Poetic Form and Romantic Provocation
Carmen Faye Mathes



Provocation’s Means

LOOKING BACK ON ROMANTICISM’S poetic experiments, it is easy enough to discover results: elegiac sonnets, lyrical ballads and lyrical tales; gothic “mother Radcliff” poems and spring odes; political sonnets and “songs wholly political.”1 Romantic poets do not want for taxonomic ingenuity, and these categories foreground hybridity and novelty; influences from genres historical and contemporary: forms of expressiveness adapted from speech and prose and song. Revolutionary poetry ends up looking less like the radically new and more like a complex negotiation with deeply held expectations of and attachments to particular literary experiences. Poetic Form and Romantic Provocation explores the aesthetic and affective dynamics that characterize these relations of expectation and experience by tracing the anticipatory arcs along which poets, readers and critics engaged with experimental genres and forms. Such anticipations, their disruption and oftentimes their loss, index the critical refusal of Romantic poets to elicit or reflect back to readers what Raymond Williams called dominant “structures of feeling,” including and especially sympathy.2 Provocation names the means of this refusal, because that term encapsulates the unconventional goads poets use to create aesthetic experiences that are both socially oriented and radically negative—where to be prodded or drawn out or otherwise provoked by poetry is to feel one’s interrelationship with, and exposure to, a world of impersonal affections.

Awareness of this type of provocation has hovered at the margins of more usual types for centuries. Even Samuel Johnson, from whom we have cause to expect definitiveness, is not sure how to define it. In his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson admits, “I know not whether, in the following passage” from Richard Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity (1594), “[provocation] be appeal or incitement”:

The like effects may grow in all towards their pastor, and in their pastor towards each of them, between whom there daily and interchangeably pass in the hearing of God himself, and in the presence of his holy angels, so many heavenly acclamations, exultations, provocations, and petitions.3

Given the other two definitions that Johnson notes—“An act or cause by which anger is raised,” and “An appeal to a judge”—Hooker’s use of provocation seems to have confounded Johnson by its association with a feeling of agreement so profound that it is called “love.”4 The “inviolable amity” that Hooker says develops between pastor and congregation contrasts with the overt violence and needling insistence that the illustrative quotations for Johnson’s other definitions demonstrate. While incitement (to anger) and appeal (to authority) fit those conflict-laden usages, neither alternative perfectly captures how provocations might contribute to such a passionate concord as Hooker’s example describes.

Provocation’s more congenial sense seems instead to have more in common with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in “The Nightingale, A Conversational Poem” (1798), represents as stimulation or social encouragement. In a scene where nocturnal birds “provoke” one another into sharing their songs, the poet finds himself half convinced by their vociferousness that night has turned into day:

But never elsewhere in one place I knew

So many Nightingales: and far and near

In wood and thicket over the wide grove

They answer and provoke each other’s songs—

With skirmish and capricious passagings,

And murmurs musical and swift jug jug

And one low piping sound more sweet than all—

Stirring the air with such an harmony,

That should you close your eyes, you might almost

Forget it was not day! (lines 55–64)5

Coleridge’s avian community is a “choral minstrelsy” that eases the speaker’s melancholy soul, and its inward-turning effects (“close your eyes [and imagine!]”) cannot help but recall that long-suffering view of Romanticism as a literature of nature poetry in which man finds himself (line 75). Rather than discover kinship authorized by a God who overhears each devoted utterance, the Romantic poet locates in nature the conviviality that transforms the gloomy night into boisterous day. But if the example from Hooker would throw into relief Coleridge’s poet-speaker as one who eavesdrops, Godlike, on the calls and responses of a flock that sounds concordant for his benefit, then it also highlights the strange attitude of deliberate omission that allows for this pleasing result. The counterintuitive belief that provoking others generates “harmony” no doubt contradicts many an experience of provocations unwanted or unanswered, and in Coleridge’s poem requires a listener willing to balance the desire for aesthetic coherence against the petty fights (“skirmish[es]”), goading swoops and unmusical sounds (“jug jug”) that also fill the night air.

These details, which seem most clearly to express what it is to provoke, are themselves provoking in their apparent unevenness and difference from the songs that they nevertheless encourage. By including them alongside “murmurs musical” and a “low piping sound more sweet,” Coleridge implies that the means of a provocation, if not the ends, retain something of the prodding aggravation that a sound like “jug jug” also introduces to the rhythms of a poem. Provocation’s inbuilt relationality, its drive to elicit a response, impels the sociality that is at the core of this type of poetic experience, even as it opens up the possibility of disappointment—for poets cannot be sure what will resonate with audiences, about the likelihood of prompts missed or figures misinterpreted. The impulse to provoke shares something with the impulse to make art, Coleridge suggests, because both aim to turn elements as “capricious” as birdsong and the force of air under a bird’s wings (what “jug jug” sounds like to me) into something “stirring.” And ultimately, it is this formal decision—to include onomatopoeia that is cheekily tautological, a flat note, and to call the scene “harmony”—which brings into view Romanticism as a literature not of self-confirmation but of material capture, where the synesthetic potential of sound becoming light is as much the matter of the poem as its dream of an impossible harmony.

Deceptive Cadence

This book explores Romantic poetic experiments that deliberately and strategically stir up anticipatory affects that the poems, by playing with readers’ expectations of form and genre, soon disrupt, delay or refuse. These are poems that initiate the beats they resist hitting—beats that, whether grounded in traditional versification or narrative convention, produce resolution, closure, or even, to maintain the musical metaphor, progression. Their innovations often turn that metrically regulated sense of going somewhere into negotiations with interruption and suspension along the lines of a deceptive cadence, where tension builds in the space beyond unmet anticipation and what feels never-ending is precisely the feeling of readiness for an end. In music, deceptive cadence is the composer’s formal tactic for developing intensity through suspense: an unresolved conclusion to a musical movement or phrase that compels the listener to hang on, expectant, straining her ears. It is a form of negative intensity that prompts a further compulsion to endure, strive, or as William Wordsworth writes, “struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness [sic].”6 Rather than ignore or turn away from off-putting affects, the provocations of form, in this sense, encourage exertion—asking readers to struggle with, not merely undergo, challenging feelings.

Deceptive cadence is therefore a good heuristic for the provocative forms examined here, which are purposeful and calculated artistic elements of poems that prioritize discomfort. Unlike threats (whose advent we may genuinely fear) or solicitations (which we may choose to accept or reject), provocations of this sort reveal to us our lack of perfect agency without denying that what we are experiencing is art. Indeed, the dynamics of being so moved depend on audiences’ having expected a return to the tonic or, as an example, fourteen lines in iambic pentameter. Formal provocations are different too from admonitions (to tread carefully) or rebukes (for some error) since they do not carry the weight of a moral authority whose advice or displeasure reflects our culpability, when that culpability is tied to notions of personal salvation or sin. I said at the outset that to be provoked by poetic form is to feel one’s imbrication in a world of impersonal affections, and by “impersonal” I meant not that these affections circulate unthinkingly, “like viruses,” or that they inhere in matter’s “vibrancy,” but rather that they reflect divine determinations that are, simply, not personal: not based on the will of a God who is invested in your particular path towards salvation or sin.7 This is external affective force understood to act upon all things (from rocks and birds to people), and therefore significantly different from Jane Bennett’s use of “impersonal” to differentiate “human affect” from “an affect intrinsic to forms that cannot be imagined (even ideally) as persons.”8 Although closer to what Adela Pinch figures as viral—Pinch is thinking about David Hume’s contagious feeling—the impersonal affections this book traces are more deterministic in their philosophical origins, as we shall see. Like unresolved chord progressions, formal provocations in poetry do not exist to judge our virtue or our wickedness, though their effects may be to reveal to us the limits of our habitual ways of expecting things to resolve.

