Emotions of Literature Within the Romantic Prison

face of a prisoner

Beginning in the late 1920s, a new theatrical form sought to change theatre’s emotional relations. Theatre spectators’ empathetic identification with characters tends to generate emotional mirroring:

Yes, I have felt like that too – Just like me – It’s only natural – It’ll never change – The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are inescapable – That’s great art; it all seems the most obvious thing in the world – I weep when they weep, I laugh when they laugh.

From greater critical distance, theatre spectators’ judgments that characters’ circumstances are extraordinary, unnecessary, and unjust can reverse emotional responses:

I’d never have thought it – That’s not the way – That’s extraordinary, hardly believable – It’s got to stop – The sufferings of this man appall me, because they are unnecessary – That’s great art: nothing obvious in it – I laugh when they weep, I weep when they laugh.^

Bertolt Brecht thus reversed the audience response that Horace described in Ars Poetica.^

Brecht dramatically declared his new theatrical form to be epic theatre. Epic theatre sought to motivate its audience to take action to change oppressive social circumstances: “instead of identifying itself with the hero, the audience is called upon to learn to be astonished at the circumstances within which he has his being.”^ Rather than being theatre that “implicates the spectator in a stage situation / wears down his capacity for action / provides him with sensations,” epic theatre “turns the spectator into an observer, but / arouses his capacity for action / forces him to take decisions.”^ Formal characteristics of epic theatre include montage, a mix of realistic and non-realistic scenery and costuming, episodic dramatic structure, and actors who are not tightly bound to characters and who on occasion directly address the audience. These formal characteristics contribute to more general strategies of emotional distancing and defamiliarisation.

Consider this story. After other women harshly criticize her, a good-hearted young female prostitute approaches a young man who has thrown a rope over branch of a willow tree in the rain. Recognizing that he is preparing to hang himself, she urges him not to. They talk. He is bitter, proud, and scornful of her. She tells him the story of a crane with a broken wing. She begins to cry. They talk of love. She lovingly purchases a cup of water for him, but he, exhausted, has fallen asleep. That summarizes Scene 3 of Bertolt Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan.

New theatrical forms cannot change the structure of symbolic competition. An insightful critic has observed: “Epic theory cannot always be taken literally. It does not even square with Brecht’s practice.”^ This critic translated the title of Brecht’s play less literally as The Good Woman of Setzuan. That translation points to the play’s “poor dear” sexual structure, a structure with deep roots in human nature. Perhaps spectators viewed The Good Person of Szechwan with detached scorn for the extraordinary circumstances. More likely, spectators would feel a range of emotions quickly evoked in ways common in symbolic works competing for attention. If in a dinner theatre the food sufficed to attract the audience, then that restaurant could offer a new form of theatre. But a playwright alone cannot create successfully a new form of theatre that a large public actually experiences.

| | |

Yes, I would like for my family to take care of each other. I love you Angel, Let’s ride. I guess this is it.^

Yes. I just want to let you all know that I appreciate the love and support over the years. I will see you when you get there. Keep your heads up. To all the fellows on the Row, the same thing. Keep your head up and continue to fight. Same thing to all my pen friends and other friends, I love you all. I can taste it.^

To my family, I love them. To Kami, I love you and will always be with you. That’s it Warden.^

| | |

Since the mid-eighteenth century, European literature circulating in competition for attention has represented highly labile emotions. In competition for attention, representations of imprisonment are associated with happiness and an outpouring of lyrisme cellulaire.^ The early nineteenth-century poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, ambitious and insecure, naturalized this emotional arrangement:

Our sympathy in tragic fiction depends on this principle: tragedy delights by affording a shadow of the pleasure which exists in pain. This is the source also of the melancholy which is inseparable from the sweetest melody. The pleasure that is in sorrow is sweeter than the pleasure of pleasure itself.^

After declaring that the patronage-oriented artist Michelangelo “has no sense of beauty,” Shelley asks: “What is terror without a contrast with, and a connexion with, loveliness?”^ That question makes sense only in circumstances of attempting to circulate the experience of terror. Connecting a long sentence of terror now to some future promise of bliss tends to be associated with the highly concentrated symbolic market of institutionalized religions. More competitive symbolic markets imply more rapid emotional changes. In Shelley’s words:

Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be ‘the expression of the Imagination’; and Poetry is 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.^

This imaginative expression does not describe poetry universally. Emotions that are ever-changing across the wide range from terror to pleasure characterize poetry and other symbolic works produced in competition for attention.

