Memory in Romanticism:
mnemosyne, plasticity, and emotion recollected in tranquillity

by Aritro Ganguly and Rangeet Sengupta

When Wordsworth was developing his poetic theory, or when Coleridge was searching for an ideal form, they were trying to repair the Cartesian rupture between the body and the mind . . . Wordsworth said 'all things live in us and we shall live/ In all things surrounding us'. Dualism according to Coleridge was a 'philosophy of death, and only in a dead nature can it hold good.'


Memories do not comply with the dictums of time's arrow. Those among us who have experienced apparently unrelated flashes of recollections passing through our minds will surely vouch for that, and it is often said that people on the verge of death witness packets of memory from their early childhood. Hence, as our discussion centres round the key concept of 'memory', we may be a bit lenient with the temporal sequence of our progress. Our story (if it may be termed as one) begins with an 'Epilogue' - it begins at the very end of the sequential and linear chain of thoughts. This device has been used to come to terms with the present concerns that are linked with the topic and why we bother to give more than a passing thought to it. The 'Prologue' follows the 'Epilogue' - as we move back to pre-Romantic times only to find out how much of 'Romantic memory' was not essentially 'Romantic'. Finally we have our story - the 'substance'. The entire process may prove to be a haphazard voyage on our time machine. The focus of the effort will be on establishing a sense of order in this non-linear descriptive chaos.

Epilogue: Plasticity

It was the Cambridge mathematician Alan Turing who initiated the great AI (artificial intelligence) debate. The well-known creator of modern computers devised the 'Turing Test' in 1950. The Turing Test actually posed the question that when a person is in communication with an unknown communicator in an adjoining room via a teletype then how does the person know that the fellow communicant was a human or a machine? It is obvious that if the fellow communicant was a machine then to pass as a human, the machine has to be clever enough to imitate human creativity. This is the nub of the Turing Test, and Turing believed that within fifty years a computer could be programmed to pass the test.

One may wonder about the possible connection between this singular piece of logical prestidigitation and the Wordsworthian 'spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings'. The connection becomes evident when we comprehend the magnitude of the crisis that was stimulated by Turing's prophetic 'fifty years' prediction. The scientific world wrestled incessantly to create the first robotic automation that would pass the Turing Test. The concept of consciousness as a non-mechanistic vital phenomenon was severely challenged. The Reductionist and Connectionist models of mind came to the forefront. Cognitive processes came to be recognised either as complex logical circuitry or in accordance with multi-layered parallel distributive processing (PDP) principles. Can a cerebral parallel computer imitate consciousness? All the wonders of memory, creativity, imagination, emotions seem to have been reduced to mundane mechanistic processes, devoid of the inherent magic. Funded by government agencies (such as the US military aided DARPA) and multinationals, cybernetics is presently in vogue. MIT research labs, and the likes of Marvin Minsky, Seymour Papert and Daniel Dennett are assuring us that 'AI is reality'. Memories are no longer exclusive possessions of vital existence - even the latest Intel Pentium IV PC also has a bank full of it.

The Romantics could have easily understood our present predicament. Although they had not heard about the Turing Problem, or for that matter, about the future fantastic visions penned by Asimov, they would surely have identified with our crisis. For when Wordsworth was penning Tintern Abbey or when Coleridge was composing Frost at Midnight, they were themselves reacting against a similar mechanistic philosophy, which had dominated the European scenario after the rise of empirical science, having been given birth to by the likes of Galileo, Newton and Descartes. For them, the entire universe was like clockwork, with its systems of gears, cogs and wheels. Thus cosmology was soon interpreted in the forms of pure mechanics. This led to the question that if cosmology can be explained as mechanics then why not biology?

The theory of cognition took shape in the guise of the 'Cartesian Rupture'. Descartes asserted that internal processes powered by a complex system of hydraulics, tubes and valves, carried out the regular functions of organisms. Humans were, however, the exclusive possessors of a soul which interacted with the body through the pineal gland, deep-seated in the brain.

But the soul affected only human thought, while other life activities were nothing but automatic responses to the environment. Although the existence of soul was asserted, by cutting it off from bodily perceptions Descartes hinted towards a mechanical theory of conscious perceptions. Memory, as a trace of earlier conscious perceptions also became a deterministic phenomenon. John Locke, in his 1642 treatise, An Essay On Human Understanding, further championed the reductionist cause. A general feeling of crisis descended among the intelligentsia, which gave rise to the counter-enlightenment movement, which first struck roots in Germany and later spread to England, France and the whole of Europe. Romanticism, as an ideological and temperamental tendency, was a part of the greater movement.

