English Romantics: The Subject/Object Dialectic By R. Cary

English Romantics: The Subject/Object Dialectic

By R. Cary

The purpose of this essay is to explore the relationship between poetry and philosophy, to explore their entwined desire to overcome the subject/object distinction. From the Romantics of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelly, poetry has attempted to synthesize imagination with reality, to blend the classic Cartesian dualism of the subject and object. The Poet’s pursuit to find truth and reality through unification of the subject/object lay’s in epistemological and metaphysical systems that have developed contemporaneously. With western epistemological theory’s evolving from Locke’s direct empiricism to Kant’s transcendentalism and ultimately organicism, poetry and philosophy have attempted to synthesize the imagination of the subject with the empirical reality of the object. This attempt has taken place as the subject/object dialectic, which is where our conversation will take place, for Poetry’s dialectical approach to imagination and reality is based in philosophy’s subject/object distinction and congruent epistemological and metaphysical systems, systems that develop poetry as its own discipline of knowledge.

Traditionally, the dialectic of the subject/object has been discussed separately and distinctively, even competitively between philosophy and poetry; however, it is my supposition that both fields reflect each other in their pursuits. Philosophy’s development through the western canon has been one of epistemological pursuit, attempting to attain true knowledge of the world external to the self; an attempt, which is no different than poetry’s, as poetry is in pursuit of reality, which encompasses knowledge of the subject and the object.  Accordingly, Poetry developed a dependency on available systems of thought provided by philosophy, which is, as mentioned, where my approach to understanding the relationship between philosophy and poetry becomes fruitful. For poetry’s pursuit of knowledge and eventual conception as a metaphysical reality reverts poetry to a philosophical development.

The study began as I explored poetry’s incessant or near inevitable attempt to explain its own nature. At the core of this attempt I found poetry to be more than just expressive, but theoretical in its pursuits, a methodology to synthesize man with nature, which brings us to a basic pursuit in philosophy, which is to explain the relationship between man and the empirical world. This pursuit in philosophy begins all the way back to Plato’s theories of forms in the western canon, but in modernity/post-modernity the pursuit begins with Descartes’ Cartesian dualism; and as western philosophy developed man’s position with nature each successive philosopher built on the last, pursuing to synthesize man with nature, threading through empiricism, transcendentalism, and organicism, creating empirical and metaphysical foundations for understanding man and nature and their effective relationship. Furthermore, poetry utilized these shifting philosophical foundations to explore the relationship between man and nature, which shows through our study of romantic theory. With English Romantic poetry exploring man’s nature in conjunction with reality, poetry developed a method or epistemological format to further philosophy’s pursuit; acting as a methodology, poetry became a system utilized since the Romantics.

To understand my pursuit it is necessary to understand my approach to the development of romanticism in confluence with philosophy, for it is my notion that both fields lay in the development of dialectical theory, a notion that for us will be viewed through phenomenology. The development of phenomenology, for our purposes existential phenomenology, created by Sartre and Merleau-Ponty refutes both rationalism and empiricism in regards to human inquiry, as stated herein, The Emergence of Dialectical Theory, “…an attempt to penetrate simultaneously to the foundations of both consciousness and the ‘things themselves’ of experience”, which addresses our focus here, man’s ability to know the things he or she experiences (Warren 91). Further, to understand poetry as a field of human inquiry we must note its methodology; and using existential phenomenology to further our inquiry into romantic theory, which relieves us of choosing one side or the other, allowing us to reduce our insight to a basic notion, that we are attached to the world regardless of what we can know about it, an idea noted here in, The Emergence of Dialectical Theory; “The radical reduction leads neither to transcendental subjectivity nor to the pure nothingness of consciousness, but to the consciousness of our indestructible relation to the world” (Warren 103).  Furthermore, to base my argument and position towards poetry as a method in pursuit of human knowledge, Scott Warren writes in, The Emergence of Dialectical theory:

Merlau-Ponty directs phenomenology to the phenomena of perception as they are securely anchored in the subject as lived-body. He develops a phenomenology of our radical attachment to and presence in the world. Opposed both to an idealistic phenomenology which focuses simply upon consciousness and to an empiricist-realist phenomenology which focuses upon ‘the world,’ Merleau-Ponty proposed a dialectical phenomenology in which consciousness and the world are dialectically and reciprocally related (102-103).

