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Introduction to the module


The purpose of this module is to provide a space for thinking about how and why individual poems express emotion. As readers, we can do this by thinking and writing about:

(1) how poetry expresses and articulates emotion, both formally (in specific kinds of language, prosody and rhythm), and thematically (in describing our experiences of love, friendship, mourning, anxiety, religion, nature)

(2) how poets use poetry to both express and reserve their own emotions, or those of a narrator

(3) how critics writing about poetry have approached the question of communicating this expression in essay form

(4) how we as modern readers understand emotion through our reading of poetry, that is: the different methods individual poets employ to provoke or achieve an emotional response in the reader


What does emotion mean?

‘Emotion’ derives from the Latin emovere, which means ‘to move’ or ‘move out’. The word ‘feeling’ refers to any subjective reaction or state, whereas the word ‘emotion’ describes the process of emitting these feelings. When people ‘emote’ they portray or express a feeling. Poems themselves (obviously) don’t feel, but they do emote. As the critic Barbara Hardy argues The Advantage of Lyric (1977):

‘The advantage of lyric in itself is its concentrated and patterned expression of feeling. This advantage is negatively definable: the lyric does not provide an explanation, judgement or narrative; what it does provide is feeling, alone, and without histories or characters’

And here’s Leo Tolstoy, writing in What is Art (1960):

‘‘‘What is art?” What a question! “Art is [that by which] the spectators or auditors are infected by the feelings which the author has felt [ . . . ] To evoke in oneself a feeling one has experienced, and having evoked it in oneself, then, by means of movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words, so to transmit that feeling that others may experience the same feeling - this is the activity of art.’


Historical definitions of emotion

‘Emotion’ is initially used in the sixteenth century to describe both a physical feeling of being stirred or moved, and also a political feeling of being socially agitated into action. The word then develops in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to refer more specifically to disturbances in the mind caused by excitement or passion (as distinguished from disturbances in the mind caused by thoughts or cognition).

However, during the eighteenth century, many philosophers, like John Locke and David Hartley, began to question the apparent divide between ‘cognition’ (the experience of having a thought) and ‘feelings’ (the experience of having an emotion). This question provoked a debate critics are still arguing about: do we experience emotion in our bodies or our brains? For eighteenth-century thinkers, the idea that everyone could feel made the debate about emotion a political and democratizing one. Against this, ideas like ‘sensibility’ - that is, refined feeling associated with virtue and sensitivity - were regarded as defining a way of feeling only men and women of taste and of a certain (middle-aristocratic) class might experience. The labouring classes, by contrast, were associated with coarse emotion, often referred to as ‘enthusiasm.’

The Romantic poets reformulated the question of emotion once again, suggesting that historical conditions like industralization, war, poverty and capitalism were blocking the experience of ‘authentic’ feeling, and that people needed to be re-taught how to have emotions again. Poets like Wordsworth argued that poetry teaches us how to feel: he claimed in his long poem, The Prelude, that his poetic project was committed to assessing to what extent ‘words can give, / A substance and a life to what I feel’ (Book XI, ll.340-41). In other words, how does poetry put into words the emotional content of life? And how does poetry re-connect us with this emotional content when we feel divorced or alienated from our experience of emotions?


What we study on the module

In this module, you’re very welcome to explore the above historical debates about how definitions of emotion shift and change from the sixteenth to the twenty-first century. However, seminars will be focused on how individual poets and poems answer Wordsworth’s questions. So the focus of the module is poetry itself; but our discussions of individual poems will always be underpinned by the following questions:

1. Why do readers make the assumption that there is a connection between poetry and feeling? Why, in The Republic, does Plato even complain that poetry has a negative moral influence on us is because it appeals to our emotions, rather than our ‘higher’ reason?

2. How does poetry express and articulate emotion, both formally (in specific kinds of poetic language and rhythm), and thematically (in describing our experiences of love, friendship, mourning, religion, nature)?

3. How has the question of communicating this expression been addressed in essay form (both in essays by literary critics of poetry, and prose work by poets)?

4. How do we as 'modern' readers understand emotion through our reading of poetry?