Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Politics of Sentiment: Notes toward a New Account

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The Politics of Sentiment: Notes toward a New Account

Article excerpt

IT HAS LONG STRUCK ME AS PECULIAR THAT RAYMOND WILLIAMS, OUR great political philologist of British culture and society in the longue duree, did not include "sentiment" or "sentimental" in his encyclopedia of keywords. This omission becomes especially odd when you consider that one of the conceptual payoffs of his critical project was the notion of "structures of feeling." (1) Traditional philological work on the emergence of the term sentimental traces it to the late 1740S. There is no doubt, however, that from the 1750S the word "sentimental" was routinely associated with a new way of producing narrative, nor that by 1768, when Sterne coined a new phrase for A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy, this massively influential work, together with the book to which it was a sequel, established the term and the mode on a lasting footing. Jean-Claude Gorjy's Sternean effort, Le Nouveau voyage sentimental (1784) was just one of many books so titled in France. One measure of the novelty of the term sentimental in 1768, however, is that when a German writer attempted to translate it into German, he had to coin a new word in German--empfindsam--to capture the English neologism. This philology has been pretty well worked out by a number of scholars. (2) There has been some attention paid to the implications of the emergence of the sentimental in literary and dramatic contexts for issues of what might be called "probability," the Aristotelian question of how to understand cause and effect in the rendering of a world. (3) But again, what has been less thoroughly worked out is the political dimension of this new or newly recognized mode, though there have been some promising efforts. (4)

For example, the question is taken up in one of the most carefully argued and persuasively detailed books on Romanticism and politics in recent years--John Barrell's Imagining the King's Death--which opens with an account of the role played by what Barrell calls "the language of sentiment" in shaping responses to the upheavals of the mid-1790s. (5) For Barrell, this language was a primary medium in which scenes from the 1793 execution of Louis xvI, especially the final interview with his family, were represented in Britain. It was a medium, Barrel] stresses, with effects all its own, effects that turn out to be "hard to control," and in ways that prove crucial to his argument. His subject is the unfolding of the notorious treason trials in 1794-95, when Thomas Hardy, John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall and Thomas Holcroft were accused of violating a medieval statute of 1351 that made it a capital offense to "imagine the King's death." Barrell shows how the sentimentally enhanced capacity of the English to imagine the actual death of the deceased French king made it easier for them to imagine the possible death of their own king, George the Third, and thus to accuse others of doing so treasonously.

Perhaps the central player in Barrell's brilliantly recounted narrative is Edmund Burke, who had, a month before the French regicide, already warned his colleagues in the House of Commons that agents were at large in Britain who might "perhaps be commissioned" to murder the British royal family with daggers purpose-made in Birmingham (where Priestley had recently been burned out). Burke punctuated his remarks, as registered in the Parliamentary History and several contemporary caricatures, by producing a dagger from his own coat and hurling it down on the floor of the house. "Of all loyalists," writes Barrell, Burke "was the fondest of the extreme rhetorical effects which could be achieved by inviting his audience in parliament, and his readers outside, to join him in the thrills, the terror, the tears provoked by imagining the king's death" (87). Burke was mobilizing rhetorical resources he had notoriously developed in his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), which ignited the great British controversy over the French Revolution. …

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