chapter  1
27 Pages

Emotion

Main works discussed: The Wakefield Second Shepherds’ Play; Samuel Beckett, Endgame; Kate Chopin, The Awakening

Regard for the affective dimension of literary texts and literary experience has waxed and waned in the professional study of literature because concern for our emotional engagements with texts has not always been considered sufficiently rigorous, objective or historical. Nevertheless, the affinity between literature and emotion reaches back into classical antiquity and has been subsequently affirmed by innumerable writers, critics, philosophers and theorists. In the classical cultures of Greece and Rome, literature was closely aligned with oratory and rhetoric, and oratory and rhetoric were understood to be powerful means of making knowledge lively and persuasive through the appeal that they make to the emotions. For classical authors such as Aristotle, Horace, Cicero, Quintilian, the aims of poetry, oratory and rhetoric were docere, to teach, delectare, to please – or ‘interest’ as Brian Vickers translates it – and movere, to stir the emotions (Vickers 1999: 15). This last aim required what might now be called emotional intelligence. Among the various qualities deemed by Cicero in De Oratore to be vital in the ideal orator is a ‘thorough acquaintance with all the emotions with which nature has endowed the human race, because in soothing or in exciting the feelings of the audience the full force of oratory and all its available means must be brought into play’ (Cicero [written 55 BC] 2001: 61). Emotion, and in particular the emotions of pity and fear, are also at the heart of the West’s first, influential theorist of tragedy, Aristotle. The resurgence of classical learning and rhetoric in the Renaissance

was therefore by definition a resurgence of the science of the emotions advocated by the likes of Cicero, with the numerous handbooks on

rhetoric/poetry that appeared during the Renaissance describing, among other things, the emotional effects of various figures of speech (see, as examples: Wilson [1553] 1585, Puttenham [1589] 1936, Erasmus [1512] 1978). Even as the links between poetry, rhetoric and oratory were severed because the perceived artificiality of rhetoric sometimes came to be seen as an obstacle to the heartfelt expression of emotion, the importance of emotion persisted in both the practice and theory of postclassical, vernacular literature, most notably, though not exclusively, in the Romantic tradition. In the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads (1798), Wordsworth argues that the ‘truth’ aimed at by poetry does not stand upon ‘external testimony’ but is ‘carried alive into the heart by passion’ (Wordsworth [1798] 1992: 73). Later, in the early twentieth century, the modernist T. S. Eliot, in reaction against what he saw as the Romantics’ and especially Wordsworth’s attempt to turn poetry into emotional self-expression, would deliver the dictum that ‘poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion’; yet this was not intended as an embargo upon emotion but as a way of (re)focusing attention upon ‘the emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet’ (Eliot [1932] 1951: 21, 22). Given the persistence of the connection between literature and emotion to which these and other writers attest, the recent resurgence of interest in literary affect might best be understood less as a radical innovation than as a return to literature’s and literary criticism’s heartland (as examples of this resurgence, see Altieri 2003, Robinson 2005, Keen [2007] 2010, Hogan 2011).1