, or reconstruct, new orderly (conceptualized) arrangements for our imaginative inheritance. And all this takes place even though we know very well, or profess to know, that writing -- if it is alive -- always resists such arrangements. (To appreciate the vitality of modernist writing -- including the writing of Eliot -- we do best to approach it through its internal conflicts and contradictions. In this way writing has a chance to survive the critical abstractions we bring to elucidate it.)
The poetry of sentiment and sensibility is relevant here for two reasons. First, it was (paradoxically) "the deepest if not the most attractive legacy of the Age of Reason" (Hagstrum 1980, 277). Second, the resistance to such writing was raised from the beginning by eighteenth-century classicist figures, and the hostility grew as the resources of sensibility developed and spread. "Sensibility" was an equivocal condition even for those who gave their hearts to it. Eliot, like Pope in the eighteenth-century, was both a great poet and a commanding cultural presence. He was also, like Pope and Johnson, a reactionary figure haunted with premonitory dreams of cultural Armageddon. This dark future cast its shadow across the presents of Pope and Johnson, on one hand, and of Eliot and Pound on the other. In the eighteenth-century the shadows were legion -- its names are Gray, Macpherson, the Della Cruscans, and a mob of scribbling women.
Eliot named the shadow Gertrude Stein, as we see from the review he wrote in January 1927 for The Nation & Athenaeum. The four books under review include Stein's Composition as Explanation, recently published (November 1926) by Hogarth Press. The books provoke Eliot to comment upon "the future" of writing, of language, of art; in particular, the future (or futures) that may be thought to lie within the cultural upheaval that had begun some fifteen or twenty years earlier.
Eliot is not happy with the future he sees forecast in the books he is reviewing. One of
them, John Rodker's The Future of Futurism (1926), imagines an epoch dominated by two kinds
of writing: on one hand, "a pantheon of super-Mallarmes for a smaller and smaller public", and
on the other "a completely Americanized" and "popular literature" (Eliot 595). Confronted with
the example of Stein, however, Eliot sees no "warrant for believing [with Rodker] that our
sensibility will become more `complex' and `refined'" when that new day comes. For Eliot, the
future according to Stein is "precisely ominous" of "a future. . .more simple and. . .more crude
than that of the present." Eliot ends his review in no uncertain terms:
her work is not improving, it is not amusing, it is not interesting, it is not good for one's mind. But its rhythms have a peculiar hypnotic power not met with before. It has a kinship with the saxaphone. If this is of the future, then the future is, as it very likely is, of the barbarians. But this is the future in which we ought not to be interested. (Eliot 595)
In fact, Stein's hypnotic rhythms trace themselves back to the eighteenth-century, when poetic writing began to explore the languages of the "feelings" and the "heart" -- languages that sought to expand their expressive range by developing their nonsemantic and transconceptual resources. Eliot understood this kind of writing -- witness his essay on Swinburne -- but he deplored it and the future it promised. As it turned out, institutional modernism managed to exorcise its most demonic spirit. Swept out of the schools, Stein and seven other devils went elsewhere, and perhaps "the last state of that man became worse than the first". We now call that state "postmodernism".
The internal conflicts of modernism, the many (celebrated or deplored) postmodernisms, and the "future" of poetic writing in which we might be interested: these subjects call us to return to the eighteenth-century, and in particular to reconsider carefully the poetry of the "feeling heart", the coeur sensible. We tend not to "read" this poetry, we have tended not to do so for almost one hundred years. But it seems to me that we don't "read" it because we think we already know it. So we pre-read it instead, if we turn to it at all, or we mine it for information. But the writing as such remains largely unencountered.
