Senses in Victorian Literature

One thing that really jumped out to me in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography is the portion where Mill spoke about Wordsworth’s poetry. Mill wrote about how “(Wordsworth’s) poems addressed themselves powerfully to one of the strongest of (Mill’s) pleasurable susceptibilities, the love of rural objects and natural scenery” (Autobiography). Here, Mill’s use of “pleasurable susceptibilities” invokes the theme of “sense” or the appeal to the senses/the use of perception; he brings in the Romantic concept of the sublime and how nature was able to appeal to his emotions and spiritually heal him. Mill also clarifies that the value in Wordsworth’s poetry wasn’t in the descriptions of “outward beauty,” but rather in how Wordsworth’s words “expressed…states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty” (Autobiography). In other words, for Mill, Wordsworth’s words are felt not through imagery invoking the 5 main physical senses (vision, sight, taste, physical touch, hearing). Instead, Wordsworth’s words seem to transcend the senses and appeal to Mill’s feelings, or his soul, directly.

A similar theme of transcending the senses is reflected in the Ada Lovelace readings. On page 10 of our PDF, imagination is described as something that “exists not for our senses” and something that is “beyond the senses” (Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers). It is also described as something that “penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science” (Ada, The Enchantress of Numbers). Imagination works much like Wordsworth’s words here, for it transcends the senses (“beyond the senses”) meaning it is something that cannot be perceived (or isn’t meant to be perceived) with the five senses. The “worlds of Science” are described in a similar way: something that is “unseen” and “unknown,” meaning foreign to our senses.

There seems to be a recurring theme of incorporating perception or sense in Victorian literature, especially with the concept of transcending the senses. There also seems to be discussion about concepts that cannot be understood by the senses.

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