At the Surface of Romantic Interiority: Joanna Baillie’s Orra
This essay examines Joanna Baillie’s 1812 play, Orra, in order to interrogate the longstanding opposition between personification and romantic interiority. Since Wordsworth, the personified abstraction has been considered anathema to romantic conceptions of passionate or lyrical interiority. Drawing on recent critical discussions of the close relationship between passion, personification, and personhood, I suggest that Baillie’s play represents deep interiority via the most un-Wordsworthian figure imaginable: personified passion. In so doing, she employs a seemingly archaic, extravagant figure in order to stage the deep, unknowable interiors which are the ostensible hallmark of the modern individual.
Ever since Wordsworth disparaged it in his 1802 “Appendix” to the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, personification has been understood as entirely antithetical to romanticism’s celebration of passionate or lyrical interiority. One might even suggest that a particular conception of romantic interiority is constituted in opposition to the extravagance and ostentation of allegorical personification. Consider Wordsworth’s famous distinction between the “earliest Poets,” who “wrote from passion excited by real events” and produced language that was “daring” and “figurative,” and the later “men ambitious of the fame of Poets,” who, “without having the same animating passion” as the earlier poets, “set themselves to a mechanical adoption” of “figures of speech” (“Appendix” 90). Encapsulated in this sparse narrative is a story, oft-remarked by critics, about the fraught relationship between passionate interiority and personification. Wordsworth’s ambivalence about personification is well known, best captured in his comment that his readers “will find that personifications of abstract ideas rarely occur in these volumes” (“Appendix” 74). Implicitly aligning personification with an archaic and externalizing mode of expression that is to be replaced by a modern and internalizing mode such as the lyric, Wordsworth, in the words of one critic, “launched a revolution in poetry by identifying personification with the old regime,” such that in his wake, “literary historians center their own tale of primitivism and progress on the figure,” turning to personification “to establish their own modernity,” and “repeatedly defining this modernity against a primitive confusion of persons and things” (Keenleyside 447).
Personification has long been understood to be anathema not only to modernity, but also to what Andrea Henderson has referred to as the “depth model of subjectivity” that has dominated critical discussions of romantic poetry ever since, perhaps, Wordsworth (2). Critics “have long argued,” suggests Henderson, “that one of the defining features and enduring legacies of Romantic writing is its characterization of the self in terms of psychological depth” (1). Although critics have considered “conceptions of the self that do not involve a notion of depth,” she contends that “the tendency to link Romanticism with psychological depth remains” (2). Henderson proceeds in her study to explore various articulations of subjectivity in the period that do not rely on a conception of depth. Working in a similar vein to complicate certain commonplaces of romantic criticism, I examine one of Joanna Baillie’s plays from her series of Plays on the Passions in order to revisit the longstanding assumption that personification is antithetical to romantic interiority. I will argue that Baillie’s Orra represents deep interiority via the most un-Wordsworthian figure imaginable: personified passion. Whereas other critics such as Henderson have considered modes of subjectivity in the romantic period that take surfaces rather than depths as their predicate, my focus is on the ways in which Baillie’s Orra stages the deep, unknowable interiors which are the ostensible hallmark of the modern individual subject by way of a seemingly archaic and extravagant figure such as the personified abstraction.
Like many of her early nineteenth-century contemporaries, Baillie is driven by her desire to see into the hearts and minds of others, to lift off, for example, the “roof of [the prisoner’s] dungeon” the night before he is condemned to death, in order to witness him in his “hours of privacy, when all that disguise is removed which is imposed by respect for the opinion of others” (“Introductory Discourse” 2). The “Introductory Discourse” to the 1798 Plays on the Passions contains other figurations of interiority, many of which take the form of this kind of structure in which passion is deeply buried and thus completely obscured. One of the most interesting tensions in Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse” is between the tendency to fetishize inaccessible passion, on the one hand, and the drive to root it out, on the other. First and foremost, Baillie is a moralist who inherits the values of the broad-based stoic revival of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Her primary goal is to effect the discipline of passion via its taxonomic organization, a process which facilitates the conditions under which passion may be carefully studied and thereby moderated, if not completely stamped out. In its development of a grammar of passion, each of Baillie’s Plays on the Passions offers up a particular case of passion in extremis, and is preoccupied with the presentation of the hero or heroine in the throes of a specific passional impulse. “I know of no series of plays,” writes Baillie, “in any language, expressly descriptive of the different passions; and I believe there are few plays existing, in which the display of one strong passion is the chief business of the drama, so written that they could properly make part of such a series” (“Introductory Discourse” 17-18).
