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Book Chapter

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Wordsworth and the Green Romantics: Affect and Ecology in the Nineteenth Century


William Wordsworth's famous claim that his emotional development in the Lakeland of England was "fostered alike" by "beauty" and by "fear" leads directly into reflections on the recent "affective turn" in literary studies, especially toward the "fear" half of Wordsworth's formulation. Why were so many Romantic writers so interested in fear as one of the most direct and powerful affects resulting from our experience of the nonhuman world? What was there to be afraid of in the external realm they called "nature"? Or was the true fear always internal, on the inside, always the product of mental activity that turned otherwise "normal" experiences into something to be feared? Along with fear in Wordsworth, other figures worthy of consideration here will include Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Mary Shelley, and Henry David Thoreau. In theoretical terms, from Edmund Burke on the sublime through Charles Darwin on emotional expression in higher primates, to Ludwig Wittgenstein on emotions as linguistic events, numerous thinkers shed light on a dark presence in nature that is often connected to responses of the human being ("self" or "other") in similar nonhuman settings. Even the "sorrow" aspect of Romantic affect is often an acknowledged corollary of fear; humans experience sorrow as an emotion once the sources of fear have been realized: the lightning strikes, the avalanche descends, or the loved one dies. The emotion of fear then leads affectively to the emotion of sorrow. Finally, of course, fear can perhaps best be described in terms of its biological and physical manifestations in bodies.


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