Notes from the Classroom: John Stuart Mill’s “What Is Poetry?”

With ten minutes left in yesterday’s class, I said, “Sorry, Lord Tennyson. You’re not happening today.” Alfred Tennyson, Emily Brontë, and Matthew Arnold got sidelined, because my students detected something to fret about. And that something was an unsettling charge against John Stuart Mill.

Let me preface. This semester, I’m teaching a section of English literature, 1800 to present. Yesterday’s session marked the first class in our unit on the Victorian period, which corresponds to volume E of the Norton Anthology of English Literature. I opened the class with a timeline, ranging from the 1832 Reform Act and Victoria’s ascension in 1837, the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 and of Marx’s Das Kapital in 1867, to Oscar Wilde’s 1895 trial and Victoria’s death in 1901—all to demonstrate how capacious and murky a term like “Victorian” really is. (Of course, these weren’t all of the highlights: I made reference to the potato famine, the Sepoy Rebellion, and other signs of the Empire’s problems.) From there, I outlined the plan for the rest of the class: talk through Mill’s “What Is Poetry?,” and then close read the day’s poems.

Except, we never quite reached the poems. The class began by working through the standard claims in Mill’s essay: his views on poetry stem directly from Wordsworth’s 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, and he views poetry as a form that can “paint the human soul truly,” so as to create those same emotions in the reader. He’s also far more generous to the novel than Wordsworth: whereas Wordsworth derides Gothic and sentimental novels in the Preface, Mill instead proposes that the novel “is to give a picture of life.” So why would these definitions interest a social and political theorist like Mill? My class had a ready answer, one that Frank Underwood could probably learn from: you’ve got to know your constituency, what they feel, and what they experience.

It was a workmanlike reading of Mill, and my students concurred that they generally agreed with Mill’s definitions, as well as Mill’s belief that literary forms can influence each other. Their appreciation of Mill, however, soured when I asked them to consider a passage in which Mill discusses poetry as a sign of Britain’s cultural maturity. Here’s the passage:

At what age is the passion for a story, for almost any kind of story, merely as a story, the most intense? In childhood. But that also is the age at which poetry, even of the simplest description, is least relished and least understood; because the feelings with which it is especially conversant are yet undeveloped, and, not having been even in the slightest degree experienced, cannot be sympathized with. In what stage of the progress of society, again, is storytelling most valued, and the storyteller in greatest request and honor? In a rude state like that of the Tartars and the Arabs at this day, and of almost all nations in the earliest ages.

The passage shocked my students—as I had hoped it would. In the next few minutes, they dissected these lines in Mill and pointed out the artificiality of Mill’s conception of nations in a state of “childhood.” Several students critiqued Mill for excluding numerous cultural traditions that have different aesthetic principles. Others voiced their concern for how this ideology would influence world affairs: wouldn’t this belief also justify keeping developing nations outside of negotiations, or limiting their influence in orgs like the UN, or as an excuse allowing the British Empire to justify its colonial holdings? (Yes, yes, and yes. And if you want more on the problems with J.S. Mill’s exclusionary arguments, check out the introduction to Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe.)

But the best surprise: when my students turned this idea on the Norton Anthology of English Literature itself. This is when I tabled Tennyson: I instructed my students to flip through the table of contents, the biographical head notes on authors, and so on. I asked them to describe the types of writers and backgrounds they found in those pages, and specifically to think about what they didn’t see. (Volume E is a pretty grave offender—not much outside of the British Isles proper, despite the colonial expansion of the 19th century.) From there, we discussed the real problem with moments like that passage in Mill: they linger and continue to influence the stories that we share with future generations of readers.

What I gleaned from this: our students crave access to those stories that get pushed into the peripheries by canonization. They want to know the different stories of literature, so that they can judge for themselves what literature is, what it does, and how it’s part of our cross-cultural conversations.

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