My approach here is different. I take it for granted that the poetries of sentiment and sensibility -- not, as we shall see, exactly the same thing -- operate within determinate rhetorical conventions. In this respect they function like any poetic style -- like stil novisti writing, for example, or metaphysical verse. I also assume that adequate reading begins (though it will not end) by entering into those conventions, by reading in the same spirit that the author writ. To do this requires a considerable effort of sympathetic identification: considerable, because (a) we have been taught for so long to unread this kind of writing, and (b) because the writing itself is difficult, often in fact a kind of anti-writing. Its touchstone moments involve failure as well as a discourse of apparently nonarticulate (or at any rate nonrational) communication.
My judgment (or my guess) is that recent work in "Cultural Studies" and especially feminist criticism has called for a work of this kind. That scholarship helped to acquaint us with the nightwood of lost or forgotten writing and has been a salutary event. A less happy consequence of such work, as I read it, is a tendency to evade the question of the aesthetic character and value of the obscured texts; or, if those questions are addressed, to look for value in the moral qualities that can be found in the works. But the power and value of art has nothing as such to do with morality. Art functions as representation -- reflection -- and as revelation. Its office is to show and tell, nothing more. Part of what it may show and tell are moral realities, but insofar as these come in the form of art, they come as representations and revelations, not as ethical standards or even models. Not many would (now) regard Dante's Inferno as an ethical standard. It is a vision of hell through and through, a work far more terrible (and wonderful) than the notorious demonic visions of our contemporary Kathy Acker. And it is worse (and better), we now would probably say, exactly because its horrors are a function of its ethics (as one sees from the Purgatorio and Paradiso, which are also engendered by those ethics).
But we custodians of culture are continually, professionally inclined to imagine that art ought to deliver the best that has been known and thought in the world, and -- what is worse -- to think of this "best" as a moral category. The tendency produces grotesque results for anyone interested in promoting the practise of art and imagination. Of course there will aways be a waxing and waning of readers' interests, however much other readers at the same time may deplore those fluctuations. The problem that concerns me, however, and that led me to write this book, is not change or stasis in the canon of what we read. It is the tendency to approach all art, canonical or noncanonical, in rational -- in theoretical and philosophical -- terms. Theory and method are essential to criticism, but they must be secondary frames of reference: tools picked up to help clarify (for readers) less mediated perceptual encounters (affect at all levels); and to help organize (for writers) the rhetoric of their works.
The poetries of sensibility and sentiment are especially apt for the purposes I am sketching here. They brought a revolution to poetic style exactly by arguing -- by "showing and telling" -- that the traditional view of mind and reason would no longer serve a truly reasonable -- in eighteenth-century terms, a sensible -- mind. These poetries, along with the other literatures of sensibility and sentiment, worked their revolution by developing new and nontraditional modes of expression -- styles that were the dress of their new thoughts. These new thoughts, whose (western) roots are in ancient skeptical philosophy, assume that no human action of any consequence is possible -- including "mental" action -- that is not led and driven by feeling, affect, emotion. Rationalist philosophies, which neglect these matters, incline to treat language as a conceptual vehicle and semantic structure. The new Lockean approach to "ideas", which saw them as (literally) sensational forms, radically altered the entire cultural terrain. The revolution in philosophy that ensued was accompanied by a revolution in linguistic practise and theory. True to the character of the change involved here, this linguistic revolution was carried out as a rhetorical and stylistic event, as a set of writing practices and conventions.
We know these best -- that is, they have been most thoroughly studied -- in the novels and plays of the period. The specifically poetical styles of sensibility and the sentimental, however, have been neglected. There are historical reasons for this neglect, as I have already suggested. However that may be, special needs urge one to study the poetry (rather than, say, the fiction) of sensibility, and in particular the lyric poetry, or those verse forms that emphasize expressive structure. One is tactical: twentieth-century pedagogy set the lyric as the model of poetic form, and in so doing directed its polemic squarely against the new styles founded in the eighteenth-century. Our loss of reading skills is a direct function of this situation. The other reason is strategic. Poetry (unlike fiction) forces one to attend to "the word as such". It foregrounds the physique of lexical and grammatical fields, it approaches all aspects of the language, including the signifieds and the referents, as if they were signifying forms. Consequently, studying the poetries of sensibility and sentiment gives one a specially clear view of how a language of affective meanings -- of how language as affective thought -- functions.
