"Sweet Influences": Human/Animal Difference and Social Cohesion in Wordsworth and Coleridge, 1794-1806

In George Stubbs's portrait of Captain Pocklington and family, the foundational relationship of husband and wife is symbolically triangulated by an animal (their horse), to whom Mrs. Pocklington gives her hand and beside which the captain stands, legs poised like and yet unlike the animal's own. Romantic-era artists' depictions of animals represent alternative, local, generally noneconomic means of social connection. Such human/animal social formations are especially prominent in the poetry of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. These poets' sociological project leads them to represent communities articulated by mysterious human-animal linkages, as in Wordsworth's "Lines Written in Early Spring," in which animals, although sentient and pleasure-loving like the speaker himself, serve as a "measure" of his difference from them. "What man has made" of animals, and what animals in turn make of man, becomes the basis for community. Coleridge's "The Nightingale" is a poem of limits and transgressions, in which social conversion is based upon linguistic and other forms of discord, violence, and desire. These and other animal depictions realize alternative turn-of-the-century forms of community founded upon a kind of ritual observance: a working-through of what remains deeply troubling in human beings' relationships with animals. Animals at no time before or since have been as central to Western conceptions of social interconnection and subjectivity. Romantic (and more recent) representations of animals may still retain a "preeminent utility," providing visions of identity, difference, and community—even for a post-Romantic age.