"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.
"Brown Study" Aesthetics in Romantic Literature
I. Introduction: "Brown Study" Aesthetics
1. Wind rattling at the window, fire in the grate, and a poet dozing in his chair are images in William Cowper’s "A Winter’s Evening: Brown Study." The presence of an aesthetics of a brown study is an issue I invite my classes to study in their theoretical approach to Romanticism from a Survey of British Literature I class. In the class, we study the two stages of composition theory—I: Eingedenken and II: Composition (linguistic)— in writing that appears in poetical works by William Cowper, William Collins, James Thomson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth. The brown study aesthetics poems each feature the two phases, Eingedenken and Composition. In William Cowper’s The Task "Book 4: A Winter’s Evening," aesthetic response occurs in a state of unconscious reflection preceding representation in language. The poet is half-awake and daydreaming. The poet appears overcome with images. At rest after a long day, he is, at least for the present moment, inarticulate. The poet’s frame of mind calls up Theodore Adorno’s theory in Negative Dialectics that aesthetic response is pre-linguistic. In the brown study, Cowper’s poet enjoys a “parlour twilight” and “sweet oblivion of the cares of day” (4.278, 4.250). Theoretically, according to Adorno’s model and following models such as Albrecht Wellmer’s in The Persistence of Modernity: Aesthetics, Ethics and Postmodernism, aesthetics precedes articulation (Wellmer 3–4). However, thoughts that follow an aesthetic response may transpire to linguistic utterances as part of a purposeful inquiry inspired by earlier experiences in an aesthetic state (Wellmer 3–4).
2. The images in Cowper’s The Task and additional period brown study aesthetics poems are part of a module that I included in a Spring 2019 literary studies course for undergraduates. In the module, the class discussed poetical tropes of two-stage composition: (1) the pre-linguistic stage and (2) the linguistic stage. Cowper’s images are a part of a historical tradition of poetical images of slumbers and reflections. Pre-linguistic images precede later images of the compositional phase such as John Keats at his writing office in Joseph Severn’s painting “John Keats at Wentworth Place” (Appendix A).
3. We begin the module with the first stage of composition, Eingedenken, the pre-linguistic phase William Cowper theorizes in The Task, and we conclude with the second stage of composition, Composition, the linguistic phase. In The Task "Book 3: The Garden," Cowper claims that he travels widely during his lifetime. However, in order to write poetry, Cowper returns always to the place of his opening theme of repose from "Book 1: The Sofa." The reflective observation situates the sofa, an upholstered chair with soft cushions in the brown study of a poet’s house, as a primary site of attraction for the itinerant poet. Intent on self-discovery through the process of Eingedenken, the poet must prioritize the sofa, as he explains: "I, designing other themes, and called / To adorn the Sofa with eulogium due, / To tell its slumbers and to paint its dreams" (3.13–15). The poet in Cowper’s account travels widely with the aim to reflect on “themes” which he “designs” in pre-linguistic impressions from outside, in nature, and in the city. He returns to the sofa to digest what he saw in “dreams” and in “slumbers” for reflection, after his first-stage travels take him far:
II. The “Curtain of Repose”: Nature in the Mindful Unconscious
4. The author’s awareness of the pre-conceptual space is the “mindfulness [Eingedenken] of nature in the subject,” according to Albrecht Wellmer in The Persistence of Modernity: Aesthetics, Ethics and Postmodernism (74). Nature is the state of the unconscious in a brown study repose. The author’s mindful attention to the state of repose evokes in the author his or her own consciousnesses of the boundaries that necessarily are in existence between his or her mind and the objects of thought. As Wellmer explains, the author achieves Eingedenken “within the medium of conceptual thought, the necessary condition being that the concept itself is turned against the reifying tendency of conceptual thought” (4). The thought is a delimitation of the awareness of a state of natural repose. The brown study in Romantic literature such as Cowper’s The Task is the state of fading thoughts during the twilight hours of a “curtain of repose” (4.248) that may exist, for poets, prior to a state of enlightenment that occurs later on. In present-day critical theory of brown study compositional poetics by Tilottama Rajan and Richard Adelman, the authors examine the truth value of synthesis and reconstructive aesthetics, known as an alethiology, or truth discovery.
