Rzepka, "Re-collecting Spontaneous Overflows: Romantic Passions, the Sublime, and Mesmerism"

Romantic Passions

Re-collecting Spontaneous Overflows: Romantic Passions, the Sublime, and Mesmerism

Charles J. Rzepka, Boston University

Passions and Obstructions

  1. The relationship between passion and the Sublime has, traditionally, been an ambiguous one, but in critical writing on the Romantic Sublime the passion most often cited as pivotal has been "terror" or one of its variants. Twenty years ago, Thomas Weiskel offered the most comprehensive and systematic account so far of the sublime of terror as Oedipal drama, and thereby set the terms for nearly all further discussion of the topic, including political, ideological, and feminist critiques. So pervasive have the assumptions of Weiskel's analysis become, that the relationship between terror and the Romantic Sublime may be due for some re-assessment. I offer what follows as a speculative experiment to determine how far Mesmerism can help us in that task.

  2. Longinus was typically scolded by eighteenth-century critics like John Dennis for having failed to insist on any necessary connection between the emotions and sublimity, although the author of Peri hypsous had implied nearly as arbitrary a connection between the Sublime and its four other "sources," namely, "the power of grand conceptions," "proper construction of figures," "nobility of language," and "dignified and elevated word-arrangement" (181). Longinus's point was that no single "source" could insure a sublime effect, while any single source was capable of doing so if handled correctly and used in the right circumstances. Regarding the emotions specifically, he concludes that "nothing makes so much for grandeur as genuine emotion in the right place. It inspires the words as it were with a divine frenzy and fills them with divine spirit" (181; emphasis added).

  3. In The Advancement and Reformation of Modern Poetry (1701), Dennis stressed the central importance of passion or "enthusiasm" to "the greater Poetry" and, following Longinus's invocations of the "divine," identified that greater poetry with "religious ideas." In doing so, Dennis helped to place the passions at the center of discussions of the Sublime for the century to follow. Going beyond Dennis in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), Edmund Burke offered a thorough account of the relationship between the emotions and the Sublime.

  4. Burke reduced all the passions associated with sublime experience--awe, reverence, astonishment, fear--to one original: terror. Following Dennis's lead, he also traced the prototype of all terrible objects to the idea of God, while bringing the airy structure of the Sublime down to rest on a material and efficient cause, namely, a violent--but "delightful"--agitation of the nervous system. Indeed, "a mode of terror is the exercise of the finer parts of the system" of nervous and muscular tissues, writes Burke. This mode of exercise was designed by the Almighty to help "clear the parts, whether fine, or gross, of a dangerous and troublesome incumbrance" accreted through too much rest and inaction, which tend to destroy the "vigorous tone" necessary to maintain the "natural . . . secretions" vital to health (122-3).

  5. There's a great deal more going on in eighteenth-century speculations on the passions and the Sublime besides what we find in the Enquiry, but Burke's version of sublime terror has long been of particular interest to Romanticists because its signature seems to appear on nearly every example of the so-called Romantic Sublime: the boat-stealing episode in The Prelude, Wordsworth's confusion at Simplon Pass, the Ancient Mariner's experiences of terror and transcendence on a "wide, wide sea," Keatsian "dying into life," the Gothic violence of Shelley's "Mont Blanc"--the list has gone on and on. For the purposes of this essay, however, I'd like to subordinate the Burkean template of terror to another, larger pattern of Romantic metaphorization in which Burke's therapeutic rather than aesthetic agenda will be foregrounded. That larger pattern depends upon ideas of "flow."

  6. For Burke, the efficient cause of the "delight" occasioned by the experience of the Sublime is the power of terrible objects to "clear the parts" of the nervous system of dangerous and debilitating blockages arising from mental lassitude, that is, from persistent states of boredom and ennui. As it happens, less than ten years after the publication of the Enquiry, a dissertation was published by a German physician studying at the University of Vienna, entitled Dissertatio physico-medica de planetarum influxu, or "Dissertation on planetary influences upon the human body." In it, Franz Anton Mesmer argued that the fluids of the body, including the nerves, were affected by planetary motion, and even experienced "tides" induced by something he called "animal gravity" in the same way that earth's oceans moved tidally under the influence of Newtonian "universal gravitation." When these animal "tides" were blocked, said Mesmer, the result was mental or physical illness, depending on the particular bodily organ in which the obstruction occurred (Crabtree, 4).

  7. Much of Mesmer's theory, as well as text, was taken from Richard Mead's De imperio solis ac lunae (1704), and several years later, in 1774, Mesmer found still another fruitful source of speculation when he learned of experiments with healing "mineral magnets" being conducted by Fr. Maximillian Hell, professor of astronomy at the University of Vienna (Crabtree, 5).(1) Fr. Hell's experiments ignited widespread interest in the relationship between magnetism and disease. Into this highly charged atmosphere, Mesmer released his most famous treatise, Memoire sur la Decouverte du Magnetisme Animal, published in Paris in 1779.

  8. Robert Darnton (47-81) has chronicled the ensuing mania for (and controversy over) Mesmer's "animal magnetism" in Paris and in the provinces following the publication of the Memoire, and others have unearthed information concerning its brief popularity in England before the onset of the Napoleonic Wars closed down most cultural as well commercial traffic between England and France. (See, e.g., Mackay, 1.129; Cooper, 74-77, and Gauld, 197-99). I won't rehearse that history again here.(2) What interests me is the isomorphism between Mesmer's explanations of the magnetic mechanism underlying his treatments and the apparent place of emotions or passions in the structure of the Romantic Sublime, especially insofar as that structure appears in the work of Coleridge and Wordsworth. Specifically, I'll be focussing on figures of blockage, collection, and discharge.

  9. Weiskel identified three essential stages in the structure of the Romantic Sublime, stages that appear in one form or another throughout eighteenth-century writings on the subject. First, the mind is "in a determinate relation to the object, and this relation is habitual, more or less unconscious . . . and harmonious. [But] boredom signals an incipient disequilibrium. . . ." Then, "in the second phase, the habitual relation of mind and object suddenly breaks down. Surprise or astonishment is the affective correlative, and there is an immediate intuition of a disconcerting disproportion between inner and outer. . . ." Finally, "in the third, or reactive, phase . . . the mind recovers the balance of outer and inner by constituting a fresh relation to a transcendent order" (Weiskel, 23-24). This phase is often accompanied by feelings of profound peace or tranquility.

