Despite its title, Noel Jackson’s Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry is less a book about Romantic-era “science” in any historically or disciplinarily specific sense than it is a book about how “sensation”—a category capacious enough, Jackson demonstrates, to subsume his title’s first half—enables canonical Romantic poetry’s visions of political change, of historical being, and of aesthetic receptivity. To implicate “sensation” in Romanticism’s overlapping articulations of these three entities is also, as Jackson does, to refute “new historicist” (81) characterizations of Romantic poetry as “ahistorical, and hence most deeply ideological” (3) as a function of that poetry’s interest in human interiority or, more precisely, its interest in the status of external objects as ineluctably perceived. Jackson’s book reads most strongly as a defense of sensation not as a scientific but as a critical faculty, whose force resides in what Jackson designates “the embodied basis of Romantic thought” (3). It is the “embodied character of aesthetic response” (6) or “embodied aesthetic experience” (7) that, for Jackson, repudiates any reflexive alignment of Romantic interiority and history’s sublimation into ideology; as Jackson writes in a trenchant rebuttal of the latter premise, “what is most obviously overlooked in the identification of inwardness with historical occlusion is an understanding of the historicity of inwardness itself” (104 – 105).
While Jackson’s book contains brief, fascinating accounts of the resonance of electricity as a figure for political contagion, or of Keats’s interest in the distinction between motor and sensory nerves, it is Jackson’s broader qualification of Romantic sensation as “embodied” that propels his argument for its critical deployment in poetry. His book’s first chapter argues for the trope of “suggestion” (26)—a trope, Jackson shows, mutually embroiled in the discourses of empiricist cognition and political excitement—as “a model for the capacity of the individual mind or of the artwork to register, give form to, and modify the sensible impressions of history” (27). Jackson links “history”—and, more to the point, history’s susceptibility to “modif[ication]”—to a regime of sensory “impression” whose materiality distills rather than dissimulates the influence of the social, a linkage that gains most traction in his second chapter, which claims that both Wordsworth and Blake theorize “affective history” (64) through worldly history’s mutually sensational and ideational revivification in poetry. Jackson’s proposition that “Blake regards historical transformation as dependent at least in part upon a correspondent transformation in the senses” (93) constitutes his most unassailable defense of a logic of political causality that, for Blake, is directly attributable to the organization of a citizen-reader’s perceptual apparatus. But Jackson’s reading of Wordsworth’s effort, in places like The Prelude’s Book 2, to replace bare-boned empiricism like Condillac’s with “an account more richly sensitive to the influences of habit and feeling” (73) offers an equally suggestive and persuasive argument for Wordsworth’s own “understanding of the self as historical from its inception” (75).
Jackson argues that the discourse of Romantic sensation entails “an account of how we have come to feel and to know in the way we do, and how, with the aid of poetry itself, these states too might change” (99). But how does Wordsworth’s—or, insofar as Wordsworth stands in for “the normative claims often associated with canonical Romantic poetry” (16), how does canonical Romanticism’s—alignment of embodied perception with an historical self define that self’s capacity to effect “change?” Or, differently put, what kind of change does such a self effect? Jackson’s third chapter offers a nuanced defense of Coleridge’s immersion in a practice of interiorizing self-experiment that, elaborated by philosophers like Thomas Reid as an extension of Lockean empiricism from the field of epistemology into that of moral practice, defines this exercise not as the scaffolding of a solipsistic or “imperial” (122) consciousness but rather as “a meditation . . . that structures consciousness and marks it as always-already social in the first place” (120). Jackson effectively divests Romantic consciousness of the “transcendent” (122) pretenses assigned it by new historicist critics to instead read Coleridge’s “poems as questioning the notion that consciousness is truly private at all, and thus as imaginative reflections on the conditions for creating alternative forms of community” (125). Yet Jackson does not broach the question of what kinds of “alternative forms” are precipitated by Coleridge’s poetry, or indeed why Coleridge’s representation of consciousness as an always social entity would “thus” precipitate such imaginings in the first place. (Hobbesian consciousness, for example, is also not “truly private,” but it does not facilitate alternative political visions.) How does Jackson’s convincing argument for Romantic interiority as an inescapably social aptitude implicate, and leave implicit, his case for the investment of Romantic poetry in political change?