5. Theodor Adorno’s theory in Negative Dialectics examines the unconscious or pre-linguistic phase as a corrective to the presence of the conscious. The source of truth is found in the unconscious state, such as in idle contemplation, dreaming, or brown study mental repose (Adorno 348). Sigmund Freud also uses the unconscious for what he perceives to be an other apparent in the consciousness, as Gayatri Spivak explains in the translator’s preface to Derrida’s On Grammatology (Spivak 86). Jacques Derrida too critiques the foundational theory of a conscious intentionality. Joseph Adamson explains: following Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious memory, the Derridean “critique of metaphysics and of the ‘presence’ of consciousness” leads towards Derrida’s own idea of the unconscious, which “owes much to Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and theory of unconscious memory” (Adamson 296).
6. Derrida forms his thoughts on deconstruction out of his thoughts on the unconscious, which indeed are a source of Derrida’s own theory of deconstruction. In Derrida’s critique of the foundation of metaphysics, Joseph Adamson shows, he aims to provide a corrective to the overwhelming presence of the conscious in metaphysical theory: “Derrida’s writings critique the Western metaphysical tradition, which he sees as dominated by a discourse of ‘presence’ in the assumption, for example, that truth is a function of the presence of consciousness to itself and to its object. . . . What Derrida calls deconstruction consists in an analysis which overturns these tenacious metaphysical foundations” (Adamson 296). The direction of the critique of the conscious is the recovery of the unconscious from alterity.
7. Cowper’s “curtain of repose” in The Task draws out the rest of unconsciousness in a “recess” from the outside world of travel and consciousness (4.248, 4.308). During the recess, Cowper dreams of the process of defoliation he has seen out of doors. The activities of the harvest take in the “golden” summer growths leaving an “upturned” soil of “mellow brown” (4.314–15). The harvester takes apart the growth of spring and summer with the scythe of autumn. Variegated nature appears in images of the “rough wind,” “frost raging,” “faded” meadows, “lands . . . of a mellow brown” reaped by the “forceful share”:
8. Like Cowper, William Collins reflects that his spring and summer rambles end when the adverse fall weather occurs. He seeks a woodland cottage where he may contemplate “dim-discovered spires” and “hamlets brown” (Collins line 37). The process of observations and obscurity call to mind a cityscape in the evening or in the nighttime hour like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s nighttime composition in "Frost at Midnight." William Collins writes
III. “To Adorn the Sofa with Eulogium Due”: Creative Minds at Home
9. In the theory of brown study compositional poetics, writing that follows contemplation of experience is subjective and offers a truth value of synthesis and reconstructive aesthetics, known as an alethiology. The alethiology is a truth value discovered through access to the “nature of truth” (OED), seen in Eingedenken, the brown study’s first, aesthetic stage of creativity preceding the conceptual thought of the second, compositional stage of creativity. In a Romantic poem written in the brown study aesthetic, the element of “undecidability” should precede the concept, according to Tilottama Rajan (472). As the initial experiences are digested in a deconstructive and self-aware pre-conceptual process, authors unconsciously select and make distinctions. The aesthetic experience is especially powerful in what Richard Adelman defines as the idle or vacant mind, where space occurs between the experience of an object and the concept of the object itself. The period of idle reflection in Cowper’s brown study passage is a stage in contemplation between “voluntary and involuntary” processes of thought, as Adelman explains (76). Despite the involuntariness of contemplation, the mind has a “particular set of abilities” to produce a concept for reconstruction of an idea (Adelman 64).
10. Following the Derridean deconstructive stage of creativity, named in poetics by Cowper as the brown study stage, “it is not necessary . . . to reassemble the disjecta membra” of the day’s experiences in a structured form (Rajan 464). The deconstructed text of nature in the poet’s experience “can still be alethiological, because the very process of undecidability discloses truth” (Rajan 464). Poetical fragments, notes, marginalia, and free writing are written expressions of undecidability. For poets who are writing in a two-stage process, an idea for a theme is drawn from the brown study and the “thematic expression” then leads to the secondary phase of the rhetorical structure of the poem (Rajan 452).
11. The deconstructive process provides material in fragments, notes, and marginalia that are recorded during composition to be taken into the second stage reflections. The class’s survey of composition processes in the second stage of writing covers William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads preface, Anna Letitia Barbauld’s The Invitation, James Thomson’s The Seasons, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and William Cowper’s The Task and Other Selected Poems, each paired with introductory scholarship on the composition processes of the author.