  10. Weiskel's second stage corresponds to what Neil Hertz calls "blockage," a pivot-point in sublime experience where the subject is forced to surmount its own threatened absorption, annihilation, or fragmentation by the incommensurable object of perception through a sudden self-reintegration at a higher and more expansive level, usually by identifying in some way with the power that threatens to annihilate it. As Hertz puts it, during the eighteenth century "the notion of difficulty or recalcitrance" that we find materialized in Burke's neurological explanation was transformed, through a passage to the limit, into the notion of absolute blockage":

    Although the moment of blockage might have been rendered as one of utter self-loss, it was, even before its recuperation as sublime exaltation, a confirmation of the unitary status of the self. (53)

    In Kant, this "unitary status" became totalized through a transcendental identification with the Other, Reason, whose threat to overwhelm the self through its demand for totality in imaginative intuitions of infinite space or for free self-determination in intuitions of absolute power precipitated the experience of "blockage." Both Weiskel and Hertz seem to identify this Other or blocking agent with something terrifying or incommensurable. And yet, as we've seen, terror in Burke--including a sense of the infinite, which Kant will consider separately from the dynamic sublime of terror--causes a clearing of the nerves.

  11. For present purposes I'm leaving aside an analysis of the transformations of the subject's understanding of its own relationship to a sublime object, whether a natural scene or a human artifact. My intial aims are more modest: to translate the Weiskel/Hertz three-stage paradigm into Burkean somatic terms, so as to reveal points of incongruity between the two. Such a translation might read as follows: First, too much relaxation, too much "habitual" or routinized behavior, leads to "boredom" or, in Burke's terms, a lassitude portending the accumulation "of a dangerous and troublesome incumbrance" or blockage of the healthy "secretions" of the nervous system; second, the impending threat of blockage, reaching its crisis, is allayed when the subject encounters an object that breaks down the "habitual relation of mind" and the object-world by means of "astonishment," which Burke would consider a species of terror; third, the nervous system recovers its original, habitual relation to the outside world. Keep in mind, again, that in Burke's physiological account, terror is what precipitates the clearing of incipient blockages that might impede a healthy relationship between mind and world, while in Weiskel's and Hertz's phenomenological account, terror ("surprise," "astonishment") seems to precipitate (in the "dynamic" sublime) or be precipitated by (in the "mathematical" sublime) blockage itself, forcing the subject to perform a transcendental identification with whatever is causing this breakdown. Only later in phase three can a habitual relationship with the world be re-established. Because, in Burke's view, terror clears incipient blockages, his physiological account of the Sublime cannot explain, or simply does not allow any recognition of, what Weiskel calls the subject's "fresh relation to a transcendent order" in response to the threat of absolute blockage. Mesmerism provided just such a transcendentalizing supplement to Burke's inherently solipsistic physiological reductionism.

  12. Mesmer believed that all illnesses, bodily and mental, arose from constrictions in the circulation of magnetic fluids within the body. These constrictions prevented the corporeal magnetic fluid from properly establishing the body's natural animal polarities and aligning them with that of the universal magnetic ether that flowed through all of creation and animated all sensient beings. The affinities between Mesmer's cosmic magnetic fluid and the "plastic and vast" "intellectual breeze" of the Coleridgean Primary Imagination are not far to seek. Melvin Rader's account (74-75) of Coleridge's early fascination with the "plastic power" of the Cambridge Platonists, like Henry More and Ralph Cudworth, can help us to understand the poet's enthusiastic reception of the idea of a "universal" magnetic fluid. Thus, in reponse to the "Report of the Commissioners" (1784) charged by Louis XVI to investigate the claims of Mesmerism, in which its effects were attributed entirely to the powers of the imagination (Tinterow, 126-7), Coleridge wrote in his notebook for February, 1821, "If the zoo-magnetic influx be only the influence of the Imagination, the active Imagination may be a form of Zoo-magnetic Influence" (Coburn, Notebooks 4.4806). By this time, however, he had undergone a long period of scepticism, eventuating in a wary faith, with respect to the objective reality of the "zoo-magnetic" force. (See especially Beer, Intelligence, 221-2 and 279-81; Levere, 185-88; and Coburn, I, 59n).

  13. Coleridge was hardly alone among fellow intellectuals in his initial enthusiasm. Darnton (3-45) has demonstrated the extensive affiliations between Mesmerism and popular science in the late Enlightenment, and Maria Tatar (45-81) has more recently shown "animal magnetism" to have been entirely consonant with contemporary scientific speculation, first incited by Newton's Opticks, on a variety of "ethers" for the propagation of magnetism, light, gravity, and electricity.(3) Throughout the nineteenth century poets, writers, and philosophers often concatenated these disparate media of ethereal transmission in their attempts to envisage and represent a transcendent, but nonetheless scientifically verifiable, realm of supra-individual vitality, or even universal consciousness.

  14. Mesmer's own description, in 1766, of the "harmonizing" effects of animal gravity clearly anticipates the predominant symbol of the relationship between individual and cosmic consciousness that will come to prevail in Romantic writing:

    our bodies are harmonized, not in a uniform and monotonous manner, but as a musical instrument furnished with several strings, the exact tone resonat[ing] . . . in unison with a given tone. (Crabtree, 4)

    Two decades later, Coleridge will ask his "pensive Sara" whether "all of animated nature/ Be but organic Harps diversely fram'd,/ That tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps,/ Plastic and vast, one intellectual Breeze,/ At once the Soul of each, and God of all?" ("Effusion XXXV," 36-40).