The combination of negative pressure and insistent sociality through which provocative forms draw attention to themselves can have survived in the longue durée of poetry’s invention only by disrupting without letting go of pleasure. From Horace’s admission in Ars Poetica (~10 BCE) that even Homer makes mistakes to John Milton’s decision to compose Paradise Lost (1667) in blank verse at a time when rhyming couplets were de rigueur, engendering not-quite-disappointment is a poetic art that turns out to be the crucial means by which formal provocation does not end in bad taste or satire—or a satire of bad taste, which approach Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathos; or, the Art of Sinking in Poetry (1727) happily exploits.9 Provocative forms are neither separable from a poem’s content nor themselves meta-commentaries on it; rather than cultivate wit or ironic distance, they operate within the immediacy of the experiences they disrupt, riding a wave of anticipatory affects that can keep readers engaged even after a letdown. The difference from Romantic irony makes itself felt in the embodiment of rhythms and cadences that can register below the level of conscious awareness, making encountering an imperfect rhyme or an extra foot suddenly ataxic.

Ataxia, or loss of balance and coordination, describes an involuntary condition at once physical and mental, akin to the affective experience of formal provocation at the very moment of its disruption, refusal or delay. The affections to which such a loss of composure alerts us are, in addition to being impersonal, in this way also pre-personal: that is, the affections move us prior to apperception, and may thereby vex our belief that our feelings are our own. Here is where my conception of “extravagant feeling,” to borrow Pinch’s phrase, most overlaps with that of Hume, whose Treatise of Human Nature (1739–1740) casts the passions as physical forces acting upon a mind that “resembles a string-instrument, where after each stroke the vibrations still retain some sound, which gradually and insensibly decays.”10 Just as impassioned mental quivering slowly peters out, so the encounters with negative intensities that formal provocations initiate are neither permanent nor static; while they might feel vertiginous, they also can, and often do, allow time enough for readers to reorient or adjust, or even to discover pleasure anew. As Andrew Marvell, who wrote an entire poem, “On Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost” (1674), to rationalize his response to Milton’s rejection of couplets, finally concludes, “The verse created like thy theme sublime, / In number, weight, and measure, needs not rhyme” (lines 53–54).11 In his willingness to endure discomfort enough to find enjoyment, Marvell might be provocative form’s perfect audience.

Indeed, when Wordsworth complains that we are easily disappointed by poems that fail to please us “in that particular way in which we have been accustomed to be pleased,” he does so to protect the integrity of his lyrical ballads’ formal and generic innovations from the routine desires of readers who might otherwise stop reading entirely.12 The sociality of the impulse to provoke, in this instance, works against inclusivity and concord, and this puts it at odds with both Coleridge’s synthesizing imagination and models of interpersonal affections that see agreement as the natural end of sympathy. In Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), for example, the “imaginary change of situations” by which spectators place themselves in the position of a person who suffers is answered by the sufferer’s own modifications of his expressed feelings in order to invite more perfect sympathy.13 This negotiation, between the sufferer’s performance of feeling (based in part on projections about spectator expectations) and spectators’ imperfect sympathies (imperfect because an intrusive sense of the spectators’ own safety prevents them from entering completely into the vicarious experience), nevertheless works towards a form of agreement that Smith calls “harmony”: “Though they will never be unisons, they may be concords, and that is all that is wanted or required.”14 Rather than asking that sufferer and spectator spontaneously share passions, losing themselves in fellow-feeling, Smith’s theory allows for the preservation of the self-sufficiency of both, whose imaginations help them manage their responses, including their judgments about the “propriety or impropriety” of their own expressed feelings and those of other people.15 By contrast, and especially in the lyrical ballads, provocative forms often educe the limits of sympathetic identification through a sense of dissonance or rupture, upon which it is possible neither to build collective understandings nor even to ground an individual’s moral responsibility.

In Smith’s Moral Sentiments, the degree to which the sufferer and the sympathizing spectator remain autonomous, even estranged from one another, implies a model of bounded subjectivity that prior notions of the contagious affections trouble. In both Hume’s Treatise and the Third Earl of Shaftesbury’s Characteristics of Men, Matters, Opinions, Times (1711), “a distinctly unimaginative and unreflective form of sympathy” emerges through figures of communicable affections in which experiencing others’ feelings is instantaneous, forceful and embodied.16 When panic spreads in a crowd, Shaftesbury explains, “by contact or sympathy . . . looks are infectious”: “fury flies from face to face, [and] the disease is no sooner seen than caught.”17 Here sympathy is not the aim (e.g., the sufferer’s goal of eliciting fellow-feeling) but rather the means by which panic is caught.18 Agreement, as a self-consciously consensus-building process, is not the natural end of sympathy because negotiations aren’t necessary or, indeed, possible. As Miranda Burgess shows, Smith was not alone in proffering an alternative to such a disconcertingly permeable subject; Immanuel Kant also mobilizes the mediating powers of judgment and imagination in order to “reassuringly” prioritize the self’s autonomy.19 In the Third Critique (1790), Kant’s aesthetic subject presumes that because her judgment—“that is beautiful”—is disinterested, it will meet with universal accord.20 Projecting this presumption of agreement outward, onto a community of others who feel as she feels, the aesthetic subject recalls Smith’s spectator, who can sympathize even with those who do not reciprocate, like the dead.21 Yet, even as “the book or work of art itself becomes a figure for sympathetic feeling” in Kant’s account, the “prospect of a community and sympathy beyond the subject’s aesthetic imagination fades into the background, displaced beyond the borders of the aesthetic scene.”22 Agreement does not mean integration or unison, for either Smith or Kant, and sympathy is not automatically a medium for sharing others’ passions; rather, sympathy aids us in staging judgments that reinforce our sense of agency and autonomy, which are also positions of power.23

Offering an alternative to the familiar story of Romanticism as an intellectual and literary movement defined by such powers of judgment, the analysis here discovers in the dynamics of anticipation and disappointment, provoked by poetic form, Romantic thinkers who were grappling too with philosophies of vulnerability and powerlessness. That this line of argument also skips past another familiar story, in which Romanticism emerges as and through disappointed responses to the French Revolution and its aftermaths, sets the specifically formal dynamics of disappointment apart and, by that same token, allows me to bring these dynamics to bear on more current understandings of Romanticism’s complexly global and varied relationship to history.24 Here, disappointment is not a topic or theme but rather a ligature between poetry and feeling—one that serves as an endlessly renewable indicator of art that disrupts predictable trajectories, particularly when those trajectories reinforce majority perspectives by anticipating adherence to normative standards of behavior. Whereas, for Smith, propriety helps produce social harmony by urging the impassioned man to fit his feelings into shapes designed to ensure the sympathetic responsiveness of those around him, provocative forms establish, in order to disrupt, expected structures (of meter, line, rhyme, diction, etc.) and the norms of relatability and appropriateness upon which such conventions allow us to agree. That is, the Romantic provocation that I ultimately term aesthetic disappointment asks readers to feel their susceptibility to outside impressions as a kind of dissonance or refusal to resolve. This in turn raises questions about the limits of agency and autonomy, questions for which these chapters uncover, if not answers, then new approaches grounded in the radical materialism that also distinguished the age.