Jackson’s fourth and fifth chapters provide some answers to this question, largely because here the content of the political—that is, what counts as “political” in the poetry of Wordsworth and Keats, respectively—becomes reducible to the terms of the twentieth-century indictment of Romanticism, and of interiority tout court, launched by new historicist and Foucauldian critics. In Chapter 4, on the figure of Wordsworth as a poet-physician, Jackson argues for the centrality of “consentaneousness”—a word coined by Samuel Richardson in Clarissa—as a Romantic “principle of aesthetic representation” (147) that fuses soul and body. The term is used by Clarissa in her early, mistaken appreciation of the consonance of Lovelace’s corporeal and spiritual faculties; but Jackson’s suggestion that consentaneousness is “necessary” for Richardsonian “social regulation” (147) belies Richardson’s ultimate refusal of any corporealized modality of masculine virtue, especially as perceived from the vantage of unmarried women. Wordsworth, Jackson argues, takes as “an explicit theme” of such poems as “The Leech-Gatherer” “an elevated imaginative conception that partially subverts itself, disclosing in the process the literal truth about the man [the leech-gatherer]” (158), a “tension . . . in Marx’s terms, . . . [between] his ‘abstract, artificial’ capacity or . . . his ‘sensuous, individual, and immediate existence’” (158 – 59). Like the Romantic aesthetic itself, Wordsworth’s poetry, for Jackson, is about the “tension” between abstraction and embodiment that occupies Karl Marx’s discussion of the commodity form, Michel Foucault’s treatment of disciplinary power, Pierre Bourdieu’s equation of aesthetic dispassion and economic dominance, and the new historicist ascription of ideological force to Romantic consciousness. In Chapter 5, Jackson undertakes a series of supple, textured analyses of Keats—perhaps the book’s best readings—to claim “[t]he division between the sensuous and abstract dimensions of the poet’s life and work [as] a recurrent and explicit theme of Keats’s early poetry” (175); later in his career, Keats is preoccupied by “the literary commodity as an object whose sensuous and abstract qualities are embodied in a contradictory, oppositional relationship” (188). We thus find as the political or thematic content of Romantic poetry a replication of the terms of that poetry’s contemporary critique.
The qualifier “embodied” serves as Jackson’s most abbreviated and intensely distilled retort to Romanticism’s new historicist critics. From Jackson’s introduction onward, the word serves as shorthand for his book’s other coordinates, namely “history,” “politics,” and “aesthetics” (“science” drops out so entirely as a through line that it is not mentioned in the book’s conclusion). In perhaps Jackson’s most explicit formulation of how his terms constitute each other, he writes that “the language of embodied aesthetic experience marks a path back into ‘history’ through the articulation of its sensuous content” (14). For Jackson, then, “the historicity of Romanticism’s central categories of embodied response” (14) resides in the fact that they are embodied. Embodiment, in Jackson’s book, is not an analog for history, the political, or the aesthetic; it is, as Jackson’s readings make clear, itself what substantiates them.
The blurring of terms, or the near tautology, engendered by the reducibility of Jackson’s keywords to one cognate might proceed from the strenuousness of Jackson’s engagement with critics of so-called Romantic ideology or idealism (Jackson recurs most consistently to Marjorie Levinson, Alan Liu, Jerome McGann, Bourdieu on the distantiation of Kantian aesthetic judgment, and Foucauldian critics of disciplinary interiority like Clifford Siskin). Jackson’s book reads most satisfyingly as a sustained confrontation with these interlocutors, as when he crisply frames his reappraisal of the social function of sensibility in Wordsworth: “I want to resist the assumption that the normative content of feeling was self-evident in the first place, its materiality easily subsumable under abstract laws of social consensus” (148). But a major impediment to Jackson’s refusal to align Romantic interiority and “normative content” is the fact that Jackson himself takes for granted the new historicist equation of ideology or ahistoricism with immateriality. Jackson’s own defense of “embodied aesthetic response” (8, 14) assumes the critical or transformative potential of this entity while the reactionary proclivities of immateriality or abstraction are reciprocally taken for granted. Although Edmund Burke and Condillac briefly appear as exponents of conservative or ahistorical materialism, they do not disturb Jackson’s overriding devaluation of abstraction. Thus while Jackson resonantly aspires “to provide an alternative to a mode of diagnostic reading that makes extraordinarily problematic all attempts to get beyond it” (136), he disputes the results of the new historicist diagnosis without displacing its core presumptions. Ultimately, for Jackson, Wordsworth “inaugurates a dialectical conception of aesthetic response” that “accommodate[s] bodily sensation within reflective mental activity” (200). Jackson deploys the modifier “dialectical” not, it seems, to invoke a Hegelian process of unfolding but rather to inoculate Romantic aesthetics against the ideological troubles inherent in any unadulterated apparition of the “mental.” When Jackson writes, tantalizingly, that “Keats sees the condition for the relief of abstraction in the direction of an intensified abstraction, and not generally in a sentimentalized or nostalgic return to a lost sensuous immediacy” (189), he offers a possibly revitalized or revalued articulation of immateriality only as the antidote to an “abstraction” whose political valences he has already ceded to Romanticism’s new historicist critics.