Such, at any rate, is the conviction driving this study.
* * * *
I die because I cannot die.
As we know, tears are the proper emblem of the literatures of sensibility and sentiment. They mark out a special population who live and move and have their being by affect, through sympathy: men and women of sorrow who are acquainted with grief -- responding to it in others, suffering it themselves. Other emblems -- blushes, involuntary sighs, swooning, a rapid pulse -- expand one's sense of the experience being explored through these literatures. The expansion is a dominantly erotic one, as the touchstone fictions produced by this movement show: Clarissa, A Sentimental Journey, La nouvelle Heloise, Werther, Paul et Virginie. In this kind of writing, the body's elementary and spontaneous mechanisms come to measure persons themselves as well as their social relations.
To mete that measure, the "Age of Reason" brought forth a new, a complex, and a decidedly nonrational constellation of artistic styles. Through it all, tears and a mode of elegiac lament recur and dominate. The wisdom of Ecclesiastes, that Knowledge increaseth Sorrow, centers the imaginations of sensibility and sentiment, which made an important addition to that wisdom by reversing its terms.
But the theme of loss dominates, it does not exhaust, this body of writing, as we shall see. The logic and grammar of its discourse are by no means grounded in elegy or an elegiac style, however characteristic they may be of the poetries of sentiment and sensibility. I therefore postpone the topic of elegiac writing -- it comes in Part III -- in order to open my subject along a rather more traditional literary-historical line.
Part I recuperates some of the basic terms needed for a study of this kind, both intellectual and stylistic. Parts II and III then consider the poetries of sensibility and of sentiment, respectively. Although the two styles bleed into each other and cannot always be clearly distinguished, we want to try to see their differences. This book argues that the discourse of sensibility is the ground on which the discourse of sentiment gets built. In terms of the crucial mind/body diad that shaped the originary philosophical discussions, sensibility emphasizes the mind in the body, sentimentality the body in the mind. The distinction is a rough one, but it corresponds to discernible features of writing and cultural attitude. The fact that sentimental writing overtakes and subsumes the discourse of sensibility between 1740 and 1840 is important to remember, as are the gender issues that come to structure much of this writing. Lockean thought materialized various spectres for "the culture of sensibility", "Unsex'd Females" being the worst of all. As the discourse of sentimentality evolved, it re-established at least the appearance of traditional hierarchies of thought (religious v. secular) and social relations (male v. female).
Those large cultural issues move at the periphery of this book, however, which is, as I have said, a book about writing and poetry, not a book about culture and ideas. (Or it is the latter only to the extent that the (mis)understanding of poetry might be judged, in our contemporary frame of reference, a serious moral and cultural problem.) All three parts of the study focus on particular writers and particular texts. Parts II and III begin with readings that sketch out the basic moves of a poetry of sensibility and a poetry of sentiment. They conclude with specific, self-contained studies of certain salient writers or bodies of writing.
I should explain that my decision to develop critical "readings" of specific texts comprises an integral part of my critique of the academic legacy of modernism. New Criticism founded itself in a pedagogy of poetic interpretation whose centerpiece was the focussed "reading" of poems. The method explicitly dissociated the interpretable content of a poem from the (subjective) sensibility that engendered the work. Famous New Critical protocols like the Intentional and the Affective Fallacies in effect forbade the critical deployment of the stylistic conventions of sensibility and sentimentality. As a consequence, entire orders of poetical writing went virtually unread; or when certain texts from those orders were engaged -- Keats is here the exemplary case -- their most characteristic features slipped in a moment out of their poetic life. In this book, then, I have felt it important to show that "close reading" can escape the myopias suffered and promoted by the movement most responsible for the evanishment of the poetries of sensibility and sentiment.