  15. According to Mesmer, illnesses both psychic and somatic resulted when the flow of magnetic fluid was blocked and began accumulating in some part of the physical anatomy. For most of Mesmer's Parisian patients, especially female patients, blockage often took the form of the "vapeurs," a mildly hysterical, depressive state (Tatar, 15) that resembles the condition for which Burke considered a good dose of nerve-clearing terror to be salutary: "Melancholy, dejection, despair, and often self-murder, is a consequence of the gloomy view we take of things in this relaxed state of body" (122). According to Mesmer, the magnetic flow could be unblocked by subjecting the patient to an overpowering current of "animal magnetism," in most cases by means of a tub or baquet in which magnetic fluid had been collected through the medium of Mesmer's own highly "magnetic" body, on the analogy of charging a Leyden jar with electricity. Patients would sit around the baquet and hold onto iron rods inserted into it, or touch these rods to their afflicted parts. In particularly stubborn cases, Mesmer himself would sit the patient down in front of him, lock his knees around those of the patient, and try to infuse a powerful flow of magnetic fluid by passing his hands over the patient's body, or by staring into his or her eyes. (The eye was a particularly strong conduit of animal magnetism.)

  16. A cure was signified by what Mesmer called a "crisis," usually consisting of convulsions, mild or severe, and/or the onset of a peaceful "magnetic sleep." In Mesmer's view, the "crisis," particularly the convulsive type, indicated a sudden release of pent-up magnetic fluid. Considering the large number of female patients apparently suffering from various degrees of sexual hysteria, it should come as no surprise that, according to hostile accounts, as well as a secret report submitted to the King by the Commissioners, the cries accompanying these "crises" often resembled those of orgasm (Crabtree, 90-105). (Interestingly, Burke thought that in their "languid inactive state, the nerves are more liable to the most horrid convulsions" (122), which, considered from a Mesmeric point of view, might indicate the body's attempts at self-healing.) In any case, Mesmer's task was not only to unblock the flow of magnetic fluid, but to direct it so as to harmonize the patient's body with the larger magnetic currents of the universe. In the view of later psychoanalytic theory, the convulsive "crisis" came to be seen as a form of abreaction characteristic of treatments for hysteria or other forms of neurotic repression. As Tatar has observed, it was no accident, given the roots of psychoanalysis in mesmerism and hypnosis, that Freud should so often have had recourse to the vocabulary of hydraulics and electromagnetism in formulating his metapsychology (43-44).

  17. I wish to argue two things here. First, if any overt "passions" may be universally associated with the Romantic Sublime, they are to be found, in Mesmeric terms, in the moment of transition from stage 2, the precipitation of blockage, to stage 3, the release of pent-up vital energy, in the form of "magnetic fluid," so as to allow for its proper circulation--its "passion," if you will--in what Mesmer and his disciples considered a natural and primordial re-establishment of harmony with the transcendent "zoomagnetic flux" of the universe. Secondly, the "crisis" by which this magnetic fluid is released is not brought about through the nerve-cleansing agencies of Burkean terror, but through an overmastering experience of love--even ecstasy, as the orgasmic intimations detected in the cries of Mesmer's female patients in "crisis" seem to indicate. Terror, in the repressed form of those cognate emotions such as anxiety, melancholy, depression, and anomie that we have come to identify, since Freud, with civilization and its discontents, seems instead to have been the blocking agent in the Mesmeric paradigm, as in the more overtly terrifying three-stage paradigm of the Sublime articulated by Weiskel and Hertz. In the Mesmeric version of the Sublime, however, release is often delayed, sometimes for many years, sometimes indefinitely, until proper "treatment" with animal magnetism can be obtained.

  18. I will cite as examples of this Mesmeric version of the delayed release of sublime passion two well-known poems from Lyrical Ballads, the original "Rime of the Ancyent Marinere" of 1798, whose mesmeric tropes and images have received a great deal of attention over the years, and "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey," from the same volume, which has, to my knowledge, rarely been examined in Mesmeric terms. (See, however, Beach, 76-77; Beer, Wordsworth in Time, 68-71; and Durrant, 94-106.)

    Charge and Discharge: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner

  19. Lane Cooper, in an essay published in 1910, became the first to ever burst into the sea of Mesmeric flotsom littering the "Rime," in addition to citing related material in "Christabel," "Kubla Khan," Osorio, and other works. He was followed by John Livingston Lowes and, in several books, by John Beer. Beer managed to wrestle the paraphenalia of animal magnetism, magnetic sleep, ocular hypnosis, and related electromagnetic phenomena into the soaring structure of Coleridge's reflections on the Primary Consciousness and the role of imagination, genius, and reason therein. That the poem represents a "crisis" in which the protagonist is, at least temporarily, enabled to establish contact with a transcendental power in the mode of the Romantic Sublime has been taken for granted at least since Robert Penn Warren's coining of the term "sacramental vision" to describe the Mariner's self-transformative experiences. I will content myself with a brief synopsis of the poem according to the humbler terms of primitive Mesmeric theory.

  20. As Cooper notes, the action of the "Rime" encompasses several instances of a regular and habitual motion interrupted by blockage and followed by sudden release. Only one of these is of interest to us here: the moment at which the Mariner, living the nightmare "Life-in-Death" (as Coleridge put it in 1800) to which his shooting of the Albatross has condemned him, feels himself at last capable of prayer:

    Beyond the shadow of the ship
      I watch'd the water-snakes:
    They mov'd in tracks of shining white;
    And when they rear'd, the elfish light
      Fell off in hoary flakes.
      Within the shadow of the ship
      I watch'd their rich attire:
    Blue, glossy green, and velet black
    They coil'd and swam; and every track
      Was a flash of golden fire.
      O happy living things! no tongue
      Their beauty might declare:
    A spring of love gusht from my heart,
      And I bless'd them unaware!
    Sure my kind saint took pity on me,
      And I bless'd them unaware.
      The self-same moment I could pray;
      And from my neck so free
    The Albatross fell off, and sank
      Like lead into the sea. (1798: 264-283)
  21. Lowes (38-42) traced the scientific origins of the phosphorescent sea-snakes to Priestly's Opticks, where such phenomena are linked to the glow of putrescent substances, and he also cited accounts of oceanic electro-phosphorescence in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and in Captain Cook's Voyages. Piper (95-97, 99-102) established a larger connection to related electromagnetic displays via Priestley's Experiments on Air and History of Electricity, where phlogiston (the "element" of heat), electricity, and light were taken to be manifestations of the same ethereal power. Coleridge was also familiar, apparently, with Luigi Galvani's experiments with muscle tissue and electrical stimulation (Burwick, 282) and probably already acquainted with the growing eighteenth-century literature on organic electrical effects, such as were to be found in the mimosa, the electrical eel, and the torpedo, effects which had been reported as early as 1773 in a series of papers written by John Hunter for the Philsophical Transactions of the Royal Society. (See Coburn, Collected Works 11, I, 590-1 and 591n.) Indeed, well before Coleridge conceived the "Rime," physicians were using electical eels and torpedoes therapeutically, that is, as a means of removing blockages to the circulation of the "electrical fluids" in the patient's body by inducing electrical shocks (Tatar, 53-54).

