Sensibility

If science enabled some poetry of the period — Pope's Windsor-Forest, for example — to celebrate the powers of nation, empire, and commerce in looking outward and conquering the world in the same way that Newton had conquered the theoretical universe, it also allowed the development of what has been called the "cult" of sensibility, a notion closely allied with the sentimental mode. By midcentury a form of poetry had emerged that looked inward — often prompted by the beauty of nature and accompanied by moral philosophizing — and attended self-consciously to the poet's own mental processes. Young, Thomson, Akenside, Finch, Gray, Warton, Charlotte Smith, and many more embraced the possibilities of this more lyrical mode. "Cult," however, is a misleading term for the extremely popular idea that sensitive people were so partly because of their upper-class lifestyle and partly because of their innately refined physiology: G. J. Barker-Benfield's term "culture of sensibility" is a more accurate description of this wide-ranging phenomenon (1992).

In fact, it was the "nerve" medicine of the New Science, in which surgeons had begun to investigate the specific realities of the dissected human body, that produced an appreciation of the nervous system as the transmitter of sensations to the human mind. Thomas Willis had argued that the only seat of the human soul was the brain, a discovery which then forced people to recognize the importance of the nerves — envisaged in the eighteenth-century as vibrating wires, strings on a musical instrument, or even hair. These were potent metaphors in the literature of the period, as Akenside demonstrates when talking of the poet's calling in The Pleasures of Imagination: like Memnon's quiveringly responsive harp-strings, "the finer organs of the mind" are attuned by nature so that an external stimulus "Thrills thro' imagination's tender frame, / From nerve to nerve" (ll. 109ff., in Fairer and Gerrard 1999: 310). Healthy nerves would have the correct amount of "spring"; but if the body were to be abused through high living or mental distress, then the nerves could become "relaxed," and disorder of both body and mind could result. The sufferer was not "relaxed" in our sense, however, but hypersensitive to external stimuli, closely allying the twin states of pleasure and pain. Naturally, poets were considered a sensitive race and so especially prone to states of melancholy, anxiety, and "spleen." The old idea of poets suffering for their art was given a new scientific rationale by eighteenth-century nerve science, leading directly to the image of the Romantic poet (Lawlor and Suzuki 2003: ix, xvii).

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