The Romantic period develops a particular construction of the self, a self with a privileged interiority. Posthumanist criticism flattens this interiority, pushing our critical attention away from the artist’s expression of internal feelings to material relations between bodies in landscapes.  Such a posthumanist approach follows several threads of posthumanism. It draws from what Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) calls a “flat ontology”, which makes little or no distinction between the human as an entity and any other object as an entity. Author Timothy Morton puts forward an ecological OOO in a number of recent works but most notably in Ecology without Nature and in Hyperobjects. Such posthumanism is further explored in the collection Romanticism and Speculative Realism.[1] This brief essay has two parts: a definition of Romantic self as seen in Wordsworth’s classic poem “Tintern Abbey” and then a posthumanist undoing of the self especially evident in Keat’s well known “Ode to Autumn”.

Romantic Self and Interiority

Meyer C. Abrams’s 1971 The Mirror and the Lamp synthesizes an aesthetic formulation of classic Romanticism: Wordsworth’s privileged interiority of the mind as an expressive theory of aesthetics: “A work of art is essentially the internal made external, resulting from a creative process operating under the impulse of feeling, an embodying the combined product of the poet’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings”.[2] The division is fairly clear. The “inside” of the mind is turned outward through poetry. Wordsworth’s “Preface” to Lyrical Ballads includes his often cited definition of poetry: “I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”.[3] These feelings arise through an encounter with nature.

There is no better example of Wordsworth’s interiority and expressive aesthetic than “Tintern Abbey”.[4] The poem is like a complex set of Russian nesting dolls in which one moment is nestled inside a later moment which is inside yet another moment (the present of the poem) which is then projected into a future moment. These are nested memories, selves, and interiorities gathered together by the poet as his current self. In the present of the poem, Wordsworth walks along the environs of Tintern Abbey. He recalls a past of five years ago when he was there in his boyish days. Then he recalls being in London and remembering having been at Tintern Abbey and how that memory of life outside the city sustained him. So, he is in the present recalling a past (in London) in which he recalls a moment even further past (boyhood days in nature and at Tintern Abbey). His experience of the location sets off a chain reaction of other experiences and his mind lights up with waves of past experiences mingled with the present and then he imagines taking these memories with him into the future (which he calls “food for future years”). The middle of the poem in particular is about how he has lost his youthful, innocent engagement with nature but has gained a critical distance by which he can more clearly see and understand himself, his past, and the natural world he loves. In short, he realizes that he has gained over the course of the past five years a self and interiority that is separate from the landscape.

The poem could end there but he extends the imagery by introducing another human character; late in “Tintern Abbey,” starting at line 112 of a 159 line poem, Wordsworth introduces “thou my dearest Friend,/ My dear, dear Friend” his sister Dorothy, who apparently was there all the while with the poet but despite dearness he neglected to mention her.[5] The author places on her three critical roles. First, she functions as an embodiment of his younger days when he was immersed in nature. He sees in her “wild eyes” his own “boyish days,/ And their glad animal movements”.[6] Secondly, Dorothy is for her brother William an excuse for his externalizing his thoughts. In a rather pedantic big brotherly fashion, he preaches to her the virtues of nature and even bestows a blessing on her. Finally and perhaps most importantly, she becomes repository for his memories:

When these wild ecstasies shall be matured

Into a sober pleasure; when thy mind

Shall be a mansion for all lovely forms,

Thy memory be as a dwelling-place

For all sweet sounds and harmonies; oh! then,

If solitude, or fear, or pain, or grief,

Should be thy portion, with what healing thoughts

Of tender joy wilt thou remember me,

And these my exhortations![7]

He makes his sister into a memory palace; she becomes “a mansion for all lovely forms” and “Thy memory be a dwelling place”. All of this takes place in the shadow of Tintern Abbey—a former religious building that stands before them in picturesque ruin. The new church, the new place of worship is out in nature and the high priest bestowing the blessing is the poet. Moreover, the structure to house the religious experience is the human mind as a “mansion for all lovely forms”.

The structure of “Tintern Abbey”, which fashions the privileged interiority of the poet, is repeated in a number of Wordsworth’s later works. Wordsworth got the idea for this structure from Coleridge’s conversation poem “Frost at Midnight.” Other Romantic poets will use similar imagery to create mental interiority. For example, John Keats has his dark bower in “Ode to a Nightingale” and Percy Bysshe Shelley has a cave of Poesy and mental retreat in “Mont Blanc”.[8]

Posthuman Flattening of the Self

Within Romantic scholarship, posthumanist critics deflate the puffed up interiority of the human subject including the surrounding cultural and historical buttresses which remain in work by critics who read texts through a historical or cultural lens. Such an approach begins with the deconstruction of the privileged human subject in the work of Paul de Man, especially The Rhetoric of Romanticism, and continues through to the work of Timothy Morton.[9] More broadly and ambitiously, posthumanism asks us to decenter thought, to imagine life, worlds and thought outside of the human. As such it is often conjoined with a radical form of ecocriticism, animal studies, and thing theories. Put otherwise, the interiority of the human subject developed in Romanticism continues in the way we think of personhood today. While contemporary philosophers such as Foucault and Derrida launched a philosophical critique against phenomenology’s suppositions of a normative humanist subject, posthumanism asks us to imagine nonhuman phenomenology and in doing so engage in our limits of thinking outside of the human.