12. In Paul de Man’s essays on Romanticism, Tillottama Rajan explains, “the problem of intentionality is historically localized in romantic literature, which is in transit from a medieval literature that grounded allegorical representation in anagogic presence towards a kind of Mallarmean pure poetry that would not be undone by any desire to emerge from the palace of art” (Rajan 455). Schiller writes in Naïve and Sentimental Poetry of the aesthetic pre-concept: “Just as nature began gradually to disappear from human life as experience . . . so we see her arise in the world of poetry as idea and object. . . . The poet, I said, either is nature or he will seek her” (Schiller 105–10). The poet deliberately seeks the Eingedenken or nature of the mindful unconscious in order to generate natural or inspired poetry. William Wordsworth theorizes the nature of Romantic poetry in Preface to Lyrical Ballads:
13. Barbauld aims to encourage Belsham’s creative awakening in nature. Barbauld and Belsham walk the grounds of Warrington Academy—a school of sciences and arts for young gentlemen established by Barbauld’s father John Aikin—and view the riverbanks of the Mersey River and the trees of the grounds. “Will Delia [Belsham] at the muse’s call retire / To the pure pleasures rural scenes inspire?” she asks (lines 13–14). May “fair ideas all her fancy fill,” hopes Barbauld (8):
14. Following the day’s travels, Wollstonecraft explains, she writes at home about her experiences in a quiet hour. Ingrid Horrocks, in her introduction to Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre, points to a “nostalgic strain in philosophical . . . thought” in the Letters as Wollstonecraft eulogizes the day and her separation from family (Horrocks 25). Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who sits around the fire in the grate at midnight with his infant son in the poem "Frost at Midnight", Wollstonecraft contemplates, “Why fly my thoughts abroad, when every thing around me appears at home? My child was sleeping with equal calmness—innocent and sweet as the closing flowers” (Wollstonecraft 59). However, due to the brightness of the moon, “I could write at midnight very well without a candle. I contemplated all nature at rest; the rocks, even grown darker in their appearance, looked as if they partook of the general repose, and reclined more heavily on their foundation” (Wollstonecraft 59). Earlier in the same day described in "Letter 1," Wollstonecraft describes “still little patches of earth of the most exquisite verdure, enameled with the sweetest wild flowers” and she mourns the passing of the day (57).
15. The poet in Cowper’s The Task finds “the country wins me still,” and his strategy for translating pre-linguistic reflection into words is to read poetry written by people who write about the country: “No bard could please me but whose lyre was tuned / To Nature’s praises” (4.694, 704–5):
IV. “‘Tis born with all. The love of Nature’s works”: Furnishing the Study
16. Adelman’s study in Idleness, Contemplation and the Aesthetic, 1750–1830 reclassifies several idle activities during the Romantic era. Adelman’s study “charts the construction of the category of idle, aesthetic contemplation” outside the parameters of the categories of “working.” His study begins with Romanticism’s idleness “up until the very point at which this category is put to work in opposition to the political economy that inflected, and indeed anticipated, its parameters” (Adelman 9). The activities of reading and writing may fall alongside the activities of retirement, rest, and solitude.
17. For Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the interiority of the study creates an aesthetics of order and structure from chaotic externality. “I then retired to my apartment,” explains Wollstonecraft of her first night of Swedish residency, but “my senses had been so awake, and my imagination still continued so busy, that I sought for rest in vain” (59). Coleridge’s retirement in "Frost at Midnight" at Nether Stowey in Somerset is characterized by interior reflection, and his thoughts similarly move from inside with his newborn child to abstractions about the past day and the nature outdoors:
18. The activity of reading is a common image in portrayals of the brown study aesthetic. Keats speaks of his composition of poetry in "Ode to a Nightingale," and Joseph Severn paints him in John Keats at Wentworth Place (1821, Appendix A). Severn writes in his letters that Keats was at repose in a compositional phase in the study surrounded by the furniture necessary to writing. The components of the study during Keats’s composition of "Ode to a Nightingale" are presented in detail and are confirmed by Keats’s friend Charles Brown:
19. The students may choose widely from within the authors’ oeuvres corresponding with the poems, letters, and essays listed on the course’s syllabus. Provided the students’ theoretical approaches to the literature are sound, the students may, in ways that may be broadly understood, interpret their texts’ approaches to questions of authorship. Cowper writes of flower boxes in container gardening, a metaphor for writings about nature, in The Task, "Book 4: The Winter Evening":
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