Existential phenomenology pursues man’s descriptive relation to the world and inherent reliance on the fact that the subject and object are related. Accordingly, poetry pursues knowledge through this process, which is relating man with the external world. Furthermore and to specify phenomenology’s use, we must note that phenomenology developed after the English Romantics and is meant as a contemporary view to look back upon the Romantics and to give relevance to modern poetry and their respective relationship romantics, which leaves us to some basic questions that we will answer here.

When I speak of the subject/object dialectic I speak of the distinction between man and nature, the concept and the example, imagination and reality. I will use several names and connotations, but for our purpose here refers back to the subject and object, such as imagination, which stems from the subject and reality, which is the object. Furthermore, the dialectic refers to where the conversation between the two takes place, for dialectical theory, in modernity and for us is the synthesis between two opposites. The synthesis is a result of the subject and object’s relationship, which becomes exposed in concrete form through poetry. This is where poetry provides knowledge, as poetry is the result of a specific human inquiry, one that relies on a metaphysical supposition that reality lies in the dialectic or synthesis, rather than only in “I”, the subject or only in the objects of the world.

To further the scope of my pursuit it is important to note that I am analyzing romantic theory and criticism and not poetic verses. This pursuit is an attempt to show the nature of poetry and what it provides us, which is knowledge, knowledge that leads to truth and reality.

To show this I will give a history of how organicism developed through Locke, Hume and Kant, which effectively gave the romantics their foundations for the study of poetry. Accordingly, I hope to convey the nature of poetry in regards to knowledge and its ability to relate the subject/object distinction.

The historical and theoretical parameters of this pursuit are important to note, as this study began out of my study of the English Romantics and the respective theories of poetry at the time. Through Wordsworth and Coleridge I noticed some philosophical positions acting as foundations for their poetry and romantic theory. Furthermore, when I researched the philosophical theories historically related to the romantics I saw poetry’s attempt at human inquiry, an attempt to understand man’s relation to nature. This inquiry by poetry appears to be based in developing epistemological and metaphysical systems that gave poetry its ability and parameters to pursue knowledge. Accordingly, we will examine the historical development of organicism, the philosophical foundation for poetical theory that developed congruently with the English romantics.

With the eighteenth and nineteenth century at the heart of our discourse here, we will begin with British Empiricism, as developed by John Locke. Locke changed man’s understanding of knowledge, breaking away from the rationalist notion of permanent or universal forms existing a priori, and adapted material objects as ‘real’ or necessary for man to have an understanding of it, while maintaining the mind as active in regards to the world, as noted here in The Mirror and the Lamp; “In Locke’s dualism, then, we have the view that our perception of the sensible world consists partly of elements reflecting things as they are, and partly of elements which are merely ‘ideas in the mind’ without ‘likeness of something existing without’. Locke, therefore, implicitly gave the mind active partnership in sense-perception” (Abrams 63). Adopting material objects as part of reality develops the object/subject dualism we are pursuing to synthesize, as knowledge is no longer found through reason, but empirical analysis.

To further British empiricism, David Hume acknowledged material objects as existing, as Locke did but questioned man’s ability to relate to it, as noted here in, English Romantic Writers, “To Hume it seemed that since we have cognizance only of the contents of our own minds, we can never know that our sensations or ideas correspond to what exists outside of us” (Perkins 14).  Effectively, we have the distinction between the subject and the object, for how can man know anything but his own mind, opinion, and perception? As aforementioned, this distinction is the classic Cartesian dualism developed by Descartes, but it is not until Locke and Hume does the denial of causal inference between the subject/object become an epistemological issue.