  22. In the context of such widespread speculative amalgamations of animal magnetic and electrical ethers in the scientific literature, the Mariner's experience begins to look more like a demonstration of electro-magnetic therapy than a tale of sin and redemption: "To tell the truth," says Cooper, "so far as [the poet's] salient ideas are concerned he hardly goes beyond the province of animal magnetism" (77). If indeed "Coleridge's allusions to ocular fascination and magnetic influence . . . deliberately and literally command attention" (Burwick, 277), then perhaps it would not be remiss to interpret them as literally as possible. Thus, "within the shadow of the ship" we are made aware of the electrical phosphorescence of the sea-snakes, one prototype for which, in the scientific literature, was the electric eel. Like the torpedo, the eel inspired analogies with the charge-collecting capacities of the Leyden jar among enthusiasts of animal magnetism (Tatar, 52-53). Read in this context, the glowing sea-snakes gathering in the shadow of the ship--that is, in nearer proximity to the Mariner--seem to comprise an ocean-going galvanic battery emitting an electric spark, a "flash of golden fire," in every "track" or, in Mesmeric terms, every "pass" near the ailing Mariner, as if to excite or draw forth the "spring of love" that eventually gushes from his heart. (Mesmer himself started out in his practice by using magnets to infuse and direct animal magnetic fluid. See, e.g., Gauld, 3; Crabtree, 5-7). As was often the case in the Mesmeric "crisis," sleep now descends from an ethereal source and flows or "slides" into the Mariner's "soul": "O sleep, it is a gentle thing/ Belov'd from pole to pole!/ To Mary-queen the praise be yeven/ She sent the gentle sleep from heaven/ That slid into my soul" (284-88).

  23. Appropriately enough, when the Mariner awakens, a thunder-storm is threatening. The atmosphere is so charged with electricity that "the upper air bursts into life,/ And a hundred fire-flags sheen" (305-6), an apparent reference, according to Lowes (189), to the aurora borealis. Suddenly, "the thick black cloud is cleft," and "Like waters shot from some high crag,/ The lightning falls with never a jag/ A river steep and wide" (314-18). Coleridge's fluid figures for electrical phenomena are perfectly consonant with the theories of mesmeric/galvanic flow popular in his day. In a scene anticipating by some twenty years the galvanic reanimation of dead matter in Frankenstein, this river of lightning, supplemented perhaps by the energies of the moon exerted through the gravitational ether posited by Mesmer in his original dissertation, begins to re-animate the dead crew-members:

    Beneath the lightning and the moon
      The dead men gave a groan.

    They groan'd, they stirr'd, they all uprose,
      Ne spake, ne mov'd their eyes:
    It had been strange, even in a dream
      To have seen those dead men rise. (321-6)

    Even the ship, untouched by any whisper of atmospheric motion, seems to have become animated by this cosmic influx of vital, electromagnetic power: 

    The helmsman steer'd, the ship mov'd on,
      Yet never a breeze up-blew. (327-8)
  24. What gushes from the Mariner's heart after the "passes" of the sea-snakes, and what thereafter, in the physico-ethereal form of electromagnetism, brings the dead back to life, is not a species of terror, the passion of self-preservation that Burke makes central to sublime experience, but, according to Coleridge's Mariner, "love," the magnetic fluid of cosmic attraction and harmony, of reconciliation and spiritual alignment with the larger processes of the universe. This is quite in accord, not only with the universally "harmonizing" tendencies of Mesmeric theory, but with the actual circumstances in which Mesmer's healing arts were performed. Here is Tatar's description of Mesmer's salon, which "bore little resemblance to the normally austere decor of eighteenth-century clinics": 

    Delicate perfumes floated in the air to mingle with the magnetic fluid pulsing through the atmosphere. Thick carpets, heavy curtains, and ornate furnishings graced the dimly lit chamber. . . . Soft music played on the pianoforte or glass harmonica--on occasion by Mesmer himself--kept the fluid in steady circulation. Everything in Mesmer's clinic seemed to foster an aura of mystery and magical enchantment. (14; see also Crabtree 13-15)

    Though Burke believed "mystery" or "obscurity" to be productive of "terror," the conditions conducive to Mesmeric "crisis" were clearly not designed to incite a cleaning-out of the nerves through imaginative violence. They were intended, rather, to soothe and comfort or, in terms popularized by Mesmer's psychoanalytic heirs, to encourage a lowering of unconscious defenses, to relax "blockages" to the flow of what seemed, to judge from the orgasmic utterances of many of Mesmer's female patients, to be the essential cosmic fluid of universal eros

  25. The patients entering Mesmer's clinic were already suffering from "blockage," in some cases for a period of many years, and if "terror" had anything to do with their magnetic constipation, it must have been exerting its effects far below the level of the conscious mind, in the form of what Wordsworth would later call, in the "Intimations" ode, "custom . . . Heavy as frost, and deep almost as life!" (127-8). As Darnton was the first to point out (83-105), Mesmer's theories corresponded nicely--too nicely, from the viewpoint of the authorities--with a contemporary Rousseauistic and proto-revolutionary Utopianism that ascribed the moral illnesses of Enlightenment society to the repressive effects (what Freud was later to call, the "discontents") of a class- and convention-bound civilization. The radical implications of Mesmeric theory were realized in Mesmer's clinic itself, where patients from all classes, even the very poor, were treated together, without segregation by rank or sex. No wonder Mesmer's tenets appealed to a young Pantisocratist like Coleridge!