In addition to her brother, the physician Matthew Baillie, and her maternal uncles, the famous eighteenth century anatomists William and John Hunter, the greatest influence on Baillie is undoubtedly Adam Smith and his moral treatise, The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Like Smith, Baillie is interested in developing a theory of human sympathy: “From that strong sympathy which most creatures, but the human above all, feel for others of their kind, nothing has become so much an object of man’s curiosity as man himself” (“Introductory Discourse” 1). Invoking the same lurid image of the man on the rack that opens Smith’s text, Baillie asserts that “in examining others we know ourselves.” “With limbs untorn,” she continues, “with head unsmitten, with senses unimpaired by despair, we know what we ourselves might have been on the rack, on the scaffold, and in the most afflicting circumstances of distress” (“Introductory Discourse” 4). The scene of public execution functions for both Smith and Baillie as a limit case of human sympathy. Smith deploys this particular figure, for instance, in order to illustrate the potential for the gathering of sympathetic spectators to devolve into an unwieldy and passionate mob. This is the problem in response to which he develops his well-known theory of the sympathetic imagination, embodied by the disinterested, impartial spectator. Baillie differs from Smith, however, in her attention to an eminently curious – even obsessed – spectator. There is absolutely nothing impartial about Baillie’s spectator. “If man is an object of so much attention to man, engaged in the ordinary occurrences of life,” Baillie insists, “how much more does he excite our curiosity and interest when placed in extraordinary situations of difficulty and distress?” (“Introductory Discourse” 2). Invoking a version of that age-old expression, “misery loves company,” Baillie concludes that there is “no employment which the human mind will with so much avidity pursue, as the discovery of concealed passion,” and the “tracing [of] the varieties and progress of a perturbed soul” (“Introductory Discourse” 3).
Baillie is careful to explain that although the operations of what she calls “sympathetic curiosity” kick in when one observes another “under the violent agitations of passion,” they are perhaps even more engaged when confronted with “the smallest indications of an unquiet mind, the restless eye, the muttering lip, the half-checked exclamation and the hasty start,” any signs of which “will set our attention as anxiously upon the watch, as the first distant flashes of a gathering storm” (“Introductory Discourse” 3-4). The influence of Baillie’s familiarity with the medical science of the day is felt in her careful attention to the growth of the passions, which, she argues, “must be depicted not only with their bold and prominent features, but also with those minute and delicate traits which distinguish them in an infant, growing, and repressed state” (“Introductory Discourse” 15). Baillie understands the passions as potentially pathological, akin to diseases requiring diagnosis and treatment, as Frederick Burwick has argued. Baillie’s “insistence,” he suggests, “that drama should address the power of emotions to dictate behavior and to compel the overwrought individual to acts of irrational excess” means that she “enters into the very same province of aberrational psychology that Matthew Baillie had begun to explore in his 1794 lectures on the nervous system” (51). Like her brother, Baillie also “seeks to ground her analysis of behavior on empirical observation, and to identify the symptoms which foreshadow an impending emotional crisis” (51). Similarly, Alan Richardson has observed that, “By the early 1820s basic tenets of the new biological psychologies had been widely disseminated throughout Britain by the phrenology movement and by the materialist-vitalist debates sparked by the notorious lectures of William Lawrence,” and that Baillie’s brother “brought key notions from the new corporeal psychologies” into his lectures (132). Richardson contends that it is “hardly surprising,” then, “to find a number of correspondences” between Baillie’s ideas and “the emergent biological psychologies of the time” (132). For Baillie, the close observer of “some great explosion of passion” will always be interested to return to first causes, so that “if we are at all acquainted with the unhappy perpetrator, how minutely shall we endeavour to remember every circumstance of his past behaviour!” She continues: “And with what avidity shall we seize upon every recollected word or gesture, that is in the smallest degree indicative of the supposed state of his mind, at the time when they took place” (“Introductory Discourse” 3). Much like the clinician who attempts to construct a narrative to explain disease pathology, Baillie’s observer reads back from the “explosion of passion” to some originating moment or cause.