When Wordsworth was developing his poetic theory or when Coleridge was searching for an ideal form, they were trying to repair the Cartesian rupture between the body and the mind. Coleridge detested the Cartesian dualism, which to him 'replaced a providential, vital, and companionable world by a world of particles in purposeless movement'. The Romantics also argued against the Lockean idea that all wholes are a combination of discrete parts. Coleridge asserted that the fault of the experimentalists is that 'they contemplate nothing but parts - and all parts to them are necessarily little - and the Universe to them is a mass of little things'. The Romantics protested against the subject/object divide which a Cartesian world inherently possesses. Wordsworth proclaimed that 'solitary objects...beheld/ In disconnection' are 'dead and spiritless', and division is opposed to man's proper spiritual disposition. The poet's mind - 'The perceiver', and nature 'The perceived', belonged to a distinct whole and hence could not be separated. As Wordsworth said 'all things live in us and we shall live/ In all things surrounding us'. Dualism according to Coleridge was a 'philosophy of death, and only in a dead nature can it hold good.'

An important focus of Romantic creativity was the reconciliation between the natural and the spiritual. In most of the great Romantic lyrics, the poets have tried consciously to bridge the gap between the perceiver and the perceived. The poetic device used in most cases was essentially a recollection of a chain of images from the poet's memory. The images 'recollected in tranquillity' were actually analogies, which helped the reader to establish an emotional connection between natural and spiritual reality. We can see poems such as Aeolian Harp, The Prelude or Ode to a Skylark as using memory-generated images to bridge the Cartesian gap. Memory, in the Romantic tradition was the crucial link between the part and the whole, between the perceiver and the perceived, between the specific and the universal.

In modern neuro-scientific lexicon, 'experience' or 'memory of events' is termed 'plasticity'. Memory is mind's connection to the external environment or the 'not-so-external' nature of the Romantics. This relationship is defined as a dynamic equilibrium between internal and external factors. The variations that occur in the brain or in the cerebral mechanisms due to changes in the environment are termed 'plasticity'. This device that was used by the Romantic men of letters to bring about phenomenal unity is now the subject of intense research in the fields of Neuropsychology, Neuroanatomy and Neurochemistry. Plasticity has become the elusive enigma, which the reductionists have yet to solve.

Prologue: Mnemosyne

Hesiod, the ancient Greek bard, sings the story of Genesis. His story begins with the Muses dancing beside a violet-watered spring - a mystic congregation of seductive goddesses. They are the patronesses of art and literature, their abode being the fountain Hippocrene on Mt. Helicon in Boetia.

The muses were water spirits and were the offspring of Zeus and the Titaness Mnemosyne i.e. memory. The muses Calliope, Eutrepe, Erato, Melpomene, Thalia, Terpsicore, Polyhymia, Clio and Urania presided over distinct fields of creativity comprising choral dancing, love poetry, lyre playing and comedy. The classical men of letters such as Homer and Hesiod invoked them for deriving divine inspiration at the commencement of a creative endeavour. This practice continued and later even Dante and Milton also invoked their own Muses for receiving the epic inspiration. In classical perception, the muses represented inspiration for creativity. Memory, with divine help, produced inspiration. If the hidden allegory in this classical myth can be ascertained then one can surely comprehend the Greek philosophy of creativity.

In classical myths, a poet who boasted of his superiority over the Muses was afflicted by the unique punishment of loss of memory. If Mnemosyne was cut off, the Muses refused to usher in poetic inspiration. In our computerised information-rich age, when memory is thought to be an obsolete mode of acquiring knowledge, this Grecian tradition surprises us. Memorising, which to us is a difficult endeavour, was to the Greeks the source of all creative stimuli. The questions demanding explanatory answers are: how did this shift of creative focus take place, and how did this alteration affect the way in which the Romantics perceived this creative shift?

Plato in his Phaedrus offers us a clue. The narrator Socrates tells his young friend Phaedrus an Egyptian myth. At Naukratis in Egypt resided Theut the god who invented calculation, numbers, geometry, astronomy, checkers, dice and letters. He went to the god Thamus and announced: 'This will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories, for it is specific for both memory and intelligence.' Thamus disagreed and argued: 'This discovery will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memory, they would rather trust external characters and not remember of themselves. You give your disciples not the truth but the appearance of wisdom.' Plato actually focuses on the transition from an oral tradition to written culture, and zeroes in on the problems of creative cognition.

