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William Wordsworth: An Unlikely Prophet of Emotional Intelligence and Brain Research
If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and will welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.
When I began to look at the work of William Wordsworth from the perspective of the most recent psychological theories of emotion, I expected to find numerous examples of these theories embedded in his writings. After all, if the theories are sound, then whatever realities they help to explain would have been just as real in Wordsworth’s day as they are now. What I did not expect to find, however, was Wordsworth actually predicting, admittedly unconsciously, the arrival of these theories. As Wordsworth describes so poetically above, modern science is beginning to put “flesh and blood” onto the supposedly objective and logical reasoning that stands behind “science” by demonstrating how it is fundamentally integrated with the functionality of emotion.
In order to explore how this concept plays out in the works of Wordsworth, first we need to develop a basic grounding in the modern research on understanding the functional and integrated relationship between emotion and logical reasoning known generally as Emotional Intelligence. Emotional Intelligence is really more of a general conceptual approach than a specific theory. Those who study this approach, however, share a number of common beliefs. Perhaps the most central is stated here by Keith Oatley and Jennifer M. Jenkins in Understanding Emotions: “Though previous ideas about emotions stressed their disruptiveness, modern views are generally that emotions are, for the most part, functional.” (Oatley and Jenkins 283) Scholars in this area have suggested recently that emotions—which were given no place in the rational intellectualism that became prevalent in the Enlightenment—are central to the successful and productive application of any intellectual pursuit, be it rational or otherwise. This is so because “emotions are not extras. They are the very center of human mental life. . . . emotions link what is important for us to the world of people, things, and happenings.” (Oatley and Jenkins 122) It is emotions that allow us to take the various forms of knowledge created by rationality and make them personally important to us and give them direction.
Daniel Goleman, in his landmark book Emotional Intelligence, writes about a number of abilities that are commonly associated with emotional intelligence. Specifically, the emotionally intelligent person is one who has self-control over his own emotions, has sensitivity to the emotions of others, is keenly aware of his own emotional states, can regulate (to a certain extent) his own emotions, and can positively focus his emotions towards the pursuit of a given goal. (Goleman) Those who do not have these abilities invariably experience a great deal of difficulty in many of the activities in which they engage, including intellectual ones.
The most fundamental insight offered by the theories of emotional intelligence is that intelligence and emotion are not necessarily at odds with one another as they have been conventionally viewed. Emotion is, in fact, a part of intelligence that works right alongside all of the more conventional functions. This fundamental shift in opinion regarding the nature of emotions changes the human abilities that we can qualify as “intellectual.”
Traditionally, “intellectual” activity has been restricted to logical reasoning, as well as certain linguistic, and mathematical understandings. This view of intelligence falls comfortably in line with the philosophical theory known as dualism. Dualism holds that the mind and the body are separate entities, with the mind being intelligent and the body (the physiological source of emotional states) being dumb. John Dewey, a philosopher and psychologist who contributed significantly to our understanding of the artistic process, suggests that dualism views the physical activities of the body as “an underlying substance that performs the activities in question” while the mind is viewed as “an independent entity which attends, purposes, cares, notices, and remembers.” (Dewey 263-64) Under this philosophy, the mind is viewed as receiving information from the body, consciously processing it, and then sending orders back out to the body. Intelligent behavior only takes place in the conscious processing stage of the mind. Purely mental activities like rational thinking, as well as reasoning in mathematics and language, come through quite naturally as the central aspects of intelligent activity by this view. Howard Gardner, another psychologist who has done in-depth studies of intelligence, points out that this philosophy has an unfortunate corollary:
This divorce between the “mental” and the “physical” has not infrequently been coupled with a notion that what we do with our bodies is somehow less privileged, less special, than those problem-solving routines carried out chiefly through the use of language, logic, or some other relatively abstract symbolic system.
Through modern brain science, we now have physical evidence that the idea of Dualism is flatly incorrect: “So the clinical discoveries of the 1990s bring down Descartes' entire philosophy of body-mind separation, along with the emotion-reason dualism that has tormented philosophy since the 1630s...because of neuronal connections that we can see to be firing or not, we absolutely know that the health of emotion is bound up with the health of reason”. (Wesling 80) The physical bodily states created by emotion, then, are set on an equal and integrated level with the “mental” faculties of the mind and can be regarded equally as an aspect of intelligent behavior.
This discussion is important to this study of Wordsworth’s poetry because it helps to establish a framework that allows us to consider the emotionality of Wordsworth’s writings as a focused, logical, and intellectual function of the human mind; it opens important new windows of understanding into the nature of the relationship between Wordsworth’s poetry and the true nature of the human experience.
When we take this theory and use it as a lens through which to view the Romantic period of literature, the emotionality of Romanticism seems like a very logical consequence of the over-extension into purely “intellectual” analysis created by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment created a world in which extravagance and the rampant abuse of political power was justified through logical reasoning. While there are many logical reasons why the common man recognized a problem with this arrangement, the one which most of them knew most clearly was that they “felt” it. This passionate emotion lead, quite naturally, to revolution when the right circumstances presented themselves.
