Dissensus in Two Registers: 'Tintern Abbey' in Taiwan

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If a conversation between poetry and philosophy can be said to have inhabited the language and literature of Romanticism since its inception—and to have constituted the driving force of Romanticism-as-theory, what happens to this conversation when it crosses linguistic and cultural borders? What are the limits of the theory internal to Romanticism and of the theories that Romanticism generates beyond the confines of an increasingly monophone globalism? This paper engages with such questions by presenting and reflecting on passages of textual and cultural dissensus—à propos the specific difficulty of translating the very signifiers, “sense” and the “senses”—in the reading of “Tintern Abbey” in a non-Western context. It suggests that such sites of untranslatability may serve precisely as new grounds for restarting Romanticism’s theoretical potential in our contemporary global context of connected yet heterogeneous cultural traditions.

Dissensus in Two Registers: “Tintern Abbey” in Taiwan

Emily Sun
Visiting Associate Professor in Comparative Literature, Barnard College,

1.         Along with “nature” and “imagination,” “sense” is a keyword in Romantic poetry and poetics that is notoriously slippery and equivocal. William Empson makes it one of his specimen terms of ambiguity in The Structure of Complex Words, writing in the chapter “Sense in The Prelude” that the “apparently flat little word sense . . . comes into practically all the great passages of Tintern Abbey and The Prelude on the mind’s relation to Nature . . .. [W]hether or not Wordsworth is drawing on Hartley or Coleridge, his whole position depends on some rather undeveloped theory about how the mind interprets what it gets from the senses” (289). [1]  “Sense,” that apparently flat little word, marks a locus classicus where Romantic poetry reflects on its own means and—in however undeveloped a way—gets theoretical.

2.         Slippery enough in English, “sense” gets even slipperier in crossing over to another language, and then back again. I will recount in this essay a surprising and memorable moment in the spring of 2013 when I taught the warhorse text “Tintern Abbey” to a class of undergraduates in Taiwan. Insofar as “sense” in Wordsworth veers towards equivocation rather than stable signification, its use suggests, paradoxically, a crisis of sense in its primary definition in Webster’s as “a meaning conveyed or intended”; it marks, rather, the opening up of a disjunction within sense itself that leads dialectically, through the mind’s ongoing relationship with the senses, to another sense. I would like to designate this equivocation within “sense” itself with the shorthand “dissensus,” for reasons I will elaborate later as I recount how dissensus took place not just in one but two registers in our class on “Tintern Abbey” and reflect on how that event may serve as the occasion, again, for getting theoretical.

3.         First, some information to set the scene. There were 26 students in the class, all junior or senior concentrators in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at National Tsing Hua University, a public research university in Taiwan. Nearly all students who take classes in the Department were born and raised in Taiwan, with some from other Sinophone areas (Hong Kong and Macau, a few exchange students from China) and a smattering from other parts of the world, e.g., Southeast Asia and Central America, where Taiwanese government scholarships are available. The students have a high level of proficiency in English, a mandatory subject in the public school system beginning in the fifth grade. As Tsing Hua is one of the most competitive universities, the students typically graduated at the top of their high school classes. Their ability to follow difficult arguments and write well-reasoned prose reflects the benefits of a rigorous math and science high school education (although many of them also spend the first year or two at university recovering from the grueling aspects of that same education). Concentrators in Foreign Languages and Literature at the university are required to learn a second foreign language besides English, but literature courses have been taught for some time almost exclusively with readings in English or English translation, the default and de facto foreign lingua franca in Taiwan—and globally. Since arriving at Tsing Hua in 2012, I’ve taught, for instance, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Charlotte Smith in English and Rousseau, Herder, Goethe, and Hoffmann in English translation. I conduct lectures and discussion in English but, sharing with the students a common language and much of a common culture, I speak Mandarin whenever points seem to call for translation or, on the contrary, seem particularly untranslatable. My students give presentations in English, write their papers in English, and speak English in discussions, but I ask them to participate in Mandarin if particular insights cannot find expression in another tongue.