With the subject and object divided and man’s relation to nature in question, Immanuel Kant develops transcendentalism, which is in response to British empiricism and its inadequacies in reality’s relation to man. As stated here in, English Romantic Writers, “transcendentalism is the belief in the existence of a timeless realm of being beyond the shifting, sensory world of common experience”, a notion that works to resolve the epistemological issues Hume raises, for transcendentalism is an idealistic approach, as noted here in, English Romantic Writers; “In Kant and his successors throughout the nineteenth century…idealism stressed the mental or ideal as a distinct component of reality and maintained that the mind, instead of depending on impressions from without, has the prime role in the creation of what we know as experience” (Perkins 14-17).  Kant and his followers disagreed with the empiricist’s notion that sensory data embedded primary knowledge upon the receiver, leaving the mind as the main source of knowledge and experience as secondary. Effectively, man is not molded or impressed upon by sensory data but, rather, “Through his free will man then strives… to bring value into the realm of concrete phenomena”, as written by David Perkins in, English Romantic Writers (17). Man is the supplier of knowledge through his ability to know the eternal realm through reason, which leaves nature at the whim of man.

With nature and man at opposite ends of the spectrum in regards to human inquiry and the dualisms further developed, we come upon organicism, which, “…abandons these dualisms by conceiving the cosmos (reality) as a process rather than as a substance, an activity in which the material world, the mental or ideal, and the Divine mutually involve or interpenetrate each other”, as noted in, English Romantic Writers (Perkins 17-18). Organicism is the unification of the subject/object through interdependency, a relationship that is not systematic or dependent on one part to support the whole; rather as noted here in, The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy,organicism, a theory that applies the notion of an organic unity…the (intrinsic) value of a whole need not be equivalent to the sum of the (intrinsic) values of its parts”, we see organicism as an undefined relationship between the interrelated parts that are seen in the whole (Audi 635). Furthermore, Perkins states here in, English Romantic Writers, “The form does not exist independent of the concrete manifestation, and it expresses itself in each part, as also the existence of each part presupposes the whole” (18). Organicism as a theory allows for forms and particulars to occur interdependently and methodologically allowing us to relate man with nature, as depicted here in, English Romantic Writers; “The argument was that a poem manifests a process that is at least analogous to that of reality itself. It fuses, Coleridge said, the universal with the particular, the idea with the image, the part with the whole; it exists both as unity and as an activity that develops through time; it reconciles spontaneity with inevitability and law” (Perkins 18). Organicism develops interdependently, creating a process for poetry to explore nature and man’s relationship. Man’s imagination is to be unified with reality, to be reconciled with everyday examples of the concept created through imagination, but not systematically, but interdependently, as an interrelated process that is not essentially defined, but inherent to human inquiry and existence.

Human inquiry and man’s desire to have knowledge of his/her world are inherently attached to imagination in regards to organcism, which acts as the faculty that transcends human inquiry as noted here in, English Romantic Writers:

In connection with organicism, on the other hand, this imagination, as the active coalescing of all faculties of the mind, involves faculties empirically directed to the outer world, as the senses, faculties through which we have access to our own human nature, as the emotions, and a faculty of transcendent intuition. Thus only through the imagination can we apprehend reality in its organic wholeness and process (Perkins 20).

Imagination is imperative to organicism and romantic theory, for imagination is where reality is ‘modified’ or apprehended. Imagination is where the organic process becomes fruitful, as imagination creates the concrete synthesis –Poetry. The development of organicism as a philosophical position posited the English Romantics to unite man and nature through the imagination, effectively utilizing poetry as the product of man’s comprehension of reality.