The problem is, just as when a pendulum reverses direction it does not stop in the middle, so the imagined continuum between intelligence and emotion did not center itself—it swung too far to the left. We can see that Wordsworth recognized this in his own discussions of the place of emotions within poetry:
For all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: and though this be true, Poems to which any value can be attached were never produced on any variety of subjects but by a man who, being possessed of more than usual organic sensibility had also thought long and deeply.
Clearly, Wordsworth recognized the importance of long, deep thought being connected to emotionality in poetry. Through this we see that Wordsworth valued the keen self awareness and sense of self-control that is marked by Daniel Goleman as being so central to Emotional Intelligence. While emotional reasoning lies as the center of much of Wordsworth’s writing, he had no patience for the dramatic emotional over-indulgence.
Wordsworth also believed that poetry created a kind of framework where the functioning of this “rational” emotion could be examined, though he, of course, never described it in precisely that way. Here he describes poetry as a kind of language of human emotion:
But these passions and thoughts and feelings [those which poets write about] are the general passions and thoughts and feelings of men. And with what are they connected? Undoubtedly with our moral sentiments and animal sensations, and with the causes which excite these…These, and the like, are the sensations and objects which the Poet describes, as they are the sensations of other men, and the objects which interest them. The poet thinks and feels in the spirit of human passions.
So if emotionality gives meaning and value to logical reasoning, and the poet works in a medium that is naturally representative of human emotions, then we should be able to see it functioning directly within the works of William Wordsworth.
David Perkins, a significant scholar of Romantic poetry, would certainly agree. He suggests that Romantic writing has “…a tendency through the course of a poem to trace not so much the sequence of logical argument or of narration, but rather the evolution and turn of feeling.” (Perkins 9) Thus, this important Romantic shift away from the intensive focus on logical argument set up Wordsworth and his contemporaries to write with the perfect philosophical mindset to explore the possible values of emotion within human experience.
In part two of this examination, I will explore this possibility in two of Wordsworth’s poems: “Character of the Happy Warrior” and “Lines: Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”.
Wordsworth's "Happy Warrior": A Model of Emotional Intelligence
Long before any of the science was available to support the modern concept of emotional intelligence, the Romantic poets had laid out its major elements in verse. “The Character of the Happy Warrior” presents Wordsworth’s view of the ideal soldier. According to John Hamilton, it “…is a contribution to the evolution of the ideal man in modern history, since the authenticity of this interpretation has been tested not only by Wordsworth’s contemporaries, but by the artistic and ethical experience of men in the hundred years since his death.” (Hamilton 323-24) So, while it may present Wordsworth’s view, it is apparently a view shared by many in his own time and throughout history.
Read Wordsworth's Complete "Character of the Happy Warrior"
In the poem, written shortly after the death of Lord Nelson, a famous English war hero, Wordsworth describes his vision of the perfect military general. The better part of his description is spent describing a person who possesses exactly the skills and sensitivities that are described by Daniel Goleman as being central to emotional intelligence: a strong sense of self-control developed through sensitivity to others, heightened emotional self-awareness, the ability to self-regulate one’s emotions, and the ability to focus one’s emotional energy towards a chosen goal.
Here, Wordsworth describes his Happy Warrior as a man:
Whose high endeavors are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright:
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn;
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care;
—(Wordsworth "Warrior" 347-48)
So Wordsworth establishes straight away that intelligence, while centrally important, is not alone sufficient. It must be guided by a “moral” sensitivity, which is precisely the kind of guidance that emotional intelligence provides by linking “what is important for us to the world of people, things, and happenings.” (Oatley and Jenkins 122)
Wordsworth continues by suggesting that, when faced with fear and pain, the Happy Warrior must:
…exercise a power
Which is our human nature’s highest dower;
Controls them and subdues, transmutes, bereaves
Of their bad influence, and their good receives:
—(Wordsworth "Warrior" 348)
So the exercising of this moral sensitivity is achieved through the ability to self-regulate—to face, overcome, and control—one’s own emotions. And through doing this, the Happy Warrior will develop his sensitivity to the needs and cares of others:
More skilful in self-knowledge, even more pure,
As tempted more; more able to endure,
As more exposed to suffering and distress;
Thence, also, more alive to tenderness.
—(Wordsworth "Warrior" 348)
Thus, through setting his intelligence and actions on a foundation of morality and emotional self-control, the Happy Warrior will develop an empathy for others that will further strengthen his sense of moral purpose.
As Wordsworth moves towards the close of his poem, he also makes clear that his Happy Warrior must be able to focus his emotional energy towards the achievement of his chosen aims. The Happy Warrior:
Plays, in the many games of life, that one
Where what he most doth value must be won:
Whom neither shape of danger can dismay,
Nor thought of tender happiness betray;
—(Wordsworth "Warrior" 348)
For him, the value placed on “what he most doth value” must give him the moral character to overcome both fear and the lure of easy rest and contentment. But these lines are followed immediately with a suggestion of how this can be achieved through self-reflection as the Happy Warrior seeks to go “From well to better, daily self-surpassed” and to find “…comfort in himself and in his cause”. (Wordsworth "Warrior" 348)
And so, long before any of the psychological research was in place to suggest how and why the development of the moral character of Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior was so important, Wordsworth himself was discovering and revealing this truth through his poetry.