Situating Affect as Method

The central problem of Romantic aesthetics concerns how we are moved by art. In considering this problem, rather than look to Kant for a model of disinterested aesthetic judgment, I adopt the radical materialist perspective that “being moved” refers to embodied experiences not separable from their objects. The older philosophy of Benedict de Spinoza, which took on new life in Romanticism, provides insight into the ways some Romantic poets were thinking about such material entanglements. For yet other Romantic poets, it aids in contextualizing the metaphysical underpinnings of the felt experiences they claimed were produced and engaged by their poetic experiments, providing a lens through which to explore the social and political dimensions of the by then well-established relationship between form and feeling. Throughout, I distinguish affects, as precognitive responses to stimuli, from emotions, which name socially conditioned, consciously recognized feeling states that reinforce our senses of our own private, bounded subjectivities.25 In Spinoza’s Ethics (1677), the affections that move us to feel and imagine reflect our porousness and vulnerability—the ways in which our minds and bodies are open to impressions—and they also reflect inescapable divine logics over which we have no control and about which we have limited understandings. The Spinozist affections are therefore like those of Shaftesbury and Hume in that they are pre-personal (i.e., not private in the sense of belonging to us), but differ in that they are also, as already indicated, impersonal (i.e., not designed for us by God as goads towards salvation or sin).26

As an interpretive lens, Spinoza’s philosophy has the double effect of guiding my affect-theory approach to the poetry while helping to make sense of how Romantic thinkers themselves may have approached genre and form in relation to the affections and other radical materialist principles. Before elaborating this approach, I offer these definitions: I treat form as structure, syntax, tone, diction, figure, meter, trope and other elements that scaffold, give shape to or hold space for a literary work, not limited to the poems that are my focus.27 Some of the formal elements the following chapters take up are irregular meter; turns; personification; tautology and prosaic diction; rhythmic arrests and fragmentation; and simile, metaphor and juxtaposition. Form is inextricable from content (e.g., character, theme and plot), and it is also inextricable from Romantic understandings of affect and the embodied work of poetry. Genre, for its part, is simultaneously the taxonomic impulse to categorize literary types that I inventoried at the start, and the expectations that attend those categories’ forms, histories, occasions, authorships, and the like. Simply, genre is form plus situation—both the situation that gave rise to a work and the situation of its reception.28

Form and genre are linked to and mediated by history: specifically, by late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century readers’ expectations of particular genres’ formal organization and elements. This is another way of triangulating the relation between form, genre and situation, in which genre is a concept that lives “as much in the scene of literary reception as in the scene of literary creation.” These words, which belong to Deidre Lynch, frame a discussion in which Lynch treats form as a quality of structure, and genre as the work of that quality on readers. Form not only affects readers as they read; form also forms habits of reading that contribute to genre. A “novel’s habit-forming function” is to shape readers’ expectations of the novel they are currently reading, and of novels in general.29 By locating these habits in historical scenes of literary creation and reception, Lynch shows genre to depend as much upon what a work does as what it is. The inverse logic, in cases of unmet anticipations, would imply that preventing literary experience from becoming habitual also prevents genre stabilization. The hybridity and novelty of the genre classifications Romantic poets propose (elegiac sonnets, lyrical ballads, etc.) would seem to indicate their awareness that formal innovation has repercussions for genre, and that readers’ genre expectations (an affective relation: how readers anticipate being moved) might be guided by new categories that recur to old touchstones.

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s A Defence of Poetry (1840), such claims about form and genre would apply to poetry in a “restricted sense,” by describing the “arrangements of language, and especially metrical language” that spring from the minds of poets. Insofar as they are claims that also describe the Romantic tendency to un-restrict form and genre, to see poetry as moving off the page and into readers’ minds and bodies (as habit or rhythm or transport), they resonate too with Shelley’s assertion that poetic meter was invented due to “the recurrence of . . . harmony in the language of poetical minds, together with its relation to music.”30 Poets’ natural talents for orchestrating linguistic pleasure fostered identifications between the structured systems of musical composition and language; for Shelley, musical thinking allowed poetic meter first to be thought. Other comparisons too, between genres (sonnets and songs; ballads recited and ballads sung) and situation or reception (inspired minds and Aeolian harps; nervous motions and acoustic vibrations), suggest that we can complicate traditional ideas of Romanticism’s inward-turning imagination by paying attention to the outward-moving, sonorous and musical tropes common to Romantic accounts of poetic affect. Continuing along the Shelleyan vein, doing so might even prompt us to reconsider poetry’s political power (i.e., that poets are “legislators”), especially if the pre-personal force of those politics operates even, or especially, when its source is “unacknowledged.”31

I’m interested in how Romantic poets understood poetic form to move Romantic readers, and in how these movements were, to varying degrees, often conceived of as metaphysical. This kind of baseline historical materialism warrants my engagements with Spinozist theories of the affections that were circulating in the period (rather than those espoused by the twentieth-century psychologist Silvan Tomkins32), and it also proscribes an approach to form of the sort for which Sandra Macpherson has called: that is, “a genuinely formalist critical practice, a little formalism that would turn one way from history without shame or apology.”33 In Macpherson’s estimation, new formalism has a tendency to “ransom” form to history by turning the discoveries about history that form enables into every argument’s final, revelatory conclusion.34 Treating form instead “as nothing more—and nothing less—than the shape matter (whether a poem or a tree) takes,” Macpherson regards form as the basic, fundamental stuff of every material thing, and, as she clarifies, this means that words are the “matter” of poetry “in much the same way as wood is the material of a chair.”35

In exploring how form was understood to move Romantic readers, I cannot leave history aside. But neither do I disagree that poetic form can be—and has been—thought about as a kind of matter that affects other kinds of matter. When, in his Defence, Shelley defines poetry “in a general sense,” he considers its origin “connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody.”36 Whereas Hume compares the mind to a stringed instrument, in which a sound retained nevertheless “insensibly decays,” Shelley finds that mental reverberations need not simply die away. On Shelley’s account, we might turn these impressions poetical, creating “not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them.”37 Harmonizing a melody is like poeticizing a passion, because both depend on adjustments to material phenomena, sound and feeling, that result in changes to matter like musical notes or words.