The development of organicism is not the sole contributor to poetry’s development as an epistemological pursuit, as we must relate philosophical developments with aesthetic theory in regards to poetry, as aesthetic theory changed from imitation to expression to the mirror and the lamp, so did poetical theory, as it left behind objective or mimetic theories of poetry and observed imagination and man as a part of the creative process. With man as part of the creative process we can further romantic theory, as imagination is where the internal becomes the external, it is how imagination exposes its relationship with reality through human expression, as noted fhere in, The Mirror and the Lamp, “Poetry is the spontaneous ‘overflow’ of powerful feelings. Wordsworth’s metaphor, ‘overflow’, suggests the underlying physical analogy of a container—a fountain or natural spring…. This container is unmistakenably the poet” (Abram 47). But this development relies on the subject as the sole supplier of emotions, exposing his imagination through expression but, “No less characteristic of romantic theory is a set of alternative analogies implying that poetry is an interaction, the joint effect of inner and outer, mind and object, passion and the perceptions of sense”, as stated by Abrams in, The Mirror and the Lamp (57).  As we noted earlier, organicism relies on all parts to act in accordance to create a whole, but not withstanding a systematic procedure. Effectively, aesthetic theory and organicism have developed congruently, developing internalities and externalities as the source of imagination, as noted in, The Mirror and the Lamp:

Man [Shelly says] is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven, like the alternations of an ever-changing wind over an Aeolian lyre, which move it by their motion to ever-changing melody. But there is a principle within the human being, and perhaps within all sentient beings, which acts otherwise than in the lyre, and produces not melody alone, but harmony, by an internal adjustment of the sounds or motions thus excited to the impressions which excite them (Abrams 51).

To further the unification of aesthetic theory with organicism, Hazlitt writes here, in, The Mirror and the Lamp, “Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry…the light of poetry is not only a direct but a reflected light, that while it shews us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it…(Abrams 52). This adaptation in aesthetic theory allows for poetry to act as the mediation between imagination and reality, as the mind is not the purveyor of knowledge but a part of the whole that is impressed upon by nature and consequently expressed. This process blends poetry as based in both the nature and the mind, as noted here in, The Mirror and the Lamp, “Art is ‘the mediatress between, and reconciler of, nature and man”, is a notion that purveys art or poetry as the synthesis of the subject and object by allowing poetry to reflect man’s participation; “Poetry also is purely human; for all its material are from the mind, and all its products are for the mind”, establishing our theoretical foundations.

Furthermore, we need to review relevant literature and explanations that surpass historical development and create theoretical explanations of the pursuit of man to explain his/her relationship with nature. As we continue to explore the nature of poetry we will find romantic theory to be based in the discourse of the subject/object dialectic through modernity/post-modernity.

Romantic poetry, as noted, has become an artiface of aesthetic and epistemological theory. Both Wordsworth and Coleridge, amongst others, wrote several essays that convey their view of the nature of poetry, furthermore, they expose poetry as as the mediator of man and nature. However differentiating the theories are, they rely on poetry as an epistemological pursuit allowing them to relate what the romantics relied on–nature, with their excited imagination.

For Wordsworth, imagination gets reduced to its basic relationship with nature and man’s basic ability to comprehend and express this relationship. He attempted to reduce poetry to a near objective expression of the natural world, as stated here in, English Romantic Writers, “I have at all times endeavoured to look steadily at my subject; consequently, there is I hope in these Poems little falsehood of description, and my ideas are expressed in language fitted to their respective importance” (Perkins 426).  The effectiveness and accuracy of the poem lies in its ability to objectively relate man with nature, a basic substance of poetry according to Wordsworth, as he states here in, English Romantic Writers:

Aristotle, I have been told, has said that Poetry is the most philosophic of all writing: it is so: its object is truth, not individual and local, but general, and operative; not standing upon external testimony, but carried alive into the heart by passion; truth which is its own testimony, which gives competence and confidence to the tribunal to which it appeals, and receives them from the same tribunal. Poetry is the image of man and nature (Perkins 428).

And to further the latter, Wordsworth states here, in regards to the Poet, “He considers man and nature as essentially adapted to each other, and the mind of man as naturally the mirror of the fairest and most interesting properties of nature” (Perkins 429). The aesthetics of poetry is dependent on its relativity to nature, consequently, making it close to man. While these mentioned aspects of Wordsworth are clearly developed in respect to our venture, the above mentioned references only show Wordsworth attempting to unite the two through man’s closeness and objectification of nature, rather than through a process. To further our case we need to look at Wordsworth’s, “Preface to the Edition of 1815” and “Essay Supplementary to The Preface of 1815”, as they give us a clearer image of Wordsworth organic base.

