Academic journal article Style

Aesthetics and Ideology in Felicia Hemans's the Forest Sanctuary: A Biocultural Perspective

Academic journal article Style

Aesthetics and Ideology in Felicia Hemans's the Forest Sanctuary: A Biocultural Perspective

Article excerpt

Over the past several decades, the canon of British literature has altered considerably, as women and other previously unstudied writers have become a central focus of investigation. But the terms on which these figures have been included in the canon are often somewhat murky. Both cultural studies and feminism place a premium on the contemporaneous popularity of a writer as a rationale for canonical status, viewing aesthetic criteria as self-interested terms of exclusion (Latane 208). For this reason, any perceived aesthetic shortcomings of recovered literature are generally delegitimized as a capitulation to values biased toward white males, and although only a few scholars champion the artistry of poems like Felicia Hemans's The Forest Sanctuary (Anderson; Sweet), criticism on the whole sidesteps the conflict between popularity and aesthetics.

The purpose of the present essay is to investigate the aesthetic value of The Forest Sanctuary from a biocultural perspective, suggesting that the salient properties of wayfinding cognition can shed some light on the matter. This essay builds on my previous biocultural discussions of literary aesthetics by bringing a dynamic model of the wayfinding, human mind to questions of value ("Cognitive Predispositions," "How to Write," Biocultural, chapter 2). I posit that evolved interest in kinds of novelty salient to human survival have identifiable correlates in literary artifacts, a view that converges with empirical studies by Don Kuiken and David S. Miall. Differentiating between everyday discourse, which is stereotypical and instantiates "common interpretive schemata," and literature, Miall asserts that "Literature ... facilitates changes in perception or in the self in its relationship with others, thus enhancing the survival and reproductive ability of the group" (Miall, "Evolutionary Framework," 199). Here, I link Miall's assertion of an evolved predisposition for the defamiliarizing capacity for novelty to a model of the mind based specifically on the features of human evolution.

Felicia Hemans's poetry is not "literature" in Miall's special sense of the term, because it does not produce uncertainty through stylistic variation and foregrounding that results in a "modification or transformation of a conventional feeling or concept" ("What" 123). In what follows, I will provide an overview of central features of human wayfinding cognition that function significantly in literary processing, especially suggesting that the predisposition to attend to novelty underwrites the predilection for defamiliarization (or originality) in literature. In my discussion of Hemans, I will demonstrate that the poet, in fact, intentionally avoids novel uses of language that might produce uncertainty and changes in the self. Hemans's choice of stereotypical language is in accord with her culture's prescribed role for the woman poet and with the attendant ideological function of her poetry, which reinforces rather than questions received beliefs and perceptions. Thus, the biocultural perspective presented here highlights how nineteenth-century gender bias, by extending women's domestic role into their artistic production, militated against the production of high-quality poetry by women.

Wayfinding Cognition and the Literary Environment

The evolution of every organism is relative to the specific environmental pressures experienced by that organism and by its capacity to adapt to the environment based on those pressures. To all evidence, humans followed a remarkably distinctive route once they branched off from the great apes, coming to inhabit, in the metaphor of John Tooby and Irven DeVore, the cognitive niche. Moderately sized and not particularly swift, humans were vulnerable on the open savannah, and interpersonal and group attachments that promoted bonds between kin evolved as a protective mechanism against larger predators and other human groups. Higher intelligence evolved in tandem with kinship groups, because monitoring and maintaining social groups and relationships is cognitively demanding. …

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