15. (Robert Browning)

Tennyson, haunted by the memory of Arthur Hallam, must look down from atop that long staircase to the stars (the one he describes in In Memoriam) with brooding pleasure at those who remain haunted by Hallam today—for such still exist, the eccentric brood of those who have devoted time and thought to Victorian poetry, and in so doing have had to encounter, and re-encounter, sometimes unrecognizable in the dusky prose, the infamous words that Hallam penned in his generous review essay on Tennyson’s early poetry. Aligning Tennyson with Shelley and Keats (heroes of the Cambridge Apostles), and against Wordsworth, Hallam writes that these are “poets of sensation rather than reflection,” and this in an essay denying that “the highest power of poetry is reflective.”  Sensation and reflection, cloven in twain, and struggling still to meet, in criticism that insists still (but why insist if we all know) that cognition and emotion are not separable.

The distinction between sensation and reflection has stuck because, for all of its inadequacies, it adheres to some quality in the poems themselves. And some of the best Victorian criticism of recent years has succeeded most, not in collapsing the distinction entirely, but in showing how Victorian poems often maintain it only to traverse it; how the travail of the traverse motivates and moves the poems.  Among the recent achievements, Gregory Tate’s in The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry: 

In the hands of Tennyson and Browning, the Romantic focus on interiority is refigured as the psychological analysis of mental processes, a shift which parallels the rise and dissemination of analytical and rationalist conceptions of the mind throughout British culture. The poetry of the 1830s can be identified, in an important sense, as a poetry of reflection, but at the same time it questions the division between self-conscious thought and unmediated sensation on which Hallam’s poetic is based. Isobel Armstrong’s account of the Victorian ‘double poem’, in which ‘a subjective psychological condition […] is reversed into being the object of analysis’, offers a more useful model for assessing this psychological poetry. In the 1830s Tennyson and Browning write poems, including but not limited to the first dramatic monologues, which express subjective mental states while simultaneously interrogating and analyzing the mind’s process. (25)

What struck me on reading this was that it was very near to the description I’d been offering of how the faculty of attention comes to matter for Victorian poets and novelists, too (I am not sure why the novelists should be excluded from the conversation): that it becomes not only the means of scrutiny, but an object of scrutiny. But, recognizing that what is said about mental states as Tate describes them to be right, I realize also that what I have said about attention cannot be: I do not think it can be said that the poems and novels of the Victorian interrogate and analyze attention. The trouble is what it means for poetry to be about something: I think that, at some point, one of a family of words or figures related to that thing must be applied, and the words related to attention, though not absent entirely from the works, are hardly discussed–unless one wants to say that they are implicit, but in that case so many things are implicit.

But their absence pleases me, because I do not find myself having much to say about the thoughts of poets; I’m not a Person of Ideas. (Neither, admittedly, are most poets; and only a few decent novelists).

And yet attention is very much relevant for a poetry that opens, if only for the sake of sometimes closing, the space between reflection and sensation; after all, attention cuts across both sensation and reflection, as we may attend to both thoughts and feelings, to sensations and concepts. Attention is a not a mental state, but it is a mental process that transcends most, maybe all, mental states.

Reading the words of Tate and Armstrong encouraged me to think again about how I want to say that attention matters to Victorian poetry—and to the poetry of Robert Browning especially, since that is foremost in my mind just now, though I won’t be getting too much into Browning here, today.

The point is not that Browning–et al–start to scrutinize attention in the poetry itself; instead, attention becomes an object of uncertainty and scrutiny in Victorian culture more generally–its relation to volition especially, in the mid-century inheritors of the Associationist psychological tradition (in the mid-Victorian era, John Stuart Mill, William Hamilton, and Alexander Bain, all writing in the shadows of James Mill, Priestley, and Hartley, the three of whom demand quite a lot from attention, without much questioning it)–and that this scrutiny given to attention, the sense that attention is stranger and more elusive a faculty, but also essential to retain as a faculty if the life of the mind is to be described, than may have been thought even a generation before, inspires poets and novelists to innovate formally and structurally, writing poems that are put together in order to register, reflect, and dramatize the peculiarities of the faculty.

