“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.