Yet if form is adjustment (pace Anahid Nersessian38), what then is matter? My views are influenced by, but not strictly about, Romantic science, and although this introduction lays out some tenets of Spinoza’s philosophy in which Spinoza seems to get some of his ideas about matter from Lucretius’s description of atomic particles, my aim is not to pivot towards an investigation along those lines.39 What materialism means for the readings that follow is a confrontation with embodiment so radically imperiling to the sense of a bounded, agentive self as to expose identity as relationality—as constitutive of ideas and affections not our own, in which being is always already being in and as relation. This includes identity’s self-consciously cognitive parts, our contemplative and reflective selves, because in this philosophy ideas too have force. I say confrontation for two reasons. The first is literary and historical, because the “scandal” of Spinoza’s thought—“at once deterministic, socially and ontologically leveling, de- or anti-humanizing . . . [yet also] politically open-ended and even utopian”40—bred opposition in seemingly equal proportion to its challenges, and these were challenges that Romantic thinkers met in poetry as well as in novels and criticism, private letters and notebook entries. The second is metaphysical, since what matters about matter in this context is its force—its capacity for confrontations both felt and unfelt.41

One way to bring this materialism, and the philosophical questions about vulnerability and powerlessness that it poses, to bear on Romantic provocations of form, is to hold the Kantian aesthetic subject up against those figures for the pre-personal affections we’ve already begun to trace, in which “external and internal impressions” operate in and upon us like soundwaves:42 that is, like the acoustic, physical properties of sound that led Kant to call music inaesthetic precisely because those in its proximity cannot choose not to hear. For Kant, music “extends its influence further (into the neighborhood) than is required, and so as it were imposes itself.” We can no more close our ears than we can stop feeling low frequencies—a bass line or percussion—through our feet, in our bones, perhaps all the way into the resonant chambers of our hearts. Of course, what makes a formal provocation provocative is very often such intrusiveness, which Kant thinks evacuates aesthetic pleasure by “interfering with the freedom of others, outside the musical circle,” but which I am arguing can prompt struggles with negative affective intensity of the sort that a deceptive cadence also describes. In the poems this book explores, the affective impositions which occur through the rhythms of regular verse meet provocations that disrupt or suspend those rhythms in order to interfere with precisely the sort of freedom that Kant’s subject needs preserved if she is to judge disinterestedly. Her frustrated expectation is that of sensory independence within social spaces (i.e., quiet). From the Spinozist perspective, however, she who glimpses freedom’s limits by experiencing unwanted affects will have gained an insight crucial enough to make any “burdensome” musical experience worthwhile.43 For Spinoza, free will is an illusion that leads us to mistake our reactions for choices and to live lives warped by fantasies of perfect agency. The “means, or way, leading to freedom” lies instead in our capacity for reason—and, when we begin to grasp our vulnerability to the affections, Spinoza thinks us more adept at bringing our actions under reason’s guidance.44

Romanticism’s provocative forms revel in the means. Not with the teleological prudence of Kant’s categorical imperative (if you like), but with a still serious investment in the in-between feelings and in-process processes by which transitory affects and other material forces reveal that we have less control over our responses, rational or otherwise, than some Enlightenment thinkers hoped. Johnson’s non-definition of Hooker’s usage and Coleridge’s “The Nightingale” each suggest, for instance, that provocation’s more congenial sense includes being moved by a powerful external force, God and/or nature. The transformation of individual parishioners into a congregation and “many Nightingales” into a chorus happens “in the hearing of God himself, and in the presence of his holy angels” and “in one place . . . // In wood and thicket over the wide grove” (lines 55–57). While Coleridge’s lush environs might tempt us to fall back on that idea of “Nature,” to which I alluded above, as at once fodder for and the invention of the Romantic poet’s inward-turning imagination, the description locates nature instead in material motions and countermotions that are simultaneously impersonal and divine.45 In the imagery of birds swooping and diving, their calls and responses drawing one another out, Coleridge casts nature as movement—as dynamic exchanges of kinetic and aural force. In the onomatopoeia that animates this abundance of avian life, he enacts intrusive sounds of the sort that Kant would rather avoid, and by recommending that we close our eyes to trick our ears, Coleridge locates pleasure in being engrossed by the deception. Rather than inspiration or agape leading to individuation, such provocations enfold us so completely that even the experiences of pastor or poet “pass interchangeably” into those of his flock.

Even though the aesthetic subject shaped by such a theory of provocation sidesteps Kantian disinterestedness (and transcendental morality), its emergence is not a negation of the Enlightenment but an extension, which includes and develops radical materialisms already long present.46 From Erasmus Darwin to Mary Shelley, Wolfgang von Goethe to Friedrich Hölderlin, Romanticism has always wrestled with how things ought to be by asking how things are. Older heterodoxies, including those of Lucretius and Spinoza, provide answers that, by doing away with the participation of God-the-creator, offer ontological bases for atheism and radicalism; theories of democratic equality; and scientific inquiries into the minute particles and unseen void, or else the dynamic fields of force, that may determine the world and our place in it. A less well-studied Romantic thinker, John “Walking” Stewart, whose populist materialism is a possible point of connection between Spinoza and some of the poets in these chapters, helps evince that these ideas were circulating beyond the usual channels.47 Jonathan Israel calls this parallel intellectual ecosystem the radical Enlightenment, and he identifies Spinoza as central to its sway.48

By recurring often to questions of freedom and agency through Spinoza’s discussions in the Ethics, I aim to draw out the ethics and politics of a number of poems that have seemed, to both Romantic era readers and recent critics, to indulge disappointment without justification. In so doing, I am convinced by Marjorie Levinson’s argument that “hearing the Spinozistic echo” even in “poems that seem to lack a polemical element” alerts us to “an active and pointed cultural engagement” nevertheless, since, in the radical long Enlightenment that includes Romanticism, “Spinoza’s thought carried a clear political valence.”49 But I should also say that Romanticists know that Spinoza’s influence on individual poets was various, mediated and often diffuse, forming part of a cultural dialogue about the material force of feelings and ideas with which some poets were more familiar than others, and to which responses and interpretations differed. By prioritizing these differences, my chapters make site-specific interventions into the oeuvres of Romantic poets, which in some cases betray interpretive schisms (pertaining to aspects of Spinoza’s thought but also to the materiality of feeling and language more generally) that can expose poets’ competing ethical and political commitments in turn.

Nature, Upside Down

For Romantic thinkers, Spinoza’s Ethics helps explain the persistence with which we strive and struggle in a world of difficulty. I pause here to rehearse how and why in order to provide scaffolding for the arguments to come, as I work my way towards a brief discussion of the role that pity plays in the production and regulation of social harmony for Spinoza. Fundamental to Spinoza’s treatment of God and nature as one and the same is his observation that “nature has no end set before it, and . . . all final causes are nothing but human fictions.”50 For Spinoza, divine logic inheres not in progress towards heaven or hell, salvation or sin, but through the uncountable causes and effects that proliferate powerful and often untraceable natural motions and countermotions, that is, ideas and affections. He argues that attaching meaning to an “end” reflects our anthropocentric tendency to presume, first, that whatever we perceive to be a cause or an end really is one; and second, that whatever outcome we like best God has designed for us.51 But this latter assumption, warns Spinoza, is a “fiction” that “turns Nature completely upside down”: “For if God acts for the sake of an end, he necessarily wants something which he lacks.”52 Rather than having faith in the perfection of first causes, trying to deduce the meaning of last effects demands an impossible tracing backwards of dominos long tipped, which can only ever arrive at the spurious conclusion that these ends, whatever they may be, reflect the will of God.