The mid-Victorian fascination with attention, among psychologists at least, can be seen in the edition of James Mill’s Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, annotated by his son, J.S., and with further notes by Alexander Bain; Mill mentions attention, but he does not make it the object of analysis in any sustained way; often, he mentions it only to tell the reader that something is “deserving of attention.”  In the notes, however, attention, on several occasion, is pried into by the intellectual pincers of both J.S. Mill and Alexander Bain–and what we find on these occasions is that these thinkers are uncertain of just what it is, of just how it works.  Hence a note by J.S. Mill:

Other thinkers, or perhaps the same thinkers on other occasions, employ the word Consciousness as almost a synonyme of Attention. We all know that we have a power, partly voluntary, though often acting independently of our will, of attending  (as it is called) to a particular sensation or thought. The essence of Attention is that the sensation or thought is, as it were, magnified, or strengthened: it becomes more intense as a whole, and at the same time more distinct and definite in its various parts, like a visible object when a stronger light is thrown upon it: while all other sensations or thoughts which do or which might present themselves at the same moment are blunted and dimmed, or altogether excluded. This heightening of the feeling we may call, if we please, heightening the consciousness of feeling; and it may be said that we are made more conscious of the feeling than we were before: but the expression is scarcely correct, for we are not more conscious of the feeling, but are conscious of more feeling.

“Perhaps the same thinkers on other occasions” concedes that there is inconsistency not only on what attention does, but on what exactly is meant by the word itself.  The notes to the edition are often extensions of the thoughts developed elsewhere by Mill and Bain; by Mill especially in his criticism of Sir William Hamilton, by Bain especially by the ideas expressed and explored more profoundly in his The Emotions and the Will. In that latter work, Bain stumbles against the trouble of synonymy: ” “The act that we term attention, observation, concentration of the view, &c., must supervene upon mere discriminative consciousness, before knowledge commences.” “The act” not “the acts,” and yet are we to take all of these distinct acts as equal?

For Bain, attention is basic and near-universal: “Indeed, none but an idiot (and he not always) is found wholly incapable of mental attention; for this is implied in listening to, and answering the commonest question, or giving the most ordinary information in the proper forms of language.”

For Mill, attention extends to “inferior,” non-human life: ” There must be something which, as often as it recurs either to senses or to our thoughts, directs our attention to those particular elements in the perception or in the idea: and whatever performs this office is virtually a sign; but it needs not be a word: the process certainly takes place, to a limited extent, in the inferior animal; and even with human beings who have but a small vocabulary, many processes of thought take place habitually by other symbols than words. ”

Basic, common as it is, attention remains a challenge for both Mill and Bain, it appears in their accounts. There is a whiff of tautology when Mill defines attention: “Now the law of Attention is admitted to be, that we attend only to that which, either on its own or on some other account, interests us. In consequence, what interests us only momentarily we only attend to momentarily; and do not go on attending to it, when that, for the sake of which alone it interested us, has been attained.”  How is interest to be defined if not in terms of attention?  And what of the view, expressed by Priestley in his preface—not in the philosophical argument—of his Disquisitions Relating to Matter and Spirit: “But by giving much attention to any thing, we may interest ourselves in any thing, and wherever that is the case, an intemperate warmth is the inevitable consequence.”

Attention is at the crux of Bain’s vivid description of creative activity:

When Watt invented his ‘parallel motion’ for the steam-engine, his intellect and his observation were kept at work, going out in all directions for the chance of some suitable combination rising to view; his sense of the precise thing to be done was the constant touchstone of every contrivance occurring to him, and all the successive suggestions were arrested, or repelled, as they came near to, or disagreed with, this touchstone. The attraction and the repulsion were purely volitional effects; they were the continuance of the very same energy that, in his babyhood, made him keep his mouth to his mother’s breast while he felt hunger unappeased, and withdraw it when satisfied, or that made him roll a sugary morsel in his mouth, and let drop, or violently eject, what was bitter or nauseous. The promptitude that we display in setting aside, or ignoring, what is seen not to answer our present wants, is volition pure, perennial, and unmodified… No formal resolution of the mind, adopted after the consideration or debate, no special intervention of the ‘ego’, or the personality, is essential to this putting for of the energy of retaining on the one hand, or of repudiating on the other, what is felt to be clearly suitable, or clearly unsuitable, to the feelings or aims of the moment. The inventor sees the incongruity of a proposal, and forthwith it vanishes from his view. There may be extraneous considerations happening to keep it up in spite of the volitional stroke of repudiation, but the genuine tendency of the mind is to withdraw all further consideration, on the mere motive of unsuitability; while some other scheme of a likely character is, by the same instinct, embraced and held fast. In all these new constructions—be they mechanical, verbal, scientific, practical, or aesthetical—the outgoings of the mind are necessarily random; the end alone is the thing that is clear to the view, and with that there is a perception of the fitness of every passing suggestion. The volitional energy keeps up the attention, or the active search, and the moment that anything in point rises before the mind, it springs upon that like a wild beast on its prey. I might go through all the varieties of creative effort, detailed under the law of constructive association, but I should only have to make the same remark at every turn.

