The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility



The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility


The following texts are the property of their respective authors and we thank them for giving us the opportunity to share for free to students, teachers and users of the Web their texts will used only for illustrative educational and scientific purposes only.



The information of medicine and health contained in the site are of a general nature and purpose which is purely informative and for this reason may not replace in any case, the council of a doctor or a qualified entity legally to the profession.



The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility


Lecture 6: The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility


  • Definitions
  • in literary history


between neo-classical Reason and romantic Imagination: the cultivation of Feeing – for its own sake, or with a moral purpose


a transitional period?


cf. Northrop Frye: ‘Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility’ – NOT pre-romanticism! – attempt to understand the age of sensibility on its own terms

Aritotelean and Longinian approaches to literature:

1) Emphasis on product – qualities of consciousness take the lead (metre, clarity, epigram, wit…) – concentration of sense – characteristic of Augustan writing, but also of Romanticism, according to Frye

2) ‘Where the emphasis is on the original process, the qualities of subconscious association take the lead, and poetry becomes hypnotically repetitive, oracular, incantatory, dreamlike and in the original sense of the word charming.’ (Frye) – diffusion of sense – characteristic of the age of sensibility

  • in philosophy


concept of sympathy as the basis of sociability –elaborated by philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment:

David Hume (1711-1776), A Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40); Essays Moral and Political (1741-42); Adam Smith (1723-1790), The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)


sources of the idea of sensibility:

  • benevolism of Shaftesbury, certain dissenting traditions (devotional poetry, language of the heart, later in the works of Wesley e.g.)
  •  philosophy of Locke (focus on sensory perception)
  • in late 17th-c science (certain models of the nervous system – sensibility as organisation (e.g. highly refined nervous organization)—feeling is not localised, the whole body is the conduit of feeling!)


  • in culture at large


cf.  Susan Manning’s definition of sensibility as ‘a system of relations and ruptures, part of a fluctuating but continuous repertoire in emotional representation’ – permeates a range of discourses, from abolitionism to discussions of sexuality


Definitions of terms:

According to Van Sant, ‘sensibility and sentimental are in one respect easy to separate: sensibility is

associated with the body, sentiment with the mind. The first is based on physical sensitivity and the processes of sensation; the second refers to a refinement of thought’ (1993: 4).

BUT: Other scholars contend that the terms are so closely allied that 18th-c writers often use them interchangeably!


  • Characteristics and preoccupations


  • Mood of melancholy (feeling ‘without object’! – cf. also introjections of the sublime)

e.g..  William Cowper (1731-1800): ‘The Castaway’ (1799)


  • Set-piece scenes of virtue in distress – sympathetic gazing upon a sufferer (a woman, a child, a slave, a bird, or other a small animal)

cf. Sterne: A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768)


but also increasingly: the poet, the writer as man/woman of feeling! – idea of the suffering artist


A new concept of masculinity: feminine virtue is bestowed upon men (feminization of men?) – men represented as susceptible to all kinds of emotions and emotional excess  – re-definition of gentility as a non-aristocratic virtue!! (cf. rise of middle-classes)

  • bodily expression of feeling (cf. nervous theory) --  somatized reactions (tears, swoons, deathly pallor)

cf. Henry Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling (1771)


  • trope of personification in poetry

cf.  Collins's ‘The Passions: An Ode for Music’, ‘Ode to Fear’


  •  Stylistic excess


creating a performance of intimacy (ellipses, fragmentation, exclamations, etc.) – making sure that the feeling can be experienced as sincere (cf. negative connotations of ‘sentimental’)


e.g. Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740); Clarissa, or the History of a Young Lady (1747-48); Sir Charles Grandison (1753-54)


focus on private subjectivity; epistolary form depicts the inmost feelings of characters in the passing moments of their formation (‘writing to the moment’), and enables recording the impact on others, whose tearful responses provided the example for the reader’s reaction (‘reading for the sentiment’);


  • Expression over correctness and rules – revolution in poetic language!

e.g. Chatterton's Rowley poems


  • Some issues in connection with the literature of sensibility


  •  Objectifying the sufferer – ‘theatrics of virtue’ (latent sadism?)

hierarchical setting: pity for children, women, animals, the uneducated, etc.

bestows on the gazer a special value


BUT: an increasing number of women poets, ‘rustic’ poets, and even slaves write literature!

cf. the case of Robert Burns: a Scottish peasant poet (called a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ by Mackenzie) who invites sympathy, but also wants to dictate the terms in which he can be sympathised with


  •  Exercise of compassion, instead of social action? -- but often promoting social reform


  • Questions of sincerity and manipulation

cf. Burns: ‘O Leave Novels’


Recommended reading


Harold Bloom (ed.), Poets of Sensibility and the Sublime (New York, New Haven, Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986) – esp. N. Frye, ‘Towards Defining an Age of Sensibility’


Ildikó Csengei, Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011)


Christine Gerrard, ed., A Companion to Eighteenth-Century Poetry (Blackwell, 2006) – esp. chapter 9 (Jennifer Keith, ‘Poetry, Sentiment, and Sensibility’)


Thomas Keymer and Jon Mee, eds., The Cambridge Companion to English Literature 1740-1830 (CUP, 2004) – especially chapter 5 (Susan Manning, ‘Sensibility’)


Nigel Leask, Robert Burns and Pastoral: Poetry and Improvement in Late Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010)


Source :

Web site link:

Google key word : The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility file type : doc

Author : not indicated on the source document of the above text

If you are the author of the text above and you not agree to share your knowledge for teaching, research, scholarship (for fair use as indicated in the United States copyrigh low) please send us an e-mail and we will remove your text quickly.


The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility


If you want to quickly find the pages about a particular topic as The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility use the following search engine:




The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility


Please visit our home page Terms of service and privacy page




The Literature of Sentiment and Sensibility