'Among the Greeks', says Moses Hadas, literature was, 'something to be listened to in public rather than scanned in private.' The Sophists and rhetoriticians devoted themselves to the extensive study of the process of memory formation. There are discussions on mnemotechnics in Ad Herenium, Cicero's De Oratore and in Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria. The use of loci and images was stressed for the retention of memory. Nowadays, psychologists have termed memory derived from images as eidetic memory. The classical framework of Memory Theatre did not consider words as mere written fragments, but as essentially phonetic and sensual units, which were uttered verbally. The classical world did not differentiate the word from its sound to the ear and its taste in the mouth. Hence the individual's mind was occupied with completely different fragments of memory compared to those which exist now. Socrates asked, 'Is not there another kind of word . . . far better and more powerful than this one? . . . one which is written . . . in the soul of the learner?' And Phaedrus replied, 'You mean the living world of knowledge which has a soul, and of which the written word is properly only an image.' The Platonic prophesy of an absolute split between the written word and its visual, phonetic and sensuous components has turned into a reality.

The Enlightenment not only gave us Lockean determinism and Cartesian automation, it also supplied us with the Gutenberg Press. The mass printing of books and written documents undermined the importance of Mnemosyne as the mother of the Muses, to replace it with the rather inane standard device for retention. The Romantics grew up in an age where words were fast losing their inherent vivacity, in other words the 'soul' that Plato was talking about. This loss affected the poetic brilliance and creativity and the Romantics in their own ways were trying to bring back the lustre to words. Protesting against a predominant written tradition (of piled up books) the Romantic bards were urging their readers to return to the realm of nature. It is only there that one can hear the preaching of the 'throstle' and the 'woodland linnet', singing the 'sweet' music of wisdom. Wordsworth, in his The Tables Turned, pleads to the readers to 'close up these barren leaves' - 'Up, up, my friend, and quit your books, or surely you'll grow double!' Wordsworth is striving to restore the lost sensibilities of the readers, which have been lost due to a predominantly written tradition. The deep creative crisis is rooted in the transition from oral to written culture. Wordsworth asks for a 'heart that watches and receives' nature's image. In other words, he is trying to reinvent the classical process of memory-formation which was crucial for creative inspiration, but was blunted by the advent and spread of the written word.

Substance: Emotion recollected in tranquillity

Carl Gustav Jung, the famous analytical psychologist, tried to find out the hidden source of creativity. He was not satisfied with Freud's description of vital energy, as a mere sexual energy. Jung, in his analysis argued that 'the divine gift of the creative fire' has its origin in the 'collective unconscious'. He made a clear distinction between personal and collective unconscious. The personal is concerned with an individual's own life while the collective unconscious embraces the political and social psychic tendencies of a group. Microbiologists such as Rene Dubos have discovered the presence of genetic memory of the human race. The true nature of the collective unconscious still remains uncertain but it is clear that a large social group shares it and hence it is a universal pool of memories from which the members can produce images and visions. Jung in his article, Psychology and Literature, emphasises that all 'visionary' writings are 'manifestations of the collective unconscious'. Jung mentions William Blake's creations in this context. The collective unconscious comprises the Jungian 'archetypes' or images, which are the social concepts such as religion, mythology, politics, freedom, and happiness, developed over thousands of years. The art of the literary creator is to transcend the barriers of active will and achieve reconciliation between the individual and collective unconscious.

The Jungian concept of archetype is of extreme importance for our present discussion, as it describes the urge to achieve universality as a cardinal human urge which has fuelled most of man's sublime achievements. However, the process of attaining universality has not been agreed upon unanimously. Reductionist and Empiricist philosophies try to achieve universality through the practice of objectivity. Classical science has always praised objective observation and has mocked subjective perception as mere fancy of the crazy poet. For Newtonian science, truth is objective and can only be perceived objectively. The Cartesian enthusiasts viewed existence as a unidimensional reality, and argued that subjective cognition could not ascertain the universal truth.

The Empiricist tradition met opposition from a school of German philosophers whose thoughts ultimately gave birth to the critical philosophy of Immanuel Kant and later to the German Transcendental Idealism of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel. Johann George Hamman, known as the 'Wizard of the North' was the first to reject the tyranny of discursive reason. Johann Herder followed suit and drew a distinction between poetic and philosophical language. Herder was the initiator of the 'Sturm and Drang' literary movement against intellect and refinement. The stress was laid on poetic language being the language of spontaneity. Friedrich Jacobi, the philosopher, expressed a conviction that the inner life and experiences of an individual are forced on him by a universal power.