Instead, Spinoza argues that human beings possess two ways of approaching knowledge: reason and imagination. Neither way is better or more accurate and each depends on the other, since, for him, mind and matter are substantially identical even if conceptually different—“mind as an idea of the body” and not the other way around.53 In Beth Lord’s summation, “We are more rational as we understand things better, and more imaginative as we are affected by our experiences. At no point can we ever be wholly rational (for then we would feel nothing) or wholly imaginative (for then we would know nothing truly).”54 This oscillation between thinking and feeling is not binaristic but complexly intermeshed; it is a means for empowering ourselves by both increasing our understandings and inhabiting our lives in ways that are fulfilling and joyful. When negative affections disempower us, making us weak or sick or lethargic, we can use reason to counteract those influences by, for instance, sleeping when we are tired or bringing patience to a frustrating situation. When repressive ideas suggest that we should act against our interests, we can imagine the unhappiness that adherence to those ideas will create, leading us to disagree or pursue alternatives. Thus the Ethics, as Gilles Deleuze points out, is not an ethical system in the sense that it dictates morality based on good and evil as gauges of personal salvation and sin. Rather, it is a system that provides insight into how our bodily and mental states affect and are affected by material forces in the world, which allows us to recalibrate and reassert ourselves in turn.55

This drive towards recalibration Spinoza calls “conatus,” or striving to persist in being. In the Ethics, in the section “On the Origin and Nature of the Affects,” he writes that every “thing,” from minerals to vegetables to animals, “so far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its own being” and this “striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being is nothing but the actual essence of the thing.”56 A simple thing, such as a rock, persists through “inertial” properties (a kind of “stubbornness”), but a more complex thing, such as a human being, strives to maintain a specific poise, or relation of speed and rest, in the assemblage of all its parts, and to achieve this it must continually readjust its posture or attitude.57 Complex things are intermeshed in equilibrium-seeking negotiations in their composite selves and in relation with external forces and other things. Warren Montag, who points out that Spinoza’s idea of these complex, unified assemblages seems to have been inspired by Lucretius’s atomic bodies in De rerum natura (c. 55 BCE), notes that, “if Spinoza’s definition [of conatus], as rendered in English, would appear to confer upon the thing [that strives] a kind of precariousness, the Latin verb Spinoza has chosen here to denote the ‘unification’ of several individuals into one underscores its precariousness even more”: “Concurro . . . is . . . the most unpredictable, fragile and temporary unification that would merit the name.”58 The striving of complex things, both in themselves (to “concur in one action”) and in relation to others, expresses an essential resilience that is also the evidence of a profound vulnerability.59

In the Ethics, the theory of conatus follows Spinoza’s discussion of the ways that human beings delude themselves about the nature of their desires and appetites. From childhood, we assume that our choices are our own, so that most people believe themselves to be making free choices (about how to act, what to eat and what to say) most of the time.60 A person who has no experience of ever having made a wrong choice or doing something they “afterwards repent,” explains Spinoza, would assume every choice to be the pure determinations of their free will. They may presume to speak their thoughts aloud “from a free decision of the mind,” when the reality is that they “cannot contain [their] impulse to speak.”61 And yet even as we mature and amass evidence to the contrary (i.e., all our mistakes and regrets), Spinoza observes a tendency to persist in believing ourselves to be the determining agents of our own lives. Accepting that we are not requires accepting that the pre-personal, impersonal affections have more power over our actions and reactions than we might want to consider and will ever really know. Conatus is Spinoza’s explanation for why, under these pressures, things do not yield so completely as to lose themselves entirely; it is the force by which we can resist the affections, something internal to ourselves.

I began this study out of my interest in form and embodiment, and over the years, it has transformed into a book that is equally as interested in how some of the most challenging aspects of Spinoza’s thought (determinism, monism), far from absolving Romantic thinkers of the responsibility to challenge oppressive ideas and social structures, actually appear to have reinforced a need to push boundaries. In an essay titled “The Force of Ideas in Spinoza” (2007), Hasana Sharp links our scholarly tendency to focus on the corporeal dimensions of Spinoza’s philosophy to efforts to redress an imbalance between privileged cognition and under-acknowledged embodiment that has long plagued the history of philosophy.62 The embodied subject, whose affectable states have names like “anger” and “pity,” has been racialized and gendered, without the philosophical armor (i.e., “reason” and “objectivity”) with which colonial and patriarchal logics prosper.63 Anti-colonial, antiracist, feminist and queer approaches to materialisms both new and historical, have emphasized, importantly and incisively, the “vibrant matter” that allows us, in the words of Kate Singer, Ashley Cross and Suzanne Barnett, to “redraw genders, bodies, things and texts outside cultural narratives that would insist on their static categorization as discrete bodies with reified identities,” and this work has generated significant dividends over the last decade.64 Yet, by attending more closely to the life force of things than to “the ‘life force’ of ideas,” Sharp argues, we’ve also missed opportunities to analyze thought itself as “an active power of being”: “something that nature does,” rather than something individual minds do.65 Since the mind is subject to immanent forces just as matter is, Spinoza excepts no ideas from determining nature, not even ideas of freedom or transcendence. Freedom is not an “escape from determination,” on Spinoza’s account, but “an immanent displacement and reorganization of one’s constituent relations with others, including other ideas.”66 To think through Spinoza’s monism in its most radical sense is to recognize that “the mind’s determination by other ideas parallels the body’s determination by other bodies, each in accordance with unalterable laws.”67

Such recognition does not neutralize the transgressive potential that our critical attention to the corporeality of experience, in Romantic texts and elsewhere, has pried open. Nor does it reify identities or reinforce discrete bodies. Instead, by highlighting ideas in an entanglement with the material force of other ideas, this kind of Spinozist ideology critique lets us examine pervasive Romantic era participation in and propagation of racist, colonialist, sexist, cis-normative and heteronormative, classist and the like assumptions, which do reify and reinforce, without dismissing or dehistoricizing the challenges to these assumptions (abolitionism; women’s and workers’ rights; democratic representation, etc.) that Romantic thinkers also leveled. The material force of a hateful idea can be stronger, that is, more deeply ingrained and widely influential, than an anti-hateful one, but ideas change. In the context of the radical long Enlightenment, such changes come into even sharper focus when we take into account Romantic thinkers’ own engagements with and sense of responsibility for the material force of ideas, particularly when those ideas are also provocations to feel deeply on behalf of others—whether strangers or friends, near or far, human or nonhuman.

And how not to absolve one of responsibility for an idea when that idea is determined by God in/as nature? In an 1804 Notebook entry, Coleridge ponders Spinoza while contemplating the conundrum. Observing the inevitable “disappointments & baffled attempts” that result from our attempts to live together in societies without taking advantage of or trying to “legislate for” one another, Coleridge asks, how can we act responsibly if we act at the behest of external forces that move us even without our knowledge or consent?68 One answer, which the Ethics provides, is that we should organize our relations with other things and other ideas in ways that best allow us to meet the dangers of affective impingement with reason and the dangers of harmful ideologies with imagination. These two ways of approaching knowledge, reason and imagination, can hold us accountable by granting us some amount of insight into the causes and effects of our own actions and opinions, and the actions and opinions of others. By letting us glimpse the complexity of our motivations and those of other people, reason especially encourages in us the moderation and restraint that Spinoza attributes to wisdom.69 To these points, Spinoza’s commentary on pity, throughout the Ethics, is illustrative both because it elaborates the convolutions of cause and effect that make right action so difficult to pin down, and because what seems at first purely affective—feeling pity—Spinoza considers in ways that speak to the intellectual-logistical problem that Coleridge’s query implies, which is the difficulty of accurately foretelling the effects of one’s actions and ideas so as to guarantee a fair and just society.