Passion has a complex relationship both to individuals, and to that index of individuality: interiority. “Feelings,” argues Adela Pinch, “often seem to have lives of their own in eighteenth-century writing.” “Not always lodged within the private, inner lives of individual persons,” she continues, “they rather circulate among persons as somewhat autonomous substances. They frequently seem as impersonal, and contagious, as viruses, visiting the breasts of men and women the way diseases visit the body” (1). Baillie tends to present us, for instance, with highly mediated passional encounters, primarily because of the unpredictable and autonomous nature of passion:
Let us understand, from observation or report, that any person harbours in his breast, concealed from the world’s eye, some powerful rankling passion of what kind soever it may be, we shall observe every word, every motion, every look, even the distant gait of such a man, with a constancy and attention bestowed upon no other. Nay, should we meet with him unexpectedly on our way, a feeling will pass across our minds as though we found ourselves in the neighbourhood of some secret and fearful thing. If invisible, would we not follow him into his lonely haunts, into his closet, into the midnight silence of his chamber? There is, perhaps, no employment which the human mind will with so much avidity pursue, as the discovery of concealed passion, as the tracing the varieties and progress of a perturbed soul.
“Introductory Discourse” 3
The “discovery of concealed passion” is clearly a rather dodgy affair. Represented as resolutely interior, passion is available for observation only by way of its various effects. Passion qua passion is unobservable, and so it is instead “every word, every motion, every look, even the distant gait” to which the discerning observer of passion must direct his or her gaze. This particular approach to the study of passion is complicated, however, by the fact that an encounter occurs – more often than not – “unexpectedly.” There remains, moreover, something strangely tractable about the observer who is surprised by passion: “a feeling will pass across our minds as though we found ourselves in the neighbourhood of some secret and fearful thing.” So much for Baillie’s intrepid observer-subject, who “pursues” the “varieties and progress of a perturbed soul” with a single-minded “avidity.” Rather, the observer who finds him or herself in the neighbourhood of passion may be more pursued than pursuing. Worse, Baillie’s observer is pursued by “some secret and fearful thing.” As Pinch suggests, “our insatiable desire to find out feelings converts the whole man into a walking embodiment of what he harbors” (3). The line, that is, between the individual who possesses particular passions and the individual who is herself possessed by passion is often difficult to discern.
That the individual is besieged – not enabled – by passion is further evident in Baillie’s figuration of a “tempest” that “rages out its time and passes away”:
We cannot, it is true, amidst its wild uproar, listen to the voice of reason, and save ourselves from destruction; but we can foresee its coming, we can mark its rising signs, we can know the situations that will most expose us to its rage, and we can shelter our heads from the coming blast....Above all, looking back to the first rise, and tracing the progress of passion, points out to us those stages where he might have been combated most successfully; and where the suffering him to pass may be considered as occasioning all the misery that ensues.
“Introductory Discourse” 11
Here we have a decided figure of exteriority: a tempest. For all of the attempts to peer surreptitiously into the closet or chamber, what we see is something that comes at us full-force from without. Passion thus possesses a rather ambiguous ontology: buried deep within the breast, concealed from the world one moment, it rages and blasts its way toward unsuspecting and unsheltered heads the next. In Baillie’s hands, passion both is and isn’t a property of individuals. Her description, for instance, of a feeling that “pass[es] across our minds as though we found ourselves in the neighbourhood of some secret and fearful thing” suggests that passion does not necessarily belong to the purview of the individual, nor, for that matter, the human. The individual human subject, rather, is traversed by and subject to “some secret and fearful thing” that it can never know nor call its own.
Passion sits at the limit of what constitutes the individual or human. This can be explained in part by its inextricable relationship to personification, a figure which – as we will see with Orra – is not always or necessarily compatible with individuality. Turning things into persons, personification was the locus of much ambivalence in the eighteenth century because of its potential reversibility: the possibility that persons could become abstractions or things as easily as things became persons. Personification, according to Frances Ferguson, “in its simplest form fails to recognize the difficulty of comprehending humanness” (Wordsworth 27). The ontological instability that distinguishes both passion and personification has the potential to inflect, moreover, the realm of personhood. “Passions,” argues Pinch, “often act like persons.” Moreover, because passions “are transsubjective entities that pass between persons,” it sometimes seems as though “it is passion that allows us to be persons, rather than the other way around” (19). Passion has, thus, a positively firm grasp on the individual human subject, but a rather shaky grasp of it.