4.         It’s a challenge teaching Romanticism beyond the Anglophone context. To begin with, the students simply need more time to comprehend the texts by looking up words and figuring out syntax. One assigns less. On another level, while the students are curious about texts of the period and culture in question, they have had less prior contact, through sheer osmosis, with, say, the sublime or prophetic visionariness, given however secular a turn, as elements of a living tradition. The hermeneutic circle that literary reading and interpretation by and large entails intersects with other linguistic-cultural circles here, giving rise to alternate geometries. At the beginning of a semester, students will have heard of and read specific works by individual Romantic-era writers: Pride and Prejudice comes up often, and Rousseau as the author of the Social Contract, a text they know from high school to be fundamental to the history of modern political thought and, hence, a history in which they are implicated. Thanks to Twilight and Harry Potter, they have had previous exposure to the Gothic. On the whole, I have had to provide a lot more information about historical context and cultural background than I have had to in North American classrooms. At the same time, I have needed to be more careful not to provide too much historical narrative—either regarding Romanticism’s position in Western literary, cultural, and intellectual history or the role of the late eighteenth-, early nineteenth-century moment in the West in contemporary social scientific theories of globalization. [2]  I have had to modulate my editorial capacity as pedagogue in order to take care that students have enough room to discover the lessons of Romantic poetry and poetics first as lessons in poetry and poetics that may overlap at points with, and remain in other ways alien to, their habitual ways of experiencing language, culture, history, and the world.

5.         In the spring 2013 class, the students came to “Tintern Abbey” after having experienced the “gentle shock of mild surprise” in reading “The Boy of Winander,” reckoned with the narrator’s intrusion in “Simon Lee,” reflected on what it means to “let Nature be your teacher,” and grappled with the definitions of poetry and the poet in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads.” For all students, whatever their first language, “Tintern Abbey” is a difficult poem that works on multiple levels. My plan that day was to guide the students through the poem by beginning with the concrete situation of the Wordsworthian speaker, addressing aspects of the poem’s form and structure, engaging with conceptual intricacies in Wordsworth’s reflection on the conditions of his own creativity, and then discussing the implications of his address to Dorothy. We started with the title and the genre of the loco-descriptive poem. Noting how the poem marks Wordsworth’s turn to autobiography, we talked about how the poet uses the particular landscape as a measure to chart and reflect on his own growth. To draw them into the experience of the poem, I asked them to think about whether there was a particular landscape that might serve each of them as an analogous reference point. The class was by now focused, engaged, and poised to follow Wordsworth’s ruminations more closely.

6.         I asked for a volunteer to read the first stanza aloud. We considered Wordsworth’s use of blank verse to simulate everyday speech, enjambment to create an effect of fluidity, and repetition to accentuate how long the five years felt and to stress the importance of revisitation. And I asked them to pay attention to the transitions in this stanza between what takes place in Wordsworth’s mind to what he perceives by eye and ear—in preparation for the multiple transitions and reflections thereon that would follow in the rest of the poem. If the first stanza offers the description of a landscape phenomenally available in the present to Wordsworth, as it had been, mutatis mutandis, five years ago, the second turns to how that landscape was internalized as a “picture of the mind” during the intervening time. This move from contemplation of the external landscape to contemplation of the internal served as the occasion for broaching the subject of how the poem entertains epistemological questions about the relationship between the mind and the senses.