“The attention” here is “the active search” and yet how bizarre the energy so that the attention itself “springs” upon whatever “rises before the mind” “like a wild beast on its prey.”  For one thing, how does this make space for judgment? The attention is that which not only demands immediate satisfaction, but knows it, recognizes it, instinctively, without intervening mental process, without the higher level “ego.”   And yet the judgment is implicit from the start, in the description of Watt’s sense of what is “suitable.”

In flight (“vol”) around the discussions by both Mill and Bain is Volition: Bain claims to be getting at “volition pure, perennial and unmodified”; Mill would know what motivates the attention to move, and, if it is a matter of interests, then the attention may be subject to no will that we would call “will.”

And Bain can (can? we all can—he does) equivocate: “An exercise of volition not so obviously consisting of ideal muscular movements, is fixing the mind upon one quality rather then upon another, in the same complex whole…So, when we are listening to a harmony, we are not equally conscious of all the concurring notes; our attention shifts from one to another, sometimes without an obvious motive, at other times, under an express purpose”

The Volition Difficulty is one of the tradition itself, as George Spencer Brown, in the 1880s, sees in his study of Mill the Elder and Hartley: “But we have yet to consider the Will as a state of consciousness antecedent to what Mill calls “the actions of the mind.” We seem to ourselves to have the power of calling up an idea at will, or of forcing one train of thought into existence to the exclusion of others. Is this power over our mental associations real or imaginary? Are the processes of Recollection, as distinguished from Memory, and of Attention, as distinguished from mere passive thought or reverie, cases of Volition or not? If they are, then can the Will in these, as in the other cases already examined, be reduced to association, or is it something which controls association itself?”

And from Volition: what does it mean for attention to be voluntary? is attention always voluntary? does attending voluntarily affect memory otherwise than attending involuntarily? how does voluntary attention become habitual attention? what is the difference between attending by habit and attending by will? does voluntary attention allows space for judgment?  Does involuntary?

(Here, there is a nice dove-tail with another area of current critical conversation: the Victorian anxieties over will and agency—in George Eliot’s representations of criminal intent, and in the stranded, impotent speakers of Tennyson’s dramatic monologues…those springing most readily to mind.)

Browning does not answer these questions in his monologues–he does not even ask them in the monologues; the monologues are not about these matters. But these matters are very much about the monologues, and could not have been structured were the questions hovering, without answer, prolific only of further questions, deeper doubts, in the air he breathed.  “In the air,” a phrase that cheapens intellectual history done well—but a phrase that will have to suffice for now.

I find especially provoking an assertion by Alexander Bain; I know Browning did not have it in mind, but I wonder if Bain had Browning or his works in his:

An excitement as such details the attention upon the occasion or cause of it, excludes other things from the attention, prevents other thoughts from rising to the view; and thus shows its power by an effect that is open to measurement. Now we may see the workings of this influence in the minds of others. Unless there be purposed concealment, we can discern the cause and the prolongation of another person’s attention and thoughts in some one way; should the person lay himself freely open in conversation, we are left in little doubt as to the comparative intensity of the feelings that uppermost in the mind.

The dramatic monologue is revelatory of attention—but what is more, it is revealed, the form reveals itself, on each occasions, by virtue of how attention is allowed to manifest in poetry (I do not think that Browning’s understanding of attention is itself new, though maybe it is; I would rather say that Browning’s understanding of how variously attention could get into poetry is new).

On one axis, then, attention as voluntary or not, with attendant speculations.  But coincidental to the psychologist’s account of attention, and already implicit in those accounts, another axis sharpens in these authors of attentiveness: attention as individual v. attention as social. That attention is, as Ruskin knew, not between a person, but between a person and the world, or between a person, and language, and the world; that attention is not only directed and motivated by the world, but that attention cannot be conceived of except as a person in the world, anymore than a person can be conceived of except as a person in the world; we never purely attend, but attend always within a life world of practices and rituals, and that attention, as deeply private or inwards as it seems to be, is nonetheless one element of these.  These authors all set attention within those practices–the axis of volition always intersects with an axis of socialization, where attention is not determined to be individual or social, but where attention is always differently social.  Browning’s monologues, Tennyson’s elegy for Hallam, Hardy’s elegies for Emma, Eliot’s novels, which, as Lawrence said, gave English literature the inner life, and Carroll’s Alice books—these all being the touchstones I have in mind—these works take shape, become themselves, not only by getting attention into literature in new ways, but, simultaneously and inextricably, by writing literature that newly imagines the social worlds of attention.



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