ROMANTICISM'S OTHER MINDS: POETRY, COGNITION, AND THE SCIENCE OF SOCIABILITY by John Savarese, Reviewed by Mark J. Bruhn
 


ROMANTICISM'S OTHER MINDS: POETRY, COGNITION, AND THE SCIENCE OF SOCIABILITY
By John Savarese
(Ohio State, 2020) viii + 192 pp.
Reviewed by Mark J. Bruhn on 2021-01-12.

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In just under 170 succinctly argued pages, John Savarese's first monograph gives a surprisingly copious account of poetry's instrumental role in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century theories of humans' socio-cognitive endowment and development. While Locke, Hume, and Kant conceived the individual mind as an essentially private realm of sensational, passionate, and rational experience, Savarese shows that a broad countercurrent of cultural-anthropological conjecture about linguistic and literary origins led to alternative models of the human mind "that variously emphasized the impersonal, the intersubjective, and the collective" (4) and that accordingly prefigure today's "4E" model of the embodied, embedded, enactive, and extended mind.

This cognitive historicist study builds on two productive decades of related research, including Alan Richardson's British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (2001) and The Neural Sublime (2010), Nancy Yousef's Isolated Cases (2004), Noel Jackson's Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (2008), Amanda Jo Goldstein's Sweet Science (2017), and Richard Sha's Imagination and Science in Romanticism (2018). As Savarese explains, cognitive historicism is "a method that looks to contemporary cognitive science as a way to strengthen the historicist project rather than challenge it"; thus, "the book's primary commitment is to the historical discourse" and in particular to the ways "that Romantic writers made physiological approaches to the mind the basis for an array of contingent, culturally embedded accounts of cognition" (12-13). Like the books just cited, this one treats "poetry, cultural history, and natural philosophy as fundamentally overlapping discourses and as occupying the same shared interdisciplinary spaces" (77).

Savarese's leading example of this interdisciplinary overlap is the discourse of literary antiquarianism, in particular its use of ancient and popular poetry as evidence for conjectural histories of literary origins within and across cultural and proto-national folk traditions. Because those origins are oral and prehistoric, antiquarians could not sample them directly but only conjecturally, by reading ancient written poetry for traces of still more ancient orality or, alternatively, by analyzing "universally" appealing ballad poetry such as "Chevy Chase," which, as Joseph Addison suggested, evidently had "some peculiar aptness to gratify the mind of man" despite wide differences in historical situation and social station (25). These two lines of poetic evidence, however, did not converge in a coherent picture either of literature's origins or of the capacities of human cognition that make literature possible. Books such as Thomas Blackwell's Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer (1735), Robert Lowth's Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews (1754), and Hugh Blair's "Critical Dissertation on the Poems of Ossian" (1763) construed ancient poetry as indexing "the earliest stages of cognitive life" in "precultural" sensation and passion (21). But this essentially lyric conception of the primitive mind was challenged by an implicitly narrative model derived from the native ballad traditions. While ancient verse was said to voice essentially private experience in an overheard poetry of imagery, feeling, and figure, ballad verse such as Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) and Joseph Ritson's Ancient Songs (1790) appeared more intrinsically social both in its cognitive foundations and its expressive functions. The competing claims for lyric and narrative minds and kinds, Savarese observes, persisted through and well beyond the Romantic period, resurfacing in everything from J. S. Mill's tendentious ranking of lyric above narrative in "What is Poetry" (1833) to contemporary cognitive literary studies, which likewise attribute different cognitive origins and functions to the different genres (5-13).

Recounted in chapter 1, this antiquarian debate sets the context for the four case studies that follow, beginning with James Macpherson's Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760). Thanks to his education at the University of Aberdeen, Macpherson would have been exposed both to Blackwell's primitive poetics of sensation and feeling and to Thomas Reid's commonsense philosophy of intellectual powers, including the early-developing ability to read "natural signs" of others' thoughts and feelings through their facial expressions, gestures, and intonations (58). In light of this background, Savarese "frames the Ossian project as an intervention in then-current theories of ancient poetry, which made the ancient text the site of information about the primitive mind" (44). While Blackwell, Lowth, and Blair construed the primitive mind as fundamentally personal, private, and pre-social, Savarese argues that Macpherson stressed instead its embodied sociability. "In Macpherson's hands," he writes, "ancient poetry carries with it primitive models of relationships between minds," in particular their folk-psychological ability to attribute beliefs, desires, emotions, and intentions to others "not as an act of primitive, animistic projection but by bodily observation [...] as an act of reading" (58, 65). The distinction between animistic projection from the inside out and embodied reading from the outside in is forcefully exemplified by the fragment narrating Morna's death. Quite inauthentically and therefore pointedly, Macpherson's mimesis of first-person lyric orality gives way here to a clearly scripted form of third-person narrative perspective-taking that functions as "the equivalent of free indirect discourse" by representing one mind reading the embodied but otherwise unvoiced intentions of another (64).

