By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re going to be exploring the connections between poetry and our brains — and how we perceive emotions.
So, what is poetry, anyway? For something we spend so much time talking about in English classes, it’s surprisingly hard to define, and there are in fact many different ways of answering the question. One way is to look at the technical aspects of poetry that distinguish it from prose — but that’s a subject for another video. In this video we’re going to consider another kind of answer, by looking at how poetry is a way of filtering, organizing, and communicating our perceptions of the world around us.
Every culture around the world has its own rich poetic tradition, with many different defining characteristics and social roles, but for now we’re going to focus on the European, and specifically English literary tradition. And to understand English poetry, we actually have to go back to Greek literature — so let’s start with the etymology of the word poem itself. Poem comes into English, through French and Latin, from Greek poema, from the verb poiein “to make or do”, which can be traced back to the Proto-Indo-European root *kwei- “to pile up, build, make”. The sound change at the beginning may seem a little odd, but it’s perfectly regular: the stem vowels in Proto-Indo-European change in what’s called ablaut or vowel gradation, so the o-grade form of *kwei- is *kwoi-, and the /kw/ sound, a labialized voiceless velar stop, regularly becomes a voiceless bilabial stop /p/ in Greek when occurring before a back vowel. In a somewhat more phonologically direct path, that root also became Sanskrit kayah with the sense “body”, which was combined with the Sanskrit word chitra “distinctively marked, variegated, many-coloured, bright, clear”, from Proto-Indo-European *keit- “bright, shining” probably ultimately from the root *skai- “gleam” which also gives us the word shine, with the resulting Sanskrit compound chitraka in the sense “marked or spotted body” used to refer to a leopard or tiger. This was shortened to simply chita in Hindi, and from there it was borrowed into English as cheetah. But in the Greek version, poema, a poem is literally a thing that’s made, and that makes sense when we look at a few historical definitions of poetry.
The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle theorized about poetry in his work called The Poetics. He starts off with a basic statement that the various types of poetry “are all in their general conception modes of imitation”. Now the word he actually uses here is mimesis, and there has been over the years much disagreement about what he meant by this word. It’s often translated as “imitation”, but perhaps the best way of thinking about it is as something made, in other words representing something in another medium. So for instance, what we think of today as poetry is an imitation of a person, a perception, or an event, using only words. For Aristotle, poetry could also include, for instance, drama, which contained also music and staging in the Greek world. So poetry then, by this definition, is something that is perceived and filtered through the human mind and imitated using only words. A tall order, imitating all the complex range of sensation and emotion using only squiggles on a page.
Skipping forward to ancient Rome, the poet Horace wrote a poem in the form of a letter to a friend all about how to write good poetry, called the Ars Poetica or Art of Poetry. Horace’s approach is much less theoretical and more practical than Aristotle’s. In fact it’s kind of a listicle: 10 ways to write poetry that’ll blow their minds! So things like choosing a subject, using appropriate diction, using metre and style that fits the topic, the importance of harmony and proportion, and so forth. He also says that it is not enough for a poem to be beautiful (pulcher), it must also be sweet (dulcis), so that it transports the soul of the reader (or actually the hearer). This metaphor of sweetness is key, with Horace later advising the mixture of the useful with the sweet, basically the honey of the poetry makes the bitterness of the lesson being taught go down more easily.
Skipping forward again to English poetry, the most famous definition is the one by William Wordsworth in his Preface to The Lyrical Ballads, a collection of poems written by Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge at the beginning of the Romantic era. It should be remembered that the Preface was written by Wordsworth alone and Coleridge didn’t agree with everything he said about poetry. In any case, for Wordsworth at least, poetry should be drawn from “incidents and situations from common life”, but then should be modified by “a certain colouring of imagination” so that they are “presented to the mind in an unusual way”. Furthermore, most famously, he wrote that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings”, but what is often forgotten is that he qualifies this by stating that the poet must also have “thought long and deeply” in order to produce that poetry. Sounds contradictory, I know, but the idea is that the poet has that emotional moment, thinks about it for a while, and then as he says, the poetry “takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”.