The Man of Feeling, first published in Edinburgh in 1771, is a canonical representative of the literature of sensibility. It includes the story of a betrayed woman, exploited and forced into prostitution. The protagonist comforts the fallen woman. Her father bursts into the room and misinterprets the scene. The protagonist, struggling to explain, declares, “My heart bleeds for you.” The daughter prostrates herself at her father’s feet and begs him to strike her dead:

Her hair had fallen on her shoulders! her look had the horrid calmness of out-breathed despair! Her father would have spoken; his lip quivered, his cheek grew pale! his eyes lost the lightning of their fury! there was a reproach in them, but with a mingling of pity! He turned them up to heaven — then on his daughter. — He laid his left hand on his heart — the sword dropped from his right — he burst into tears.^

Bursting into tears happens frequently in The Man of Feeling. A nineteenth-century editor noted, “it is hardly to be called a dry book.” The editor then added, “As a guide to persons of a calculating disposition who may read these pages I append an index to the Tears shed in ‘The Man of Feeling.’”^ The index lists 49 occurrences.

| | |

Yes, sir. Where’s Mr. Marino’s mother? Did you get my letter? Just wanted to let you know, I sincerely meant everything I wrote. I am sorry for the pain. I am sorry for the life I took from you. I ask God for forgiveness and I ask you for the same.^

Yes I do. Mike and Ms. Allison, I would like to tell you that I am responsible and I am sorry for what I did and the pain I caused you all. I love you Earline and all of my friends that stood by me. I feel blessed to have had you all. Stay strong and take care of them kids. Set me free Warden. Father, accept me.^

Yes sir, Warden. Okay I’ve been hanging around this popsicle stand way too long. Before I leave, I want to tell you all. When I die, bury me deep, lay two speakers at my feet, put some headphones on my head and rock and roll me when I’m dead. I’ll see you in Heaven someday. That’s all Warden.^

| | |

Emotional lability in symbolic works extends with the market for attention. Central features of the literature of sensibility are generalizations of emotional lability: excess, mixture, and mobility.^ Literary history typically dates the literature of sensibility in Europe to the period roughly from 1748 (Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa) to 1778 (Frances Burney’s Evelina). But literature of labile emotion has a more expansive history. Susan Warner’s The Wide, Wide World and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin are widely recognized as sentimental novels. They were best-sellers published in the U.S. in 1850 and 1852, respectively. Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, published in 1886, concludes with a parody of European sentimental captivity narratives. It thus testifies to the ongoing significance of the literature of sensibility. One scholar, hedging shrewdly against pugnacious Romantic scholars, suggests that scholars should consider seriously the question of whether sensibility might be an “expansive tradition, one that essentially swallows the Long Eighteenth Century and much of the nineteenth, from the Restoration until well into Victoria’s reign?”^ The matter can be put more directly. The literature of labile emotions is a historical superstructure of commercial publishing industries competing to sell to a mass market.

Frankenstein exemplifies the contrast between labile emotions in competition for attention and more inertial emotions in competition for acclaim. The preface added to the third edition of Frankenstein explicitly asserts exclusive authorial credit. It disingenuously claims authorial reticence and implicitly naturalizes Frankenstein’s literary success:

It is true that I am very averse to bringing myself forward in print; but as my account will only appear as an appendage to a former production, and as it will be confined to such topics as have connection with my authorship alone, I can scarcely accuse myself of a personal intrusion.

It is not singular that, as the daughter of two persons of distinguished literary celebrity, I should very early in life have thought of writing.

