Skip to main content

EN333 Poetry and Emotion

Professor Emma Mason

EN333 is a Pathway Approved Option for Theory, and a Distributional Requirement for the English Literature Pathway.


This module explores the idea and expression of emotion in poetry and poetics from 1780 to the present. It is framed by two debates current in literary criticism.

The first is the status of 'lyric' poetry: is lyric a quality, category, or aesthetic ideal of poetry? How do poets translate everyday experience into the lyric? What are the material conditions that shape the lyric from William Wordsworth's reading of poetry as feeling to Jennifer Moxley's definition of the 'poet's emotional signature'?

The module's second frame is the 'affective turn', a phrase used in literary criticism, philosophy, history, geography and cultural studies to describe a renewed interest in how affect and emotion help us understand experience, being and society. The module explores the ambivalent relationship between literary criticism and affect: are sentiment and emotion key to reading, or do they threaten to eclipse the discipline and rigour of literary critical thinking?


Poets are studied in four units, tracing poetry and emotion through (1) Romanticism; (2) Nineteenth-century affect; (3) The modern lyric; (4) The lyric and late capitalism.

The syllabus is online here: poems are provided either by the library's course extracts service; or linked to online texts on the syllabus page. Critical reading is provided through course extracts. Hard copies will be available at the start of term: you must bring the reading to seminars either in print, on your computer or a tablet (please do not bring the material to seminars on your mobile phone/phablet).

Is this module for you?

This module requires extensive reading of essays on poetics and theoretical approaches to affect, as well as a series of poems, every week. It is not a straightforward close reading module, and is dependent on your willingness to engage in the philosophy and history of the emotions, as well as critical and theoretical debates on the lyric and anti-lyric.

For more information, read this blog entry I wrote about the module for the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary; go here for a summary of recent scholarship on the emotions; and here (PDF Document) for a basic, but useful, overview of poetry that sets it in the terms this module addresses.


Students may take this module as either (A) 100% assessed [2 x 5000 word essays]; or (C) 50% assessed and 50% examined [1 x 5000 word essay + 2 hour exam].

'I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind.' - William Wordsworth, 1802 ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads

'The poet’s emotional signature is retained in the poem. Aristotle, in his bipartite model of the soul, places the emotions under the obedient, illogical part, reason with command and logic. Yet both parts are cognitive and partake in the logos. Thought is the efficient cause of emotion. This is why a poem’s intelligence is more moving than its heart.' - Jennifer Moxley, 'Fragments of a Broken Poetics' (2010)