  26. Insofar as the Mesmeric "crisis," then, can be taken as a culturally analogous form of the Romantic Sublime, like Wesleyan Methodism or other forms of religious or popular enthusiasm (see, e.g., Coleridge's note to Southey's Life of Wesley, in Coburn, Collected Works, 14.2, 78n; also Cooper, 70-71; and Bewell, 112-13), it points us in a slightly different direction from the by-now standard critical account in which explicit Burkean "terror" plays so central and conspicuous a role. The Mariner's "blockage," for instance, occurs as a result of what Coleridge in another context, applying the term to Iago, calls "motiveless malignity" (Raysor, 1.44), a form of original sin: for no apparent reason, the Mariner shoots the albatross, iconographic symbol, as several commentators including Warren have observed, of the Holy Spirit, the divine power of God's Grace by which all "Christian soul[s]" (63) are united in mutual love. The terrifying Gothic effects of this blockage of the Godhead's vital effluence are well-known: the crew members are struck dead and the very sea begins to rot, swarming with "slimy things." But rotting, slimy things, as Priestly's treatises on optics, air, and electricity suggested, radiate their vital magnetic fluids in the form of electro-phosphorence as they expire. Beer has demonstrated comprehensively and in detail how such vital ethereal fluids were assumed by Coleridge, at this early date, to mingle with the greater flow of magnetic fluid in the universe that had its ultimate origin and endpoint in the light and heat of the sun (Intelligence, 31-37; Wordsworth in Time, 54-55). In the gathering glow and "tracks" of "golden fire" emitted by the sea-snakes, as we have seen, that vital eletromagnetic current seems to be re-collected as if in a galvanic battery so as to elicit, like a spark shorting out, a sudden "gush" of "love" from the Mariner's heart.

  27. It may well be that overt demonstrations in Romantic poetry of what Wordsworth came to call the "ministry more palpable" of fear or terror--as in the boat-stealing episode or the encounter with the blind beggar in the streets of London (Prelude 1805 1.367-426; 7.608-23)--are better understood as moments or "spots of time" in which traumatic blockages originally occur, backing up and, in some cases, "collecting" vital "magnetic" energies that can only be released or tapped in a subsequent act of "re-collection," perhaps through some form of discourse, as in the Mariner's unconsciously elicited "blessing" of the sea-snakes and conscious prayer immediately following, or, whenever his "frame" is again "wrench'd/ With a woeful agony" (611-12), in his happening upon someone whose "body and soul" he can force, by "that which comes out of [his] eye, to be still" (364-365), and listen to his tale "like a three year's child" (19). Indeed, Freud's "talking cure," distant step-child of the discursive self-analyses elicited under hypnosis by Mesmer's disciples, like de Puysegur (Crabtree, 46-47; Dawson, 20-21), deeply informs the Mesmeric poetics of the Coleridgean and Wordsworthian Sublime.

    Connecting the Landscape with the Quiet of the Sky: The Wye Valley as Baquet

  28. Though J. W. Beach (76-77) is to be credited with first observing the resemblances between Wordsworth's "sense sublime" in "Tintern Abbey" and the primordial Newtonian "ether," Cooper, Beer, and Durrant argue that the poet embraced mesmeric doctrines only obliquely, remaining undecided as to the objective existence of the magnetic, or any other vital, universally pervasive ether. However that may be, images of flow, collection or charge, and discharge are central to Wordsworth's representations of imaginative power. For our purposes, what is most important is that Wordsworth's "sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused" in the landscape of the Wye valley reveals, not an obstructing object of fear, but a "presence that disturbs [him] with the joy/ Of elevated thoughts" (95-97, emphasis added). There is, in this climactic moment of "Tintern Abbey," little terror. The nearest thing to it in the poem occurs at two other moments: first, when Wordsworth experiences "somewhat of a sad perplexity" as he compares with the present view "the picture of the mind" retained from his first visit five years before. The second moment approximating some version of terror appears several lines later, in his description of that first visit in 1793, which took place a few months after he had returned to England from France. Immersed in the political wrangling and revolutionary zeal of the Reformists in London, anxious for the safety of Annette Vallon, his mistress, and their infant daughter, Caroline, whom he had left behind in France, and growing ever more doubtful as to the fundamental moral soundness of the Revolution that he had supported, up to this point, as an "active partisan" (Prelude 10.736), he sought relief "among these hills . . . more like a man/ Flying from something that he dreads, than one/ Who sought the thing he loved" (67-73).

  29. After dread, however, came discovery of the thing he loved: "aching joys" and "dizzy raptures" (85-86), "a feeling and a love,/ That had no need of . . . any interest/ Unborrowed from the eye" (81-84). It was as though something had given way, come unstuck, followed by the sublime tranquility of mesmeric sleep: "These forms of beauty have not been to me,/ As is a landscape to a blind man's eye . . . To them I may have owed another gift,/ Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,"

    . . . that serene and blessed mood,
    In which the affections gently lead us on,
    Until, the breath of this corporeal frame,
    And even the motion of our human blood
    Almost suspended, we are laid asleep
    In body, and become a living soul:
    While with an eye made quiet by the power
    Of harmony, and the deep power of joy,
    We see into the life of things (24-49).
  30. This is the language of waking catalepsy, of magnetic slumber or "critical sleep," "an intermediary state," says Crabtree, "between wakefulness and perfect sleep" (66) in which, according to Mesmer's later theories, "the internal sense is stimulated by the fluid that animates the nerves of all living beings": 

    This nervous fluid . . . can be transmitted at any distance and is not hindered by obstacles. It is through this fluid that the inner sense is placed in direct rapport with objects, near or far, and receives information about them beyond the reach of the five senses. . . . In . . . somnambulism . . . and magnetically induced critical sleep . . . the internal sense becomes the sole organ of sensation. (Crabtree, 66)

  31. In Wordsworth's epiphanic description of "the life of things," the language of the "inner" senses (a standard element in eighteenth-century speculations on morality and taste) opens up into a common Mesmeric belief "in the existence of an internal sense that does not differentiate among the various modes of perception" common to the ordinary senses (Tatar, 46). This "sixth sense" of the mesmerists, what the physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter called the elektrischer Ur-sinn, "established rapport with nature by picking up impulses from a magnetic, electrical, or vital power diffused throughout the universe" (48), much as Wordsworth will later in the poem establish, through a "sense sublime," rapport with "something far more deeply interfused." This sublime inner sense was later to be identified, particularly among the German Romantics, with such paranormal phenomena as "second sight" (which Wordsworth invokes in Prelude 7.602 to describe his impression of the passing London crowds), lucid dreams, and trance-induced, supernatural revelations (Tatar, 69-81).