Near the end of the additional, 1831 preface comes another claim for authorial credit:

At first I thought but of a few pages – of a short tale; but Shelley urged me to develop the idea at greater length. I certainly did not owe the suggestion of one incident, nor scarcely of one train of feeling, to my husband, and yet but for his incitement, it would have never taken the form in which it was presented to the world. From this declaration I must except the preface. As far as I can recollect, it was entirely written by him.

Attempts to take away something that they regard as theirs – a bone, an area of space, a belief in which they are deeply invested – arouses in humans and other animals a characteristic physiological reaction that endures with little change as long as the threat persists. That’s the emotional dynamics typical of competition for acclaim.

The 1831 preface to Frankenstein shows little influence from the literature of sensibility. That preface describes significant boundaries between the mind and the external world. It locates the creative impulse within the self. The 1831 preface states:

I could not figure to myself that romantic woes or wonderful events would ever be my lot; but I was not confined to my own identity, and I could people the hours with creations far more interesting to me at that age, than my own sensations.

In the literature of sensibility, sensations stimulate responses that connect bodies and blur individual identities. In repeatedly emphasizing “think of a story,” the 1831 preface highlights individual activity disconnected from sensations of others. The 1831 preface also denies the efficacy of textual sensibility:

And now, once again, I bid my hideous progeny go forth and prosper. I have an affection for it, for it was the offspring of happier days, when death and grief were but words, which found no true echo in my heart. Its several pages speak of many a walk, many a drive, and many a conversation, when I was not alone; and my companion was one who, in this world, I shall never see more. But this is for myself; my readers have nothing to do with these associations.

Daily emotional experience here is separated from effects of mere words. In this account, the reader’s experience has nothing to do with the author’s experience at the moment of the text’s creation. The horror of Frankenstein, according to this account, was created in happy days when grief was but words.

The 1831 preface to Frankenstein is much less emotionally labile than the text of Frankenstein itself. That preface describes Frankenstein as arising from “so very hideous an idea.” Frankenstein was created to be a ghost story:

One which would speak to the mysterious fears of our nature, and awaken thrilling horror – one to make the reader dread to look round, to curdle the blood, and to quicken the beatings of the heart.

According to the 1831 preface, one night, after “the witching hour,” Shelley had a frightful dream – “hideous phantasm,” “supremely frightful,” “odious handywork,” “horror-stricken,” “hideous corpse,” “horrid thing.” The idea of Frankenstein was to communicate that experience:

O! if I could only contrive one which would frighten the reader as I myself had been frightened. … “I have found it! What terrified me will terrify others; and I need only describe the spectre which had haunted my midnight pillow.” {use of quotation marks as in original}

The emotional tone of Frankenstein in this account ranges little beyond horror-terror. At least some readers’ receptions of the printed text of Frankenstein support this limited emotional range. Within the printed text of Frankenstein, Walton wrote to his sister that he was recording Victor’s story. Walton declared, “This manuscript will doubtless afford you the greatest pleasure.” Making notes on the 1818 printed text of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley underlined pleasure in this sentence and wrote in the margin, “impossible.”^

The 1831 edition of Frankenstein nostalgically rationalized the sense of pleasure that Walton claimed. Following “afford you the greatest pleasure,” the 1818 printed text reads:

but to me, who know him, and who hear it from his own lips, with what interest and sympathy shall I read it in some future day!^

The 1831 edition doesn’t change these sentences, but adds sentences of sad, despairing nostalgia such as one might feel for an idealized, lost lover:

Even now, as I commence my task, his full-toned voice swells in my ears; his lustrous eyes dwell on me with all their melancholy sweetness; I see his thin hand raised in animation, while the lineaments of his face are irradiated by the soul within. Strange and harrowing must be his story, frightful the storm which embraced the gallant vessel on its course and wrecked it – thus!^

The concluding “thus” echoes the concluding word of Frankenstein. These added sentences make sense as Mary Shelley remembering Percy Bysshe Shelley and his death on a boat overturned in a storm. The added sentences weakly connect realistic pleasure to abstractly imagined horror.