So much for the theoretical definitions, but what is poetry actually for? Well in addition to reproducing things and emotions, poetry also has a very practical function, in recording things like history, myths, or other important information. You see poetry is a much older invention than writing systems. Though we may now think of a poem as something written down on a page, originally poetry was an entirely oral thing, recited aloud from memory to an audience. And that’s one reason poetry is put together the way it is. Many of the standard elements of poetry help ease the cognitive load of remembering the poem. For instance, depending on which poetic tradition you’re talking about, a poem might have a regularly repeating rhythm, or repeated sounds like rhymes, and sometimes might be very formulaic with repeated words, phrases, or even whole lines, with the performer half improvising the poem out of formulaic stock phrases. It’s also why, to the frustration of many students, poetry can often be very ambiguous and require interpretation to get the meaning. Think of it as information compression, like a computer compresses a file to make it take up less space. Poetry uses techniques like figurative language such as metaphors and similes to express complex ideas in few words with layers of meaning. Of course that means the listener or reader has to decode some of that afterwards, and sometimes that leaves room for ambiguity, ambiguity which is often intentional to add further complexity to the poetic expression.
Now let’s take a look at those early oral poets for a moment. One of the Old English words for an oral poet is scop, which may come from Proto-Germanic *skapan “to form, create” from Proto-Indo-European *(s)kep- “to cut, scrape, hack”, which would make it cognate with the word shape, thus a close equivalent of the word poet from Greek poietes, literally a “maker”. It might also come from, or at least be influenced by, Proto-Germanic *skupan “to mock”, which itself might come from Proto-Indo-European *skeubh- “to shove”, root of the words shove and scoff, and it’s that second cognate that’s the key here, as one of the uses of poetry in the Germanic tradition was for dishing out insults, so scoffing or mocking. We can also see this in the Norse word for a poet, skald, which gives us the English word scold, and comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *sekw- “to say, utter”. In the hands of a good scop or skald, words definitely can hurt.
In addition to poietes, another Greek word for an oral poet was rhapsoidos, from which we get the word rhapsody. The word rhapsoidos, or rhapsode in English, is a compound of the words rhaptein “to sew, stitch” and oide “song, lay, ode”, so literally a “sewer of songs”, a not uncommon metaphor for poetry because of that formulaic nature of oral poetry. Now in spite of the etymology of their name, unlike a poietes, some rhapsodes may not have been composing their poems extemporaneously according to oral formulae, but instead reciting their poems, mainly the Iliad and Odyssey, word-for-word exactly as the poet Homer composed them. Of course, Homer himself may have been somewhat of a fiction, a legendary or mythical poet to whom those poems are ascribed, but in the western canon of poetry, the figure of Homer, the blind bard who could nevertheless see clearly into the souls and emotions of people, is the archetype of the poet. As for the English poet Wordsworth, well he wasn’t blind but he did suffer from anosmia, that is the lack of the sense of smell, so perhaps a lesser Homer?
