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Literature and the Politics of Feelings


  • Credit value: 30 credits at Level 6
  • Convenors: Luisa Calè, Emily Senior
  • Assessment: a 1000-word coursework essay (10%) and two essays of 2500 words (45% each)

Module description

What, how and why does literature make us feel? This module explores the role of literature in the cultural production of feelings, linking personal experience to cultural and socio-political identity rooted in eighteenth-century concepts of sympathy and ‘impartial spectatorship’. Feelings offer a new way of analysing literature as a medium for virtual, vicarious and subjective participation. How did literature bring events and other experiences home to the reader? Each class is structured around a feeling or cluster of feelings, showing how different genres work as ‘vehicles for a single sentiment’, and what textual strategies are employed to mediate politics through feelings. Changing reactions to events unfolding in the French Revolution, for instance, are explored in the classes on joy, enthusiasm, hatred and anger, terror, and despair.

The syllabus introduces you to different kinds of Romantic period writing, from the philosophy of moral sentiments in Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, using Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a case study on the limits of sympathy, Gothic writings, revolutionary writings by William Blake, Helen Maria Williams, William Wordsworth, Mary Robinson, but also reflecting on more inward articulations of feeling through genres such as the sonnet and the ode in texts by Charlotte Smith and John Keats. Nostalgia is explored as a feeling and disease of displacement caused by travel, but also reflected in John Clare’s uneasy pastoral experience of the enclosure.

This module offers a strong grounding in eighteenth-century and Romantic period literature through a range of fundamental texts in different genres by canonical and less well-known authors. In mastering a historical vocabulary of feelings, you will be able to reflect on how the period contributed to changing cultures of feeling that support a historical approach to the cultural analysis of modernity.

We will read the following:

  • Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (1811)
  • William Blake, ‘Infant Joy’, Songs of Innocence (1789)
  • John Clare, ‘The Flitting’ (1833)
  • George Gordon (Lord Byron), ‘Darkness’ (1816)
  • Charlotte Smith, ‘On Being Cautioned Against Walking on a Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because it was Frequented by a Lunatic’, Elegiac Sonnets (1797)
  • Ann Radcliffe, A Sicilian Romance (1790)
  • William Wordsworth, ‘The Brothers’, Lyrical Ballads (1798)

Learning objectives

By the end of this module, you will be able to:

  • demonstrate a historical grasp of eighteenth-century and Romantic-period culture
  • understand different eighteenth-century approaches to feelings
  • analyse the specific ways in which different literary genres represent feelings and address audiences
  • historicise representations of feeling in response to political change
  • recognise, analyse and deploy a critical vocabulary of feelings.