While "Macpherson's experimentation with refashioning ancient poetry," Savarese writes, "consistently pushes toward new models of an embodied and embedded mind" (43), that mind's innate sociability nevertheless remains a mysterious given. In the poetry and prose of Anna Laetitia Barbauld, to which Savarese next turns, related materials (e.g., Reid's "reliabilist" philosophy, 85) and methods (including Ossianic verse form) contribute to a more explicit model of mind in which native social capacities are developmentally scaffolded by material artifacts and sociocultural practices. According to Savarese, Barbauld unites a "moral sense" foundationalism derived from Shaftesbury and Hutcheson with a more constructivist view derived from Hartley and Priestley, who admit the bootstrapping effects of caregiving, education, religious practice, and other "prejudicial" forms of social transmission, including poetry (72, 87). For Barbauld, then, poetry functions not as a mirror of the primitive mind but as a nurturer of the socially progressive mind, in keeping with Priestley's Course of Lectures on the Theory of Language and Universal Grammar (1762) and with her brother and co-collaborator John Aiken's Essays on Song-Writing (1772). Thus, Savarese contends, Barbauld's poetry and especially her pedagogical experiments in Ossianic "measured prose" (e.g., "Seláma" and Hymns in Prose) illustrate in practice what is argued in principle by her essays "On Monastic Institutions" (1773), "endorses" (1798), and "On Prejudice" (1800): that poetry is "less an origin point, or a mark of the 'natural' mind's original ways of thinking and feeling, and more a scaffolding technology, a mark of a still 'barbarous' mind's gradual, incipient development" (92).

If Macpherson represents the mind as socially embodied and Barbauld represents it as socially embedded, Savarese argues in his third case study that Wordsworth extends the conception of the social mind beyond individual bodies and shared technologies to the natural world itself. While Barbauld's socially scaffolded care-giving, education, and religious and poetic practices require an intentional and "labored process" to support "individual acquisition" (128), Wordsworth's extended mind works more easily, drinking in moral wisdom ready-made from nature rather than arduously acquiring it through disciplinary toil and trouble. Wordsworth stages a conflict between these two externalist modes of socio-cognitive formation in "Expostulation and Reply" and "The Tables Turned." But elsewhere he admits that by itself, nature's ready-made wisdom cannot ensure the healthy development of the social mind; in a letter of March 6, 1804 he advised a young De Quincey to "love Nature and Books; seek these and you will be happy." Wordsworth is not a primitivist. Though he indulges the antiquarian method of conjectural history to project this natural-constructivist theory onto the "primitive" mind of his own early childhood, Savarese suggests that, in terms of his poetic practice, Wordsworth's love of nature follows from his love of mankind rather than leading to it. Throughout Lyrical Ballads and even as late as "The Leech-gatherer," Wordsworth is said to have primarily engaged with "debates about rustic language" and "the collective scaffolding of the ordinary mind" (108). Primitivist claims in the "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads notwithstanding, he effectively endorses the Coleridgean position that the "best part" of ordinary language results from what Savarese calls "a built environment that structure[s] and scaffold[s] the individual mind" (112). Hence, Savarese contends, the Leech-gatherer's "choice word and measured phrase; above the reach / Of ordinary men," owes more to the influence of "godly Books" than to nature (120-123), and hence, more generally, Wordsworth's poetics aims to "refin[e] thinking in the vernacular" (114).

