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British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind (review)
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Poetics Today 25.3 (2004) 553-554

Alan Richardson, British Romanticism and the Science of the Mind. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, No. 47. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xx + 248 pp.

In his extensively researched book, Alan Richardson presents the reader with a new approach to reading British Romantic literature based on the burgeoning field of brain science, which, he argues, was itself undergoing a Romantic revolution in the early 1800s. The new theories of brain growth and development were rooted in the Romantic emphasis on feelings and emotions, sensation and sensibility, at the expense of "mere reason." Richardson investigates the wide-ranging influence of brain science on the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Jane Austen and contends that their knowledge of advances in brain-science theory was to have an indelible effect on how they regarded questions of perception, epistemology, and mind-body interaction. This new knowledge, he notes, gave new dimensions to such terms as sensibility, nervous, organic, natural, universal, and brain, which in turn would fundamentally alter the ways in which their poems and prose are understood.

In the introductory chapter, Richardson outlines the influence of Romanticism on pioneering neuroscience of the time as well as the impact of contemporary theories of the brain on literary figures such as Coleridge, Keats, and Wordsworth. The new brain theories of F. J. Gall, Pierre-Jean George Cabanis, Erasmus Darwin, Charles Bell, and William Godwin recognized the important role nerves play in connecting the body to the brain and the effects of the natural environment on brain development. These ideas, according to Richardson, are reflected in Romantic literary culture, which foregrounded feeling and emotion at the expense of reason, reassessed the significance of the natural environment on the body, emphasized sensation and sensibility, and postulated an active and creative mind. The new notion of an embodied and differentiated brain shifted Romantic era discourses on mind and character toward a more materialist view of the mind, one that supported organic over mechanistic theories of human nature and art.

In his chapter entitled "Coleridge and the New Unconscious," Richardson demonstrates how Coleridge, in "Kubla Khan," was familiar with brain-based theories of the mind and shows how this knowledge makes itself felt in analyses of the syntactic, formal, and prosodic elements of the poem. In his chapter on Wordsworth, Richardson investigates the use of poetic language and prose in Lyrical Ballads and Prelude and shows how Wordsworth makes common cause with cognitive linguistics in his awareness of the interactions between psychological, linguistic, physiological, and social aspects of human life. The chapter on Austen's Persuasion focuses on a key event in the novel, Louisa's fall from the Cobb. Her subsequent head injury and personality change leads Richardson to surmise that Austen had a new understanding of the physiology of the mind, as is evident in her representations of an embodied nervous sensibility in many of her characters. He discusses the subversiveness of the new brain-based theories of the mind for common conceptions of gender that could also serve to undermine traditional ideas about male and female roles in society. Furthermore, the interaction between mind and body, emotion and cognition produces interesting new insights into the poetry of John Keats, whose "Ode to a Nightingale" Richardson analyzes in terms of embodiment.

Richardson is interested in revitalizing in his book the materialist tradition that has been rejected in past centuries but is now undergoing a reassessment in our own time. The interdisciplinary nature of his research, combining literary history and theory, cognitive science and history, offers an illuminating approach to scholarship and also to some literary texts in British Romanticism while at the same time contributing to the developing field of cognitive historicism.

Glenda Sacks

Bar-Ilan


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