The Vomiting Mill: Scenes of Sociological Repulsion from Wordsworth to Durkheim

This essay considers the role of disgust in the emergence of sociological theory over the course of the nineteenth century. It argues that what began as the bourgeois social analyst’s disgust towards the modern city gradually transformed, over the course of the century, into the modern sociological theorization of alienation as a form of low-level repulsion. To track these changes in the function of disgust within social analysis, the essay begins with a reading of William Wordsworth’s description in The Prelude of London as a "vast mill, / …vomiting, receiving on all sides, / Men, women, three-years’ children, babes in arms,” before turning to Friedrich Engels’s claim that “the very turmoil of [London’s] streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels.”


This “Introduction” offers a brief historical and theoretical background for the essay contributions that follow. It gives an editorial rationale for why we and these essays' authors aim to seek different ways of reading that merge or overlap questions of aesthetic form, social life, and affective disposition. We begin with the reminder that the imaginative precincts within which such questions might be raised were always and already inseparable for Romantic writers: in the Romantic poetics outlined here, feeling is not strictly private. We then provide summaries of the four essays and afterword, placing emphasis on the authors' various attention to sociable affects, including disgust, complicity, guilt, and hope.


About This Edition

What does it feel like to be (or not to be) attached to a country or community, to have (or not to have) membership or citizenship, in ways that one cannot control? This volume will turn to Romantic poetics to consider how public feelings operate and circulate through the language of poetry. How does poetry mediate the politics and sociality of feeling? How can poetry register not just a solitary, recollected overflow of powerful feeling but also a communal or contagious one?

Living Romanticism

In this essay I relate how a last-minute teaching assignment in an area outside my expertise led to a semester of teaching that was, by necessity, spontaneous and experimental, and how that first exciting semester set the course for a class that made not only poetry, but living itself, an object of critical inquiry. The title of the essay, Living Romanticism, indicates what the two aims of the course became: to suggest to my students that Romanticism is still alive, and second, to offer Romanticism as a way of living. In the essay I describe the evolution of the course, explaining how the various assignments, designed to foster fluency in the aspirations, methods, and ways of being and knowing the Romantics embraced, emerged and changed over time. By telling the story of how encounters with British and American Romantics transformed both me and my students, the essay argues that literary studies is a discipline that should, overtly and explicitly, aspire to more than the conferral of skills, capacities, and historical knowledge.

Introduction: Intuitions of Pedagogy

Why all of this interest in pedagogy at this particular moment? One answer may be that when we are in the classroom, however that may look (my current classroom during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic is virtual and distanced), we are best positioned to see the text from a new perspective and to discover a new relation of text to world. The inherent multiplicity of the classroom situation, and its ever-varying constituencies, makes this possible.

Ideal Presence and the Past and Present Acoustic Ecologies of Romanticism: Reader–Listener–Performers and Their Recitations and Auditory Translations

Because acoustic ecologies occupy a central presence in William Wordsworth’s poetry, I call for consideration of the power of speech and sound in the teaching of Romantic poetry and insist that students learn the task of close listening, becoming readers–listeners–performers in their literary study. Technologies of the past and the present offer ample methods for experimenting with Romantic texts and auditory translations in terms of reciting, analyzing, translating, remixing, performing, and preserving Romantic poetry in and for the future. Sound studies using not only the linguistic treatises and recording methodologies of the past but also present-day digital tools provide us with the means to further experience and preserve literature. We should present students with the opportunity to not only experience these memorable works using their tongues and in new mediums but also analyze them as originals and translations, and therefore synthesize the imaginative renderings of the Romantic period with our present imaginative possibilities and technological capabilities, experimenting, as readers–listeners–performers, with the affective force of sound as we perceive its function, modernize expressions of the materiality of language and its association with thought, and curate diverse renderings, compositions, and analyses under the direction of poets.