Nonetheless, the book relegates its conceptually "finished" forms of presentation to subordinate critical positions. There are integral studies of particular writers, or groups of writers, or individual works, and there are also highly structured presentations of certain intellectual and stylistic "lines". Most of these critical units focus on individual works and their local stylistic features: they are what Walter Pater would have called "appreciations". They are also loosely organized in relation to each other in order to mitigate the appearance of general completion. In this case my own knowledge could not pretend to such, but -- in any case -- I disbelieve in that kind of completeness, which finally encourages a conceptual and abstract approach to poetic materials.
It is not just that knowledge and understanding undergo constant change. More particularly, our knowledge and understanding of poetry ought to hold itself in a condition of fear and trembling. The mind's will to intellectual adequacy is irresistible: hence the need, in studying works of imagination, to resist final representations of that will. A rule of incommensurability must somehow be built into every critical approach to poetry if the criticism has any hope of meeting the work on its own terms.
Such, at any rate, is another conviction driving this study.
"Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things": the "natural" association of the three in the Dyirbal language, wonderfully explored by George Lakoff, recalls a similar set of categorial associations that were commonplace in eighteenth-century Europe. Idiots, children, peasants, primitive people, women -- all are the "sentimental" figurae of a "naive" order. They are imagined as sharing similar qualities, variously seen along a broad spectrum of emotions, feelings, sensations. More specifically, as the word senti-mental itself shows, they are imagined as creatures who "think" through their feelings. That imagination, so deplorable to so many even to this day, is deeply grounded in ancient ideas about mind and body, thinking and feeling, reason and sensation. In its crudest (and clearest) form this imagining represents itself in the difference between men and women, man being the image of the higher powers of mind and reason, woman of the lower orders of body and sensation.
That traditional figuration and philosophy was shaken to its core with the emergence of Locke and the rich body of thought and writing that developed from his work. The issue centers in the relation of thought to materiality. In the Essay Locke considers their relation (see especially 4.10.10-17) and rejects the strict materialist position that all is matter and that cogitation -- like motion -- is one of its dispositions. But he does not revert to the traditional spiritualist view either: for we can't know whether "Omnipotency has not given to some system of matter, fitly disposed, a power to perceive and think, or else joined and fixed to matter, so disposed, a thinking immaterial substance" (4.3.6). We can't know this because of human reason's inherent limits.
These limits are not a function of materiality as such but of the difference between a divine and a human intelligence, according to Locke. He doesn't object to the materialist notion of "the eternal existence of matter" (4.10.13) because his thought is fundamentally theistic; but his theism also makes him reject the idea of matter as primary generative source. On the question of whether brute matter can possess thought and consciousness, then, Locke proposes a way between the spiritualist and the materialist positions: that "it is some certain system of matter, duly put together, that is this thinking eternal being" (4.10.16). For Locke, while matter is not inherently energetic, it may be powerfully disposed to thought and action by omnipotent intelligence. Nor are the priorities here temporal -- as if matter's power of thought would have to evolve, or be added by God at some "later time". The question is strictly metaphysical. Indeed, it appears that Locke arrived at his views by reflecting on the logic of omnipotence in relation to materiality. For Locke, the philosophical disposition of matter (to thinking) must have been established from eternity.
There is no need to rehearse the vigorous discussion that Locke's essay inspired. His general line of thought had an immense effect on European culture, not least because of its congruence with Newton's work, especially the theory of gravitation. Newton's universe was clearly "some certain system of matter, duly put together", that possessed self-organizing powers. We want to recall Newton here because his cosmological vantage clarifies the radical shift of focus involved in Locke's philosophical psychology. Because Newton's work organized itself in a study of the non-animate order, the discussion of the vitality of matter was regularly focussed at the most primitive levels. The case for or against "thinking matter" revolved around "insensate dust" and the "lower" senses, especially touch.