  32. In short, the interiorized, remembered landscape of the Wye, originally charged with "sublime" energy in 1793, has, over the succeeding five years, intermittantly induced in the poet something very like "critical sleep." We might say that it has served as a mnemonic baquet, a continuing source of tranquilizing power and replenishment: Wordsworth has "owed" to it "sensations sweet" felt entirely within--in the blood, the heart, his "purer mind"--and "tranquil restoration" thereby, as well as a "gift . . . sublime" that can release the subject from his obdurate body and transform him into "a living soul" capable of seeing "into the life of things."

  33. Thus much for the first moment--chronologically, not narratively--of dread-induced blockage and sublime release in "Tintern Abbey." The other moment of fear--expressed as "somewhat of a sad perplexity"--arises when Wordsworth's "picture of the mind revives again" and is superimposed on his present experience of the Wye valley (61-61). The initial blocking agent here is apparently the resulting discordance of present and remembered images: as an object of the waking, exterior senses, the Wye valley can no longer serve as the baquet or reservoir from which Wordsworth has drawn vital, transcendental sustenance over the previous five years. As with his experience of Mont Blanc during the walking tour of 1790, the real valley seems at first but a "soulless image on the eye/ Which had usurped upon a living thought" (Prelude 4.454-455). But this perplexity is immediately displaced by the recognition of a "present pleasure" that will provide "life and food/ For future years" (65-67). Wordsworth recalls himself from the depths of his memories of self-replenishment to an understanding of how, from the first moment of his re-arrival on the banks of the Wye, as described in the opening lines, he has already begun to "connect/ The landscape with the quiet of the sky." He now recognizes that "blue sky," along with "the light of setting suns,/ And the round ocean, and the living air," to be a "dwelling" for the "spirit, that impels/ All thinking things, all objects of all thought,/ And rolls through all things," including "the mind of man" (98-103). The poet has already begun replenishing his "picture of the mind" with new, sustaining spiritual energies, and the sound of "these waters, rolling from their mountain-springs/ With a sweet inland murmur" (3-4) into the cliff-enclosed valley offers an objective correlative of this mental, Mesmeric in-filling.

  34. In short, the memory of Wordsworth's present experience will become, like "the picture of the mind" he has carried with him from his first visit, a Mesmeric baquet for "future years." It enables him both to re-charge his zoo-magnetic batteries, so to speak, and to recognize that memory can function as such a storage device.

  35. In some instances of the Romantic Sublime in Wordsworth and Colerlidge blockage is not removed for many years, and then only through the agency, it would seem, of language, as in the "talking cure" enacted by the Ancient Mariner's repeated narration of his literally arresting tale. Considered in the light of Mesmeric theory, the entire Prelude can be seen as an attempt to uncover, through speech, primodial "blockages" arrested in "spots of time" behind which vast stores of vital imaginative/magnetic energy have been accumulated, in order to make the "renovating virtue" (Prelude 11.257-9) arrested in such moments available as a "power of joy" to the conscious mind. In them it can perceive its own inner power as "lord and master" over "the outward sense," which is "but the obedient servant of [its] will" (Prelude 11.270-2).

  36. This is a "renovating virtue" that the poet hopes to make available not only to his own mind, but to the minds of his readers, and of one reader in particular, Coleridge, the "Friend" to whom the entire Prelude is presumably addressed. Of course, the same thing can be said of "Tintern Abbey," wherein Wordsworth, in turning to address his "dear, dear Sister," Dorothy, thereby addresses his poem to her as well. At the same time, however, in the "shooting lights" of her "wild eyes" he can "read/ [His] former pleasures" (118-20) and thence receive back, perhaps, something of the vital power, the "aching joys and dizzy raptures," that once suffused his own corporeal frame in 1793.

  37. Such mutually reciprocated "renovating virtue" is a power, like that drawn from the "spots of time" in the Prelude, that has been finally collected--or rather, "re-collected"--in the charged baquet of a poem called "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey," to be made available to all future readers as well. In some of his most famous (and deceptively naive) reflections on the poetic process, Wordsworth described poetry in the "Preface" to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads as "the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," adding, "it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility" (266). At first glance, this looks like the rather cliched version of spontaneous composition once associated with the "eruptive" school of English Romanticism, e.g., with Byron's comparison of his writing fits to a live volcano or his idealization of perfect expression, in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, as something like a verbal lightning bolt: "Could I embody and unbosom now/ That which is most within me . . . into one word,/ And that word were Lightning, I would speak" (3.905-11). At second glance, however, it appears that Wordsworth's "spontaneous overflow" must be allowed to run its course in order to be "recollected in tranquilty" and become poetry. The tranquil "blessed mood" incited by the "picture of the mind" that Wordsworth took away from his first visit to the Wye would seem, according to this account, to have arisen from just such an original overflow, the "aching joys and dizzy raptures" occasioned by that visit, now "recollected in tranquilty" on the poet's second visit.