7.         In asking students how Wordsworth begins in the next stanza to reflect on the function of sense or sensory experience in his own growth as poet, I was puzzled to find at first a semantic confusion of the “sensory” with the “sensational” or “sensationalist.” One student thought that, in reflecting on what he was like “when first/ I came among these hills,” Wordsworth was criticizing an earlier, youthful susceptibility to the kind of sensationalism involved in the “craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies” that we had talked about the previous week in the Preface. According to her view, Wordsworth would then be advocating a turn away from such sensationalism towards a tranquil mood in which one may be equipped to hear the “still, sad music of humanity.” Several other students chimed in to agree with her. While such a reading was valuable and insightful in discerning an opposition between the contemplative individual and an increasingly sensationalist mass culture on a socio-historical dimension, I wanted to make sure they were also able to recognize the epistemological stakes of the poem.

8.         I started to underline to them Wordsworth’s references to eye and ear and, beyond the bodily eye, to the “eye made quiet by the power/ Of harmony”; and I pointed out the ambiguity of the word “sense” as it recurs in lines 63-4, 96-7, and 109-110 to designate moments in a process of interplay between the mind and the senses. In exploring the relationship between the mind and the senses, Wordsworth, I explained, was participating through poetry in a philosophical conversation that involved, in his contemporary context, empiricist and associationist iterations; he was exploring questions that remain vitally relevant today, e.g., in classes in analytic and Continental philosophy just down the hall. One could see ethical implications in his exploration of these questions in his extension of his claims regarding himself to Dorothy at the end while proposing “Nature” as basis for a sensus communis.

9.         I had the instinct to bring up at this point, for annotative purposes, the etymology of the phrase for the “senses” in Chinese, wuguan. Literally, the two characters constituting wuguan mean the “five officials” or “five courtiers,” in relation to which xin—the word in classical Chinese that denotes “heart” and “mind” as well as “will” or “volition”—is configured as the “sovereign,” jun. (In contemporary Chinese, xin still has this cluster of connotations, but “mind” can be translated also by words imported since the late nineteenth century from European and English sources designating “cognition” and “consciousness.”) The earliest record of this metaphor, which establishes an analogy between the human body and the body politic, occurs in the Han Dynasty Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine, from the Warring States or early Han periods, from the fifth century BCE to 220 CE. [3]  In designating both “heart” and “mind” as well as “will” or “volition,” xin figures as the locus of both the emotional and the cognitive mental faculties that, as “sovereign,” organize and govern the senses. [4]  The coalescence of the emotional and the cognitive in xin stands in contrast to their separation into “mind” (descended from the Greek nous) as figure for cognition and “heart” as figure for feelings in European philosophical discourse and reiterated in the very separation of “mind” and “heart” Wordsworth makes in “Tintern Abbey.”

10.         This philological intervention proved illuminating to the students. Eyes lit up. “Aha!” and “that’s so cool!” and “I never knew that!” and other expressions of wonder were heard. We continued talking about the relationship between “mind” and “the senses” in the rest of the poem, as well as their relationship, in turn, to “sensations,” “feelings,” and “affections”—all associated with the “heart.” The discussion went more smoothly for the rest of the class, with greater appreciation of the multiple dimensions of the poem—including the epistemological, the autobiographical, the ethical, and the socio-historical—and how they might relate to each other. We did not return in that class to talking about the moment in which I introduced the comment concerning the configuration of mind/heart and the senses in Chinese language and discourse. Clearly, though, it had the effect of opening up channels of understanding; indeed, it became a reference point for students when they talked about the course later in the semester.

11.         As their teacher, I offer a few thoughts about the significance of this moment. I myself was surprised to witness their surprise in discovering the metaphor implicit in their casual, everyday use of the term wuguan for senses. In studying a literature foreign to them, they had taken their own language for granted. An estrangement from their own language occurred that revealed both the history of particular phrases as well as the historicity and cultural specificity of these phrases. This estrangement occurred in relation to a certain opacity in the Wordsworthian text for them, which was then rendered discussable for them in its historical and cultural specificity. They discovered also at this point the basic analogy between the human body and the body politic that subtends both the Wordsworthian configuration of the mind and the senses, on the one hand, and the traditional Chinese configuration of xin or mind/heart as sovereign in relation to the senses, on the other. While discovering this common analogy, they also discovered at the same time two significantly different configurations. In short, they learned a lesson about the historicity of language and the incommensurability of languages and traditions; they learned a lesson about how metaphor structures and, in this case, straddles philosophical, physiological, and socio-political discourses; and they learned that the same metaphor may be troped differently, with profound philosophical and cultural implications.