On a per word basis, Frankenstein is less weepy than The Man of Feeling. The Man of Feeling has a literary reputation for exquisite sensibility. It contains 49 references to tears or weeping. The 1818 edition of Frankenstein contains 63 references to tears or weeping. Normalized by total words in the respective texts, the weeping rate in The Man of Feeling is 1.33 per thousand words. Frankenstein is 34% drier with 0.88 weeping references per thousand words.

Frankenstein, however, is more emotionally labile. In terms of trembling, shuddering, and frowning, Frankenstein has 0.51 references per thousand compared to 0.05 references per thousand in The Man of Feeling. Frankenstein also has a much higher rate of anguish, horror, and terror. Nonetheless, Frankenstein also exceeds The Man of Feeling in the rate of bodily actions expressing joy and pleasure (smile, kiss, laugh/laughter, delight) or similar state descriptors (joy, happy). Moreover, these positive-valence emotions occur more frequently in Frankenstein than either tears or weeping; or anguish, horror, or terror. Emotional lability characterizes the literature of sensibility. That characteristic is more pervasive in Frankenstein than in The Man of Feeling.

Comparative Emotional Dispositions:
Man of Feeling vs. Frankenstein

feeling wordsMan of FeelingFrankensteinFrankstein / Man of Feeling
Notes: The Frankenstein text is the 1818 edition. Absolute figures are counts of related word forms to 1000 words in the text. The text ratio is percent difference is word rates. Underlying counts are available in the dataset.
tear, weep1.330.88-34%
tremble, shudder, frown0.050.51846%
smile, kiss, laugh, laughter, delight1.201.276%
joy, happy0.541.38153%
anguish, horror, terror0.251.13360%

Some vignettes in Frankenstein could easily be placed as chapters in The Man of Feeling. Like The Man of Feeling, Frankenstein has a nested narrative structure that explicitly references its own textuality. Like The Man of Feeling, Frankenstein includes vignettes with primarily sensational value. Walton describes his shipmaster with a story of the shipmaster’s aborted wedding:

He saw his mistress once before the destined ceremony; but she was bathed in tears, and, throwing herself at his feet, entreated him to spare her, confessing at the same time that she loved another, but that he was poor, and that her father would never consent to the union. My generous friend reassured the suppliant, and on being informed of the name of her lover instantly abandoned his pursuit. He had already bought a farm with his money, on which he had designed to pass the remainder of his life; but he bestowed the whole on his rival, together with the remains of his prize-money to purchase stock, and then himself solicited the young woman’s father to consent to her marriage with her lover.^

The creature’s description of the cottagers embodies similar heights of sensibility:

The silver hair and benevolent countenance of the aged cottager won my reverence, while the gentle manners of the girl enticed my love. He played a sweet mournful air, which I perceived drew tears from the eyes of his amiable companion, of which the old man took no notice, until she sobbed audibly; he then pronounced a few sounds, and the fair creature, leaving her work, knelt at his feet. He raised her, and smiled with such kindness and affection that I felt sensations of a peculiar and over-powering nature: they were a mixture of pain and pleasure, such as I had never before experienced, either from hunger or cold, warmth or food; and I withdrew from the window, unable to bear these emotions.^

While pursuing a great prize in world exploration, Walton earnestly seeks sensibility:

But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy; and the absence of the object of which I now feel as a most severe evil. I have no friend, Margaret: when I am glowing with the enthusiasm of success, there will be none to participate my joy; if I am assailed by disappointment, no one will endeavour to sustain me in dejection. I shall commit my thoughts to paper, it is true; but that is a poor medium for the communication of feeling. I desire the company of a man who could sympathize with me; whose eyes would reply to mine.^

Victor evaluates his professors according to sensibility:

M. Krempe was a little squat man, with a gruff voice and repulsive countenance; the teacher, therefore, did not prepossess me in favor of his doctrine. …