  38. There is a third possibility, however, which requires that we read Wordsworth's first sentence literally and keep its sense intact as we proceed: the poem "is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," but this "spontaneous overflow" "takes its origin," ultimately, from a quite separate, past "emotion" that is only now "recollected in tranquility." The "overflow" is one thing, the emotion from which it originated another. But if that is the case, then it seems that this later overflow of feeling is not really as "spontaneous" as we might think. Wordsworth goes on to say that the original emotion

    is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition generally begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion . . . from various causes is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment. (266)
  39. This is a somewhat ambiguous account, but several things seem clear. First, Wordsworth does not believe in spontaneous composition, but in composition "voluntarily" undertaken in tranquil "contemplation" of a previously experienced emotion. Second, the emotion that is made to "actually exist" in the contemplating mind, in the present moment, is not the original emotion, but a simulacrum that gradually comes to disturb or destroy that mind's "tranquility." Third, despite this disturbance, the act of voluntary description will place the mind of the poet in "a state of enjoyment" distinct both from the "original emotion" and its simulacrum. In this state of joy the simulacrum "produce[d]" by memory disturbs the tranquility of the mind contemplating it and yet does not interfere with the mind's power to describe it "voluntarily." In Mesmeric terms, it appears that the present, contemplated simulacrum of the original emotion has somehow drawn to itself the disturbing power, the "charge," if you will, of the original emotion without impeding the mind's "voluntary"--and pleasureable--power to describe it in words.

  40. But if the newly charged simulacrum of the original emotion comes to "actually exist" in the poet's mind by means of tranquil "contemplation," in what sense can it be said to "overflow," spontaneously or otherwise, and what can it be said to be "flowing over"--or into--in the process? According to the implied topology of Mesmeric flow, feeling must "overflow" the poet's mind, the site of its present "re-collection" in the emotional simulacrum, and to "flow over" into a material form, specifically, into the verbal "description" that is the poem itself. "Overflow," then, becomes not so much an active as a substantive term, less synonymous with an act of "overflowing" than with what "flows over" into the verbal artifact.

  41. We are almost back in the ranks of the "eruptive" poets, but not quite. For in what way can such an "overflow" of the simulated emotion be said to be "spontaneous" if the poet is "voluntarily" attempting to describe the simulated emotion? Only in the sense, I would argue, that the poet is "voluntarily" experimenting so as to arrive at a poetic form that will "spontaneously" elicit that "overflow," somewhat in the way a lightning rod deliberately constructed, positioned, and properly grounded might "spontaneously" draw down the scattered energies of a highly ionized atmosphere. Powerful feelings, then, do not erupt from within, but are drawn out of the poet by, and stored in, the material form of a "voluntarily" constructed poetic artifact.

  42. Wordsworth had announced in the "Advertisement" to the 1798 Lyrical Ballads that his readers were to look upon these poems as "experiments" designed to "ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure" (7). That is, the poems were experiments in creating linguistic Leyden jars or baquets out of common materials for the eliciting and subsequent discharge of feeling. We can conceive of "Tintern Abbey," then, as something like a verbal device designed by means of "experiment" (more the trial-and-error type of experiment to be found at Thomas Edison's Menlo Park, perhaps, than the controlled testing of hypotheses characteristic of modern science) in order to draw from the mind of the poet, retain in the lines of the poem, and later discharge into the mind of the reader a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings." Applied to "Tintern Abbey," the poetic process thus conceived would suggest that the "picture of the mind" revived in 1798 was the efficient means by which a simulacrum of the original emotional "charge" was made to "actually exist" in the mind of the poet while he "voluntarily" attempted, during the days immediately after his and his sister's visit, to describe aloud, in blank verse, that emotional duplicate, thereby drawing its emotional "overflow" into a material verbal container.

    Associating Ideas in a State of Excitement

  43. Of course, it's not just indiscriminate "feelings" that particular poems discharge, but specific passions, and these are not always reducible to simple joy or fear, "Terror or Love" (Prelude 3.132). David Miall has reminded us of the "primacy of feeling" ("Wordsworth," 254) in the Prelude, and has renewed discussion of the ways in which Wordsworth's "affective scripts" (252) contribute to his self-constructive poetic enterprise. Coleridge's statements on the active imagination, too, says Miall, "are understandable only within the context of an agency that embodies the processes involved. To judge by his earlier more explicit accounts of the matter, that agency can only be feeling" ("Coleridge," 36). This version of imaginatively self-projective Romanticism was described succinctly by Robert Langbaum as far back as 1957: "The process of experience is for the romanticist a process of self realization, of a constantly expanding discovery of the self through the discovery of its imprint on the world" (25).

  44. Langbaum's and Miall's accounts correspond to Wordsworth's announcement, elsewhere in the 1800 "Preface," that his "principal object" in the Lyrical Ballads was to make "the incidents of common life interesting by tracing in them . . . the primary laws of our nature: chiefly as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement" (244-5). Wordsworth's language is drawn from the associationism of Locke and Hartley, filtered partly through Coleridge's transcendental preoccupations and applied to a subjectivist poetics. Because an individual's emotions affect the manner in which his or her "ideas" of the world are "associated" or arranged into coherent wholes, the wholes that result register the specific impress of the emotional energy by which they were first "associated." This means that, in Wordsworth's account of "voluntarily" "spontaneous" poetic composition, the "original emotion" must achieve its present power to disturb the tranquility of the poet's contemplative mind through an imaginative re-assembly of the "ideas" that were originally assembled, or "associated," by that emotion. In "Tintern Abbey," as we have seen, an original, emotionally charged association of ideas is revived as a "picture of the mind"--that is, a picture both of the mind as expressed in its original imaginative concatenation of "beauteous forms" in 1793, and within the mind now beholding these forms in 1798. In Mesmeric terms, this present picture, a complex image of a past perception that has drawn to itself the emotional "charge" originally invested in that perception, is now discharging its accumulated energy as "a state of enjoyment," "the joy of elevated thoughts" that "disturbs" the poet's contemplative mind even as he attempts to induce its "overflow" by means of, and into, the poetic "description" that will become "Tintern Abbey."

