Session 4D: Romanticism and the New Psychology I

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4D. Romanticism and the New Psychology I

Special Session: Alan Richardson (Boston College)
Alan Richardson (Boston College): "Romanticism and the New Psychology, Then and Now"
David Miall (Alberta): "Reading Nature: Coleridge's Kinaesthetic Landscapes"
Beth Lau (California State-Long Beach): "Wordsworth, Memory and Cognitive Neuroscience"
Cynthia Whissell (Laurentian): "Dimensions of Linguistic and Emotional Style: Computerized Analysis of the Prototypical Romantic Poets"

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Reading Nature: Coleridge's Kinaesthetic Landscapes
David S. Miall
University of Alberta

In Nature all things are individual; but a Word is but an arb[itrary Character] for a whole Class of Things; so that the same description may in almost all cas[es be applied] to twenty different appearances. (Coleridge, Letters, I, 503)

Coleridge here suggests the deficiency of words for landscape description, in one of his letters from the Harz Mountains in 1799. In this paper I review Coleridge's evocations of landscape in his letters and notebooks. I trace Coleridge's development of a vocabulary adequate to the singularities (Stafford 1981) of what he saw, and locate this within Coleridge's understanding of the kinaesthetic foundations of perception and language. This continues an approach I suggested in October (Miall 1998), where I contrasted Coleridge's writing with the contemporary fashion for the picturesque. My argument is made in three phases.

First, as McKusick (1996) has recently pointed out, Coleridge develops a uniquely inventive vocabulary for responding to nature. In his account of Scottish landscape in 1803, for example, words such as "Twistures," "bulgy," "touchingly," "Embracement," or "scurvily," evoke bodily and affective processes whose effects tend to colour the surrounding descriptions, locating them within fields of energy and movement that are only partly sensed. In their resistance to completion they contrast with the aura of suggestion favoured by picturesque writers. For Gilpin, for example, "the grey obscurity of a summer-evening" on the Wye is an incentive to the imagination, "which often composes landscapes, perhaps more beautiful, if the imagination be well-stored, than any that can be found in Nature herself" (Gilpin, 64). Where Gilpin completes a landscape in imagination, it is to arrive at that arrest or repose that tends to characterize the picturesque: its energies are balanced and contained, and the observer is detached from what he sees. Coleridge's descriptions, in contrast, often bring an unsettling sense of process into the foreground, through repeated small shocks and defamiliarizations, relocating the observer affectively in complicity with the energies of nature.

Second, the immediacy of Coleridge's language for nature, whether from the Harz in 1799, on the Lakeland Fells in 1802, or in Scotland in 1803, depends on a set of phonetic and figurative resources that represent embodied forms of feeling. Coleridge's writings in this respect can be analysed for their iconic value as sound structures (e.g., Pinker & Birdsong, 1979), and in the light of the bodily metaphors (Johnston, 1987) they contain. As Richardson (1999) has pointed out, in Coleridge's lifelong meditations on psychological issues such as dreaming, the body is often configured as an expressive medium of thought and feeling, speaking to us in its own voice.

Third, the implication of such affective energies can be related to the laws of emotion sketched by Fridja (1988). Frijda's "Law of Conservation of Emotional Momentum" and "Law of Closure," suggest an underlying persistance of affect that makes the objects he describes singularities, resistant to integration with the landscape as a whole (especially after Coleridge looks elsewhere, or has walked on). At the same time, the "Law of Concern," which points to the underlying role of self-reference in an emotion, signals the resonance of Coleridge's concerns (usually inexplicit) with what he sees. In a larger perspective, Coleridge's writings show how a correspondence between natural and human processes is possible at the bodily and affective level, a way of reading the self in nature that we might consider ecological.

Frijda, Nico F. "The Laws of Emotion." American Psychologist, 43 (1988): 349-358.

Gilpin, William. Observations on the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales, &c. Relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty: Made in the summer of the year 1770, 5th Ed. London: T. Cadell and W. Davies, 1800.

Johnson, Mark. The Body in the Mind: The Bodily Basis of Meaning, Imagination, and Reason. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

Miall, David S. Beyond the Picturesque: An Affective Poetics of Coleridge's Landscapes. Paper presented to the American Conference on Romanticism, University of California at Santa Barbara, October 16-18 1998.

Pinker, Steven, and David Birdsong. "Speaker's Sensitivity to Rules of Frozen Word Order." Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 18 (1979): 497-508.

Richardson, Alan. "Coleridge and the Dream of an Embodied Mind." Romanticism, forthcoming (1999).

Stafford, Barbara Maria. "Toward Romantic Landscape Perception: Illustrated Travels and the Rise of 'Singularity' as an Aesthetic Category." Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 10 (1981): 17-75.

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell


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