Focusing on the materiality of ideas centralizes this difficulty, along with another, related difficulty that Spinoza helps elaborate, which is that a poetics capable of engaging Coleridge’s conundrum must develop affect as both its best and its worst measure of morality. Spinoza regards pity as a negative affect because it involves our suffering (“sadness”) on behalf of another suffering being which we believe feels like us (i.e., we would not feel pity for a smashed boulder but would feel pity for an injured rabbit).70 Since negative affects move us to states of diminished power that we naturally want to avoid, we naturally desire to alleviate the other’s suffering so as not to feel so badly ourselves.71 A negative affect can therefore motivate right action: this “appetite to do good, born of our pity for the thing on which we wish to confer a benefit, is called benevolence,” writes Spinoza.72 However, to act purely out of pity is to follow an embodied impulse (not to feel bad) towards an imagined result (that our action will alleviate the other’s suffering). Moreover, if we don’t believe that the suffering being feels as we do, then we would not feel pity and could avoid a negative affective experience entirely. It’s not hard to imagine how this escape hatch from bad feeling could motivate the reification of others as not capable of feeling “like us,” and therefore not worthy of our pity.

Spinoza regards pity (commiserationem) and sympathy or compassion (misericordia) as essentially synonymous.73 In the Ethics, both pity and sympathy are anticipatory affects, like hope and fear, and Spinoza cautions against depending on such affects to make moral choices “both because, from an affect, we do nothing which we certainly know to be good, and because we are easily deceived by false tears.”74 Even benevolence can be misguided, so relying on pity to regulate social interactions will fail to reliably produce moral action. These precepts distinguish Spinoza’s approach from that of Adam Smith, for whom sympathy may “denote our fellow-feeling with any passion whatever,” negative or positive, while compassion and pity are confined to negative passions, as “words appropriated to signify our fellow-feeling with the sorrow of others.”75 Unlike Smith, who takes the propriety with which his sympathetic sufferer tempers the expression of his pain as a virtue—one that can lead to social harmony—Spinoza claims that the “things which beget harmony are those which are related to justice, fairness, and being honorable.” Spinoza admits that fear and flattery can also produce harmony, but only superficially and “without trust.” Because pity makes us susceptible to deception, whether by false tears or self-restraint born of propriety, it is likewise an untrustworthy guarantor of harmony; worse yet, indulging our pity can “present the appearance of morality” where there is in fact none.76 This is why, for the subject who lives by reason alone, Spinoza calls pity an “evil” that distracts from the ability to alleviate others’ pain based on logic, without the goad of pity at all.77

Of course, to live by reason alone is impossible, since “human power is very limited and infinitely surpassed by the power of external causes . . . we are part of a whole of Nature, whose order we follow.”78 The upside-down logic of ascribing teleological significance to the impersonal affections Spinoza sees as pure ego; ends cannot justify means because outcomes and endpoints are arbitrary and inconsequential human inventions. Perhaps this is why, in Spinoza’s system, pity, along with the related affect shame, turns out to have another surprising characteristic: it alerts us to a person who strives to do the right thing even if she fails. When seen as a means (towards benevolence, deserved or not) rather than an end (towards morality or justice), “pity . . . though not a virtue, is still good insofar as it indicates . . . a desire to live honorably. In the same way pain is said to be good insofar as it indicates the injured part is not yet decayed.”79 Pity indicates the health of our moral impulses, and these impulses are at the heart of social harmony for Spinoza. Thus Spinoza’s pity-benevolence dynamic differs from Smith’s sympathy-propriety dynamic because it holds open space for the virtuous failure to achieve moral ends—while reminding us that any such “ends” are illusory. So, while the affective mechanism of pity cannot guarantee social harmony, its operations do seem to indicate that a sense of responsibility for easing others’ suffering inheres in nature’s determinations, since the external forces by which we are moved to pity can also oblige us to imagine and investigate the source of another’s pain.

Embracing Dissonance

The external stronger force of the affections does jeopardize our ability to make the kinds of moral decisions that ensure justice and equality, as Coleridge recognizes, but the affections can also prevent us from accepting ideas that perpetuate suffering. Although this conclusion would likely still dissatisfy Coleridge, Spinoza maintains that pity moves us to imaginatively engage with others’ experiences and, perhaps, to reasonably question the ideas that contribute to or justify those experiences. In the Romantic engagements with provocative poetic forms that this book traces, encountering sociality that is predicated on disruption, characterized by dissonance and perpetuated by disappointment becomes a means of confronting not knowing—how it will all go; how another living being feels or will feel—as itself a form of relationality. When readers’ genre expectations collide with formal innovations that they don’t see coming, they may be challenged to recognize their vulnerabilities to the sorts of external forces upon which a Spinozist conception of the affections also depends. This is a poetics that refuses to treat feelings, particularly those self-improving structures of feeling upon which many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theories of sympathy rest, as ends in themselves or, more prescriptively, as moral ends with which to judge the selves of others.

Although Wordsworth, whose Spinozism scholars have begun to explore in earnest, is a significant touchstone in all five chapters of this book, I situate his poetic innovations in a genealogy of Romantic formal experimentation that begins with Charlotte Smith and includes Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales (1800). The present Introduction, and its discussion of affect in light of genre and form, grounds the interpretations in subsequent chapters and especially my views of Smith’s Elegiac Sonnets (1784‒1797) in Chapter 1. In that chapter, the continually revised and expanded collection of innovative irregular sonnets that made Smith famous allows me to trace her evolving use of metrical and syntactical strenuousness, a kind of hedging laboriousness, in poems that express hope against hope only to turn (sometimes twice—by virtue of two voltas) against even that tenuous optimism. With this move towards hope against hope, I argue that Smith refuses those who would rely on sympathy, an impersonal affect, to motivate actions on behalf of those who suffer.

Chapter 2, “The Disappointment Aesthetic,” centers on a sustained close reading of Wordsworth’s “Simon Lee, the Old Huntsman” (1798), which links Wordsworth’s own rebuke of sympathy for its failure to produce social harmony to the untold tale that the poem’s disruptive formal and generic structures animate. This chapter situates the disappointment aesthetic that I see Wordsworth advancing in light of Romantic critical attitudes towards literary letdowns and Edmund Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757). In Lyrical Ballads (1798 and 1800), Wordsworth aims to transform readers’ struggles to find pleasure while anticipating disappointment into the moral and ethical work of the poems, and this is an approach that Robinson’s Lyrical Tales both troubles and exploits. Through a comparison that demonstrates how Robinson models “The Shepherd’s Dog” on “Simon Lee,” this chapter also shows how her own critique of community building through sympathy personifies the dog in order to resist the critique of sympathy that Wordsworth, who rejects personification, promotes.