{M. Waldman} appeared about fifty years of age, but with an aspect expressive of the greatest benevolence; a few grey hairs covered his temples, but those at the back of his head were nearly black. His person was short, but remarkably erect; and his voice the sweetest I had ever heard. … His manners in private were even more mild and attractive than in public; for there was a certain dignity in his mien during his lecture, which in his own house was replaced by the greatest affability and kindness.^

Walton’s claim that writing is a poor medium for communicating feelings doesn’t stop him from communicating his feelings in writing. Walton’s desire for a man of feeling doesn’t attract him to the shipmaster whose exquisite sympathy for his ex-mistress Walton described. Victor describes his feelings towards his professors so that readers will know their characters. Feelings evoked in Frankenstein serve the reader, rather than Frankenstein’s plot.

The literature of sensibility concerns immediate bodily reaction to persons and objects, rather than plot. In “On Love” (1818), Shelley explained:

if we feel, we would that another’s nerves should vibrate to our own, that the beams of their eyes should kindle at once and mix and melt into our own, that lips of motionless ice should not reply to lips quivering and burning with the heart’s best blood. This is Love. This is the bond and the sanction which connects not only man with man, but with everything that exists.^

“On Love” concludes with a reference to Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey. Shelley appreciated the central tropes of the literature of sensibility.^

In the original, 1818 preface to Frankenstein and in a self-written review, Shelley described Frankenstein with central tropes of sensibility. According to its 1818 preface, Frankenstein was written with the stimuli of enjoyable social interaction and magnificent natural scenery. Shelley sought to provide the reader with “exquisite combinations of human feelings”; “This novel rests its claim on being a source of powerful and profound emotion.”^ ^ Frankenstein’s plot, Shelley explained, provides “a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield.”^ Shelley’s preface to The Cenci contains similar declarations.^ Frankenstein, like The Cenci, was crafted with a lofty purpose:

The elementary feelings of the human mind are exposed to view; and those who are accustomed to reason deeply on their origin and tendency will, perhaps, be the only persons who can sympathize, to the full extent, in the interest of the actions which are their result.^

But even readers who cannot reason deeply and sympathize to the full extent can feel Frankenstein’s effects:

The sentiments are so affectionate and so innocent – the characters of the subordinate agents in this strange drama are clothed in the light of such a mild and gentle mind – the pictures of domestic manners are of the most simple and attaching character: the pathos is irresistible and deep. …

The scene between the Being and the blind De Lacey in the cottage, is one of the most profound and extraordinary instances of pathos that we ever recollect. It is impossible to read this dialogue, — and indeed many others of a somewhat similar character, — without feeling the heart suspend its pulsations with wonder, and the tears stream down the cheeks.^

According to Shelley’s self-written review, “the direct moral of the book” is that social sensibility shapes character. With respect to the creature in Frankenstein, Shelley’s describes this lesson without some specifics:

It is impossible that he {the creature} should not have received among men that treatment which led to the consequences of his being a social nature. He was an abortion and an anomaly; and though his mind was such as its first impressions trained it, affectionate and full of moral sensibility, yet the circumstances of his existence are so monstrous and uncommon, that, when the consequences of them became developed in action, his original goodness was gradually turned into the fuel of an inextinguishable misanthropy and revenge.^

To understand this description fully, you need to read the book. Both the creature and Elizabeth explicitly echo this lesson in Frankenstein.^ The creature has a horrid appearance and a harsh-sounding voice. Frankenstein emphasizes that these sensible features repulsed persons who met the creature.^ Treated with scorn, the creature became wicked and began murdering Victor’s family and friends.

Frankenstein presents striking examples of rapidly mixed emotional extremes common in the literature of sensibility. The creature describes gaining his first understanding of the world through his sensations. Fire delights him. Then he touches the live embers and recoils with a cry of pain.^ After withdrawing his hand in pain from the fire, the creature immediately reports, “How strange, I thought, that the same cause should produce such opposite effects!” The creature apparently had been studying Platonic philosophy.^ ^

Emotional lability in Frankenstein generally takes cognitively developed forms. The novel’s very first sentence mixes rejoicing, disaster, and evil forebodings:

You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.