So these definitions focus on perceiving, imagining, and feeling — and the history of poetry in English is closely connected to our attempts to understand what these things actually are, and how they work. This is particularly easy to see in the Romantic period, so let’s turn to one of the poets from that time to illustrate the connection. William Blake was an early Romantic, or some would say proto-Romantic, poet and also engraver, so many of his most famous works are accompanied by his glorious and often dreamlike illustrations, produced with the help of his wife Catherine, who he taught to read after they were married. As a teenager, Blake was going to be the apprentice of royal engraver William Ryland, who pioneered the stipple engraving technique, but Blake didn’t take to him, stating “I do not like the man's face: it looks as if he will live to be hanged!”, and so he was instead apprenticed to James Basire. Basire taught Blake a more old fashioned technique of engraving, likely contributing to lack of recognition of Blake as an engraver in his own day, though he would later invent a relief etching method that involved using acid to dissolve the undecorated parts of copper plates, but the inhalation of the fumes from this likely led to his eventual death. As for Ryland, he was indeed later hanged for forgery with the intent to defraud the East India Company. Blake was not only a political radical, for instance doing illustrations for one of Mary Wollstonecraft’s works, but was also a religious Nonconformist, and had very unusual and idiosyncratic views, which led to many of his contemporaries believing he was mad. From childhood he was prone to spiritual visions, and was also interested in perception, making a distinction between seeing with the eye (in other words sense perception) and seeing through the eye (imaginative perception). In this regard, he is famous for his phrase “If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite”, pointing out the limitations of human sense perception in comparison to the infinite nature of reality. This quotation comes from his multimedia work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is composed of poetry, prose, and illustration in the style of biblical prophetic writing. The title of the work was a response to the theological book Heaven and Hell by Swedish scientist, philosopher, and eventually theologian and mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg. Blake was influenced by Swedenborg’s writings, and there is perhaps a connection between the Swedish scientist’s work on the soul and its connection to the body and Blake’s statement in The Marriage that “Man has no Body distinct from his Soul”, but Blake was also critical of Swedenborg’s insistence on the duality and opposition between good and evil. That’s why it’s called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. And it’s this relationship that lies behind The Tyger, a poem from the “experience” part of his double work Songs of Innocence and of Experience, where it is paired with the “innocence” poem The Lamb, which uses the standard metaphor of the lamb as Jesus. Blake points out that the “same immortal hand” that created the lamb also created the tiger, a “fearful symmetry”. And as we saw earlier, a Sanskrit word for “bright” combined with a word related to poem to mean “tiger” (giving us cheetah), so it’s fitting that the most famous line from Blake’s poem is “Tiger, tiger, burning bright”.
As for Swedenborg, he was raised a Lutheran and was the son of bishop Jesper Swedberg (the family name changed to Swedenborg when Swedberg’s children were ennobled by the king in recognition of the bishop’s contributions to the country), who had controversial religious views, rejecting the Lutheran doctrine of salvation through faith alone, a position his son would adopt as well. Swedenborg, however, wished to pursue an education in the sciences, and attended Uppsala University, where he was keen on presenting his work at academic sessions in spite of his slight stammer, though later in life he would decline to speak in public due to his speech impediment. His scientific career was largely successful and varied, and he was valued for his expertise in mineralogy, metallurgy and mining, holding the post of assessor-extraordinary on the Swedish Board of Mines, fitting as his father, mother, and stepmother were all from rich mining families. As I mentioned before, he was particularly interested in exploring the anatomical foundations of the soul, most importantly in his incomplete and misleadingly titled Economy of the Animal Kingdom, which he actually intended as the first scientific look at the soul. His interest in the soul led to his investigation of the brain, in which he made a number of discoveries that were not appreciated in his day, including his insistence on the importance of the cerebral cortex in sensory, motor, and cognitive functions, as opposed to the commonly held belief at the time that it served no significant functions — the word cortex literally means “rind” or “tree bark” in Latin. He also had a proto-theory of the neuron well before its official discovery in the late 19th century. He also correctly predicted the function of the corpus callosum as a structure that allowed the hemispheres of the brain “to intercommunicate with each other”. He was way ahead of his time in a number of other ways too, turning his hand to inventions, many of which would not become a reality until much later, such as airplanes, submarines, machine guns, and a universal musical instrument which didn’t require any musical knowledge to play and yet could produce all kinds of melodies, and he even thought it likely that there was extraterrestrial life on other planets. But at the age of 57, Swedenborg began having spiritual visions (not unlike the poet Blake), first having a vision of a man sitting in the corner of the private dining room of the tavern he was having dinner in who said to him “Do not eat too much!”. Frightened he went home and that night in a dream, the same man appeared to him and told him he was the Lord, instructing him to write about the spiritual meaning of the Bible. Swedenborg abandoned his scientific work, turning instead to theology, which departed significantly from the established views of Lutheranism, rejecting the concept of the Trinity and stressing the importance of charity in addition to faith, and describing the Second Coming of Christ, Judgement Day, and the afterlife, and this eventually led to his banishment from Sweden to live out the rest of his days in England. His extensive later writings would, after his death, lead to a new religious movement, the Church of the New Jerusalem, a denomination which, although rather small, still exists. This concept of the New Jerusalem, which is a common enough metaphor for heaven, is similar to another of William Blake’s most famous poems, commonly known as the hymn Jerusalem later set to music by Sir Hubert Parry, originally from the preface from his epic Milton: A Poem in Two Books, which contains the famous phrases “dark satanic mills” and “chariot of fire”, and concludes “I will not cease from Mental Fight, / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand: / Till we have built Jerusalem, / In England’s green & pleasant Land”.