In the “Preface to the Edition of 1815” and “Essay Supplementary to the Preface of 1815”, Wordsworth notes man as part of the process of mediating man with nature. He ventures into poetry as a process developed through the mind’s imagination, as stated here in, English Romantic Writers, “…Imagination, in the sense of the word as giving title to a class of the following Poems, has no reference to images that are merely a faithful copy, existing in the mind, of absent external objects; but is a word of higher import, denoting operations of the mind upon those objects, and processes of creation or of composition “ (Perkins 436). And to further Wordsworth notion of the mind acting upon nature through imagination, here he states in, English Romantic Writers:

Thus far of images independent of each other, and immediately endowed by the mind with properties that do not inhere in them, upon and incitement from properties and qualities the existence of which is inherent and obvious. These processes of imagination are carried on either by conferring additional properties upon and object, or abstracting from it some of those which it actually possesses, and thus enabling it to react upon the mind which hath performed the process, like a new existence (Perkins 437)

The conveyance of the imagination as man’s tool furthers Wordsworth to come to his elicit view of the nature of poetry, as Wordsworth writes, in, English Romantic Writers, “ The appropriate business of poetry, her appropriate employment, her privilege and her duty, is to treat of things not as they are, but as they appear; not as they exist in themselves, but as they seem to exist to the senses, and the passions” (Perkins 439).  The senses and the passions work congruently within man to convey his/her relationship with external objects, as perceived. Accordingly, Wordsworth develops the romantic tradition of the nature of poetry, which is representative of the epistemological orientations of poetry, which can provide knowledge that is further clarified by Coleridge, as he is the cornerstone to my understanding of  romantic theory.

Coleridge’s theories were progressive, as he worked to expose his metaphysical systems, as it seems that he developed a theory of aesthetics that defined poetry for two centuries (Perkins 563-564). His approach to human inquiry lay in the romantic tradition of poetry as a process, as he notes here:

It seems evident then, first, that beauty is harmony, and subsists only in composition and secondly, that the first species of the Agreeable can alone be a component part of the beautiful, that namely which is naturally consonant with our senses by the pre-established harmony between nature and the human mind; and thirdly, that even of this species, those objects only can be admitted which belong to the eye and ear, because they alone are susceptible of distinction of parts (Perkins 559)

Coleridge brings us the harmony of an ideal with the object, as states here, in, “On the Principles of Genial Criticism,”: “The Beautiful arises from the perceived harmony of an object, whether sight or sound, with the inborn and constitutive rules of the judgment and imagination: and it is always intuitive. As light to the eye, even such beauty to the mind, which cannot but have complacency in whatever is perceived as pre-configured its living faculties” (Perkins 563).  Coleridge continually addresses the beautiful, which roots to his perception of aesthetic theory and man’s knowledge of beauty. Art as beauty must then depend on man to know it, to make a judgment of what is ‘beautiful’, for what is beautiful for Coleridge is what is agreeable to the senses, which makes man and nature relative to one another, within the process of human inquiry, a process he notes here, in, “On Poesy or Art”;  “In every work of art there is a reconcilement of the external with the internal; the conscious is so impressed on the unconscious as to appear in it” (Perkins 610). This reconciliation for Coleridge is centric to my approach and to Coleridge’s captivity of Romantic theory, which is clarified in Coleridge’s, “Biographia Literaria”.