For Savarese, however, 1802 marks a "transitional moment" in which Wordsworth "tries to reframe [such] cultural scaffolds as features of the mind's interaction with the natural world" (108). This new line of thinking culminates in the development and redisposition of key passages of The Prelude (Spots of Time, Blind Beggar, Snowdon) to emphasize "the kind of poetic 'power' Wordsworth is trying to name--one that looks like nature thinking for him and that, while it resembles analogy, emblem, or allegory, is assembled by the world rather than by the mind" (132).

In his final case study, Savarese investigates Davie Gellatley in Walter Scott's Waverley as a character who embodies the entanglement of cognitive and poetic origins in a biologically non-normative and socially outmoded way. Though Scott allusively links Davie to Wordsworth's "Idiot Boy," Savarese contrasts the two representations of mental disability, especially insofar as "Scott's treatment of Davie more closely resembles the cognitive-scientific model of localized, functionally specific impairment," in which "discrete and separable faculties can be selectively under- or over-developed" (142). In Davie's case, an obviously overdeveloped capacity to memorize traditional song and verse is coupled with an underdeveloped capacity for social interaction. If Waverley marks Scott's farewell to naïve poetry in favor of sentimental fiction, his representation of Davie might be understood to imply that the socially progressive mind has outgrown poetry both cognitively and culturally. Yet just as Scott's narrator presents him sympathetically and, indeed, instrumentally from beginning to end, so the disenchanted Highland society of Waverly incorporates Davie cheerfully and enduringly. For Savarese, these accommodations indicate a much deeper relationship than the mere shift to "sentimental narrative" from the "more rote, automatic modes of cultural transmission" such as popular ballad poetry and song that the novel is supposed to supersede (150). Like Macpherson, Savarese writes, "Scott . . . suggests that turning back to traditional poetry may be a way to defamiliarize what sociability means in the first place and to generate new alternatives" (163).

But in many ways, Scott's socio-cognitive alternative is the reverse of Macpherson's. Besides the fact that Davie's mind is insurmountably inscrutable to other minds (including the narrator's), Savarese finds Waverly generically modern insofar as its "disenchanting trajectory ultimately looks toward the ballad as a modernizing form rather than as the premodern vestige the sentimental novel leaves in its wake" (150).The most striking proof of this claim comes by way of Robert Chambers, author of both Illustrations of the Author of Waverley (1825) and Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation (1844). The first book considers almost clinically a possible real-life prototype for Davie; the second one, Savarese argues, reprises the implied argument of the first in more systematic anthropological terms: terms that directly influenced Charles Darwin's conception of the "automatic basis of human actions" arising from "the functionally differentiated mind" (161). In this respect, Savarese suggests, the pseudo-science of antiquarian conjectural history at last matured into true (or at least truer) sciences of mind and poetry. The functional differentiation model has not only survived but now prevails in contemporary cognitive science and, closer to home, in cognitive literary studies from its beginnings in the early 1990s (10-11).

Perforce, I have merely sampled the wide-ranging archaeologies and provocative arguments on offer in this book, which nonetheless prompts at least one objection regarding the category of the "social" itself. Savarese might have more exactly defined and more consistently applied this category, for here it may mean anything from Shaftesbury's moral sense to Simon Baron-Cohen's mindreading, with intersubjective belief and trust, traditions of oral practice and textual transmission, and natural affordances and agencies somewhere in between. But this is just Savarese's point: these various models of social cognition were scaffolded by eighteenth-century antiquarian poetics and British Romantic experiments in ancient poetry, measured prose, poetic autobiography, and sentimental fiction, in ways that influenced their subsequent development in the sciences proper, from the mid-nineteenth century to this very day. From the opposite direction, the stubborn plurality of models raises another possible objection, but one that may be just as easily answered: in a more exhaustive study of the works of the authors treated here, each might be shown to have advocated or experimented with all these hypothetical possibilities and more, from primitive sensational solipsism and animism to progressive technological scaffolding that at once reproduces and resists the prevailing economic and political conditions that make it possible. But again, that's just the point: the Romantic mind was not one individual, private, and unified thing, but many possible things, from that Cartesian archetype to its functionally diversified antithesis in what we now understand as proto-evolutionary theory. Rather than exhausting his topic, Savarese offers a richly suggestive and satisfying cultural history of romantic poetics that may be equally recommended as an exemplary study in cognitive historicism.

Mark J. Bruhn is Professor of English at Regis University in Denver, Colorado.


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