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Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility

Author(s): Northrop Frye

Source: ELH, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Jun., 1956), pp. 144-152
Published by: Johns Hopkins University Press
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The period of English literaturewhich covers roughlythe

secondhalf of the eighteenthcenturyis one whichhas always
suffered fromnot having a clear historicalor functionallabel
applied to it. I call it here the age of sensibility,which is
not intendedto be anythingbut a label. This period has the
" Augustan" age on one side of it and the " Romantic" move-
menton the other,and it is usually approachedtransitionally,
as a periodof reactionagainstPope and anticipationof Words-
worth. The chaos that resultsfromtreatingthisperiod,or any
other,in termsof reactionhas been well describedby Professor
Crane in a recentarticlein the TorontoQuarterly.What we do
is to set up, as the logical expressionof Augustanism,some
impossiblypedantic view of followingrules and repressing
feelings,whichnobodycould everhave held,and thentreatany
symptomof freedomor emotionas a departurefromthis. Our
studentsare thus graduatedwith a vague notionthat the age
of sensibilitywas the timewhenpoetrymoved froma reptilian
Classicism,all cold and dryreason,to a mammalianRomanti-
cism,all warmand wet feeling.
As forthe term" pre-romantic," that, as a termforthe age
itself,has thepeculiardemeritofcommitting us to anachronism
beforewe start,and imposinga false teleologyon everything
we study. Not only did the " pre-romantics " not know that
the Romanticmovementwas goingto succeed them,but there
has probablynever been a case on recordof a poet's having
regardeda laterpoet's workas the fulfilment of his own. How-
* This and the followingtwo papers were read beforeEnglish Group VIII of the
Modern Language Associationin 1955. The purpose of the programwas to consider
the question of whetherthe literatureof the later eighteenthcentury is merely
transitionalor whetherit justifiesand calls for a distinctkind of estheticanalysis.
E. R. W.

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ever,I do not care about terminology, only about appreciation
foran extraordinarily interestingperiod of English literature,
and the firststage in renewingthat appreciationseems to me
the gainingof a clear senseof what it is in itself.
Some languagesuse verb-tensesto express,not time,but the
difference betweencompletedand continuousaction. And in
the historyof literaturewe become aware,not only of periods,
but of a recurrentoppositionof two views of literature.These
two views are the Aristotelianand the Longinian,the aesthetic
and the psychological,the view ofliteratureas productand the
view of literatureas process. In our day we have acquired a
good deal of respectforliteratureas process,notablyin prose
fiction.The streamof consciousnessgets carefultreatmentin
our criticism,and when we compareArnoldBennett and Vir-
ginia Woolf on the subject of Mrs. Brown we generallytake
the side of VirginiaWoolf. So it seems that our age ought to
feel a close kinshipwith the prose fictionof the age of sensi-
bility,when the sense of literatureas process was broughtto
a peculiarlyexquisiteperfectionby Sterne,and in lesserdegree
by Richardsonand Boswell.
All the greatstory-tellers,
includingthe Augustanones,have
a strongsense of literatureas a finishedproduct. The suspense
is thrownforwarduntilit reachesthe end, and is based on our
confidence that the authorknowswhatis comingnext. A story-
tellerdoes not break his illusionby talkingto the reader as
Fielding does, because we know fromthe start that we are
listeningto Fielding tellinga story-that is, Johnson'sargu-
mentsabout illusionin dramaapplyequally wellto prosefiction
of Fielding'skind. But when we turnto TristramShandy we
not onlyread the book but watchthe authorat workwritingit:
at any momentthe house of Walter Shandy may vanish and
be replacedby the author'sstudy. This does breakthe illusion,
or wouldiftherewereany illusionto break,but herewe are not
beingled into a story,but into the processof writinga story:
we wonder,not what is comingnext,but what the authorwill
thinkof next.
Sterneis, of course,an unusuallypure exampleof a process-
writer,but even in Richardsonwe findmany of the same char-
acteristics.Johnson'swell-known remarkthatifyou read Rich-
ardson for the storyyou would hang yourselfindicates that

