Date of Degree

9-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

English

Advisor

Alexander Schlutz

Committee Members

Joan Richardson

Alan Vardy

Subject Categories

Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America

Keywords

Transatlantic Romanticism, Ethics, Aesthetics, Perception

Abstract

The Ethics of Perception in Transatlantic Romantic Poetry is a report on the ethical significance of British and American Romantic poetry composed between 1785 and 1865. This study focuses on the poems of William Cowper, William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. Its central claim is that these poets composed a body of work that sought to show readers how their sustained attention to everyday perceptual experience could lead them towards a more empathic way of being.

The first chapter argues that the late-eighteenth century poet William Cowper is the initiator of the ethically-oriented poetry of perception that Wordsworth, Emerson, and Whitman experimented with and refined in the Romantic era. It shows that the subjective style Cowper mastered in his 1785 The Task was influential to these writers because it centered on the distinct perceptual experience of an individuated speaker as he appreciates, questions, and reflects upon his relationship with the living environment of rural England. The second chapter examines the habits of lyrical expression and ethical thought shared between William Cowper and William Wordsworth. Through close readings of shorter poems like “The Idiot Boy” and longer ones like The Prelude the chapter considers Wordsworth’s desire to chart a path to right action through his own reflections upon his perceptual experiences in nature.

The third and fourth chapters make a transatlantic crossing to show how the verse experiments that Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman composed in the mid-nineteenth century can be read as complements to Cowper and Wordsworth’s work. The third chapter claims that Ralph Waldo Emerson’s descriptive nature poems are the first American poems that present everyday perception as a valuable ethical activity and makes a special case for Emerson’s undervalued role as a poet. The fourth and final chapter shows how Walt Whitman’s free verse experiments in the 1850s and 1860s along with his prose sketches of the horrors of America’s Civil War can be read as the most pronounced arguments for the ethical value of perception in the Romantic era.

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