Wordsworth on the senses

I recently delivered to Cambridge University Press the final version of a short (ca. 3500 word) essay for the book Wordsworth in Context, edited by Andrew Bennett.  I include roughly the first half of that essay here.  Parenthetical references refer to the Cornell Wordsworth editions and to the Prose Works from Oxford, the standard scholarly editions.  BL refers to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria from the Princeton Collected Works of Coleridge.  The image below, dated 1800, is a dig at Frenchified sensuality by Wordsworth’s contemporary Thomas Rowlandson.Gratification-of-the-senses-a-la-mode-francois-Rowlandson-LWL-729x1024

   Few poets before or since Wordsworth have made sensation and the bodily senses more central to their poetic theory and practice.  Wordsworth’s famous ‘experiment’ in literary language, as articulated at the outset of the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, is conceived as a venture to impart pleasure ‘by fitting to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation’ (LB, 741). From the beginning of this programmatic document, Wordsworth makes the representation and/or evocation of sense experience central to his poetic project in at least three related ways. Wordsworth asserts, first, that the poetry concerns itself with particularly elevated expressions of passion or feeling (‘vivid sensation’), either on the part of the lyric speaker or of the characters depicted, or both.  Second, this experiment in poetic representation is principally designed to produce pleasure; as Lionel Trilling observed years ago, Wordsworth’s commitment to what he calls the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’ (LB, 752) and to the centrality of pleasure to poetry is virtually unprecedented in literary history.[1] Finally, Wordsworth designates poetic meter as a privileged medium for the communication of vivid sensation, either raising passion or lowering it as required for the poet’s specific purposes.

            With such statements, Wordsworth establishes the dependence of poetry, as much as the poet, on the senses, and on the ‘elementary feelings’ that follow from them (LB, 743).  In some of the most characteristically Wordsworthian lyrics – ‘The Solitary Reaper’ or ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud,’ for instance – the physical and cognitive activity of sensing takes center stage, to become the focus of representation as much almost as the perceived object itself.  Seemingly simple impressions of seeing or hearing reverberate in the speaker’s mind long after its passing: ‘The music in my heart I bore, / Long after it was heard no more’ (PTV, 185). The senses are thus directly connected to poetic inspiration, and serve as vehicles of self-expression: in Wordsworth’s famous formula, ‘Poetry…takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity’ (LB, 756), which in representing also re-creates the ‘powerful feelings’ that lay at its source. But Wordsworth makes clear too that both poet and poetry are dependent on a generalized ‘atmosphere’ of feeling, and on sensations that may be singular in nature but are attached to no determinate subject position.[2] Of the poet, Wordsworth writes: ‘though the eyes and senses of man are, it is true, his favorite guides, yet he will follow wheresoever he can find an atmosphere of sensation in which to move his wings’ (LB, 753). This ‘atmosphere’ belongs to no single person, or belongs to all: ‘…this whole Vale, / Home of untutored Shepherds as it is, / Swarms with Sensation’ (HG, 664-6). The poet endowed, as Wordsworth asserts in the Preface, with a greater than usual proportion of ‘organic sensibility’ (LB, 745) is the one who detects this atmosphere most keenly and is most responsive to changes within it.

Wordsworth’s conception of poetry as an art of sensation brings that art into conversation with the contemporary sciences of the senses, the science of physiology principal among them. Though Wordsworth is remembered for having famously decried the scientific rationalist as one who ‘murder[s] to dissect’ (‘The Tables Turned,’ LB, 109), he was in fact deeply invested in the scientific topics and debates of the day. The Wordsworths were acquaintance with several leading scientific figures, including Humphry Davy and Thomas Beddoes. David Hartley’s neuro-physiological account of mind has long been recognized as a durable influence in Wordsworth’s work. More recently, literary historians have perceived links between Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice and a number of contemporary physiologists and medical theorists, including Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, and figurehead of the Midlands enlightenment; William Cullen, one of the leading figures of the prestigious Edinburgh medical school; and the Scottish physician John Brown, the controversial and influential opponent of Scottish medical orthodoxy.[3] In 1798 Wordsworth wrote to the publisher Joseph Cottle to request a copy of Darwin’s ‘Zoönomia by the first carrier,’ citing ‘very particular reasons for doing’ (28 Feb or 7 Mar 1798, EY, 199). The poem ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill,’ which Wordsworth describes in the 1798 ‘Advertisement’ to Lyrical Ballads as based on ‘well-authenticated fact’ (LB, 739), was almost certainly drawn from a medical anecdote included in Darwin’s influential book.