Read Wordsworth's Poem "Lines Composed A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey"
Listen to a Reading of "Tintern Abbey"
Source: Youtube.com: by SpokenVerse
Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey": Emotional Intelligence at Work in the Poet's Life
Where “Character of the Happy Warrior” was a poem meant to establish the foundation on which a man, in particular a soldier, should base his life, “Tintern Abbey” lays down the foundation on which Wordsworth consciously and actively did base his life. As stated by Juliet Barker, “Tintern Abbey was a mission statement by a mature and accomplished poet, confident in and at the height of his powers. It was William’s equivalent of Martin Luther’s ‘Here I stand’.” (Barker 155)
This poem is a meditation on nature and how the lessons that it teaches provide a moral center for Wordsworth. In lines 107 to 111 of his poem, he himself states quite directly that he is:
…well pleased to recognize
In nature and the language of the sense
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.
—(Wordsworth "Lines" 302)
If this, then, is the central theme of the poem, where do we find evidence of emotional intelligence? It is found in the details of his discussions about exactly what nature does for him and what it allows him to do.
Wordsworth begins “Tintern Abbey” by speaking to us as if he were actually sitting beneath his “dark sycamore” tree and describing to us what he sees. It is through the remembered contemplation of these “beauteous forms” that Wordsworth claims the ability to enter:
…that blessed mood,
In which the burthen of the mystery,
In which the heavy and the weary weight
Of all this unintelligible world,
Is lightened:—that serene and blessed mood,
In which the affections gently lead us on,—
…We see into the life of things.
—(Wordsworth "Lines" 301)
So, his contemplation of these memories gives him not only the ability to calm and refocus his emotional energies in a chaotic world, but also the ability to understand that chaotic world at a deeply emotional level. The fact that what grants him this power is a feelingful contemplation is key—as Wordsworth says, it is “the affections” that “gently lead us on”. Emotional self-control. Empathy. In Wordsworth’s view, these are the gifts that Nature has given to him and, by extension, to all of us.
As Wordsworth moves toward the conclusion of his poem, he provides us with yet another insight into the gifts of Nature and the power of emotional reasoning. Consider these lines:
[Nature]…can so inform
The mind that is within us, so impress
With quietness and beauty, and so feed
With lofty thoughts, that neither evil tongues,
Rash judgments, nor the sneers of selfish men,
Nor greetings where no kindness is, nor all
The dreary intercourse of daily life,
Shall e’er prevail against us, or disturb
Our cheerful faith, that all which we behold
Is full of blessings.
—(Wordsworth "Lines" 302)
We read here a long, beautiful, poetic expression of the idea of perseverance—a centrally important aspect of emotional intelligence. How many great minds has the world been denied because they do not possess this all-important emotional skill? Wordsworth here proclaims the source of his perseverance, and it certainly seems to have worked for him.
The laws of the universe remain constant whether we understand them or not. The reality of our existence does not change simply because our understanding evolves. As modern science takes us deeper and deeper into the mysteries of our own minds and more and more theories and beliefs find more scientific ground on which to stand, we may often discover that we are not necessarily uncovering a new truth. We may, in fact, simply be adding new credence to that which was known long before we arrived.
So it seems with Wordsworth, an unlikely prophet, whom I believe would have been happy to “lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration, and…welcome the Being thus produced, as a dear and genuine inmate of the household of man.” (Wordsworth "Preface" 429-30)
Barker, Juliet R. V. Wordsworth : A Life. New York: Ecco, 2005. NetLibrary. National University. 22 Nov. 2008.
Dewey, John. Art as Experience. New York,: Minton, 1934.
Gardner, Howard. Frames of Mind : The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. 10th anniversary ed. New York, NY: BasicBooks, 1993.
Goleman, Daniel. Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.
Hamilton, John Bowen. "Restoration Of "The Happy Warrior."." Modern Language Quarterly: Duke University Press, 1955. 311. Vol. 16.
Oatley, Keith, and Jennifer M. Jenkins. Understanding Emotions. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
Perkins, David ed. English Romantic Writers. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995.
Wesling, Donald. Joys and Sorrows of Imaginary Persons: On Literary Emotions. New York, NY: Editions Rodopi, 2008. NetLibrary. National University. 19 Nov. 2008 <http://www.netlibrary.com.ezproxy.nu.edu/Reader/>.
Wordsworth, William. "Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads." English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995. 423-34.
---. "Lines: Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey." English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995. 301-03.
---. "Preface to the Second Edition of the Lyrical Ballads." English Romantic Writers. Ed. David Perkins. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1995. 423-34.