Special Assignment: Sensibility

Definition of Sensibility:

Remember Amy Bergan's good question: she said that she always associated "being sensible" with "being reasonable." Since the eighteenth century, the primary meaning of "sensibility" has changed. During the eighteenth century, a person would have said that being reasonable means having good sense; but sensibility they would have associated with "sensitivity" and emotion. So, Jane Austen's title, Sense and Sensibility, points to two opposites: in the novel there is a very rational, reasonable daughter ("Sense") and a very emotional, overly sensitive one ("Sensibility").


In Radical Sensibility, Chris Jones says that, in the 1770s, the Sensibility movement in art, "the idea that the purpose of art was to invigorate and purify the emotions, especially those connected with the social affections," was progressive: "Sensibility . . . gave impetus to humanitarian and philanthropic crusades which sought reform in the treatment of orphans, prisoners, and slaves . . ." (2). But later critics began to worry about whether, when art stimulates intense feelings, it also spurs people onto political action: "The enthusiasm of sentiment tends to remain in the imagination for many devotees who `pay in words what they owe in actions' and often lead to a `sickly sort of refinement' which creates imaginary evils and distresses . . . ."* Does sensibility literature spur people on to take political action and help oppressed people, or does it make real-world sufferings into something that is artistic and pleasing, encouraging us to leave things as they are?

Answer that question discussing any one of the following:

Hannah More, "Slavery, A Poem"

Ann Yearsley, "A Poem on the Humanity of the Slave-Trade"

Charlotte Smith's sonnets, or "The Emigrants" (read the following paragraphs for some help in thinking about Smith's poetry.)

Charlotte Smith's sonnets bemoan her fate as a woman which was, as Linda Colley tells us, pretty miserable:

The author of The Laws Respecting Women summed up [women's state] in 1777: "By marriage the very being or legal existence of a woman is suspended." Every wife except a queen regnant was under the legal authority of her husband, and so was her movable property: "She can't let, set, sell, give away, or alienate any thing without her husband's consent. Her very necessary apparel, by the law, is not hers in property." . . . . Stripped by marriage of a separate identity and autonomous property, a woman could not by definition be a citizen and so could never [even] look to possess political rights [such as the right to vote].**

Because women had no legal standing in Britain as persons separate from their husbands, Smith could not get her children's inheritance for them (she was not allowed to undertake legal proceedings in her own name) nor even protect her own earnings against her spendthrift husband who had the legal right to do with them what he wished (he could leave her for a mistress, then return and take all the money she had earned writing novels). Smith's poems lamenting her own and her children's fates are therefore about the plight of women in Britain at this time.

Smith's poem The Emigrants laments the fate of the dispossessed aristocrats forced to leave France. She asks God to "Teach the hard hearts / Of rulers" to empathize with every living being (lines 426-7)--perhaps her poem is designed to do just that.

Do Smith's poems stimulate people to take political action or do they simply provide us with enjoyment watching the sorrows she describes (just as we enjoy watching sad or violent movies)?

*Jones 3, quoting Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling (1771).

**Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837.

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