The next two chapters jump to the early nineteenth century to explore late-Romantic responses to provocations that seemed, by that point, suffused with philosophical and moral aggrandizement. Chapter 3, “Coleridge Tripping,” reveals Coleridge’s later frustrations with Wordsworth’s lyrical ballads to depend not only on changing tastes and opinions but also on a metaphysical dilemma: by 1817 and the publication of Biographia Literaria, he has come to disagree with the materialist morality that would justify Wordsworth’s prosaic verse. Declaring that metrical irregularity and flat diction feel like tripping down stairs in the dark, Coleridge claims that poetry should make readers feel a perfect coincidence of bodily balance and self-conscious self-control. Retracing Coleridge’s steps as he attempts to achieve such equipoise in his critique of Wordsworth’s “The Sailor’s Mother” (1807), I show how disappointed reading becomes the affective measure by which Wordsworth’s poem fails to model self-restraint as a (properly Spinozist, in Coleridge’s view) means of preserving the power and integrity of other people. What Coleridge wants from Wordsworth instead, I conclude, is akin to the transformative recitation of The Prelude that Coleridge immortalizes in “To William Wordsworth” (1807). The recitation’s sense of never-ending predictability creates for Coleridge a reverential experience, the embodiment of which seems to give him something of the proprioceptive self-possession that he seeks but does not find in the lyrical ballads.

Coleridge was not alone in looking back on poems that defined the turn of the nineteenth century and seeing ego overtaking “genuine” feeling. Although both Coleridge and Wordsworth earned acclaim, as well as notoriety, for their treatment of poetry as an “esemplastic” and authentic force capable of forging community across the socioeconomic spectrum, John Keats’s admiration for such achievements soon gives way to a desire for “something real.”80 Examining two poems that offer neither pedantry nor opportunities for conventional self-fashioning, “This Living Hand” (1820) and “Ode on Indolence” (1819), Chapter 4 shows how Keats refuses the drawn-out negotiations with anticipation and proximity to discomfort that typify first-generation Romantic experiments in aesthetic disappointment.81 Rather than hold up the predictable pleasure of a Wordsworthian recitation as an alternative, however, Keats posits instead the aesthetic efficacy of instantaneity, or as he says of the actor Edmund Kean’s innovative stagecraft, the immediate and reciprocal bond with an audience that can occur when one gives oneself up to “instant feeling, without the shadow of a thought about any thing else.”82 Through halting arrests and abrupt endings, Keats’s poems enact attitudes of dynamic passivity that aim to compel readerly engagement and interest, and which just might (re)animate the poet in turn.

Keats’s fascination with communicating reciprocal feeling in his letters and poems also indicates his familiarity with theories of dynamic materiality on a global scale, in which another’s feelings might move us at a distance or even after the death of the one who feels.83 My fifth chapter, “The Politics of Provocation,” considers the political and ethical implications of such a vast and enduring virtual space of affect by exploring revolutionary metaphors of the wind and weather for Wordsworth and Percy Shelley. Two very different historical situations organize this chapter: the forced extraction and imprisonment of the Haitian leader Toussaint Louverture by the French in 1802, and the public outcry following the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. My readings of Wordsworth’s sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture” (1803) and Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy (1832) reveal that, although border-crossing affects represent a condition of political possibility for both poets, an irresolvable tension remains between such optimism and the ethics of charging those who are most vulnerable with suffering insurrection and violence. In Wordsworth’s sonnet, the juxtaposition of a dying Louverture with a singing milkmaid is a formal provocation that unsettles the posthumous justice proffered by its final lines, while, in the Mask, Shelley’s calls for Reformers to keep assembling in the wake of the massacre shares with the Reformers’ own rhetoric of safety in numbers a tragic calculation of loss. Gathering in order to agitate for change lessens the probability that any one person will be killed even though someone will be, and this is an ethical concession that Shelley’s figures for democratic reform, as an idea of God in/as nature, push to its limits.

In light of our own riotous atmospheres, the ones that enveloped this book’s composition over the last five years at least, I include a Coda that explores the unevenness of the burden of being moved by external affective force in Romantic thought that, in retrospect, has troubled these chapters all along. Claudia Rankine’s “Weather” (2020), an occasional poem for the New York Times Book Review, inherits Romantic figures for revolutionary change at a time when the Romantic history shaped by perpetual crises feels powerfully resonant once more. Learning from Rankine’s poem, this final reflection returns to Wordsworth and the limits of staging aesthetic disappointment while also embracing revolutionary progress that is capable of staying the course.


1. William Wordsworth, in the 1798 Advertisement, calls his lyrical ballads “experiments”; John Keats, in a letter to his brother and sister-in-law, references Anne Radcliffe, the author of gothic novels including The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), when he notes “what fine mother Radcliff names” he’s chosen for “Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil,” “Eve of St. Agnes,” and “Eve of St. Mark”; Percy Bysshe Shelley, in a letter to Leigh Hunt, envisions publishing “a little volume of popular songs wholly political.” See Wordsworth, “Advertisement,” in Coleridge and Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads: 1798 and 1800, 47; Keats to George and Georgiana Keats, 14 February 1819, Letters of John Keats, 2:62; and Shelley to Leigh Hunt, 1 May 1820, Letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 2:191.

2. Raymond Williams describes “structures of feelings,” in part, as “a social experience which is still in process, often indeed not yet recognized as social but taken to be private, idiosyncratic, and even isolating, but which in analysis (though rarely otherwise) has its emergent, connecting, and dominant characteristics, indeed its specific hierarchies” (Marxism and Literature, 128–135, 132).

3. Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, 5:167; quoted in Johnson, Dictionary of the English Language. The verb form, “to provoke,” puts Johnson in mind of “rage,” “wrath” and “war.”

4. Johnson, Dictionary; Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity, 5:167. Hooker more completely describes this feeling of agreement as “love insoluble” (149).

5. Coleridge, “The Nightingale,” 233.

6. Wordsworth, “Advertisement,” 47.

7. Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion, 1; Bennett, Vibrant Matter, xiii.

8. Bennett, Vibrant Matter, xi‒xii.

9. Horace, Ars Poetica, 123–35; Milton, “The Verse,” in Paradise Lost, 11; Pope, Peri Bathos.

10. Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion, 2; Hume, Treatise on Human Nature, 282.

11. Marvell, “Mr. Milton’s Paradise Lost,” 184.

12. Wordsworth, “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads, 1800 edition, 187 (hereinafter, Wordsworth, “Preface”).

13. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 27. Even in the throes of “violent and disagreeable passions,” the sufferer “longs for that relief which nothing can afford him but the entire concord of the affections of the spectators with his own”; he wants their hearts to beat in time with his own (27). Yet, fearing at the same time that the intensity of his passions will alienate his audience, the sufferer may actually restrain himself from showing all that he truly feels. See Chapter 2 for further discussion in light of Smith’s musical metaphors (harmony and concord).

14. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 27.

15. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 23.

16. Burgess, “On Being Moved,” 298, 304.

17. Shaftesbury, Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 10, quoted in Burgess, “On Being Moved,” 303.”

18. For Hume, sympathy is both a medium for communicating affect and the mechanism by which affect transforms from an external force, such as other people’s approbation, into a private emotion, such as pride. For a discussion, see Pinch, Strange Fits of Passion, 30–32.

19. Burgess, “On Being Moved, 289.

20. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment.

21. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 16.

22. Burgess, “On Being Moved, 307.

23. Smith does admit that, on “some occasions sympathy may seem to arise merely from the view of a certain emotion in another person,” so that passions “may seem to be transfused from one man to another, instantaneously, and antecedent to any knowledge of what excited them in the person principally concerned” (Theory of Moral Sentiments, 13).

24. For Romantic history in a global context, see especially Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease. For Romantic history along the lines of affect and sensation, see Goodman, Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism; Liu, Wordsworth: The Sense of History; Pfau, Romantic Moods; and Rohrbach, Modernity’s Mist.

