The reason he can do so becomes clear, I think, if we trace the history of the word dissolve (and its analogues) back through the Romantics to the Eighteenth Century. For the extraordinary prolifera tion of images of dissolution in the Romantic period, the manifold uses to which they are put and also the tendency for their meanings or values to polarize, has a good deal to do with the fact that English Romanticism was nourished in important respects by eighteenth-century empiricism and sensationism. Notoriously, the notion that the mind, in acquiring the materials for reflection, is completely passive was an axiom of eighteenth-century thinking; perceiving entails, in the first place, submission to an influx of sensation. How a climate of opinion in which
this notion is a donnee could make available for Romantic poetry the affiliated images in which I am interested is demonstrated by a sequence of argument in Burke’s Enquiry. Part IV Section XIX bears the caption ‘the physical cause of love’ and runs as follows:
When we have before us such objects as excite love and complacency, the body is affected, so far as I could observe, much in the following manner. The head reclines some thing on one side; the eyelids are more closed than usual, and the eyes roll gently with an inclination to the object, the mouth is a little opened, and the breath drawn slowly, with now and then a low sigh: the whole body is composed, and the hands fall idly to the sides. All this is accompanied with an inward sense of melting and languor. These ap pearances are always proportioned to the degree of beauty in the object, and of sensibility in the observer. And this gradation from the highest pitch of beauty and sensibility, even to the lowest of mediocrity and indifference, and their correspondent effects, ought to be kept in view, else this description will seem exaggerated, which it certainly is not. But from this description it is almost impossible not to conclude, that beauty acts by relaxing the solids of the whole system. There are all the appearances of such a relaxation; and a relaxation somewhat below the natural tone seems to me to be the cause of all positive pleasure. Who is a stranger to that manner of expression so common in all times and in all countries, of being softened, relaxed, enervated, dissolved, melted away by pleasure?