Walton is journeying to the north pole. He describes the pole with an emotional contrast:

I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.^

When he boards Walton’s ship, Victor is “generally melancholy and despairing, and sometimes he gnashes his teeth.” His emotional expression, however, changes instantaneously in response to an external stimulus:

if any one performs an act of kindness towards him, or does him the most trifling service, his whole countenance is lighted up, as it were, with a beam of benevolence and sweetness that I never saw equaled.

… Once, however, the lieutenant asked, Why he had come so far upon the ice in so strange a vehicle?

His countenance instantly assumed an aspect of the deepest gloom^

With respect to his forthcoming journey, Walton writes that he feels ineffable, mixed sensations:

I cannot describe to you my sensations on the near prospect of my undertaking. It is impossible to communicate to you a conception of the trembling sensation, half pleasurable and half fearful, with which I am preparing to depart.^

The inadequacy of verbal language to represent sensibility is a central trope in the literature of sensibility.^ Emotions in literature of sensibility often change too rapidly to be actually bodily. These rapidly changing emotions can only be emotions experienced through higher cognitive processes in the brain.

Shelley explicitly associated emotional lability with cognitive development. Victor attempts to lift his mood by climbing a mountain. He remembers that the view from the summit had “filled me with a sublime ecstasy that gave wings to the soul.” On the ascent he encounters a “terrifically desolate” scene, devastated trees, somber pines, and “rain poured from the dark sky.” He naturally feels melancholy. Reaching a high point, Victor sees mountain peaks, and his feelings transform:

Their icy and glittering peaks shone in the sunlight over the clouds. My heart, which was before sorrowful, now swelled with something like joy

But then Victor spots a figure racing toward him with superhuman speed:

I was troubled: a mist came over my eyes, and I felt a faintness seize me; but I was quickly restored by the cold gale of the mountains. I perceived, as the shape came nearer (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created. I trembled with rage and horror, resolving to wait his approach, and then close with him in mortal combat. He approached; his countenance bespoke bitter anguish, combined with disdain and malignity, while its unearthly ugliness rendered it almost too horrible for human eyes.

Just prior to these emotional changes, Victor reflected on human sensibility:

Alas! why does man boast of sensibilities superior to those apparent in the brute; it only renders them more necessary beings. If our impulses were confined to hunger, thirst, and desire, we might be nearly free; but now we are moved by every wind that blows, and a chance word or scene that that word {wind} may convey to us.^

Underscoring Victor’s claim that higher sensibility imprisons human emotions in their sensible circumstances, Frankenstein quotes (without attribution) the last two stanzas from Shelley’s poem, Mutability: “laugh, or weep, … be it joy or sorrow, …Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow; / nought may endure but mutability!”^

Shelley’s translations and revisions show concern to heighten emotions. The fifth-century Athenian Prometheus Bound describes the sensations, changing daily, to which Prometheus is subject. Here’s a recent scholarly translation of the relevant lines:

… baked by the sun’s bright flame,
Your skin’s bloom will wither, and you’ll be glad
When night in her robe of stars removes the light,
And the sun again dispels the frost at dawn.^

A recent poetic translation of those same lines lessens the emotional mutability and accentuates Prometheus’s pain and desperation:

The sun’s bright rays will
scorch you black with his
fire so that you will cry out for
night with her mantle of stars;
and then again for dawn and the sun that
scatters the frost and renews your terrible
pain.^

About July, 1817, Shelley translated the first third of Prometheus Bound. Shelley’s translation apparently was dictated to Mary Godwin, perhaps from a working draft. It was not polished for publication. Here are Prometheus’s daily-changing circumstances in Shelley’s translation:

But slowly scorched by the burning beam of the sun
The flower of thy skin will perish – delightful to thee
Night with robe of many hues will hide the light.
And the sun will dissipate again the eastern frost^

Shelley’s unpolished translation is more lyrical than either of the above. “Flower of thy skin” and “night with robe of many hues” adds colors to the contrasting colors of scorching sunlight and frost. The alliteration and rhythm of “slowly scorched by the burning beam of the sun” give that line a punishing force that the other translations lack. Yet within the same small, temporally cycling passage, “delightful to thee / night” heightens positive emotion far beyond “you will cry out for / night” and “you’ll be glad / When night.” Shelley’s translation does so both semantically and with its “night” rhyme with “light.”