The Lockean shift is most dramatic in Socinian ideas, especially the thought of Priestley, whose Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit (1777) collapses the distinction between matter and spirit and argues the inherent materiality of consciousness. Priestley's position follows upon his view that "matter is not impenetrable" but that it is "endued with powers of attraction and repulsion, taking place at different distances" (19). The passage explicitly appeals to the ideas of Rudjer Boscovitch, but the figural terms are clearly Newtonian. Once matter is no longer seen as solid and impervious, it becomes no more "incompatible with sensation and thought, than that substance. . .we have been used to call immaterial" (18).
Pope was no Socinian, least of all a friend to enlightened women, but even so traditional a work as An Essay on Man shows the upheaval that Locke's ideas were diffusing through culture. The poem celebrates established order and the general conception of a great chain of being: "The gen'ral ORDER, since the whole began,/ Is kept in Nature, and is kept in Man" (I. 171-172). Pope everywhere affirms that "There is an universal ORDER and GRADATION, thro' the whole visible world, of the sensible and mental faculties" (I. 207n). But in presenting that orderliness, Pope is far more interested in the wondrous perfection of each part of the system than he is in the hierarchy of the parts. When he presents "The scale of sensual, mental pow'rs" (I. 208) in section VII, for example, he does not proceed in a strict progression from the lowest to the highest (e.g., from a consideration of the lower senses, to the higher, and then to the powers of mind, with the latter equally considered in their own ordered hierarchy). What captures his attention is "how exquisitely fine" (I. 217) each power operates, and "What thin partitions Sense from Thought divide" (I. 226). For Pope is struck by the wonder of each part and moment of the whole he is considering, including that part which is "th' amazing whole" (I. 248) itself, the set of all the sets.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in the aethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the breeze,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent,
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart. . . . (I. 267-176)
This great and justly famous passage measures the presence of Locke's thought exactly because it lies open to the most disparate readings. An exquisite set of figures articulate and embody those "thin partitions" through which sense and thought, matter and spirit, reflect and communicate with each other. Most important, the celebrated perfection is complete at every level of "The scale of sensual, mental pow'rs". Indeed, the diffusion of such perfection opens the lines to a pantheist reading, on one hand, or an orthodox one on the other.
The natural perfections that Pope celebrates, however, all rest in his adherence to the rules of moderation and propriety. Not that he cannot imagine, for instance, a tactile system that would be "tremblingly alive all o'er" (I. 197); indeed, this is the arachnid system, which "Feels at each thread, and lives along the line" (I. 218). "The bliss of Man", however, "Is not to act or think beyond mankind" (I. 189-190). For Pope, human bliss should avoid the "effluvia" of Epicurus on one hand and angelic fire on the other (I. 199, 278).
But Pope's extraordinary renderings of the perfections and vitalities transacting all the spheres of creation are as tempting to the poetic imagination as Locke's and Newton's ideas were to Priestley. The figure of the spider working through (her) feelings will become traditional for the poet, as Emily Dickinson shows, and the image of the microscope is equally suggestive. If people are not born with microscopic eyes, like the fly, human nature supplies the deficiency. The trope for a "finer optics" (I. 193-196) recovers, in a distinctively enlightenment idiom, the ancient idea of the power of art as the special privilege of human nature.
Thus the ambiguity between mind and matter, art and nature that Locke's Essay fosters, affects even a conservative poet like Pope, and it multiplies its appearances through the eighteenth-century. When Akenside describes the pleasant interchanges between nature and imagination, he establishes a model that will culminate in Wordsworth:
for th' attentive mind
By this harmonious action on her pow'rs,
Becomes herself harmonious; wont so long
In outward things to meditate the charm
Of sacred order, soon she seeks at home
To find a kindred order, to exert
Within herself this elegance of love,
This fair-inspir'd delight. . .
This is a locus classicus of the aesthetics of the Beautiful. For all its modesty, the force driving the text is Eros. It sketches the figure of a woman soon to be named Clarissa Harlowe, whose fair-inspired and harmonious delights of person and mind will so inflame and unbalance the incompetently attentive mind of Lovelace.
