Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Emotion recollected in tranquility"

The above quote is from Wordsworth, from the preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800). A fuller quote is that a poem, though a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings," nevertheless "takes its origin from emotions recollected in tranquility." I was reminded of Wordsworth's words by a piece in the March 11 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, about the relationship between the critic Kenneth Tynan and C.S. Lewis, who had been Tynan's don at Oxford from 1945 until 1948. Though the two men shared very different sensibilities, Tynan had always esteemed Lewis, and, in the 1960s, when Tynan produced a television program on the arts, he seems to have induced Lewis to appear on a program entitled "Eros in the Arts." Footage of the interview of Lewis by Wayland Young (who had written a book entitled Eros Denied: Sex in Western Society, "which came to be seen as something of a manifesto for a permissive society") has not survived, but there is a transcript, a portion of which was reproduced in the TLS piece.

Wayland asked Lewis whether literature could not have as one of its "intentions" "the arousing of thoughts of lust." Quoting Lionel Trilling, Young asked whether one of literature's functions was "to arouse desire" and whether there could be any grounds "for saying sexual pleasure should not be among the objects of desire which literature presents to us along with heroism, virtue, peace, death, food, wisdom, God etc." Trilling's comment appeared in his own essay on Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, originally published in Britain in 1958.

Lewis disagreed with Young "about stimulating other things," and went on to say that he didn't think literature was "operating as literature when it is simply and directly stimulating these emotions in a practical way." And, then, referring to Wordsworth's definition of poetry, he said that "there are some things which can't very well be recollected in tranquility." Later, speaking of pornographic writing, he criticized the "appalling solemnity" of descriptions of sexual acts. "The Greeks," he said, knew that the goddess of love was the laughter-loving goddess, and this is what seems to be entirely crushed out by, what I would call, our modern aphroditology, if I might coin this nasty word, the serious worship of Aphrodite." One is always impressed by Lewis' insights. Of course, he wrote the seminal work on mediveal love poetry, The Allegory of Love. (I couldn't find an image of Lewis as a young man; he is always portrayed in his don period. Thus, the lovely photograph at the top of a monument to Lewis, in Belfast.)

The interview also made me reflect a little bit more on Bodmer's ideas on poetry. One of the predominant aims of poetry is to delight with its imitations, which appeal to the imagination, indeed to the passions. Unlike historians, whose aim is to instruct us and who thus use rather prosaic language, Bodmer, influenced by Longinus' treatise on the sublime, thought that poets should make use of striking, bold imagery, thereby producing surprise and delight. Indeed, referring to Longinus -- "the design of the poetical image is enthrallment" (§15) -- he writes that poetry has as its purpose "to astonish and awe us."

Bodmer, however, is not recommending the stimulation of emotions for "practical" effect. If we are reading a thrilling battle scene, e.g., in Homer, we are not to go out and get in a fight or even join up for war. (The latter would be an aim of rhetoric, which is to "convince.") He doesn't use Wordsworth's phrase, but he is getting at the same thing. The powerful emotion we may feel from a poem or another piece of literature is only the basic stage of our reaction; it should be followed by reflection on the causes of our feeling and of the situation the poet is describing. In the end, the effect should be one of "edifying delight" (erbauliches Ergetzen).

Wordsworth was encouraging poets to lay aside conventional poetic and rhetorical language and to search their hearts for the right expression. Bodmer also thought that poets should write "from the heart" and from experience, but he his conception of experience was one mediated by the writings of the best poets. Thus, if you wanted to learn about the emotions, indeed, if you wanted to find out how you "should" feel about things, your best guide would be writers like Ovid or Homer. Feelings had not yet been "naturalized" this early in the 18th century. That ordinary people had feelings and that these should become subjects of artistic representation were new concepts, and a vocabulary had to be invented to write about them. Part of the process was the "dialogue" between individuals and the natural world, as numerous poets took walks (or imaginative ones) in the countryside and explored their reaction to nature. Poetry on sublime subjects (the starry skies above) expressed awe; graveyard poetry allowed one to feel melancholy; and so on.

Still, until Wordsworth (and indeed long after), most of this "experiential" poetry was heavily mediated by other poetry. A good example is to be found in Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. When Werther falls in love with Lotte, his favorite reading material is Homer's Odyssey: his favorite scene is the return of the hero to hearth and home. (Tischbein, painter of the iconic portrait of Goethe, executed the above painting of that sentimental scene.) When he is depressed and becoming suicidal, he reads Ossian, in which the scenes of gloom and doom foreshadow his own end.

Picture credits: John Mooney; I Like Nice Life


Afshin said...

Thank you for writing this. I read this again for Sunday amidst a queue of other political blogs and it was enough to pull me away from monotonous diatribes and take time to enjoy my heart's expansive state.

Anonymous said...

For some reason Schiller comes to mind here--Kaufmann's discussion of his influence on the young Hegel. Schiller's "discovery" that the ancient Greek feeling for nature, unspoiled by modernity's various and sundry abstractions...this direct encounter with LIFE and LIVING could be experienced once again in its purity. One need not be "locked inside of self." There is access to phenomena unspoiled by analysis. The Greeks were still "alive" as it were and "present." I thought of Jacob Klein's reminiscence of the epiphany of Heidegger's seminar on Aristotle: one could actually "dialogue" with Aristotle! One need not be isolated, unable to really "know" anything intimately. Schiller and Company started it.

Anonymous said...

This morning, by the merest chance, I read "emotion recollected in tranquility," a poem by Emily Dickinson which speaks to emotion informed by a capacious Biblical and scientific and cerebral-symbolic sensibility:
The birds began at four o'clock---*
Their period for dawn---
A music as numerous as space
And measureless as noon.

I could not count their force,
Their voices did expend
As brook by brook bestows itself
To magnify the pond.

Their witnesses were not,
Except occasional man
In homely industry arrayed
To overtake the morn.

Nor was it for applause
That I could ascertain,
But independent ecstasy
Of Deity and Men.

By six the flood had done,
No tumult there had been
Of dressing or departure,
Yet all the band was gone.

The sun engrossed the east,
The day controlled the world,
The miracle that introduced
Forgotten as fulfilled.