  45. To refer again to Coleridge's master metaphor of vital magnetic excitation in "Effusion XXXV," if we are all indeed "Harps diversely framed," then the music of our thoughts and feelings will be likewise diversely individuated. Shelley came closer to Wordsworth's conception of the interplay of individual agency and transcendental power in poetic composition when he wrote, in the Defense of Poetry,

    Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian Lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody, alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them. It is as if the lyre could accommodate its chords to the motions of that which strikes them, in a determined proportion of sound, even as the musician can accommodate his voice to the sound of the lyre. (480)
  46. Wordsworth's concept of the mind "voluntarily" experimenting with words in order to capture or elicit a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings" closely resembles Shelley's image of Aeolian harp-strings being adjusted until harmony is produced, although Wordsworth is describing poetic creation and Shelley a harmonizing of the Gestalt of perception and emotional experience. The adjustments in each case are experimental--the poet cannot know exactly what array of specific settings will enable the wind passing through the strings to produce harmony (though he may have a good guess), but he can keep re-adjusting them until harmony is in fact produced. The only confirmatory evidence that the adjustments are correct is the harmony itself, the "deep power of joy" that leaps forth like a released magnetic or electrical charge. This harmony is not determined in advance by the wind, the indiscriminate source of the "charge," if you will, for it offers only the condition of the possibility of "excitation," not the promise of harmony. Nor can harmony be achieved "voluntarily" according to a received, traditional notion of what constitutes an appropriate poem. Thus Wordsworth's rejection of "poetic diction."

  47. In any case, there can be no resonant string--and thus no harmony of resonant strings--that does not, in some sense, resist the power of the wind that excites it. In religious thought, the body has traditionally been identified as the locus of such passive--or "passionate"--resistances to more metaphysical, trans-personal sources of divine power or Grace. In the Christian tradition deriving from Augustine, the inevitable result of habitually indulging such resistances is sin, and Coleridge was morbidly sensitive to the sinful tendencies of the "streamy nature of the associating Faculty" in his own imaginative life when it was left to itself, as in dreams and reveries (Coburn, Notebooks, 1.1833). The fault lay, of course, in the discordent or slackened strings of the individual harp, not in the fundamentally positive and life-giving, but ultimately impersonal power that excited them into thought.

  48. Looking beyond the Freudian terminology of a culturally-induced "resistance" and "repression" by which such jangling "maladjustments" in the nervous system may be interpreted symptomatically, we may find further enlightenment by pursuing the resemblances between this notion of "resistance" or "blockage" and the Lacanian point de capiton, that point (the single "string" or point on the "string" of signifiers) which is arbitrarily "quilted" by the subject, and thereby fastened to a transcendental signified that remains inaccessible to consciousness, so as to enable the subject to adjust and constellate into a coherent Symbolic pattern the otherwise arbitrary array of other signifying chains (or "strings") deployed throughout the Imaginary. One step further, and we arrive at Slavoj Zizek's "sublime object of ideology." But we haven't time to pursue such avenues of speculation here.

  49. The scientific authority that Mesmerism gave to Romantic speculations on the relation of the individual mind to a sublime source of vital power seems absurd to us now, and the order of sublimity it authorized appears to be strictly ideological, an order of culture, history, or political economy rather than of divine interfusion. Be that as it may, Mesmerism provided poets like Coleridge and Wordsworth with one of their most important figures for describing sublime experiences, a master-metaphor of flow interrupted or blocked, accumulating a charge of emotional energy to be subsequently released or discharged in "a state of enjoyment." Given the prominence of "joy" and "love" in the Mesmeric paradigm informing the Romantic Sublime of Wordsworth and Coleridge, we should not be surprised to find less a Burkean than a Freudian "terror" at work in the "blockages" associated with it: anxiety, "perplexity," "dread," ennui, "dejection," all the characteristic symptoms of neurotic repression that the methods of Mesmer and his followers were designed to cure by means of an overabundant flow of "animal magnetism," the ethereal fluid of life and love. The experience of release from such blockages in the moment of "crisis" resembles what Burke calls "delight," "the removal or moderation of pain" (33), a "relative pleasure" (34) which accompanies the experience of sublime terror. But for the major Romantic poets, this "delight" seldom occurs in the immediate presence of the standard terrifying repertoire of vast, overtly threatening objects, but rather at moments when the vital magnetic fluids of empathy and universal harmony that have been checked or "blocked" in their courses by the discontents of civilization are later--often inexplicably, "spontaneously"--released. Our modern attention to overt terror, to explicit violence and fear, in Romantic accounts of the Sublime has blinded us to the more subtle, and subconscious, articulation of the experience as it is deployed, in much of the major poetry, not only along the vertical axis of present transcendence, but along the distended and discontinuous horizontal axis of time and memory. Mesmerism can provide us with the primitive ideological instruments to observe this deployment, and to understand something of its logic.


1 . As early as 1661, von Helmont, in De magnetium vulneratum curatione, had identified magnetism as a universal and occult curative power, and in 1679, Maxwell had posited a magnetic "spiritus vitalis" in his De medicina magnetica, "the legitimate precursor of Mesmer's doctrine of the 'universal fluid'" (Tinterow, xii). back  

2. The influence of Mesmerism on Coleridge has been remarked at least since 1910, when Lane Cooper's essay on the subject was first delivered in lecture form, and it has since been addressed by Lowes, Beer (Coleridge the Visionary and Coleridge's Poetic Intelligence), Coburn (Inquiring Spirit, p. 417, and Collected Works, 1.59n and 14.96n6), and Burwick. Cooper suggested that Wordsworth, too, was probably indirectly affected (93-95), and Beer went on to explore Wordsworth's reception of Coleridge's mesmeric ideas more fully in Wordsworth in Time (54-71). Mesmerism's influence on Shelley was first addressed by Carl Grabo in 1936, and more recently by P. M. S. Dawson and Nigel Leask. back  

3. Antedating Tatar, H. W. Piper (99-102) worked such speculations into his account of the "active universe" informing the English Romanticists' idea of the Imagination. back

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---. Wordsworth in Time. London: Faber & Faber, 1979.

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---, ed. The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Princeton: Princeton U.P., 1961-90.


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---. "Wordsworth and The Prelude: The Problematics of Feeling." Studies in Romanticism 31.2 (1992): 233-53.


---. "Coleridge on Emotion: Experience into Theory," The Wordsworth Circle 22.1 (1991): 35-39.


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