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Richardson is not interestedin a plot with a quick-march
rhythm.Richardsondoes not throwthe suspenseforward,but
keeps the emotionat a continuouspresent. Readers of Pamela
have become so fascinatedby watchingthe sheetsof Pamela's
manuscriptspawningand secretingall over hermaster'shouse,
even into the recessesof her clothes,as she fendsoffassault
with one hand and writesabout it with the other,that they
sometimesoverlookthe reasonforan apparentlyclumsydevice.
The reasonis, of course,to give the impressionof literatureas
process,as created on the spot out of the events it describes.
And in the verybeginningof Boswellin London we can see the
boy of twenty-onealready practisingthe art of writingas a
continuousprocess fromexperience. When he writes of his
adventurewithLouisa he may be writingseveraldays afterthe
event,but he does not use his laterknowledge.
In poetrythe sense of literatureas a finishedproductnorm-
ally expressesitselfin some kind of regularlyrecurringmetre,
the generalpatternof whichis establishedas soon as possible.
In listeningto Pope's coupletswe have a sense of continually
fulfilledexpectationwhich is the opposite of obviousness: a
sense that eighteenth-century music also oftengives us. Such
a techniquedemandsa clear statementof what sound-patterns
we may expect. We hear at once the fullringof the rhyming
couplet,and all othersound-patternsare kept to a minimum.
In such a line as:
And strainsfromhard-bound
brainseightlinesa year,
the extraassonanceis a deliberatediscord,expressingthe diffi-
cultiesof constipatedgenius. Similarlywiththe alliterationin:
and the factthat these are deliberatediscordsused forparody
indicates that they are normallynot present. Johnson'sdis-
approval of such devices in seriouscontextsis writtenall over
the Lives of the Poets.
When we turn fromPope to the age of sensibility,we get
somethingof the same kind of shockthat we get whenwe turn
fromTennysonor Matthew Arnoldto Hopkins. Our ears are
assaulted by unpredictable assonances, alliterations,inter-
rhymings and echolalia:

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Mlielove ys dedde.
Gon to hysdeath-bedde
O'erhanghiswavybed ...
The couthycracksbeginwhansupper'so'er,
The cheering
But a pebbleofthebrook
Warbledout thesemetresmeet...
In many of the best-knownpoems of the period,in Smart's
Song to David, in Chatterton'selegies,in Burns's songs and
Blake's lyrics,even in some of the Wesley hymns,we finda
delightin refrainforrefrain'ssake. Sometimes,naturally,we
can see the appropriateliteraryinfluenceshelpingto shape the
form,such as the incrementalrepetitionof the ballad, or Old
Norse alliterationin The Fatal Sisters. And whatevermay be
thoughtof the poetic value of the Ossianic poems, most esti-
mates of that value parrot Wordsworth,and Wordsworth's
criticismsof Ossian's imageryare quite beside the point. The
vague generalizedimageryof Ossian, like the mysteriousreso-
nant names and the fixedepithets,are part of a deliberateand
well unifiedscheme. Fingal and Temora are long poems for
the same reasonthat Clarissa is a longnovel: not because there
is a complicatedstoryto be told, as in Tom Jonesor an epic
of Southey,but because the emotionis being maintainedat a
continuouspresentby variousdevicesof repetition.
The reasonfortheseintensified sound-patterns is, once again,
an interestin the poetic process as distinctfromthe product.
In the composingof poetry,whererhymeis as importantas
reason,thereis a primarystage in whichwords are linkedby
sound ratherthan sense. From the point of view of sense this
stage is merelyfreeor uncontrolledassociation,and in the way
it operatesit is verylike the dream. Again like the dream,it
has to meet a censor-principle,and shape itselfinto intelligible
patterns.Wheretheemphasisis on the communicatedproduct,
the qualities of consciousnesstake the lead: a regularmetre,
clarityof syntax,epigramand wit,repetitionof sense in anti-
thesis and balance ratherthan of sound. Swift speaks with
admirationof Pope's ability to get more " sense" into one
couplet than he can into six: concentrationof sense forhim is

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clearlya major criterionof poetry. Wherethe emphasisis on
the originalprocess,the qualities of subconsciousassociation
take the lead, and the poetrybecomeshypnoticallyrepetitive,
oracular,incantatory, dreamlikeand in the originalsenseof the
word charming. The response to it includes a subconscious
factor,the surrendering to a spell. In Ossian, who carriesthis
tendencyfurther than anyoneelse,the aim is not concentration
of sense but diffusionof sense, hence Johnson'sremarkthat
anybodycould writelike Ossian if he would abandon his mind
to it. Literatureas productmay take a lyricalform,as it does
in the sublimeode about whichProfessorMaclean has written
so well,but it is also the conceptionof literaturethat makes
the longer continuouspoem possible. Literature as process,
being based on an irregularand unpredictablecoincidenceof
sound-patterns, tendsto seek the briefor even the fragmentary
utterance, in other words to centreitselfon the lyric,which
accounts for the feelingof a sudden emergenceof a lyrical
impulse in the age of sensibility.
The " pre-romantic " approach to this period sees it as de-
velopinga conceptionof the creative imagination,which be-
came thebasis ofRomanticism.This is true,but theRomantics
tendedto see the poem as the productof the creativeimagina-
tion, thus revertingin at least one respect to the Augustan
attitude. For the Augustan,art is posteriorto naturebecause
natureis the art of God; forthe Romantic,art is priorto nature
because God is an artist;one deals in physicaland the otherin
biologicalanalogies,as ProfessorAbrams'Mirrorand theLamp
has shown. But for the Romantic poet the poem is still an
artefact:in Coleridge'sterms,a secondaryor productiveimagi-
nationhas been imposedon a primaryimaginativeprocess. So,
different as it is fromAugustan poetry,Romantic poetry is
like it in being a conservativerhetoric,and in being founded
on relativelyregularmetricalschemes. Poe's rejectionof the
continuouspoem does not express anythingvery central in
Romanticismitself,as nearlyeverymajor Romanticpoet com-
posedpoemsof considerable,sometimesimmense,length.Poe's
theoryis closerto the practiceof the age of sensibilitybefore
himand the symbolistesafterhim.
In the age of sensibilitymost of the long poems, of course,
simplycarryon withstandardcontinuousmetres,or exploitthe