Jonathan Bate’s well known ecological reading of Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” in The Song of the Earth serves as a good starting point for understanding how posthumanism functions within Romanticism.[10] Bate frames the reading of the poem by considering the weather. “Ode to Autumn” was written in September of 1819, a season of bountiful grain after three years of poor weather and failed harvests. As such, it is a celebration of agriculture after many years in which the inhuman forces of weather created lean conditions for human sustenance. In the poem, the fortuitous weather allows for plants and animals to flourish in “networks, links, bonds, and correspondences”.[11] What appears as an overly rich thriving is merely “illusionary excess” since abundance provides an ecologically valuable biodiversity. It is instructive to see how Bate recuperates this diversity for human ends. He catalogues the wild-flowers with medicinal uses and focuses on the agricultural harvest that is a theme throughout the poem. Taking a posthumanist turn would mean recognizing diversity in itself, not for human utility. We could link the wildflowers with bees and bees to pollination for human crops, but again, this would be to use nature for human ends.

The most striking element of this poem is not the intertwining of nature with human agricultural technologies in the grain rich fields. Rather it is the waning of flourishing life that happens late in autumn and signals the coming winter. Keats imagines Autumn with a reaper’s hook momentarily suspended. We know the grim reaper will come to all but for now all beings seem to thrive in a life “o’erbrimm’d.” The end of the poem signals a greater end, the end of the day and the end of a season and the end of what we can know of life. In the final stanza “a wailful choir the small gnats mourn” as “The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;/ And gathering swallows twitter in the skies”.[13] In the gnat, the redbreast, and the swallow, humans are out of their depths. We do not see the utility to the gnat nor the hedge-crickets that sing. As night falls, the swallow leaves to destinations unknown and for reasons unknown. Even the redbreast who populates the human architecture of the garden-croft has repurposed it. The garden and the croft are not for us but for it. All the human activity of agriculture sits amid a much larger nonhuman world whose choir, songs, whistles, and twitters signal to us a world that exists among us but which we can never fully know.

The Romantic authors are known for their landscape aesthetics. What is strikingly different in Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” is how unlike the typical Romantic period description of a landscapes it is. For Wordsworth and many others (such as Thomas Grey, Coleridge, Mary Robinson, etc.) encounters in the landscape produce a psychological effect recorded by the poet. However, as Keats explains in his letter to his publisher and friend Richard Woodhouse, his idea of a poet is antithetical to Wordsworth’s privileged interiority, what Keats calls here the “egotistical sublime”:

As to the poetical Character itself (I mean that sort of which, if I am any thing, I am a Member; that sort distinguished from the wordsworthian or egotistical sublime; which is a thing per se and stands alone) it is not itself – it has no self – it is every thing and nothing.[14]

The poet functions like a handyman doing whatever odd job he is put to. To survive living with such a protean identity and mutable task calls for “negative capability” or as Keats describes it in a letter to his brothers, “Negative Capability that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason”.[15] In “Ode to Autumn” we see the poet taking up ways of being in the world that are far different from the human. The poet is living with the uncertainty of what such life means. It must mean something—especially to the animals themselves—but the meanings remain shrouded in “uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts” for us who grasp “after fact & reason.” Poetry, in this posthuman configuration, is not illuminating and expressing one’s experiences. Rather, poetry is opening up to a nonhuman phenomenology of wonder beyond fact, reason, and mimetic description. Cultural forces try to tame life into benign ways of being (and being represented) and political forces try to coopt life for its own ends. But lives are in excess of the ways they are coopted and appropriated.[16] A posthumanist reading of Romantic texts explores the possibilities of life in excess of human systems.

— Arizona State University, July 2019


[1] Timonthy Morton, Ecology without Nature (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2007);  Timonthy Morton, Hyperobjects (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013); Chris Washington and Anne McCarthy, Romanticism and Speculative Realism (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).

[2] M H Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1953), 22.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads 1798 and 1800, eds. Michael Gamer and Dahlia Porter (Buffalo, NY: Broadview Press, 2008), 183.

[4] References to “Lines Written above Tintern Abbey, On Revisiting the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798” are from the above cited 1798 edition, 142-145.

[5] Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, ln 117. For critique of the treatment of Dorothy Wordsworth, see Marjorie Levinson, Wordsworth’s Great Period Poems: Four Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986).

[6] Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, ln 119 and ln 74.

[7] Wordsworth, Tintern Abbey, ln 139-47

[8] Marjorie Levinson, Keats’s Life of Allegory: The Origins of a Style (New York: Blackwell, 1991).

[9] Paul de Man, The Rhetoric of Romanticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984).

[10] Jonathan Bate, Song of the Earth (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2000),  94-118.

[11] Bate, Song of the Earth, 105.

[12] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble (Raleigh: Duke University Press, 2016).

[13] John Keats “To Autumn,” Complete Poems, (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1978), 360-61.

[14] John Keats Letter to Richard Woodhouse October 27th, 1818. Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Grant F. Scott (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 194-196. 194.

[15] John Keats Letter to George and Tom Keats, 21, 27 December 1817. Selected Letters of John Keats, ed. Grant F. Scott (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 59-64. 60.

[16] Maurizio Lazzarato, “From Biopower to Biopolitics,” Pli 13: 2002, 99-113; and Jane Bennet, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham NC: Duke, 2010).