This introduction discusses a variety of difficulties in the study of "attention," focusing on the Romantic period in Britain as a particularly undisciplined and unruly moment when, despite various attempts to discipline it, attention oscillated from medicine to pedagogy, from philosophy to science, and from politics to poetics. 1798 emerges as a pivotal year for this crisis—when Alexander Crichton first diagnoses attention's maladies, when Wordsworth laments the "savage torpor" in the minds of his readers, and when the British government amps up demands that every civilian keep watch for invasion. This confluence of concerns about attention sets the stage for a Romantic poetics that, following William Cowper, finds in the act of reading both absorption and loss, attention and lapse. William Blake's poem "The Shepherd" exemplifies how the Romantic poetics of attention criticizes the militarization of attention and pastoral power, while also introducing gentler, alternatives modes of keeping watch.
This chapter explores how eighteenth-century philosophers and rhetoricians imagined people paying (or not paying) attention as they read, focusing on Joseph Priestley's idea that serious subjects should not be represented in verse, since it "shews double attention." But the phrase "double attention" appeared in these years in both military texts and in poetic ones, and not only indicating weakness. Romantic poetics re-appropriates Priestley's complaint: from Wordsworth and Coleridge's theories of meter to Blake's poetic practice, these poets embraced a model of double attention in which division is a strength. In Blake's writing, aesthetic and political modes of observation merge in uncomfortable ways. In contrast to "Satan's Watch Fiends," Blake's figures for state surveillance, Blake demands of his reader an attention that is both passive and multiple, divided not only between text and image, but also among competing grammars and syntaxes, and multiple ways of reading minute punctuation marks.
This chapter investigates attention's affective shapes, focusing on how attention's unusual relationship to terror and fear shifted as controversies about political alarmism emerged in the 1790s. Cowper's "The Needless Alarm" and Coleridge's "Fears in Solitude" worry in verse the unexpected proximity between alarmism and poetry. Both poems consider what Cowper calls "the sounds of war," pushing apart the gap between sound and sense in order to consider the relation between poetic language and the "empty sounds" of propaganda and alarmism. But whereas Cowper imagines the poet's own widening attention as fearless, Coleridge finds the simple act of attention inextricable from alarm. And whereas Cowper's poem finds hope in a mode of listening to sound without thinking of it as the sound of something, Coleridge's poem, itself more difficult to read, instead registers satirically the frightening impossibility of reading without suspicion.
This chapter focuses on a story De Quincey tells about Wordsworth, who, when he put his ear to the ground to listen for the arrival of the newspaper, looked up and noticed that a new perception arrives only when the "organs of attention" relax from an attentive brace. Investigating how Wordsworth's verse formally manages, deflects, and distracts the reader's attention, the chapter rereads "There Was a Boy" to articulate a poetics of the interval that promises perception through and at the moment of lapse. De Quincey's own interest in the military order to "Attend!" make clear the wartime stakes of this phenomenological insight. And reading The Prelude in light of this phenomenological insight reveals how, when Wordsworth tries to witness the French Revolution, he only gains a sense of history in the intervals between two states of heightened attention.
This chapter finds in Charlotte Smith's final prospect poem, Beachy Head, a preoccupation with figures of keeping watch, including a geological watchfulness that undermines the wartime logic of natural enmity by suggesting that England and France were once one indistinguishable land mass. Smith's poem borrows from scientific observation to cultivate an attention to the slight sounds that "just tell that something living is abroad." Juxtaposing poetic, military, and scientific practices of observation, Beachy Head presents a landscape teeming with both sounds and listeners overlapping and intertwining, emptying alarms to create an archive of outdated modes of attention. Moving from horizon to the ground, from the prospect view to a more and more minute observation, Smith depicts a heightened and yet divided attention that she also demands of her reader, who must likewise move between the poetic text and its unfolding footnotes.
This chapter considers the postwar pains of paying attention to another's pain. Exemplifying an unconventional tradition from the early Romantics to Walter Benjamin that understands attention as weakening rather than strengthening the cognitive subject, Keats's Hyperion poems explore the experience of paying attention to violence and the violence of just paying attention. Putting Keats's fragments in the context of both the fragmented sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles and Charles Bell's descriptions of soldiers wounded at Waterloo with amputated limbs, Keats's fragments emerge as meditations on the strange overlap between paying attention to another's suffering and paying attention to art. In contrast to the theory of sympathy posited by Adam Smith, for whom attention is only a preliminary step to a fuller sympathy grounded in narrative, Keats's fragments resist the fullness of narrative and find satisfaction instead in the simple act of paying attention.
The afterword turns from Keats's attitude reading about war in Milton—saying "so it is"—to Simone Weil, who is preoccupied with a "decreative" model of attention as retreat and passivity, as not taking sides, and whose interpretation of The Iliad finds Homer remarkable in his ability also to represent war without taking sides. Weil's 1939 essay, The Iliad, or the Poem of Force, suggests what a literary criticism of mere attention might look like, since Weil described her methodology as just looking, anticipating recent rejections of critique and suspicion in interpretation. For Weil, attention should be radically impersonal, as it is in Emily Dickinson's 1863 "Four Trees," a poem about the minimal action of noticing the overlooked background of a landscape, and the white space behind poems. Noticing something else during war is the slight but crucial shift invited by the Romantic poetics of attention, and its afterlife.