This observation serves as a pivotal point to our entire discussion. German Romanticism, propagated by the Schlegel brothers and Novalis, had as its central tenet a belief in the subjectivity of the creative artist. It tells us that when a creative artist senses reality his subjective experiences are influenced by universal power. Hence, the feelings, which are evoked, are not limited specific contingent feelings, but are universal sensations. German idealists did not conceive 'infinite' as something set against the 'finite'. Both the Romantics and the Idealists believed that infinite totality was conceived as infinite life, which manifested itself in and through finite things but not by annihilating them or reducing them to mere mechanical instruments. In short, while the reductionists viewed objectivity as the door to universality, the Romantics believed that intuitive subjective perception of the finite could reach out towards the infinite universal.

The typical characteristic of Romantic literature is the derivation of sublime truths from the trivialities of day-to-day existence. The Romantic poet realises that his own subjective perception can exist on two distinct levels. On the confined personal level, his subjectivity is but a hindrance and bars him from being one with the totality. On his intuitive 'collective' level, however, subjective perception leads to universality. As Wordsworth says in The Friend, 'the ground-work, therefore, of all philosophy is the full apprehension of the difference between . . . that intuition of things which arises when we possess ourselves, as one with the whole . . . and that which presents itself when . . . we think of ourselves as separated beings, and place nature in antithesis to the mind, as object to subject, thing to thought, death to life.' The endeavour of a Romantic artist is the achievement of higher intuitive subjectivity.

Wordsworth's definition of poetry as 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' is well known. It is to be noted that for this recollection to occur, emotions must be imprinted in memory. Now, it can be seen why Wordsworth wanted his readers to throw away their books and to return to nature. For, he wanted each of them to subjectively discern phenomenal reality, the 'sun above the mountain head', 'the long green' fields, the 'vernal woods', 'the beauteous forms of things'. All these images would form imprints in their consciousness and would make up their memories. Memories, as fragments of crystallised subjective perceptions, would enable them to invoke their Muses and experience the ecstasy of creative universality. For Wordsworth, as for the other Romantics, it was the uniqueness of intuitive subjective perceptions which essentially made them universal.

We can distinguish two discrete processes of collective memory formation: (1) The subjective or the active process; as for it to operate direct experience is essential. (2) The objective process or the passive process; as it depends on factual knowledge supplied by a source, such as a book, CD ROM, TV News show. The passive process of memory formation has recently broken into a new and a potentially dangerous sphere. The audio-visual medium supplies us with packets of memory about documented events, which we receive with collective passivity. Over a span of population, this large-scale formation of passive memory decreases the variation of memory fragments. Think about the Napoleonic wars and the recent Afghan crisis. Although most of us have not been direct witness to either of the events; the nature of the images formed by these two historical events differ immensely. The images of the Napoleonic wars vary from person to person; they also change over a period of time, due to changing interpretations by historians and researchers. In contrast, the images of operation 'Enduring Freedom' fall into a stereotypical generality. The audio-visual medium has captured frozen images, which does not leave much room for variable interpretations over time and space.

The transition from a verbal to written to an audio-visual culture is a gradual progression towards generalisation of collective memory formation. Social and political forces influence and exploit this process. It moulds archetypes into abstractions, to ensure their dominance over the 'vox populi'. This produces social amnesia, and the effect of such endeavours has become evident from the consequences of the Soviet Stalinist era.

Creativity thrives only when the variation of memories persists, as it is this very factor that lends uniqueness to an individual creation. The loss of identity in post-modern societies and the creative crisis in the age of Minsky's automatons are rooted in the objective formation of memories. Globalisation of objective memories leads to a sense of fake universality, and it destroys the magic of creativity. Romantics were conscious of this fatal crisis. Their call for intuitive subjectivity still reverberates in our ears as the warning bell for the final apocalypse.

ABRAMS, M. H. The Mirror and The Lamp
ABRAMS, M. H. English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism
PLATO. Phaedrus
JOHN LOCKE. Essays on Human understandings
JOHN JONES. The Egotistical Sublime
CARL GUSTAV JUNG. Memories, Dreams, Reflections
DUNCAN WU. The Romantic Anthology
ROBERT GRAVES. The Greek Myths

© March 2003, Aritro Ganguly and Rangeet Sengupta
email Aritro Ganguly
email Rangeet Sengupta

Search this site
Search the web
Privacy Policy