Teaching Frankenstein in the Post-Columbine Classroom

While we now know that much of the early reporting after the mass shooting at Columbine High School was incorrect, including the portrayal of the shooters as social outcasts and victims of chronic bullying, the effects of explaining that violence as retaliatory against a culture of elitism and cruelty remain. Students reading Frankenstein today—steeped in narratives of mass shootings—are influenced by parallels between how we characterize the motivations of mass shooters and Shelley’s creature. But Shelley’s text offers students more than these parallels. While the Creature explains his acts of violence as reactionary and justified, the novel thinks carefully and critically about his justification and about the rights and responsibilities of men. In this paper I outline a method for teaching the novel, paired with readings that narrate mass shootings as a reaction to societal rejection, that invites students to analyze the way the novel is thinking about acceptance, rejection, violence, and the rights of men. Reading, thinking, and writing about the texts together allows students to more richly examine the beautiful complexity of Shelley’s Frankenstein as well as their own preconceived notions of retaliatory violence.

Miscarrying the Marriage Plot

In this speculative essay, a professor and eight undergraduates reread Sense and Sensibility in light of the possibility that Marianne becomes pregnant when she and Willoughby visit Allenham House.

“A copious and splendid command of language and an ear tuned to the ‘noiseless music of the spheres.’” Elite Education in the Romantic Period and Its Modern Uses in Teaching and Scholarship

This article offers fresh and detailed information about how the elite schools and colleges of Oxford and Cambridge educated many of the canonical writers and public men of the Romantic Period. While these schools excluded women and non-Anglicans, they offered their students—among whom numbered Percy, Cowper, Darwin, Crabbe Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Shelley, Sidney Smith, Canning, and most of the clergymen and men of state—a remarkable program of linguistic, mathematical, and theological training. Students began composing metrical verse in Latin and Greek from boyhood, studied logic and read Euclid’s geometry in Greek, did copious amounts of memory work, wrote “themes” several times a week in three languages, and declaimed and argued publicly at least once a year. Understanding how these writers were educated offers scholars of the period several new ways to think about and teach the works of those writers and the movement they inspired. It also allows students of the period to have greater appreciation of Romantic writers’ craft and their own experiences of learning about language, literature, and composition.

“Brown Study” Aesthetics in Romantic Literature

In this article, I examine my recent experience in teaching a spring semester literature module to undergraduates. The module is centered around the critical concept of the “brown study” in William Cowper’s evening meditation in The Task. The fading twilight in the winter evening of Cowper’s meditation leads him to reflect on the place where he produces literature about nature: inside in his brown study. The class begins with an examination of the critical concept of the brown study as a commonplace in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literatures. How is the brown study contemporary with the development of the concept of the professional literary author?

The brown study is a physical place to write poetry, a designated room in a private house for professional authors, and, most importantly, a creative frame of mind for writing that an author achieves within the study itself. The last definition, signifying a frame of mind in the contemplative mode such as Noah Webster’s serious reverie or Samuel Johnson’s gloomy meditations, is the primary definition in the Oxford English Dictionary Online. We approach the new history of the now-anachronistic brown study through exemplifications of ruminative stances in poetry, in which a poet’s aesthetic first-stage inspiration is broken down. The deconstructive process, informed by readings from Wellmer, Freud, Adorno, and Derrida, is approached in the ways that authors unconsciously select and make distinctions as the initiative experiences are digested, then to be taken into the second-stage reflections that are recorded during composition.

The class’s literature survey covers William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads Preface, James Thomson’s The Task, Anna Letitia Barbauld’s The Invitation, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and William Cowper’s The Task, paired each with background from introductory scholarship on the composition processes of the author. We follow the survey of two-stage writing with a classroom discussion/essay assignment on the artistic processes of Romantic-era literature and authorial identity supported by readings from William St. Clair, Catherine Gallagher, Stephen Greenblatt, and Tilottoma Rajan. The class also examines the brown study as a physical space furnished in the writings of several authors who describe their creative processes at home: John Keats, Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Cowper. At last we consider how one might create a brown study with elements from the topics in the literature from the course module.