The eponymous heroine of Joanna Baillie’s 1812 play, Orra, follows the trajectory of many of her gothic predecessors. Like most of Baillie’s tragedies, the play is set in an appropriately far-flung time and place, in this case, Switzerland “toward the end of the 14th century” (Orra 235). Orra is an heiress who refuses to marry the fatuous son, Glottenbal, of her guardian, Count Hughobert. Disciplined, finally, for teasing her maladroit suitor, Orra is subject to the machinations of the malevolent Rudigere, who prevails upon Hughobert to mete out an appropriate punishment. Secretly wanting Orra for himself, Rudigere removes her to a haunted, ancestral castle, where he hopes that her preternatural interest in ghosts will flourish. Unable to restrain her passion for being spooked, Orra requests at every opportunity to hear stories “of the restless dead” (1.2.237). Indeed, Orra quite openly admits that “there is a joy in fear” (4.3.254), especially as she pleads with her attendant, Cathrina, to tell her the story of a murderous ancestor whose victim’s ghost haunts the castle where Orra is essentially imprisoned. While thus ensconced, her susceptibility to fear already heightened, Orra receives a midnight visit from Theobald, her favoured suitor, who has come to rescue her from the hands of the lascivious Rudigere. Disguised as the murder victim, Theobald appears in Orra’s chamber; thinking he is a ghost, however, she thwarts his heroics. The stage directions indicate that, upon seeing him, Orra promptly “utters a loud shriek, and falls senseless to the ground” (4.3.254). Her senses remaining distracted for the remainder of the play, by its end she is unable to distinguish between the living and the dead. As Sean Carney has observed, “Orra’s passion makes her literally corpse-like, and her fear arises from a pathetic connection with the dead, a horrid sense of community that invades her body and overwhelms rational thought” (239). Mistaking the group of sympathetic spectators who surround her in the final scene for the undead, she “shrinks” from them in fear, while uttering the last lines of the play:
The living and the dead, together are
In horrid neighbourship...
Back, back! – They close upon us. – Oh! The void
Of hollow unball’d sockets staring grimly,
And lipless jaws that move and clatter round us
In mockery of speech! – Back, back, I say!
Baillie’s play constitutes fairly standard narrative fare by the early nineteenth century, and easily falls in with the kind of literature about which Wordsworth despairs when he remarks the ubiquity of “frantic novels [and] sickly and stupid German tragedies” in the “Preface to Lyrical Ballads” (128). Like many of the gothic heroines that precede her, Orra is punished for her ungoverned passion – as well as her transgression of social norms in her refusal to marry – with a descent into hysterical madness.
Because Baillie understands her theatre as a kind of laboratory, and the concomitant study of passion as a vaguely scientific enterprise, it is crucial that her audience be able to mark the progress of Orra’s passion. In the “Preface” to the third volume of Plays on the Passions, Baillie describes the difficulties she faced in depicting Orra’s passion:
If I am right, then, in believing this impression of the mind [fear] to be so universal, I shall not be afraid of having so far infringed on the dignity of my heroine, as to make her an improper object to excite dramatic interest. Those, I believe, who possess strong imagination, quick fancy, and keen feeling, are most easily affected by this species of Fear: I have, therefore, made Orra a lively, cheerful, buoyant character, when not immediately under its influence; and even extracting from her superstitious propensity a kind of wild enjoyment, which tempts her to nourish and cultivate the enemy that destroys her. The catastrophe is such as Fear, I understand, does more commonly produce than any other passion.
“Preface” to Third Volume of Plays on the Passions 229
Baillie’s play goes to great lengths to differentiate Orra from her fear, the character from the personification, and can only accomplish this with some rather exaggerated movements. Beset by terror one moment, and cheerfully buoyant the next, Orra fluctuates rapidly between affective states; we are to understand the fleeting nature of her fear, therefore, as a sign that she is not entirely under its dominion. As such, the audience is supposed to be able to observe Orra moving in and out of her encounters with fear, recovering fully after each episode. In a scene in which Cathrina remarks the change in Orra’s countenance – from her “shrunk and sharpen’d features” which are of the “corse’s colour” upon hearing the former tell her a ghost story, to a “cheerful animation” – Orra’s dark mood leaves as quickly as it came on. Orra extols the passing of the “fearful gloom,” and claims to “feel as if [she] breath’d the morning air.” Cathrina offers to fetch some “cordial drops,” but Orra tells her the drops are unnecessary, and that she is feeling “bold and buoyant,” as, we are told, she “bound[s] lightly from the floor” (4.2.253). Though such transitions in Orra’s mood seem rather abrupt, they serve to demonstrate the extent to which, prior to becoming a full-blown personification, her mortifying encounters with fear occur as visitations.