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greaterdegreeof intensified recurrentsound affordedby stan-
zaic forms,notablythe Spenserian.But sometimesthe peculiar
problemsof making associative poetrycontinuouswere faced
in a moreexperimental way,experiments largelyignoredby the
Romantics. Oracularpoetryin a long formoftentends to be-
come a series of utterances,irregularin rhythmbut strongly
marked offone fromthe other. We notice in Whitman,for
instance,that the end of every line has a strongpause-for
whenthe rhythmis variable thereis no point in a run-online.
Sometimes this oracular rhythmtakes on at least a typo-
graphicalresemblanceto prose,as it does in Rimbaud's Saison
en Enfer,or,morefrequently, to a discontinuousblend ofprose
and versein whichthe sentence,the paragraphand the line are
muchthe same unit. The chiefliteraryinfluenceforthisrhythm
has always been the translatedBible, which took on a new
impetusin the age of sensibility;and if we studycarefullythe
rhythmof Ossian, of Smart's JubilateAgno and of the Blake
Prophecies,we can see threeverydifferent but equally logical
developmentsof this semi-Biblicalrhythm.
Wherethereis a strongsense of literatureas aestheticprod-
uct, thereis also a sense of its detachmentfromthe spectator.
Aristotle'stheory of catharsis describeshow this works for
tragedy:pityand fearare detachedfromthe beholderby being
directedtowardsobjects. Wherethereis a senseofliteratureas
process,pity and fearbecome states of mind withoutobjects,
moodswhichare commonto the workofart and thereader,and
whichbind themtogetherpsychologically insteadof separating
Fear without an object, as a condition of mind prior to
being afraid of anything,is called Angst or anxiety,a some-
what narrowtermforwhat may be almost anythingbetween
pleasure and pain. In the generalarea of pleasure comes the
eighteenth-century conceptionof the sublime,wherequalities
of austerity,gloom,grandeur,melancholyor even menace are
a source of romanticor penseroso feelings. The appeal of
Ossian to his timeon thisbasis needs no comment.From here
we move throughthe graveyardpoets,the Gothic-horror nove-
lists and the writersof tragicballads to such fleursdu mat as
Cowper's Castaway and Blake's Golden Chapel poem in the

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Pity withoutan object has never to my knowledgebeen
givena name,but it expressesitselfas an imaginativeanimism,
or treatingeverythingin nature as thoughit had human feel-
ings or qualities. At one end of its range is the apocalyptic
exultationof all natureburstinginto human lifethat we have
in Smart's Song to David and the ninthNight of The Four
Zoas. Next comes an imaginativesympathywith the kind of
folklorethat peoples the countrysidewith elemental spirits,
such as we have in Collins,Fergusson,Burns and the Wartons.
Next we have the curiouslyintense awareness of the animal
world which (except for some poems of D. H. Lawrence) is
unrivalledin this period,and is expressedin some of its best
realizedwriting:in Burns's To a Mouse, in Cowper'sexquisite
snail poem, in Smart's superblines on his cat Geoffrey, in the
famousstarlingand ass episodes in Sterne,in the openingof
Blake's AuguriesofInnocence. Finallycomesthe senseof sym-
pathywithman himself,the sense that no one can affordto be
indifferent to the fate of anyoneelse, whichunderliesthe pro-
tests against slaveryand miseryin Cowper,in Crabbe and in
Blake's Songs of Experience.
This concentration on the primitiveprocessof writingis pro-
jected in two directions,into nature and into history. The
appropriatenaturalsettingformuchofthe poetryof sensibility
is natureat one of the two poles of process,creationand decay.
The poet is attractedby the ruinousand themephitic,or by the
primeval and "unspoiled "-a picturesque subtly but per-
ceptiblydifferent fromthe Romanticpicturesque. The projec-
tionintohistoryassumesthat the psychologicalprogressof the
poet fromlyricalthroughepic to dramaticpresentations,dis-
cussed by Stephenat the end of Joyce'sPortrait,must be the
historicalprogressof literatureas well. Even as late as the
prefaceto VictorHugo's Cromwellthisasumptionpersists.The
Ossian and Rowley poems are not simple hoaxes: they are
pseudepigrapha,like the Book of Enoch, and like it they take
what is psychologically primitive,the oracularprocessof com-
position, and project as somethinghistoricallyprimitive.
The poetry of process is oracular,and the medium of the
oracle is oftenin an ecstaticor trance-likestate: autonomous
voices seem to speak throughhim, and as he is concernedto
utterratherthan to address,he is turnedaway fromhis listener,