Akenside has a Sublime that corresponds to his Beautiful. Drawn (unsurprisingly) from the bible, it replicates "the eternal majesty that weigh'd/The world's foundations" (612-13). But it is an inward majesty, ultimately a social and an ethical sense and sensibility:
For what th' eternal maker has ordain'd
The pow'rs of man: we feel within ourselves
His energy divine: he tells the heart
He meant, he made us to behold and love
What he beholds and loves, the general orb
Of life and being. . . . (622-28)
These deeply correspondent passages express a core experience of sensibility. The sublime gesture essayed in the second shows very clearly that the entire experience is here gendered masculine. But its masculinity is of a special kind, as a comparison with Wordsworth makes plain. Wordsworth follows Akenside closely and he will not take his precursor to any further conceptual level. But he will develop a style for persuading us that he has encountered this same experience in an overwhelming personal way.
The continuity between Akenside and Wordsworth needs elaboration, however, for the differences are as significant as the similarities -- especially if we wish to understand the styles of sensibility and sentiment (as opposed to their romantic variants). Consider more closely the first of the pair of texts from Akenside. From grammar to figure through rhetorical form, it is troped in deliberately feminine terms: the gender of "mind", the images ("charm", "home", "kindred", "elegance", "love", etc.), the modest, distinctly unmiltonic blank verse. One has only to compare the style with, for example, the equivalent text in Wordsworth to see what Akenside is doing:
Imagination -- here the Power so called
Through sad incompretence of human speech,
That awful Power rose from the mind's abyss
Like an unfathered vapour. . . .
(The Prelude VI. 592-95 [1850 text])
Even when Wordsworth's thought comes most clearly out of Akenside, the manner stays aggressively Miltonic:
Under such banners militant, the soul
Seeks for no trophies, struggles for no spoils
That may attest her prowess, blest in thoughts
That are their own perfection and reward. . . . (609-12)
The recollection of Napoleon's alpine exploits defines Wordsworth's equivalent, equally theatrical grandeurs. The text is romantic drama, what Keats rightly called the egotistical sublime. In such verse "th' attentive mind" is to be overthrown by an unevadable "Power". But in Akenside, the presence of imagination is "temper'd" and "wears/ A chaster, milder, more attractive mien" (606-8). The mind that registers such an imagination does not ascend a mountain to be stunned by its God. Indeed, so undemonstrative is Akenside's mind (like his verse), that it will appear only to a reciprocally "attentive mind". So if the philosophical aspects of Akenside's work forecast Wordsworth, as they do, his erotic civility is equally the father of the man of feeling.
Akenside imagines an erotic environment that can be kept "harmonious" because it should. Excess brings derangement: the rape of Clarissa and her sisters, on one hand, on the other Ambrosio Furioso (whose name is legion: Lovelace, St. Prieux, Werther, Sade). These histories all define both the necessity and the danger of every move toward cleansing the doors of perception, or what Blake also called "an improvement of sensual enjoyment". The distance in time between Locke and Priestley, Lady Mary Montagu and Mary ("Perdita") Robinson, measures the stakes involved in overturning the traditional understanding of the relations of mind and body.
No one grasped the issues more clearly than Coleridge. His earliest cultural sympathies drew him to the Socinians, to radically sensationalist philosophers like Hartley, to Della Cruscan poetry. His career would shape itself and evolve as a complex reaction against those early attachments, which he came to regard as a network of materialist errors he would call, broadly and politically, "jacobin". We want to consider Coleridge here in order to complete the context within which the poetry of sensibility and sentiment emerged. To the extent that Coleridge's ideas about poetry became the norm of romantic thinking in England, his critique of sensibility supplies a nice differential for marking what distinguishes the various poetries of sensibility.