Before she sees the ghost, moreover, Orra’s predilection for fear, the delight she takes in being spooked, is what marks her as an unique individual, and makes her different from other characters. Rudigere, attempting to convince Hughobert that he has the power to persuade Orra to marry Glottenbal (though he secretly wants Orra for himself), points to her propensity for being spooked, the thing that makes her Orra, as the key to their getting what they want. Declaring that he “cannot force” Orra, “a noble maid entrusted to [his] care,” to marry against her will, Hughobert is countered by Rudigere, who suggests that “there are means / To make her yield consent.” Ordered to “speak plainly,” Rudigere confesses that he has “watch’d her long,” and “seen her cheek,” previously “flush’d with the rosy glow,” suddenly become “deadly pale” at the “tale of nightly sprite or apparition.” Claiming to have “marked her long,” he concludes that “with all her shrewdness” and “playful merriment,” Orra has also “a gloomy fancy” that “broods within itself on fearful things” (1.3.240). Anyone else, Rudigere suggests, upon hearing a ghost story, will respond “with greedy ears,” but then “forget as quickly.” Orra, however, lingers over such stories. The thing that makes Orra characteristic or unique, her fear of ghosts, is precisely what will come in the end to usurp her very individuality.
After she sees the supposed ghost of the hunter-kinsman, fear takes up permanent residence in Orra’s mind. In her raving and senseless state, Orra is unable to distinguish between the living and the dead; upon being discovered by her family and friends, “her hair and dress disordered, and the appearance of wild distraction in her gait and countenance,” she “shrinks” from them in horror, misrecognizing the bunch for the undead (5.2.257). Mistaking Theobald for a dead soldier, Orra turns to him and cries,
Orra (To THEOBALD.) What is thy name, young soldier? / – Woe is me! / For prayers of grace are said o’er dying men, / Yet they have laid thy clay in unblest earth – / Shame! shame! not with the still’d and holy dead. / This shall be rectified; I’ll find it out; / And masses shall be said for thy repose; / Thou shalt not troop with these.
Eleanora [wife to Hughobert]. ‘Tis not the dead, ‘tis Theobald himself, / Alive and well, who standeth by thy side.
Orra (looking wildly round). Where, where? All / dreadful things are near me, round me, / Beneath my feet and in the loaded air. / Let him begone! The place is horrible! / Baneful to flesh and blood. – The dreadful blast! / Their hounds now yell below i’ the centre gulph; / They may not rise again till solemn bells / Have giv’n the stroke that severs night from morn.
Eleanora. O rave not thus! Dost thou not know us, / Orra?
Orra (hastily). Ay, well enough I know ye.
Urston [a confessor]. Ha! think ye that she does?
Eleanora. It is a terrible smile of recognition, / If such it be.
Hartman [friend to Theobald]. Nay, do not thus your restless eye-balls / move, / But look upon us steadily, sweet Orra.
Orra. Away! your faces waver to and fro; / I’ll know you better in your winding-sheets, / When the moon shines upon you.
Theobald. Give o’er, my friends; you see it is in vain; / Her mind within itself holds a dark world / Of dismal phantasies and horrid forms! / Contend with her no more.
Orra’s inability to distinguish between the living and the dead is symptomatic of a larger incapacity to differentiate herself from the objects of her fear; thoroughly identified with the ghosts that function as such, Orra has become her objects. In a similar vein, Carney has suggested that Orra’s “terror” is “the price of a failure to fully differentiate herself from the objects of her sympathy” (239). In her pre-saturated state, Orra is in possession of a psychic interiority that the play attempts to represent via the differentiated, if jerky, movement between moments of affliction and recovery. As a full-blown personification, by contrast, unable to differentiate herself from the objects of her fear because she is Fear, distinctions of all kinds begin to dissolve. Totally saturated, the interiority that was the mark of her individuality is no longer legible, because it has been flattened, or emptied out. The inextricable and unstable connection between passion, persons, and personification is figured here in Orra, whose passion renders her a personification, an impersonation of Fear. As Keenleyside observes, the “predilection for personification” in the eighteenth century “reveals modernity to be marked less by the clear distinction between persons and things than by the persistent instability of these terms” (448).
III. Personification and the Sublime
Orra is punished for her ungoverned passion with a descent into madness. Senses completely overborne, her ordeal bears some relation to that ne plus ultra of aesthetic experience: the sublime. Of the two major eighteenth-century trajectories of the sublime – Burkean and Kantian – Baillie’s orientation would appear to be closer to the former, given the centrality of affect in the Burkean model, and its related vocabulary of pleasure, pain, terror, and power. “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger,” writes Burke in his famous definition of the sublime, “whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling” (39). Orra’s experience of fear accords quite well with Burke’s logic of sublime terror, and even more so, perhaps, with his explication of fear itself: “No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.” Like the passion of “astonishment,” fear produces a situation in which “the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it” (57). An apt description of what happens to Orra, the Baillean sublime is most at home in a Burkean register, not least because of the thrilling pleasure – the “joy” – that at least initially tinges Orra’s fear. Attributing to the ghost an undue power – especially given that it is a fake ghost, and not even a convincing one at that – Orra’s sublime encounter fails to satisfy the Burkean criteria on one score only: there is nothing particularly “obscure” about the sight of Theobald in disguise.
One version of the sublime, argues Steven Knapp, is that which “depends on mistaking things, and thus on a lack of fit between the mind and its objects,” as when “one gives an object too much or the wrong kind of power” (“The Sublime” 1007). This move is implicit in Kant’s “dynamical sublime,” a moment in which “sublimity derives from the delightful terror we feel when we imagine ourselves threatened by some natural danger – provided, of course, that we are not really threatened but are in fact secure” (1008). “If we were really in danger,” continues Knapp, “the thought of resisting nature’s power would degenerate into simple fear” (1008). Therein lies a key difference between the Kantian sublime and Burke’s affect-driven account, in which terror “robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning.” Orra, for her part, sincerely believes that she is in real danger. The dynamical sublime, Knapp contends, “depends on two representational moves.” The first involves “pretend[ing] to resist an imaginary threat,” and the second, crucial move entails “interpret[ing] this pretended resistance as the sign of an utterly different kind of power” (1008). This other power, the exalted moment in which the mind (mis)recognizes in nature a reflection of its own preternatural strength, represents a step beyond the kind of impasse that besets Orra. Never advancing beyond what Neil Hertz has referred to as the “blockage” of the faculties, Orra’s experience, subjected to the more stringent Kantian criteria, appears truncated, or incomplete.
Orra’s confrontation with an object that exceeds the processing powers of her faculties produces a total fusion of her mind with its object, and a concomitant descent into madness, understood as an inability to distinguish reality from unreality. Unlike the exemplary Wordsworthian sublime, which – however variously interpreted – generally involves a recuperation of imagination and mind on the other side of blockage, Orra’s transport produces a wholly different set of effects. As we know, Orra is distinguished by a rather violent and excessive curiosity; never tiring of hearing stories about the undead, she would appear to stand as an exception to the rule of curiosity, at least as Burke understands it in his discussion of “Novelty.” “By curiosity,” he argues, “I mean whatever desire we have for, or whatever pleasure we take in novelty.” “Curiosity,” he continues,
from its nature is a very active principle; it quickly runs over the greatest part of its objects, and soon exhausts the variety which is commonly to be met in nature; the same things make frequent returns, and they return with less and less of any agreeable effect. In short, the occurrences of life, by the time we come to know it a little, would be incapable of affecting the mind with any other sensations than those of loathing and weariness, if many things were not adapted to affect the mind by means of other powers besides novelty in them, and of other passions besides curiosity in ourselves.
In Burke’s description, curiosity is a passion that “soon exhausts the variety which is commonly to be met in nature,” such that “the same things make frequent returns” but “with less and less of any agreeable effect.” Orra’s curiosity, by contrast, is heightened significantly by the “frequent returns” of the same object. Indeed, her delight is arguably increased by the sheer repetition of those “stories of the restless dead.” Titillated even more by the anticipation of what is to come, she stands in contradistinction to Burke’s curious individual, for whom “the occurrences of life,” known even “a little,” are “incapable of affecting the mind with any other sensations than those of loathing and weariness.” This is not the case, as we have seen, for Baillie’s heroine. Though the details of the ghostly tales may change, their forms remain the same; in the hair-raising familiarity of their patterns, moreover, Orra finds her greatest “joy.”
For the contemporary critic of the romantic period, Orra’s violent and repeated curiosity for the same object of experience will stand in a striking relation to the speaker of The Prelude, who famously experiences the crossing of the Alps as disappointing and underwhelming. Whereas Orra’s fear is heightened by the repetition of the same stimulus, Wordsworth’s speaker, by contrast, discovers that he has crossed the Alps – the supreme experience of sublimity – without even realizing it. Unlike Orra, the speaker of The Prelude possesses defences against the sublime. If the sublime by definition involves an experience that exceeds the synthesizing powers of the imagination, or involves the individual coming into contact with otherness in some form (human, natural, supernatural), it ultimately entails – at least in its Wordsworthian instantiation – a return to the individual subject. Discussing the Simplon pass episode in The Prelude, Thomas Weiskel argues that “The Imagination as it is defined dramatically in the Simplon sequence is the poet’s ultimate defense, the final foundation of his individuality” (203). Without diminishing the degree of differentiation both within Wordsworth’s representation of the imagination, and among various critical treatments of it, we might suggest that for Wordsworth it is via the imagination that a return to the individual, on the other side of the sublime, is possible. The emphasis of the Wordsworthian sublime falls, that is, on the recuperative, restorative moment beyond blockage that reasserts the power of imagination, and the interiority of the individual subject who embodies it.
For Wordsworth’s speaker, the sublime is an occasion for individuation. Orra, by contrast, is worked over by something that is not individual. The fact that Orra begins as a character who possesses a particular passion, and subsequently becomes a personification of passion as such, draws into focus what Ferguson calls the “anxiety” about “the relationship between the individual and the type” that characterizes eighteenth century aesthetics and epistemology (Solitude 31). Passion and personification are terms that sit uneasily, as Pinch has argued, alongside categories such as the individual or interiority. I suggest that Orra’s stint as a personification dramatizes this unease rather clearly. In more general terms, Baillie’s use of personification should remind us that the association between romanticism and lyric interiority is in part an effect of modern critics and modern criticism, and a tradition that has grown up around the idea of a “turn inward” at the turn of the nineteenth century. My point is not to argue that Baillie escapes this trend so much as to remark her un-Wordsworthian deployment of what I would call “extravagant interiority” in the figure of Orra. No more transparent nor accessible than that which is shrouded in murky depths, Orra figures a paradoxical interiority, one involving a saturation of, or an emptying out of, inwardness. The “‘egotistical sublime’ of The Prelude,” argues Henderson, “still serves as a touchstone for Romanticism as a whole” (2). Characterized by firm distinctions between inner mind and outer world, the egotistical sublime, or the Wordsworthian imagination more generally, is frequently aligned with what Adam Potkay has recently called “the Romantic trope of the mind’s sovereignty over the empirical world” (396). Baillie’s Orra is a potent reminder of the ways in which that cherished sovereignty is frequently undone by the very forces that prop it up.
Julie Murray is Associate Professor of English at Carleton University, Ottawa. Her articles have been published in ELH, Eighteenth-Century Studies, Eighteenth-Century Fiction, and European Romantic Review. She is currently working on a book about romanticism, governance, and individuality.
My interest here intersects with broader critical re-evaluations of the association of romanticism with psychological depth. In addition to Henderson, I am thinking of the work of Deidre Lynch on “the social construction of qualities such as interiority or literariness” (9) in the context of the “rise” of the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. See The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning.
For the relationship of Baillie’s theory of sympathy and the passions to the work of Matthew Baillie and the medical science of her day, see Alan Richardson’s “A Neural Theatre: Joanna Baillie’s ‘Plays on the Passions,’” and Frederick Burwick’s “Joanna Baillie, Matthew Baillie, and the Pathology of the Passions.”
On the concept of “sympathetic curiosity in Baillie’s “Introductory Discourse,” see Julie Murray, “Governing Economic Man: Joanna Baillie’s Theatre of Utility,” Aileen Forbes, “‘Sympathetic Curiosity’ In Joanna Baillie’s Theater of the Passions,” and Barbara Judson, “‘Sympathetic Curiosity’: The Theater of Joanna Baillie.”
I will cite from Orra by including the act, scene and page number. The 1853 edition of the Dramatic and Poetical Works, from which I cite, includes no line numbers.
Carney suggests that Orra is very much concerned with “the violation of boundaries,” such as that between “life and death,” and “past and present” (241).
See William Jewett’s Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency, 141-43, for a discussion of agency and impersonation. In her discussion of the play, Julie Carlson argues that the play’s “emphasis on Orra’s spectral features – her felt neighborship with the dead, desire to shrink, permeated ego – sets the stage for the presentation of a subject who can take responsibility for actions that are in her blood but not of her making” (“Orra: Shrinking in Fear” 216).
This is the title of a book by Steven Knapp, Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge.
Given Burke’s contention that “obscurity seems in general to be necessary” in order “to make any thing very terrible,” we might suggest that Orra remains haunted by the possibility that it lies closer to farce than tragedy (58).
See Neil Hertz, The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime.
Unlike the Kantian sublime, in which imagination sacrifices itself to reason – with the latter functioning as the faculty that surpasses the sensorium of nature in order to contemplate thought not bound by structures of representation – the Wordsworthian account maintains the priority of imagination in all phases of the sublime. See Theresa Kelley’s “Wordsworth, Kant, and the Romantic Sublime” for a discussion of the differences between the Kantian and Wordsworthian sublime.
