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This is a book about the literary uses of sensation in the period of British Romanticism. Its subject is a language that emerges in this period for describing forms of sense experience unique to the poet and to the encounter with poetry. Working from a contemporary understanding of aesthetics as a science of aisthesis or sensuous experience, Romantic poets give shape to a literary practice defined in a close relationship to the contemporary sciences of physiology and the science of mind, and develop an aestheticized vocabulary for articulating the social and political ends to which such scientific knowledge was considered crucial. Focusing on a few contexts and nineteenth-century legacies of this vocabulary, the following chapters situate in relation to the human-scientific project of the late eighteenth century the experiential idiom that William Wordsworth calls, in a characteristic double-entendre from the “Lines, written a few miles above Tintern Abbey,” “the language of the sense” (LB, 109).
To summarize the argument, I contend that the vocabulary of embodied aesthetic experience represented for Romantic poets a powerfully charged site for defining and defending the political work of aesthetic culture. Developing a framework for understanding the uniquely social logic of this inward-turning language, this book seeks to show that a considerable degree of historical self-consciousness inhabits the empirical representations of Romantic poetry. Moreover, my study finds in Romantic poems an often strikingly self-conscious ambivalence about the precise political ends that could be served through the medium of aesthetic experience.
No doubt, on the level of appearances, modernity begins when the human being begins to exist within his organism, inside the shell of his head … and in the whole structure of his physiology.
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
States that are not, but ah! Seem to be
William Blake, Milton
Few genres of historical research have been quite so productive these days as that genre known as affective history, and the sub-genre that often goes by the name of the history of the senses. The remarks of a historian who has accomplished more than many in this territory, Alain Corbin, offer a typical assessment of the genre at the present time. Readers of Corbin's work, particularly his history of smell in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century France, could not have been surprised when the historian dedicated himself to a prolegomena towards – as his title indicates – “a history and anthropology of the senses.” What is surprising from a historian whose work has made significant inroads into the practical realization of such a project is the ambivalence that Corbin bears towards it.
In discussions of the division between high art and mass culture, few notions have secured more consensus than that concerning the basis upon which we generally make such distinctions in the first place. In an argument that has proved exceedingly influential for our theoretical understanding of the so-called cultural divide, Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction described as the defining characteristic of bourgeois aesthetics “a refusal of ‘impure’ taste and of aisthesis (sensation), the simple, primitive form of pleasure reduced to a pleasure of the senses.” On this (widely shared) account, the refusal of sensation represents not merely a site but rather the primary source of the cultural divide, which has both its origin and its strongest basis in the rupture between sensuous and reflective aesthetic experience.
If the distinction between elite and popular culture is now commonly regarded having its theoretical basis in the refusal of sensation, critics are just as united in dating this refusal to the period of European Romanticism. In the widely cited “Postscript” to Distinction, Bourdieu finds the theoretical grounding for “high” literary aesthetics in the Critique of Judgment, particularly in Kant's insistence that the basis for the subjective universal validity of aesthetic experience resides not in bodily sense but rather in the higher cognitive faculties. Kant is thereby understood as having introduced a gulf between embodied aesthetic experience and the formal character of the reflective judgment – between “the taste of reflection” and “the taste of sense” – that would become the basis for all subsequent formulations of elite literary aesthetics.
Romantic poets, notably Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge and Keats, were deeply interested in how perception and sensory experience operate, and in the connections between sense-perception and aesthetic experience. Noel Jackson tracks this preoccupation through the Romantic period and beyond, both in relation to late eighteenth-century human sciences, and in the context of momentous social transformations in the period of the French Revolution. Combining close readings of the poems with interdisciplinary research into the history of the human sciences, Noel Jackson sheds light on Romantic efforts to define how art is experienced in relation to the newly emerging sciences of the mind and shows the continued relevance of these ideas to our own habits of cultural and historical criticism today. This book will be of interest not only to scholars of Romanticism, but also to those interested in the intellectual interrelations between literature and science.
No single issue appears to arrive more quickly at the heart of recent debates about Romantic poetry than that concerning the nature of the Romanticist's attachment to it. For several decades now, literary scholars have considered whether Romantic scholarship might be better served by an oppositional relationship to its object of study than by an approach that assumes a standpoint of appreciative familiarity with the forms and pleasures of canonical Romantic aesthetics. Only rarely, however, have critics observed how these debates were anticipated by the Romantics themselves. In no other period of literary history, after all, have poets so carefully balanced their craft between the poles of tradition and experiment; no period before or since has appeared so paradoxically divided between the avowedly social ambitions of art and the intensely subjective form of its transmission. To read that inaugural document of canonical Romanticism, the Lyrical Ballads, is to confront a poetry that purports to unite its readership not in the first instance through communities of shared interest but rather through those “feelings of strangeness and aukwardness” of which Wordsworth warned the reader in the 1798 “Advertisement” – a poetry whose lofty ambition to “bind together … the vast empire of human society” is to be achieved, if at all, at an insistently personal level (LB 7, 259). Does our affective engagement with this literature blunt the discriminating faculties of the mind, threatening to lay asleep the powers of critique?
I will assay to reach to as high a summit in Poetry as the nerve bestowed upon me will suffer.
Keats to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818 (JKL, 1:387)
“No one can question the eminency, in Keats's poetry, of the quality of sensuousness.” John Keats's reputation as the most sensuous of British Romantic poets – next to Spenser, perhaps, England's most richly sensuous poet – has proved resilient in the years since Matthew Arnold made this pronouncement more than a century ago. My aim in the present chapter is to re-open the familiar case of Keats's “sensuousness.” In doing so, however, I wish to show how insistently Keats's writing complicates this characterization of his work. For while regularly identified with a sensuous poetic style, Keats often describes his poetry as being most closely associated not with the senses but rather with the faculty of abstraction. In a surprising number of instances, Keats's appeals to sensation remain just that: appeals self-consciously issued from the perspective of a deferred or denied sensuous immediacy.