Wordsworth’s poetic theory and practice is closely informed by these contemporary medical contexts, and more generally by a deep vein of empiricist thought that had flourished in Great Britain from the late seventeenth century onward. Of Romantic poets, perhaps only Keats insists more strongly on the power of the bodily senses to do the work otherwise charged to forms of abstract ratiocination. In ‘Expostulation and Reply,’ for instance, the poet addresses an interlocutor ‘who was somewhat unreasonably attached to modern books of moral philosophy’ (LB, 355-6):

The eye it cannot chuse but see,

We cannot bid the ear be still;

Our bodies feel, where’er they be,

Against, or with our will.

In the jocular debate that the poet conducts with his friend, the ceaselessness of bodily feeling is taken as an argument against the necessity of book learning. Wordsworth’s preference for truths immediately and vividly disclosed by the body and its senses informs his critique of abstract systems of moral philosophy (see the ‘Essay on Morals’, Prose, I, 103-4) and of poetic personification in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads.

As committed as Wordsworth obviously is to the primacy of the senses, the poet’s powerful apprehension of the limitations of ‘mere’ bodily experience is equally notable. Wordsworth and Coleridge both write of the ‘despotic’ character of the eye (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107); the suspicion that Wordsworth bears towards the conventionally most privileged of the senses applies, albeit to a lesser degree, to all of them, at least so far as they are capable of achieving ‘dominion’ over the mind (1805 Prelude, 11.174; BL, II, 107). The poet is similarly critical of literary genres, notably that of gothic fiction, which in relying for their considerable popularity on the production of violent readerly effects seem to pander to what Wordsworth unsparingly refers to a ‘degrading thirst after outrageous stimulation’ (LB, 747).[4] Wordsworth’s great poetic narratives of intellectual and imaginative development, The Prelude and ‘Tintern Abbey’ especially, associate maturation with an access of visionary power accompanied by the suspension or momentary dimming of the physical senses. As William Empson demonstrated, ‘sense’ is an extraordinarily polyvalent term in Wordsworth’s poetry, signifying either a primitive excitement of the physical senses or the highest intellectual exercise, or often both at the same time.[5] Wordsworth’s poetry frequently expresses considerable ambivalence as to whether vivid sense experiences are valuable in themselves or only valuable insofar as they serve as a prompt or foundation to thoughts of a higher order.

These equivocations may not ultimately be hedges against unbridled materialism (and the associated taint of immorality or irreligion) so much as reflections of the indeterminate status of aesthetic experience as at once physical and cognitive in its origin. In contrast to ‘sense,’ ‘sensation’ in Wordsworth generally refers to experiences that combine the intellectual and bodily affection. Proceeding from the ‘feeling intellect’ (1805 Prelude, 13.205), they count among that class of experiences that a later generation than Wordsworth’s will call ‘aesthetic.’ Aesthetics, the branch of philosophical inquiry concerned with the nature of the beautiful and of art, took its name in eighteenth-century German philosophy from the Greek term for sense-perception; from its inception this field was concerned with forms of physical and psychological response. In the first of his influential Spectator essays on the subject, Joseph Addison situated ‘the pleasures of the imagination’ in an intermediary zone between sensations and ideas.As the bodily senses are a necessary but not sufficient condition of aesthetic perception, aesthetic perceptions belong to the class of experience that the poet calls ‘[t]hose hallowed and pure motions of the sense / Which seem in their simplicity to own / An intellectual charm’ (1799, 1.383-5). ‘Poetry, ‘the history or science of feelings’ as Wordsworth defines it in his 1800 note to ‘The Thorn,’ (LB, 351), is the paradigmatic aesthetic form of Romanticism in furnishing at once an effusion of powerful feeling and a form of sophisticated reflection on it.

[1]  Lionel Trilling, “The Fate of Pleasure,” in The Moral Obligation to Be Intelligent: Selected Essays, ed. Leon Wieseltier (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2000), 427-449. 

[2]  Contemporary affect theory has emphasized the trans-subjective character of affect and feeling.  See for instance Teresa Brennan, The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004). In Romantic studies see especially Kevis Goodman, British Romanticism and Georgic Modernity: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), and Mary A. Favret, War at a Distance: Romanticism and the Making of Modern Wartime (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[3]  On Wordsworth’s indebtedness to Darwin, see Richard Matlak, ‘Wordsworth’s Reading of Zoonomia in Early Spring,’ The Wordsworth Circle 21 (1990), 76-81; and Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001). On Wordsworth and Cullen, see my Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), esp. 75-80, 84-8. Paul Youngquist discusses Wordsworth’s aesthetics in relation to John Brown’s medical theory in ‘Lyrical Bodies: Wordsworth’s Physiological Aesthetics,’ European Romantic Review, 10:2 (1999), 152-62.

[4]  On Wordsworth’s ambivalence with respect to the gothic’s production of vivid sensory effects, see especially Karen Swann, ‘Suffering and Sensation in “The Ruined Cottage,”’ PMLA 106, no. 1 (January 1991): 83-95.

[5] William Empson, ‘Sense in the Prelude,’ in The Structure of Complex Words (New York: New Directions, 1951), 289-305.



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