English 9150B

Out of Their Heads: The Senses, the Soul, and Poetic Consciousness

Professor M.H. McMurran
Winter Half course.

By the Romantic era, the subject of poetry is the poet’s own soul-- its own exquisite sensations, its visions, its “emotions recollected in tranquility,” as Wordsworth put it. Yet, the modern idea of a self-conscious, sensate, and thinking being began much earlier, as did its poetic expressions. In this course we will trace the development poetic self-consciousness from the middle of the seventeenth century to the early Romantics. Instead of the familiar literary and cultural history of the self and its agency, or the self and sensibility, we will track consciousness as, on the one hand, an imaginative retreat from the world into the mind, and, alternately, as co-extensive with sensory experience. Not coincidentally, nature poetry and its thematizations of heightened sensory attention are crucial to this history. We will study a range of poets from early eighteenth-century women poets such as Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and Anne Finch, to Alexander Pope, James Thomson, and William Cowper, with an emphasis on overlooked lyric forms: ode, hymn, and reverie. The course will end with Wordsworth and Coleridge. The poetry will be studied along side brief selections from philosophical debates about the relation of body, mind, and soul (Descartes, Locke, and Hume). Some texts will be paired with a recently published scholarly essay or book chapter.

View the course syllabus here: English 9150B.