The pivotal text is "The Eolian Harp", where Coleridge uses the genre of the conversation poem to enact an immediate experience and critical analysis of sensibility. In the poem sensibility appears as a dialectical condition, a continuous interchange of eroticized sensations and loose philosophical speculations. The "pensive Sara" stands as Coleridge's emanation, a projection of his self-corrected thoughtfulness. She comes to comprehend and judge the idle and flitting fantasies of her exquisite and philosophical poet-lover.
Two key conventional features of the conversation poem genre
-- spontaneity and a continuity of mental action -- serve Coleridge's purposes extremely well.
Both are fundamental to the experience of sensibility, which is the experience Coleridge sought to
represent in his poem. His purposes are clearly defined in the work's initial textual condition,
when the poem was cast in a generic form that had not yet evolved into a conversation poem
proper. At that point it was what Coleridge called an "Effusion", one of thirty-six he published as
a group in his 1796 volume Poems on Various Subjects. In his Preface Coleridge specifically
characterized the effusion as a work lacking "oneness of thought". Instead, the effusion tries to
represent a variety of more primal experiences -- sensations and emotions that are frankly erotic
and often tied specifically to the feelings of the child and the affective relations of mothers and
children. As figurae constructed by Coleridge's highly selfconscious poem, the effusion's surface
actions emerge as figures of sensibility. Within that charged affective field, the central figure of
the eolian harp becomes an emblem of the poem (and poet) of sensibility, and "The Eolian Harp"
becomes in its turn a higher-order poetical move upon and against the materials it takes up.
Coleridge would subsequently assume an unequivocally critical view of these kinds of sensibilious
The mind does not resemble an Aeolian harp, nor even a barrel-organ turned by a
stream of water, conceive as many tunes mechanized in it as you like, but rather as far as objects are concerned a violin or other instrument of few strings yet vast compass,
played on by a musician of Genius.
As the work evolved from effusion to conversation poem, Coleridge worked to distinguish the flitting fantasy (the effusion) of poet and/or poem as eolian harp from the more substantial idea of a poetical work -- this poetical work -- that reflects upon the experience of such a fantasy. In becoming a conversation poem, "The Eolian Harp" evolved a critique of its initial enactment: a critique of the ideas of sensibility and, more crucially, of the poetic practise (the effusion) licensed by those ideas. The final conversation poem was to have achieved that "oneness of thought" Coleridge mentioned in his Preface. Perhaps more important, the achievement would be gained in classic Coleridgean fashion: it would come as an evolution of thought and practise, a gradual extrapolation of what was already taken to be implicit in the earliest state of the work.
In what, then, does the work's critique consist? The answer is twofold. First, the pensive Sara disapproves the pantheist and Socinian bent that Coleridge's ideas have taken. Not only are the ideas dangerous in themselves, in particular to orthodox religion, they suggest an intellectual pride needing modest correction. All this is explicit in the poem.
Less explicit is the poem's troubled critique of poetry itself. Eighteenth-century discourse of sensibility siezed the eolian harp as a nonconscious tool for revealing the vital correspondences that pour through the material world. Coleridge's poem goes a step further when it entertains the idea that poetry -- this very poem -- functions like a wind-harp. Not that Coleridge at any point fully assented to the truth of such an idea. But the comparison of wind-harp and poem can prove illuminating because it urges one to think of poems in a new way: as engines consciously made to develop an experience of nonconscious orders, both phenomenal and psychic. In this sense "The Eolian Harp", both as effusion and as conversation poem, is an act of imaginative exploration.
What the work explores at all its stages of development are ideas associated with the sensationalist controversy initiated by Locke's Essay. In December 1794, shortly before he wrote the first version of the poem, Coleridge (famously) declared himself a "compleat Necessitarian": "but I go farther than Hartley and believe the corporeality of thought, namely, that it is motion" (Letters I 137). The effusion published in 1796 shows that Coleridge had not yet abandoned this way of thinking when he wrote his poem. Indeed, the poem may usefully be seen as an effort to explore the adequacy of that way of thinking in a medium where the "truth" of sensationalist philosophy would have such marked consequences. Coleridge's conversation poem is an explicit critique of the aesthetics of the effusion, that is to say, of an aesthetics of sensibility.