25. This definition of affects owes much to Brian Massumi’s Parables for the Virtual. Generally speaking, the affections align with Enlightenment discourses of the passions, although for this study’s purposes, they have their philosophical home in Spinoza’s Ethics.

26. Spinoza, A Spinoza Reader: The Ethics and Other Works (hereinafter, Spinoza, Ethics).

27. Questions of form, which have preoccupied thinkers from Plato to the New Critics and beyond, have recently reemerged in a series of electric sallies and replies. See Levine, Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network; Kramnick and Nersessian, “Form and Explanation”; and also responses to the latter from Levine, Levinson and others (Critical Responses I to IV in Critical Inquiry 44, no. 1 (2017), 129‒163) and the authors’ responding in turn in Kramnick and Nersessian, “Forms and Explanations.”

28. This reasoning resonates with post-Bakhtinian approaches to genre, developed since the 1980s, by emphasizing genre’s “social meanings” over its ontological ones. Following Carolyn Miller’s “Genre as Social Action,” genre theorists have established methods for interpreting genre as situation-specific “rhetorical action,” rather than seeing genres as stable categories based purely on form. See Campbell and Jamieson, “Form and Genre in Rhetorical Criticism.” The shorthand “situation + form = genre” I borrow from Janet Giltrow et al., Academic Writing.

29. Lynch, “Shandean Lifetime Reading Plan,” paras. 160, 161.

30. Shelley, Defence, 513, 515.

31. Shelley, Defence, 533.

32. Silvan Tomkins’s theory of the affects has been influential in the work of Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam J. Frank. See especially, Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling.

33. Macpherson, “A Little Formalism,” 385.

34. The term appears in two of Macpherson’s essays: “A Little Formalism,” 390; and “The Object of Literal Criticism,” 491.

35. Macpherson, “Little Formalism,” 390; and “Literal Criticism,” 492.

36. Shelley, Defence, 511.

37. Shelley, Defence, 511.

38. Nersessian, Utopia, Limited.

39. For the influence of Lucretius on Romanticism, see Goldstein, Sweet Science.

40. Levinson, Thinking Through Poetry, 114.

41. The force of matter is important for other materialisms proper to the period as well; see Sha, Imagination and Science in Romanticism. For a discussion of felt and unfelt affect, see Noggle, Unfelt.

42. Shelley, Defence, 511.

43. Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment, 207.

44. Spinoza, Ethics, 244 (emphasis in original).

45. Important reassessments of Romantic “Nature” include Morton, Ecology Without Nature; Morton, Hyperobjects; Bewell, Romanticism and Colonial Disease; and Bewell, Natures in Translation.

46. Here, I am thinking about Ada Palmer’s recovery of Lucretius’s influence in Renaissance literary circles after the 1417 rediscovery of De rerum natura (Palmer, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance), as well as work by scholars of the Restoration and early eighteenth century on the neo-Epicureanisms of the age.

47. That is, beyond usual lines of influence we’ve drawn from Coleridge to Wordsworth. It also reminds us that there is more work to be done connecting “Walking” Stewart’s influence to Spinoza’s Romantic reception more widely.

48. Israel, A Revolution of the Mind. Israel opposes the radical Enlightenment to the Enlightenment, but I would suggest that Romantic thinkers extended and complicated the latter with the former. Coleridge’s fascination with pantheism does not destroy his fascination with Kant, nor Shelley’s Lucretianism his skepticism. Even Kant, in the 1780s, was drawn into a public dispute between his friend Moses Mendelssohn and the polemicist Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi about the nature of Spinoza’s thought—and more critically, about the nature of those who admit to having been influenced by it.

49. Levinson, Thinking Through Poetry, 105.

50. Spinoza, Ethics, 111.

51. These types of people “will not stop asking for the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God, that is, the sanctuary of ignorance” (Spinoza, Ethics, 112–13).

52. Spinoza, Ethics, 112.

53. Levinson, Thinking Through Poetry, 105.

54. Lord, “Introduction,” in Spinoza Beyond Philosophy, 4.

55. Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, 125.

56. Spinoza, Ethics, 159.

57. Curley, “Introduction,” in A Spinoza Reader, xxx–xxxi; Bennett, Vibrant Matter, 22.

58. Montag, “Imitating the Affects of Beasts,” 60.

59. Spinoza, Ethics, 116.

60. See Spinoza, Ethics, Part 3, Prop. 2, 157–58. The affections move in and between all things, not just human beings, so something as seemingly neutral as a plant or as immobile as a boulder can nevertheless affect and be affected.

61. Spinoza, Ethics, 157.

62. Sharp, “Force of Ideas in Spinoza.”

63. For a discussion, see Ferreira da Silva, Toward a Global Idea of Race.

64. Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, with the telling subtitle A Political Ecology of Things, has become a touchstone for this kind of work, though the dividends to which I refer also include posthumanist, queer and second-generation ecocritical work that is generally contemporaneous with Bennett’s study. See Braidotti, Posthuman Feminism; Morton, Hyperobjects; and Morton, Dark Ecology. See also, Singer, Cross and Barnett’s important “Introduction” to Material Transgressions, 2.

65. Sharp, “Force of Ideas,” 733, 743. Sharp opens her essay by describing Louis Althusser’s seminal contribution to ideology critique and his thoroughgoing interest in Spinoza. Given this genealogy, the Neo-Marxism and Neo-Spinozism of thinkers like Michael Hardt, Antonio Negri and Warren Montag would also seem important exceptions, as would Levinson’s approach in Thinking Through Poetry. See, for instance, Hardt and Negri, Assembly. N. Katherine Hayles’s Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious, though far from ideology critique, takes an interdisciplinary approach to distributed cognition that reveals ideas to often be something that “nature” (understood as an external force, such as electric grids and high frequency trading algorithms) mobilizes rather than what individual minds think.

66. Sharp, “Force of Ideas,” 733.

67. Curley, “Introduction,” xix.

68. Coleridge, Notebooks, 2:2208.

69. Spinoza, Ethics, 244–46.

70. Whether we already know and love that thing, or if it is a stranger to us, we feel pity so long as “we judge [the thing that suffers] to be like us” (Spinoza, Ethics, 166).

71. Spinoza, Ethics, 226.

72. Spinoza, Ethics, 168.

73. “Exp.: There seems to be no difference between pity and compassion, except perhaps that pity concerns the singular affect, whereas compassion concerns the habitual disposition of this affect” (Spinoza, Ethics, 191). The Latin is found at

74. Spinoza, Ethics, 226.

75. Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, 13.

76. Spinoza, Ethics, 241‒2.

77. Spinoza, Ethics, 226.

78. Spinoza, Ethics, 244.

79. Spinoza, Ethics, 244.

80. Coleridge, “On the Imagination, or Esemplastic Power,” chap. 13 in Biographia Literaria, vol. 7, 1:295; Keats to J. H. Reynolds, 3 May 1818, Letters of John Keats, 1:282–83.

81. The dates given reflect the probable year of composition, since neither poem was published in Keats’s lifetime.

82. Keats, Poetical Works, 3:229–30.

83. The phrase “dynamic materiality” I owe to Richard C. Sha, “John Keats and Some Versions of Materiality.”