12.         “Sense” is the word that tripped them. As Empson notes, Wordsworth uses it most often at the end of a line and frequently “in the form ‘a sense of . . .,’ which the Oxford English Dictionary explains as ‘not by direct perception but more or less vaguely or instinctively’” (289). In “Tintern Abbey,” Wordsworth writes:

While here I stand, not only with the sense
Of present pleasure, but with pleasing thoughts
That in this moment there is life and food
For future years. (63-6)
In lines 96-7, he speaks of feeling “a sense sublime/ Of something far more deeply interfused.” And, at the climactic moment in the poem, he proclaims how 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. (108-12)
“Sense” appears pleasingly each time as an interfusing of what the eye and ear half create and what perceive, a combination of the prior sense and the senses that becomes available to re-cognition. “Sense” plays a mediating function between cognition and perception, coordinating the relationship between the mind and the senses and bringing them into community with one another. The very word “sense” marks, ironically, the instability of this community of the mind and the senses, a community that is predicated on a fundamental dissensus between parts that conjoin and disjoin in a continuous process. Making sense of “sense” in Wordsworth in English involves registering the disjunction or dissensus between mind and the senses that the word marks, a dissensus that activates the process of re-organization. In making sense of “sense” in Wordsworth through the medium of another language, the class had to pause to register yet another dissensus in reckoning with different configurations of mind or xin, “mind/heart,” and the senses, with each configuration defining an operative epistemic disposition.

13.         “Tintern Abbey” is a warhorse text that can be used to demonstrate commonplaces long considered definitive of Romanticism: the turn to nature, the emphasis on subjectivity, the attentiveness to mental processes, the allegorization by poetry of its own conditions of possibility. Since New Historicist readings by Marjorie Levinson and Kenneth Johnston, it has often been resituated in materialist contexts in relation to historical circumstances it may be taken to bracket out. It can be taught alongside “Frost at Midnight” or put into dialogue with “Beachy Head.” No matter what one does with it, the poem’s critical reflection on its own poetics and performance of its own theory make it ever relevant to thinking about the relationship between Romanticism and literary theory.

14.         The engagement with the poem and its theory of poetic creativity occasioned in my students a critical reflection on their own habitual ways of thinking. What came to my aid in facilitating this encounter was an etymology about a set of terms no less consequential in Chinese as their epistemological counterparts in English. For this etymology, I have Chinese philological scholarship to thank for its source documentation. The annotation I provided showed obviously a point of untranslatability but, beyond that, introduced students to both intra- and cross-cultural depths and dimensions that amplify and render more capacious the experience of reading.

15.         The relationship between Romanticism and literary theory can be said to begin in the late eighteenth century with texts in philosophical aesthetics or poetics such as the Critique of Judgment, the Letters on Aesthetic Education, the Athenäum fragments, “The Defense of Poetry,” among others, which variously attempt to reflect on, define, and project the conditions of literary and aesthetic experience for a new era. This relationship is intertwined further with the secular, historicizing textual practices ranging from biblical hermeneutics to classical studies to Sanskritology and Sinology that may be described by the umbrella term, “philology.” Philology designates a variety of approaches to texts, ranging from positivist scholarship to secularized messianic reading, with all approaches distinguishing the modernity of their orientation to the premodern or canonical in historicist terms. The Western study of canonical traditions in other parts of the world is complicated further by its dovetailing with heterogeneous traditions of textual commentary.

