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Romanticism and Sentiment

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So while the empire or slavery may have been contexts for Romantic prose, fiction and poetry, there was a dominant attitude informed by European ideas about the sentiments and passions which introduced the theme of sensibility in Romantic literature. Sensibility and Passion, which is the subject of today's lecture here, drew upon various sources like the 18th-century sentimental novel and European ideas of sentiments, passion and feeling. Jean Jacques Rousseau’s work was also an important influence. Henry Mackenzie's novel, A Man of Feeling has often been credited with the making of a new genre: the sentimental novel. The literature of sensibility evolving out of this 18th-century phenomenon has several distinguishing features. “Sensible” meant (1) “conscious…aware” and the rarefied (2) “having sensibility; capable of delicate or tender feeling”. Its literature is marked by a high degree of self-reflectivity. Therefore, we find that the first person narrative dominates the genre. But interestingly, the narrator’s focus in the first person narrative is not only on the seeing ‘I’ but on the processes of seeing and perception. In our discussions about poems like Coleridge’s “Eolian Harp” we have noted that these poems speak not only about nature but also about the poet's perceptions of nature. In Wordsworth and Shelley as well we have noticed this emphasis on how the poet perceives objects of nature when writing about his experience of Tintern Abbey or his experience of the skylark. So the processes of seeing, perception and assimilation of the world are central to the literature of sensibility. This is what theoretical work of the twentieth century has called selfreflexive writing. There is self-reflexivity in the narrative particularly in the novel and poetry when attention is paid to the process of composition. Thus we see that when Wordsworth documents his perception of Tintern Abbey, he tells us about walking across the landscape, looking at the Abbey, the river, the woods and the pastoral setting, but he also tells us about the composition of his own writing. So in many cases, self-reflexivity is not only about the attention paid to the process of perception through the senses including seeing and hearing, but also the attention paid to the process of composing the literary artefact. Protagonists in such literature are represented as very easily moved by sights and stories of human deprivation and suffering. In other words, Wordsworth will speak not just about seeing something but the effect of seeing it. As we have seen, poems like “The Solitary Reaper”, “Tintern Abbey” or “The Eolian Harp” showcase the effect of the natural elements on the speaker. If the narrator happens to be moved by something, the poems document what they are moved by and how they are sentimentally affected by it. Hence, it is important to note that the literature of sensibility showcases not only suffering but the response to human suffering. Contemporary critics like Lynn Hunt have argued that this is the foundation for the massive campaign for Human Rights as well. But what is important for us here is to understand that protagonists in the literature of sensibility are often moved by sights, stories, visuals and spectacles of human deprivation or human suffering. To be sensible meant to be conscious, to be aware and to have the sensibility capable of tender or delicate feeling. So it is not only about awareness but the ability to feel on behalf of the suffering other. This is different from what we have discussed so far because this is not only about the self, not only about one’s own senses, sensations, passions and intellect, it is about how one responds to the outside world. Hence, this is about formal, narrative, discursive and sentimental responses. In order to illustrate this, let us look at an instance from Henry Mackenzie's A Man of Feeling. Separate from the rest stood one whose appearance had something of superior dignity. Her face, though pale and wasted, was less squalid than those of the others, and showed a dejection of that decent kind, which moves our pity unmixed with horror: upon her, therefore, the eyes of all were immediately turned. The keeper who accompanied them observed it: “This”, said he, “is a young lady who was born to ride in her coach and six. She was beloved, if the story I have heard is true, by a young gentleman, her equal in birth, though by no means her match in fortune: but love, they say, is blind, and so she fancied him as much as he did her. Her father, it seems, would not hear of their marriage, and threatened to turn her out of doors if ever she saw him again. Upon this the young gentleman took a voyage to the West Indies, in hopes of bettering his fortune, and obtaining his mistress, who was at the same time pressed by her father to marry a rich miserly fellow, who was old enough to be her grandfather. The death of her lover had no effect on her inhuman parent: he was only more earnest for her marriage to the man he had provided for her; and what between her despair for the one, and her aversion to the other, the poor lady was reduced to the condition you see her in. But God would not prosper such cruelty; her father’s affairs soon after went to wreck, and he died almost a beggar”. Read the excerpt carefully. It is about a woman who, according to Mackenzie's writing, shows a dejection, but a dejection of a decent kind which, he says, moves our pity unmixed with horror. “It moves our pity”: that is the key phrase I want you to keep in mind. Upon her therefore the eyes of all were immediately turned. Notice what is happening in the first five lines. First there is a description of the sad, pale and wasted woman, then there is a description of the audience whose attention is focused on this woman's suffering. What Mackenzie depicts is that once this woman appears on the scene, the audience’s perceptions are all focused on her. The narrative talks not only about the focusing of attention but the effect of that attention on the audience. So the readers observe people observing. The readers observe the audience’s sentiments. The story that the keeper narrates is the story of the woman's downfall, of her being reduced to this situation and it is a story calculated to arouse in the listener sympathy and pity. The narrative continues: Though this story was told in very plain language, it had particularly attracted Harley’s notice; he had given it the tribute of some tears. The unfortunate young lady had till now seemed entranced in thought, with her eyes fixed on a little garnet ring she wore on her finger; she turned them now upon Harley. “My Billy is no more!” said she; “do you weep for my Billy? Blessings on your tears! I should weep too, but my brain is dry; and it burns, it burns, it burns!” – She drew nearer to Harley – “Be comforted, young lady”, said he, “your Billy is in heaven.” – “Is he indeed? and shall we meet again? and shall that frightful man (pointing to the keeper) not be there! – Alas! I am grown naughty of late; I have almost forgotten to think of heaven: yet I pray sometimes; when I can, I pray; and sometimes I sing; when I am saddest, I sing – you shall hear me – hush!” Once the keeper’s story has been narrated, the focus has shifted to Harley. Mackenzie writes that the story had particularly attracted Harley's notice, who had given it the tribute of some tears. This is the man of feeling. Remember that it is not only a question of perception, but the effect of the perception upon the perceiver that is important. And Mackenzie tells us that though the story was told in very plain language, it had particularly attracted Harley's notice. Please notice the melodramatic language in the conversation between the lady and Harley. This melodramatic scene began with the arrival of this woman in the midst of a group. The keeper narrates her story and then the effect of that story on Harley is recorded. Upon his shedding some tears, the woman asks him, "Do you weep for my Billy?" Harley does not know Billy. Harley does not know this woman. What he responds to is the power of the story. We must understand that it is the power of the narrative that moves Harley. It is the power of evocative, melodramatic language. This is a literature of sensibility. It requires a very different form of language and narration. It is in the expression of sympathy for the deprived, for the underprivileged, for the oppressed that the protagonist's humanity is really proved. Sensibility is a marker of the human. In other words: how do we know Harley is human? We know Harley is human because he responds with tears to the woman's story and her appearance. To be sentimental is what defines the human. What defines humanity is not intellect but sentiment. Not head, but heart. If one thinks carefully about this, this is a theme that has continued from the literature of sensibility of the late 18th and early 19th century, all the way to cyborg cultures in the present day in which the cyborg is distinguished from the human because the cyborg cannot feel. It can think but it cannot feel. Further, the entire reinvention of cybernetic organisms in films like Robocop or Terminator is to show the increasing sentimentalisation of a cyborg because of some human element. Sensibility is the marker of the human. What then is the function of such scenes of sentiment? As in, what purpose does it serve? The function of such scenes of sentiment is to draw out the human in us, that is, in the readers. It shows us the erroneous ways of mankind. It shows us that X does not respond to this evocative situation of suffering, but Y does so. Hence, Y is more human than X. Mackenzie would say in A Man of Feeling, “Indeed, I have observed one ingredient, somewhat necessary in a man's composition towards happiness, which people of feeling would do well to acquire; a certain respect for the follies of mankind”. So, sensibility was a combination of both sentiments and reason, and that is a key paradox in the literature of sensibility. Note what Mackenzie has said: “A respect for the follies of mankind”. Sensibility is not just pure passion or pure sentiment, it is a mixture of reason and sentiment because you respond evocatively to suffering but you are also aware of human flaws. Human flaws are detected through processes of evaluation. Evaluation requires a certain rationality, a certain set of rational criteria and that is what we are looking at here. Sensibility is a combination of reason and sentiment. John Locke may have inaugurated this view when he wrote in An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, "To this I answer in one word, from EXPERIENCE: In that, all of our Knowledge is founded; and from that it ultimately derives itself. Our Observation employ’d either about external, sensible Objects; or about the internal Operations of our Minds, perceived and reflected on by ourselves, is that, which supplies our Understanding with all the materials of thinking. These two are the fountains of knowledge, from whence all the ideas we have, or can naturally have, do spring." Let us now turn to something we have already discussed and that is Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads where he speaks about the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings and emotions, and later qualifies it by saying: emotions recollected in tranquillity. And through Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth would speak not only about sentiment but about remembering, recalling and reformatting sentiment. He does not say that we should use the language of rural folk, which is his famous contribution, but he says we adapt it for our use. Wordsworth’s contradiction is to say that along with sentiment, there is a reflection or thinking about sentiment. That is what John Locke was talking about as well. So, thinking in the 18th century involves senses and passions. Senses and passions do not themselves dominate reason, but they are integral to the process of rational thinking. So, the word “sentiment” became a vehicle for the synthesis of reason and emotion. The idea of sensibility and sentiment as an inner core of the human arose during this particular period, somewhere around the mid-18th century. What the ideologues and proponents of sentiment argued was: when reason loses its moral authority and becomes less normative, sentiment comes into play. So, when there is no moral authority to logic or rationality or reasoning, sentiment takes its place as the representative of our natural and normative inner selves. The emphasis therefore is on a combination of both. Having situated that context, let us turn to a couple of poems to illustrate how this works. Let us look at William Wordsworth’s, "The Mad Mother" which is classifiable as a poem of sensibility. Her eyes are wild, her head is bare, The sun has burnt her coal-black hair, Her eye-brows have a rusty stain, And she came far from over the main. She has a baby on her arm, Or else she were alone; And underneath the hay-stack warm, And on the green-wood stone, She talked and sung the woods among; And it was in the English tongue. "Sweet babe! they say that I am mad, But nay, my heart is far too glad; And I am happy when I sing Full many a sad and doleful thing: Then, lovely baby, do not fear! I pray thee have no fear of me, But, safe as in a cradle, here My lovely baby! thou shalt be, To thee I know too much I owe; I cannot work thee any woe." A fire was once within my brain; And in my head a dull, dull pain; And fiendish faces one, two, three, Hung at my breasts, and pulled at me. But then there came a sight of joy; It came at once to do me good; I waked, and saw my little boy, My little boy of flesh and blood; Oh joy for me that sight to see! For he was here, and only he. Suck, little babe, oh suck again! It cools my blood; it cools my brain; Thy lips I feel them, baby! they Draw from my heart the pain away. Oh! press me with thy little hand; It loosens something at my chest; About that tight and deadly band I feel thy little fingers press'd. The breeze I see is in the tree; It comes to cool my babe and me. Oh! love me, love me, little boy! Thou art thy mother's only joy; And do not dread the waves below, When o'er the sea-rock's edge we go; The high crag cannot work me harm, Nor leaping torrents when they howl; The babe I carry on my arm, He saves for me my precious soul; Then happy lie, for blest am I; Without me my sweet babe would die. Then do not fear, my boy! for thee Bold as a lion I will be; And I will always be thy guide, Through hollow snows and rivers wide. I'll build an Indian bower; I know The leaves that make the softest bed: And if from me thou wilt not go. But still be true 'till I am dead, My pretty thing! then thou shalt sing, As merry as the birds in spring. Thy father cares not for my breast, 'Tis thine, sweet baby, there to rest: 'Tis all thine own! and if its hue Be changed, that was so fair to view, 'Tis fair enough for thee, my dove! My beauty, little child, is flown; But thou will live with me in love, And what if my poor cheek be brown? 'Tis well for me, thou canst not see How pale and wan it else would be. Dread not their taunts, my little life! I am thy father's wedded wife; And underneath the spreading tree We two will live in honesty. If his sweet boy he could forsake, With me he never would have stay'd: From him no harm my babe can take, But he, poor man! is wretched made, And every day we two will pray For him that's gone and far away. I'll teach my boy the sweetest things; I'll teach him how the owlet sings. My little babe! thy lips are still, And thou hast almost suck'd thy fill. --Where art thou gone my own dear child? What wicked looks are those I see? Alas! alas! that look so wild, It never, never came from me: If thou art mad, my pretty lad, Then I must be for ever sad. Oh! smile on me, my little lamb! For I thy own dear mother am. My love for thee has well been tried: I've sought thy father far and wide. I know the poisons of the shade, I know the earth-nuts fit for food; Then, pretty dear, be not afraid; We'll find thy father in the wood. Now laugh and be gay, to the woods away! And there, my babe; we'll live for aye. Read the poem carefully and notice what it does. The mother's sentiments, emerging from her financial and social conditions, serve as triggers for the listener. The poem invites us to respond in a certain way. The poem’s representation of this poor and suffering mother is our cue to behave, respond, react in certain ways. That is a sentimental poem. In the centre of the sentimental poem is a sad story. So let us get this right: the literature of sensibility forces you to pay attention to the mad mother’s mental and emotional states but it also points out that this is a consequence of a very specific financial condition. Financial conditions are subject to scrutiny which is not necessarily sentimental in nature but objective and economic, basically, reason and rationality. This is the point I am trying to make: that there is a merging of the sentimental and the objective/rational in a poem like this. Having said that, we need to also address something else. The literature of sentiment and sensibility believed in the power of the nervous system. If you have read the Victorians, you will recall that “nerves” is a medical condition common to the literature of the entire 19th century. People suffer from nerves. John Locke valorised the nervous system as the key to human understanding. So the nervous system is at the heart of the human, more than, say, muscles. What does this imply? It implies that there has to be a greater emphasis on our senses and nerves, rather than on our bones and muscles. So, it marks a considerable shift from the focus on the human to the question of what constitutes the human. So the nerves, the nervous system and sensibilities are more central to the making of a human. Inger Brodey makes this connection very clear: “As “sympathy” and “sensibility” replace “charity”, the emotions in the “sensible” spectator become more important than any actions that this virtuous observer may take to alleviate suffering. Personality and spontaneous, overflowing feeling replace character, plans and discipline and eventually action. Nerves and glands came to bear greater ethical significance than muscles”. What is Brodey talking about here? The question of an audience responding in a certain way to subjects, objects, events of suffering is based on the spectator’s nervous system. It is based on the spectator’s responses to whatever they are seeing. The important thing to realise is that this is transformed into an ethical condition. To be able to respond to the other is a question of ethics because ethics are always directed at the other. So, the cornerstone of the literature of sensibility is the ethical significance of a certain kind of sentimental response. This is something we need to keep in mind and if we consider “The Mad Mother”, we see that, as readers, we pay attention to her suffering, her sentiment, her cries and her tears, but we are also reminded that the cause of that suffering is economic and therefore, social. In short, what we need to understand about the literature of sensibility is that there is no such thing as pure sentiment in Wordsworth’s or Shelley's work. There is no such thing as pure passion. Passion, sentiment and affect are all rooted in specific social contexts. So the literature of sensibility which forms the backbone of the English Romantic writers is not about pure sentiment or pure passion, it is a mixture of everything. What is important to remember is that the emotional, melodramatic text evokes and invokes a certain set of sentiments in the readers. It evokes a certain kind of response. That process of evocation is at the heart of the Romantics. So it is not only about how Wordsworth responds to nature, it is about how Wordsworth engineers our response to nature via his poetry. So, please keep in mind that Romantic poetry is not only about sentimentalizing the Cumberland beggar, the female vagrant or the characters at the foot of Mont Blanc. Romantic poetry is about the evocation and inspiration of passion and sentiment on the part of the reader.