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so to speak,in a state of rapt self-commnion.The freeassoci-
ation of words,in whichsound is priorto sense,is oftena liter-
ary way of representinginsanity. In Rimbaud's terrifyingly
accurate phrase, poetry of the associative or oracular type
requiresa " dereglementde tous les sens." Hence the qualities
that make a man an oracularpoet are oftenthe qualities that
work against, and sometimesdestroy,his social personality.
Far morethan the timeof Rimbaud and Verlaineis thisperiod
ofliteraturea periodofthe poete maudit. The listofpoets over
whomthe shadowsof mentalbreakdownfellis far too long to
be coincidence. The much publicized death of Chattertonis
certainlyone of the personaltragediesof the age, but an easier
one to take than the kind of agony whichis expressedwithan
almost definitive poignancyby Smartin JubilateAgno:
For in mynatureI questedforbeauty,but God, God,hathsent
me to sea forpearls.
It is characteristic of the age of sensibilitythat thispersonal
or biographicalaspect of it shouldbe so closelyconnectedwith
its central technicalfeature. The basis of poetic language is
the metaphor,and the metaphor,in its radical form,is a state-
mentof identity:" thisis that." In all our ordinaryexperience
the metaphoris non-literal:nobody but a savage or a lunatic
can take metaphorliterally.For Classical or Augustancritics
the metaphoris a condensedsimile: its real or common-sense
basis is likeness,not identity,and whenit obliteratesthe sense
of likenessit becomesbarbaric. In Johnson'sstrictureson the
music and water metaphorof Gray's Bard we can see what
intellectualabysses,forhim,would open up if metaphorsever
passed beyond the stage of resemblance. For the Romantic
critic,the identification in the metaphoris ideal: two images
are identifiedwithinthe mindof the creatingpoet.
But wheremetaphoris conceivedas part of an oracularand
half-ecstaticprocess,thereis a directidentification in whichthe
poet himselfis involved. To use anotherphrase of Rimbaud's,
the poet feelsnot " je pense," but " on me pense." In the age
ofsensibilitysomeoftheidentifications involvingthepoet seem
manic,like Blake's withDruidic bards or Smart'swithHebrew
prophets,or depressive,like Cowper's witha scapegoat figure,
a strickendeer or castaway, or merelybizarre,like Macpher-

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son s withOssian or Chatterton'swithRowley. But it is in this
psychologicalself-identification that the central " primitive"
quality of this age really emerges. In Collins's Ode on the
Poetical Character,in Smart's JubilateAgno, and in Blake's
Four Zoas, it attainsits greatestintensityand completeness.
In thesethreepoems,especiallythe last two,God, the poet's
soul and natureare broughtinto a white-hotfusionof identity,
an imaginativefieryfurnacein which the reader may, if he
chooses, make a fourth. All three poems are of the greatest
complexity,yet the emotionon whichthey are foundedis of
a simplicityand directnessthat English literaturehas rarely
attained again. With the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads,
secondaryimaginationand recollectionin tranquillitytook over
Englishpoetryand dominatedit untilthe end ofthe nineteenth
century.The primitivism ofBlake and Smartrevivedin France
with Rimbaud and Gerard de Nerval, but even this develop-
menthad becomeconservativeby the timeits influencereached
England,and onlyin a fewpoemsof Dylan Thomas, and those
perhapsnot his best, does the older traditionrevive. But con-
temporarypoetryis still deeply concernedwith the problems
and techniquesof the age of sensibility,and while the latter's
resemblanceto our timeis not a meritin it,it is a logicalenough
reasonforre-examining it withfresheyes.
Universityof Toronto

15,_1 Towards Definingan Age of Sensibility

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