In conjunction with Theodor Adorno’s aesthetic theory, Jackson offers the provocative and subtle qualification of a Romantic aesthetic that “provides . . . the conditions for making ‘critical’ consciousness itself” and that “indicate[s] the possibility for radically transforming” (131) habitual modes of aesthetic consumption. Yet there is little change in resolution between the intimation of this “radically transforming” aesthetic agency and the claims Jackson makes for the political effectiveness of any given author or poem. From Coleridge’s “Frost at Midnight,” Jackson concludes that “[f]ar from effecting an aestheticized flight from politics, Coleridge’s literary experiments seek rather to reconceive the aesthetic as a basis for imagining profoundly altered conditions for judgment and for communities based on the same” (107). Yet how the form of the poem, or the historical conditions of its production, or the aesthetic at issue, might compel further specification of “altered . . . communities” remains unaddressed. Jackson rarely discusses how Romantic poems induce sensation in their readers; he dedicates little attention to the bodies of the poems themselves. He concludes that Wordsworth’s visions of poetry’s therapeutic function “reflect profoundly on the fraught relationship between the sensuous identity of individuals and the abstractions constitutive of community, thereby complicating both forms of ideology critique” (136). But here too, it is not clear how the act of “complicating” is further determined by the poem’s historical or political environment. Jackson thus assigns “politics”—or, the prospect of a revised basis for “community”—the level of resolution it occupies in our most polarizing recapitulation of Romanticism’s new historicist critique.
Jackson does not make concrete reference to ambient political events or aspirations (the American and French revolutions surface only in passing), but some kind of specification seems imminent when he defends his choice not to examine “more purposeful instances of non-consent to the assimilative law of feeling” (161). He proceeds: “An equally instructive counter-example might be sought in women’s poetry of the period, much of which, as critics have lately taught us, refuses the hierarchization of mental faculties and thus often stages an oppositional relationship to masculinist constructions of feelings. As I have aimed here solely to shed light on the ambivalently integrative work of feeling, however, such instances must lie outside the scope of the present chapter” (161). Yet Jackson’s exclusive focus on the “ambivalently integrative” project of the canonical Romantics would seem to demand some refinement of the mandate for social change implicit in such a project, if only to differentiate it from the aims of other, extra-canonical Romantic texts that are, apparently, more squarely “oppositional.” The triage operation implicit in Jackson’s disclaimer seems symptomatic, for he grants “women’s poetry” a resistance to abstraction—as Jackson writes in his introduction, an “irreducible particularity” (16)—that correlates with its oppositionality. Surely this is the very collapse of metaphysics and political content that Jackson, by refusing the reflexively ideological tendencies of Romantic interiority, would wish to upset. And if the disclaimer holds, then one might wonder whether Jackson can have his cake and eat it—that is, make claims for the radically transformative capacities of canonical Romanticism while isolating “women’s poetry” in some extra- or super-radical margin.
Jackson concludes his book by marshalling Romanticism in the name of “the radical political potential of high culture to undermine the ideological positions attributed to it” (220). This recapitulation of his argument marks a shift from the concretely “political,” so to speak, to the meta-critical capacities of Romantic poetry. Indeed, Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry reads most compellingly as a defense—whose motivation in and by Romanticism Jackson persuasively establishes—of “aesthetic experience as a category of critical analysis” (220). Jackson’s reiteration of his book’s premise thus marks not a narrowing or deflection of its focus but, instead, an intensification of his claim for its achievement that throws into relief the significance of his recuperation of the category of Romantic sensation as the crucial term in an inescapably critical—or at least never rotely “ideological”—modality of aesthetic production and response. The importance of this recovery—for our understanding of sensation’s irreducibility to the terms of new historicist or Foucauldian diagnosis, as well as for our awareness of the critical immanence of Romantic aesthetics—is profound, both as a recasting of the political tendencies of Romanticism and an insistence on the powers of the aesthetic consciousness that Romanticism inaugurates.
Helen Thompson is Associate Professor of English at Northwestern University.