16.         Philology would seem to inhabit the very relationship between Romanticism and literary theory. In his 1982 essay “The Return to Philology” Paul de Man even describes the then-recent turn to theory in literary studies that took place through the field of Romanticism as inherently “a return to philology, to an examination of the structure of language prior to the meaning it produces” (24). He defines philology here not as the study of any particular set of texts but in terms of a “mere reading” that, “prior to any theory, would appear deeply subversive to those who think of the teaching of literature as a substitute for the teaching of theology, ethics, psychology, or intellectual history” (24). Such mere or close reading he finds common in critics and theorists as different as Reuben Brower, Foucault, and Derrida. Beyond his contemporaries, De Man refers to a critical tradition that includes, notably, Nietzsche as philologist. What De Man advocates in the title of his essay is not so much a return to the positivist philological scholarship of the nineteenth century that amassed material for the teaching of literature as the teaching of theology, ethics, psychology, or intellectual history but to philology as a practice of attentiveness to language as medium that radically structures and produces meaning. The essay inscribes, furthermore, its own call for a turn or return to philology in a complex genealogy that goes back to the modern definition of aesthetics, since Baumgarten, as a separate branch of Western philosophy in the eighteenth century. De Man aims to recover a fundamental practice underlying the network of cultural-historical narratives bound up with aesthetics since the eighteenth century that traverses Romanticism as field of study.

17.         In 2004, Edward Said would define philology in deliberate, marked contrast to De Man in an essay he titled likewise, “The Return to Philology.” Stressing the importance of aspects of a textual practice he had criticized vociferously and generally in the form of Near Eastern scholarship in Orientalism, Said advocates a philology that he characterizes as attentive to “conventions, semantic frameworks, and social or even political communities operating as practical constraints” on utterance (69). He cites examples from three philological traditions: the Arabic-Islamic tradition of Koran scholarship, the philological-hermeneutic scholarship of Spitzer and Auerbach, and the American pragmatist approach of Emerson and Richard Poirier. I cannot pursue within the parameters of this essay the rich implications of the differences between De Man and Said’s conceptions of philology and the critical genealogies they respectively adumbrate. Suffice it to say here that Said points in 2004 to a need that persists twelve years later in literary studies to return to philology as part of an acknowledgment of and reckoning with the plurality and heterogeneity of linguistic and textual traditions in the world. The dialogue between De Man and Said is crucial to thinking the contours of such a return. And such a return is crucial to redefining why Romanticism matters in complex and pluralistic terms and ways that give scandal—and pause—to the pace of an Anglophone globalism.

Works Cited

De Man, Paul, “The Return to Philology.” The Resistance to Theory. Minneapolis: U of Minneapolis P, 1993: 21-6. Print.

Empson, William, The Structure of Complex Words. London: Hogarth Press, 1985. Print.

Plaks, Andrew, “Xin as the Seat of the Emotions in Confucian Self-Cultivation.” Love, Hatred, and Other Passions: Questions and Themes on Emotions in Chinese Civilization. Eds. Paolo Santangelo and D. Guida. Boston: Brill, 2006: 113-25. Print.

Said, Edward, “The Return to Philology.” Democracy and Humanistic Criticism. New York: Columbia UP, 2004: 56-84. Print.

Wallerstein, Immanuel, World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2004. Print.

Wordsworth, William, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads. London: Routledge, 2005. Print.


[1] Thanks to Sam Baker for reminding me of Empson’s essay in a conversation at NASSR 2013. BACK

[2] The world-systems theory of sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein has served as the major account of globalization since the seventeenth century in the work of such literary scholars as Franco Moretti, Pascale Casanova, and Eric Hayot. See Wallerstein’s multi-volume The Modern World System and the short World-Systems Theory: An Introduction. BACK

[3] Thanks to Yuyu Cheng for providing me with the source in Huangdi Neijing or The Yellow Emperor’s Classic of Internal Medicine. BACK

[4] See Andrew Plaks’s essay, “Xin as the Seat of the Emotions in Confucian Self-Cultivation.” BACK


Published @ RC

December 2016