Coleridge furthers our ability to understand poetry’s nature by reaffirming it as a form of knowledge just as Wordsworth did, as he states here in, “Biographia Literaria”, “for poetry is the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passion, emotions, language” (Perkins 573). Coleridge’s theory of poetry lies in poetry as an epistemologically sound system, for truth, which is the pursuit of human inquiry, is the result of poetry’s methodology, as noted here by Coleridge, in “Biographia Literaria”, “it was the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed” (565). Truth of an observation that is further understood through the imagination, according to Coleridge, as he writes in, “Biographia Literaria”:

The IMAGINATION then, I consider either as primary, or secondary. The primary IMAGINATION I hold to be the living power and prime Agent of all human Perception, and as a repetition in th finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I am. The secondary imagination I consider as an echo of the former, co-existing with the conscious will, yet still as identical with the primary in the kind of its agency, and differing only in degree, and in the mode of its operation. It dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate; or where this process is rendered impossible, yet still at all events it struggles to idealize and unify (Perkins 567).

Idealization of human perception develops through imagination, connoting reality and the imagination as interdependent agents; agents of organic principles, principles of adherence for Coleridge, as he states here in, “Biographia Literaria”; “Yet if an harmonious whole is to be produced, the remaining parts must be preserved in keeping with the poetry”, for poetry is produced through its various parts, which appears to be the nature of poetry, as he writes again; “My own conclusions on the nature of poetry, in the strictest use of the word, have been in part anticipated in the preceding disquisition on the fancy and imagination. What is poetry? Is so nearly the same question with, what is a poet? That the answer to the one is involved in the solution to the other” (Perkins 570).  The poet and the poem are indistinguishable from one another, as they are introverted towards one another through their innate connection, which is the world. Poetry completes the synthesis of man’s curiosity with his or her relationship to the world he/she is born into, a relationship defined by romantic theory. Romantic theory and its curious approach to man and nature is best defended and depicted through Shelley, as his, “A Defence of Poetry” is probably poetry’s most technically potent criticism for our discussion (Perkins 1131).

Shelley explored the subject/object dialectic we are discussing today to the most technical level applicable to not just poetry, but aesthetic theory. His reliance on imagination and expression to convey man’s relationship with nature is of course in the romantic tradition, if not the depiction of romantic theories hold on modern poetry. Shelly’s explanative pursuit is based in ‘mental action’ that is two pronged, as he states here in, “A Defence of Poetry”:

According to one mode of regarding those two classes of mental action, which are called reason and imagination, the former may be considered as mind contemplating the relations borne by one though to another, however produced; and the latter, as mind acting upon those thoughts so as to colour them with its own light, and composing from them, as from elements, other thoughts, each containing within itself the principle of its own integrity. The one is the…principle of synthesis, and has for its object those forms which are common to universl nature and existence itself; the other is the…principle of analysis, and its action regards the relations of things, simply as relations….Reason is the enumeration of quantities already known; imagination is the perception of the value of the quantities, both separately and as a whole. Reason respects the differences, and imagination the similitudes of things. Reason is to imagination as the instrument to the agent, as the body to the spirit, as the shadow to the substance (Perkins 1131).

We can see the evolution of the dialectic, as Shelly writes in, “A Defence of Poetry”, “Poetry, in a general sense, may be defined to be ‘the expression of the imagination’: and poetry is connate with the origin of man. Man is an instrument over which a series of external and internal impressions are driven” (Perkins 1131).  The instrument of man uses metaphors of thought which are dependent on language, which convey the imagination of man and his relationship with the external world, as he notes again in, “A Defence of Poetry”:

For language is arbitrarily produced by the imagination, and has relation to thoughts alone; but all other materials, instruments, and conditions of art, have relations among each other, which limit and interpose between conception and expression. The former is as a mirror which reflects, the latter as a cloud which enfeebles, the light of which both are mediums of communication (Perkins 1133).

Language, which translates into poetry, is the concrete medium of poetry and the core of romantic theory. The Romantics established imagination and reality as a process, rather than two distinct dualisms; and by using poetry as the means to know the other, poetry became a field of epistemological inquiry. Furthermore, poetry as a form of knowledge in our discussion of the subject/object dialectic, has not wavered, as it is still the nature of poetry for poets today.


English Romantics: The Subject/Object Dialectic

By R. Cary

Copyright 2022


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