For criticism on Wordsworth, the sublime, and the books of The Prelude dealing with the crossing of the Alps, see Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime, and Geoffrey Hartman, Wordsworth’s Poetry. In contrast to Orra’s violent and repeated curiosity for what amounts to the same object of experience, the speaker in ThePrelude is famously disappointed to discover that he has crossed the Alps without even realizing it:
Hard of belief, we questioned him again,
And all answers which the man returned
To our inquiries, in their sense and substance
Translated by the feelings which we had,
Ended in this, – that we had crossed the Alps.
Baillie, Joanna. The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie. 2nd Ed. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1853.
Baillie, Joanna. “Preface to Third Volume of Plays on the Passions.” The Dramatic and Poetical Works of Joanna Baillie. 228-35.
Burroughs, Catherine. Closet Stages: Joanna Baillie and the Theater Theory of British Romantic Women Writers. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.
Burroughs, Catherine, ed. Women in British Romantic Theatre: Drama, Performance, Society, 1790-1840. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000.
Burwick, Frederick. “Joanna Baillie, Matthew Baillie, and the Pathology of the Passions.” Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays. Ed. Thomas C. Crochunis. 48-68.
Carlson, Julie. In The Theatre of Romanticism: Coleridge, Nationalism, Women. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. DOI:10.1017/CBO9780511553448
Carlson, Julie. “Baillie’s Orra: Shrinking in Fear.” Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays. Ed. Thomas C. Crochunis. 206-220.
Carney, Sean. “The Passion of Joanna Baillie: Playwright as Martyr.” Theatre Journal 52 (2000): 227-52. DOI:10.1353/tj.2000.0038
Crochunis, Thomas, ed. Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays. London and New York: Routledge, 2004.
Ferguson, Frances. Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation. New York: Routledge, 1992.
Forbes, Aileen. “‘Sympathetic Curiosity’ in Joanna Baillie’s Theater of the Passions.” European Romantic Review 14:1 (2003): 31-48. DOI:10.1080/10509580303673
Henderson, Andrea. Romantic Identities: Varieties of Subjectivity, 1774-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.
Hertz, Neil. The End of the Line: Essays on Psychoanalysis and the Sublime. New York: Columbia UP, 1985.
Jewett, William. Fatal Autonomy: Romantic Drama and the Rhetoric of Agency. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1997.
Judson, Barbara. “‘Sympathetic Curiosity’: The Theater of Joanna Baillie.” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 25:1 (Spring 2006): 49-70.
Keenleyside, Heather. “Personification for the People: On James Thomson’s The Seasons.” ELH 76 (2009): 447-72. DOI:10.1353/elh.0.0044
Kelley, Theresa. “Wordsworth, Kant, and the Romantic Sublime.” Philological Quarterly 63.1 (1984): 130-40.
Knapp, Steven. Personification and the Sublime: Milton to Coleridge. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1985.
Knapp, Steven. “The Sublime, Self-Reference, and Wordsworth’s Resolution and Independence.” MLN 99.5 (1984): 1007-22. DOI:10.2307/2905397
Lynch, Deidre Shauna. The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.
Murray, Julie. “Governing Economic Man: Joanna Baillie’s Theatre of Utility.” ELH 70 (2003): 1043-65. DOI:10.1353/elh.2004.0008
Owen, W.J.B., and Jane Worthington Smyser, eds. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.
Paxson, James J. The Poetics of Personification. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. DOI:10.1017/CBO9780511552830
Pinch, Adela. Strange Fits of Passion: Epistemologies of Emotion, Hume to Austen. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1998.
Potkay, Adam. “Wordsworth and the Ethics of Things.” PMLA 123.2 (2008): 390-404. DOI:10.1632/pmla.2008.123.2.390
Richardson, Alan. “A Neural Theatre: Joanna Baillie’s ‘Plays on the Passions.’” Joanna Baillie, Romantic Dramatist: Critical Essays. Ed. Thomas C. Crochunis. 130-45.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Eds. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie. Oxford: Clarendon, 1976.
Wasserman, Earl. “The Inherent Values of Eighteenth-Century Personification.” PMLA 65 (1950): 435-63. DOI:10.2307/459649
Wordsworth, William. “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. W.J.B. Owen. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974.
Wordsworth, William. “Appendix: Poetic Diction.” The Prose Works of William Wordsworth. Ed. W.J.B. Owen. Vol. 1. Oxford: Clarendon, 1974. 160-65.