It is also, however, an implicit critique of the philosophic grounds of an effusive aesthetics. As we know, "The Eolian Harp" advances the thought that nature is "animated" with spirit, even at its nonanimate levels. In the wake of Locke's Essay this idea gets taken up by various parties. In itself the idea is by no means novel or heterodox, least of all "dim and unhallowed", and it cannot be the object of the self-reproof that Coleridge displaces on the "pensive Sara" at the end of the poem. The later revisions clarify the poem's philosophical (self)critique.
As the first version of the poem suggests, the issue centers in free will, necessity, and an ethics of volition. In the conversation poem Coleridge tries to clarify how a philosophy of sensibility (necessarily?) involves a kind of illusion of volition. The addition of lines 26-33 come to dramatize a kind of persistence in Coleridge's "aye-babbling spring" (57) of speculative and sensational ideas. The poem thus comes to represent Coleridge soliciting these experiences by a (paradoxically) deliberate induction of "indolent and passive" (41) reveries -- as if he were determined to fashion himself into an eolian lyre. That the early state of the poem enacts an anxiety about such a cultivation of sensations and sensational ideas is clear from the startling eroticism exposed toward the beginning (12-25). In those moments Coleridge shows himself indulging not a "Faith that inly feels" (60) but a physical voluptas.
But the poem doesn't make this eroticism the principal object of its critique. Coleridge directs his negative judgment to the "unregenerate mind" that cultivates various "shapings" and "Bubbles" (55-56). The criticism falls on the presumptuousness of this mind, as if the spiritual order of "The Incomprehensible" (59) could be summoned and comprehended by human agency. That presumptuousness appears specifically in the analogies set up between wind-harp, poem, and human being. Insofar as the poet might indulge those analogies and even construct unregenerate machines -- poems -- for their further generation, Coleridge is laying the ground for rethinking his own thoughts, and ultimately for imagining a kind of poem that will work against its own enginery.
"The Eolian Harp" is therefore written to criticize the identification of poem and wind-harp, as well as any poetical practise that would be based on that identification. The critique is needed because such an identification would implicitly imagine the poet as a literal magician, a technician of the sacred with the power to command theophany and open access to the spiritual orders of the world. In following this faustian temptation to magical power, Coleridge represents himself in an act of (re)discovering his proper relation to God. The poem therefore comes to rest in a theism very like Locke's. In following the temptations of Socinian and Hartleyan thought, Coleridge sees that he must go back to the fons et origo of sensationalist philosophy -- i.e., to Locke and Locke's God. For Locke, if matter is vitally organized, as logic suggests, it is an organization the human person cannot experience let alone understand, since it rests in a divine consciousness.
Coleridge's poem thus recapitulates the philosophical and poetic legacy of enlightenment culture of sensation and sensibility. Its polemical effectiveness, which is remarkable, depends upon the way it fully represents both its sympathy with, and its critique of, that legacy. Indeed, the critique evolves -- in excellent Coleridgean fashion -- from within, as a process of organic exfoliation. However, the best fruit of the critique is not "what Coleridge's thought" -- at least if one means by "thought", as did Owen Barfield, Coleridge's abstract and philosophical ideas. The best fruit is the small body of innovative poetical writing where -- to borrow an apt phrase from a contemporary poet -- "A Thought is the Bride of What Thinking". This is a fruit, moreover, that grew from the blossom of sensibility, where thought began to imagine itself not as a set of concepts or ideas but as a cognitive process. Correlatively, writers who worked through an aesthetics of sensibility were led to rethink the structure and resources of language, in particular poetical language. If the activity of thought can be seen as the object of thought, then the physique of language (the eighteenth-century called it "the aesthetic") would begin to appear as in itself a cognitive field. In this context, as we shall see, poetry began to treat its language not as a vehicle for carrying something else but as a kind of Ding an Sich.