Shelley revised the ending of Frankenstein to heighten contrasting emotions. In an early draft of Frankenstein’s penultimate paragraph, the creature declares:

I shall ascend my pile triumphantly & the flame that consumes my body will give rest & blessing to my mind.^

The corresponding passage in Frankenstein as published in 1818 is more lyrical and forceful:

I shall ascent my funeral pile triumphantly, and exult in the agony of the torturing flames. The light of that conflagration will fade away; my ashes will be swept into the sea by the winds. My spirit will sleep in peace; or if it thinks, it will not surely think thus.^

Both versions welcome death as a victory that brings serene oblivion. The revision, however, extends and enacts the prior version. Specifying more precisely “my pile” as “my funeral pile” heightens the contrast with “triumphantly.” This contrast is pushed even higher with “exult in the agony of the torturing flames.” The subsequent sentences enact the fading away. The wind acts through a sibilant-stressed, passive verbal construction: “be swept into the sea.” “My spirit” is described impersonally, abstractly, and distantly. The revision thus gives effective poetic form to the emotional contrast set up in the earlier version.

Shelley recognized different emotions in different circumstances of symbolic competition. Horrified by the results of his work in natural philosophy and delighted with Clerval’s arrival at university, Victor joined with Clerval in study of Greek and Latin, and then Persian, Arabic, and Hebrew. Victor explains:

I … found not only instruction but consolation in the works of the orientalists. Their melancholy is soothing, and their joy elevating to a degree I never experienced in studying the authors of any other country. When you read their writings, life appears to consist in a warm sun and garden of roses, in the smiles and frowns of a fair enemy, and the fire that consumes your own heart. How different from the manly and heroical poetry of Greece and Rome.

Shelley elsewhere contrasted the bucolic and erotic poetry of the Hellenistic East with Homer’s epics and fifth-century Athenian tragedy. The bucolic and erotic poetry of the Hellenistic East is “intensely melodious; like the odour of the tuberose it overcomes and sickens the spirit with excess of sweetness.”^ Homer’s epics and fifth-century Athenian tragedy “endows the sense with a power of sustaining its extreme delight.” Shelley most clearly compares the two literatures in terms of the “inner facilities of our nature” and the external ones. The external facilities make a person sensible to “pleasure, passion, and natural scenery.” The inner facilities provide power to retain and transform ongoing sensations.^ Competition for attention was much greater in the Hellenistic era than in fifth-century Athens. Shelley’s contrast between poetry of the Hellenistic East and fifth-century Athenian tragedies maps onto the contrast between competition for attention and competition for acclaim. As Shelley understood well, the circumstances for public works in early nineteenth England were predominately competition for attention.

| | |

I don’t want you to worry. I don’t want you to suffer. I am not mad at you. Shed no tears for me. Even though you don’t know me, I love you, I love ya’ll. I ask ya’ll in your heart to forgive me^

My love to my son, my daughter, Nancy, Kathy, Randy, and my future grandchildren. I ask for forgiveness for all of the poison that I brought into the US, the country I love. Please forgive me for my sins. If my murder makes it easier for everyone else let the forgiveness please be a part of the healing. Go ahead Warden, murder me. Jesus take me home.^

Jennifer, where are you at? I’m sorry, I did not know the man but for a few seconds before I shot him. It was done out of fear, stupidity, and immaturity. It wasn’t until I got locked up and saw the newspaper. I saw his face and his smile and I knew he was a good man. I am sorry for all your family and my disrespect – he deserved better. Sorry Gus. I hope all the best for you and your daughters. I hope you have happiness from here on out. Quit the heroin and methadone. I love you dad, Devin, and Walt. We’re done Warden.^

| | |

Competition for attention heightened emotional mixing in Romantic images of imprisonment. London theater at the beginning of the seventeenth century depended on a mix of royal patronage and appeal to the extraordinarily populous city. In these circumstances, William Shakespeare wrote King Lear. Toward the end of that play, the king, a man of immediate feeling, is wondrously united with his daughter. Then both are captured in a battlefield loss. The king is neither vengeful nor despondent. Refusing his daughter’s hints of confrontation, he exclaims to her:

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison.
We two alone will sing like birds i’ th’ cage.
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness. So we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too —
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out —
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies; and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by th’ moon.^

Lear imagines happiness in personal actions that his excited mind generates with great specificity and range. He presents ordinary communication as providing a superior perspective on courtly competition for status. Despite ample motivation for emotional change, his joy endures.

Lear’s romantic imagination of imprisonment takes a characteristically different form in Shelley and Byron. Immediately after Prometheus is unbound in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, Prometheus declares that he and Asia, the “light of life,” henceforth shall not part. He imagines living in a cave with the lovely Asia, and also with Asia’s sister nymph Ione. While the cave is a space for realizing the beautiful, good, and true, it isn’t a place of emotional stability:

A simple dwelling, which shall be our own;
Where will sit and talk of time and change,
As the world ebbs and flows, ourselves unchanged.
What can hide man from mutability?
And if ye sigh, than I will smile; and thou,
Ione, shall chant fragments of sea-music,
Until I weep, when ye shall smile away
The tears she brought, which yet were sweet to shed.^

In Byron’s The Prisoner of Chillon, a stanza’s worth of negation places the prisoner in a void – “Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless!” Then a bird’s carol flashes across the prisoner’s sensory imagination. The bird’s song connects sound and sight:

The sweetest song ear ever heard,
And mine was thankful till my eyes
Ran over with glad surprise

The prisoner’s senses come back to their “wonted track” and “the dungeon walls and floor / close slowly round me as before.” But the prisoner perceives a glimmer of the sun, and then the bird. His emotions flip back to joy:

A lovely bird, with azure wings,

And it was come to love me when
None lived to love me so again,
And cheering from my dungeon’s brink,
Had brought me back to feel and think.

The prisoner imagines that the bird might be his brother’s soul. The bird flies away:

And left me twice so double lone, —
Lone – as the corpse within its shroud,
Lone – as a solitary cloud,
A single cloud on a sunny day,
While all the rest of heaven is clear,
A frown upon the atmosphere,
That hath no business to appear
When skies are blue, and earth is gay^

Byron’s bird is an abstract, extra-sensory idea that prompts for the prisoner oscillating emotions. More generally, Byron and Shelley represent not just an inner protected world of inmates or prisoners, but one in which emotional changes are the focal actions. Byron’s Lament of Tasso (1817) projects Tasso’s temporal, circumstantial rejection and suffering into eternal, abstract romantic union and fame. Actions of ordinary life are largely walled out.

A starling in a cage cries, “I can’t get out, I can’t get out.” Through the gift economy and the money economy, the bird in the cage circulates widely. But the bird remains in the cage. Look at the bird through the lattice of your mind:

I beheld his body half-wasted away with long expectation and confinement, and felt what kind of sickness of heart it was which arises from hope deferr’d. Upon looking nearer I saw him pale and feverish: in thirty years the western breeze had not once fann’d his blood – he had seen no sun, no moon in all that time – nor had the voice of friend or kinsman breathed through his lattice – his children … I burst into tears. – I could not sustain the picture of confinement which my fancy had drawn.^

So you put down the book, change the channel, click to another page, or touch to a different view. From then (the year 1768) to today, competition for attention to symbolic works has intensified greatly. So too has the number of prisoners.

Prisoners today have relatively poor opportunities for personal communication with their families and friends. Laughter and tears are part of life. Communicative circumstances affect how closely laughter and tears are temporally mixed and the extent to which they motivate action. If Adam Smith were alive today and writing a sequel to his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), he would recognize the significance of the nature and extent of symbolic markets on prisoners’ welfare.^

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *