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Module 1: Romantic Poetry

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Sensibility and Passion

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In this session, we will continue with our discussion of Sensibility and Passion with specific reference to the poetry of the Romantic period, 1798 to 1832. In our previous session, we spoke about the rise of the literature of sensibility and the kind of paradox at the heart of Romantic writing. Sensibility and passion constitutes both reason and sentiment mixed. In the Age of Sensibility, the irregular, the fragmented, the unruly, even the nervous become not only aesthetically desirable but morally superior to regularity, completion and order. We see the triumph of sentiment over the condition of rational thinking. Now the question was: if sensibility is linked to virtue, ethics and morals, why is it that most humans lack these? In other words, to be a virtuous being, I have to have sensibility, passion and reason mixed. Why are more humans not human in that sense? Please recall what we have said in the earlier lecture: to be human is to have a sensibility towards suffering. Why then, as Thomas Hobbes suggests, are human beings fundamentally selfish? The Romantics needed to address this question. They could not just dismiss these questions as irrelevant. Because as Thomas Hobbes demonstrated throughout his substantial career, human beings are fundamentally selfish. We are only interested in power and in ourselves. We are not interested in the world outside. The Romantics and the writers of sensibility in this period addressed this problem by making a case for rustic simplicity as the source of true sensibility. They argued that it is only within the rural population that we find true sensibility. They made the case that people in the city are already morally corrupt and depraved. In other words, they created a very smart, very clear binary: the pure, uncontaminated country and the maligned, corrupt and contaminated city. That is on the one hand. But there was also a concern that passions were transmissible. David Hume, the philosopher, believed that passions are “contagious” and “communicable”. As he put it, “they pass with the greatest facility from one person to another and produce corresponding movements in all human breasts”. To see how some of these ideas were worked out, let us turn to William Wordsworth’s Preface to the Lyrical Ballads. And please keep in mind the binary we just noted between the corrupt, morally depraved city and the pure, passionate, authentic rustic life. Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated; because the manners of rural life germinate from those elementary feelings; and, from the necessary character of rural occupations, are more easily comprehended, and are more durable; and lastly, because in that condition the passions of men are incorporated with the beautiful and permanent forms of nature. Note what he is saying. The essential passions of the heart are rooted within the rural populace. That is where they find a better soil. In that condition, the passions of men are incorporated in beautiful and permanent forms of nature. What is Wordsworth talking about? We have said that there is a binary between London or any metropolis and the countryside which we see in poems like Wordsworth’s “Upon Westminster Bridge” in which he says that the great heart of London lies still. What Wordsworth is indicating in this short excerpt from the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads is the incorruptibility of the rustic. The rustic mind and heart therefore become the core tenets of the Romantic theory of sensibility and passions. Byron's passionate heroes were also divided personalities implying that an overabundance of passion that can also be hard to deal with. Having noted this example from Wordsworth, we should also perhaps address the fact that the Age of Sensibility was not uniform and unified. There was frequently a tension between optimism and pessimism. Many were undecided between social change and a conservative worldview. But most importantly, they were caught between the idea of virtue as natural and virtue as cultivated, between ruins and carefully constructed buildings, between narratives and fragments. The question being: Are human beings born virtuous or is virtue cultivated slowly through cultural training, education and societal influence? The Romantics were caught between believing that people are born good and that people must achieve goodness. But they were also caught between wanting social change and worrying about what kind of change it would be. They wanted social change but they were also uncertain about the nature and value of that social change. Thus, we see that there is a terror of social change as well. Critics have noted that the Gothic which arises in this period is a genre devoted to the excesses of passion. It was revived with all its insistence on ancient ghosts, buildings and events, precisely as a device to ward off the uncertainties of present passions, such as those of the French Revolution. The skeletons and demons in old closets and resurrection of archaic, unsocialised passions must have reassured a complacent British public. This also suggested, commentators note, a distrust of civil society and upper life. The new moral aesthetic building on the literature of sensibility, building on the idea of passion and the caution against excessive sentiment, left no room for more urban forms of virtue. In this scheme of things, urban sophistication is inherently untrustworthy, erudition is for abuse, civility is a form of dishonesty and those with education are seen as most skilled at deception. It is in this context that the idea of the Noble Savage and the virtuous primitive emerged in the late 17th and 18th centuries. The rise of sensibility treated the ancient world as purer and as closer to the passions than the modern, implying that civilisation corrupts the passions. This is something we recognise. People of every generation complain that there was a Golden Age before the present generation came. Every generation believes that they were preceded by a purer age and will be followed by a more corrupt one. Likewise, in the Romantic age, they believed that there was an ancient world, purer and more authentic as compared to their contemporary world. The works of Jean Jacques Rousseau and poetry such as Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and James MacPherson's Poems of Ossian (1760-63) praised the ancient world for this reason. Jean Jacques Rousseau writes: Before art had shaped our manners and taught our passions to speak an artificial language, our customs were rustic but natural; … Today, more subtle study and a more refined taste have reduced the art of pleasing to a system; a vile and misleading uniformity prevails in our manners, so that one would think all minds had been cast in the same mould. Unremittingly, politeness requires this; decorum legislates that; unceasingly we follow these forms rather than our own genius. Please read this excerpt carefully and recall what Wordsworth had said in the excerpt from the Preface which we looked at earlier. What Wordsworth had said about authentic human passion dwelling in rustic life is what Rousseau says here. Rousseau argues that before we were civilised or trained, our customs may have been crude and rustic but they were natural. We need to note that there is an anxiety incipient in people like Wordsworth that through formal and informal education, civilisation actually takes us further away from our natural virtuous state. We need to cultivate virtue in certain ways. Passions can be the foundation for the moral and the ethical but not all of us have those passions. This is important for us to remember. Of course it is only a certain kind of person who possesses passions. For Wordsworth, passions are moral and ethical, or rather they form the foundations for the moral and the ethical. In Wordsworth, the passions are a means of receptivity or sensitivity to external situations and sights. Throughout his poetry Wordsworth would posit the poetic mind as one more receptive to the world. His argument would be that all of us may read poetry but only certain kinds of people will have the mind-set to respond to the world in a certain way. Let us look at an excerpt from Tintern Abbey to illustrate this point. These beauteous forms, Through a long absence, have not been to me As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye; But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind, With tranquil restoration: – feelings too Of unremembered pleasure; such, perhaps, As have no slight or trivial influence. What is Wordsworth saying here? Wordsworth is speaking of those sensations that he feels in the blood along the heart. But then he says but they pass “even into my purer mind”. Wordsworth is very emphatic that sensations and passions are both about heart and mind. In the Supplement to the 1815 Preface, Wordsworth writes, “The appropriate business of poetry (which, nevertheless, if genuine is as permanent as pure science), her appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves but as they seem to exist to the senses and to the passions”. In other words, Wordsworth says that in poetry, you need not describe things as they are there. You should rather ask: how do they appear to my eye? How do they exist in my senses? He also believed that passions needed to be controlled. He believed “in tempering and restraining the passion to produce poetry” (Preface to the Lyrical Ballads). In poems like “Strange fits of passion have I known”, Wordsworth keeps a very tight control over the metre as a way of demonstrating the passions that inspire but cannot be allowed to dominate poetic practice. As this suggests, there wasn’t an undiluted passion and admiration for sentiment. There was also an anxiety that passions could produce restlessness. Earlier, we made a point about the genre of the Gothic as dealing with excesses of emotion and passion. There was an anxiety in the Wordsworth era that passions could perhaps produce restlessness. In The Recluse, Wordsworth writes: Must turn elsewhere—to travel near the tribes And fellowships of men, and see ill sights Of madding passions mutually inflamed; Must hear Humanity in fields and groves Pipe solitary anguish; or must hang Brooding above the fierce confederate storm Of sorrow, barricadoed evermore Within the walls of cities—may these sounds Have their authentic comment; that even these Hearing, I be not downcast or forlorn!— What is Wordsworth doing here? Wordsworth's worrying about the passions ravenous from each other's rage, passions that feed off each other and the fact that humanity comes very close to declaring war over things like excessive passions. What is Wordsworth doing here? Wordsworth seeks to temper those passions, he seeks to reduce their effect. It is only via our senses that we see the world, it is only via our sight and hearing that we perceive the world. It is not about whether they exist independent of us, but that they seem to exist because of us. In short what we have been talking about here is the fact that poetry is about the engagement of the senses. It is about the engagement of the passions to something you see. Which comes first, we cannot say. Is it the natural object that comes into being before we do? If it does come into being before us, how does anybody recognise it unless we share cultural training? What Wordsworth seems to imply here is that certain evolved minds are required to cultivate the passions. Passions cannot be left to run the way they want. They must be cultivated and trained. Do you think that is contradictory to what Wordsworth says elsewhere? At some point you might begin to wonder if Wordsworth does not contradict himself. Wordsworth has been talking about spontaneous overflow, but nothing about this is spontaneous. If you have thought about it, you have discovered the paradox here: that on the one hand he speaks about spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings, and at the same time Wordsworth would also argue that this is the result of the training of some kind and that there is a history to how our senses have evolved. The important thing to take away from this lesson is that there is a complicated relationship between the passion/sentiment and reason/intellect.