Swedenborg was also purported to have clairvoyant abilities, once, in a sudden outburst, accurately describing a dangerous fire near his house in Stockholm while dining with a friend 300 miles away. Later in the meal he exclaimed “Thank God! The fire is extinguished, the third door from my house.” The philosopher Immanuel Kant became quite interested in Swedenborg’s alleged psychic abilities, and initially praised them, and began reading Swedenborg’s theological works, but later backpedaled and criticized his work. Now if Blake was one of the proto-Romantic poets, Kant was one of the proto-Romantic philosophers, contributing much of the intellectual backbone of the movement. As such, one of his most important contributions to Romanticism was his work on aesthetics, which for Kant meant “the science of sensory perception”, particularly in his work Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime, which examined one of the most important concepts of Romantic poetry, the sublime (and you can see our video about the sublime for more information on that). For Kant judgement of aesthetics is subjective though based on the external reality of a work of art. This is connected to his theory of perception, in which our perceptions of the external world are combined with concepts we already have in our mind, famously stating “Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions (perceptions) without concepts are blind”. The word aesthetic, which comes into English through translations of German scholars like Kant, ultimately comes from Greek aisthanesthai “to perceive”, from the Proto-Indo-European root *au- “to perceive”, which also gives us such words as audible, obey, and anaesthesia. Our modern sense of the word aesthetics meaning “criticism of taste” comes from the German philosopher, and rough contemporary of Kant, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten. To settle the confusion over terminology English scientist and polymath William Whewell, who was a coiner of many scientific terms in English, suggested the term callesthetics, combining aesthetics with the Greek kallos “beauty”, but unfortunately Baumgarten’s is the usage that stuck. Whewell, by the way, was taught by the blind English natural philosopher and polymath John Gough, who published on a wide range of scientific topics, including the first description of the phenomenon of rubber bands releasing heat when stretched, and “An investigation of the method whereby men judge by the ear of the position of sonorous bodies relative to their own persons”. Gough was admired by some of the Romantic poets of his day and was praised by William Wordsworth in the poem The Excursion and by Coleridge in The Soul and its Organs of Sense. Another of Gough’s students was John Dalton, who is today most remembered for introducing atomic theory into chemistry, but also for his research on colour blindness, which led to this form of visual impairment being sometimes referred to as Daltonism. Dalton himself was colour blind (as was his brother, thus suggesting that the condition was hereditary), and so this makes three of the people involved in our story with some form of visual impairment, the blind bard Homer, John Gough, and Dalton (not to mention Wordsworth and his impaired sense of smell).
Now getting back to Swedenborg and the New Jerusalem Church which grew up out of his writings, there were a number of significant figures, besides William Blake, who were adherents of the religion. These include John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, who as a missionary spread the writings of Swedenborg along with the apple tree to many parts of the United States. But for the purposes of our story, we’ll follow the path of one Henry James Sr., an American theologian from a Presbyterian background who turned to Swedenborgianism. Henry James Sr. is now most notable for being the father of the famous novelist Henry James Jr., as well as of philosopher and pioneering psychologist William James. William had an unusually close relationship with his sister Alice which some have argued bordered on the erotic. In addition to erotic elements in letters William wrote to her and in sketches he drew of her, he also wrote mock sonnets and read them to her in front of the family, and in one such sonnet he even expressed his desire to marry her. Alice, who was diagnosed at the time with hysteria, took William’s eventual marriage (to someone else) badly. As for William James himself, who was also prone to periods of depression, he is (perhaps ironically) most known for his work on emotion and perception. In what became known as the James-Lange theory of emotion because of independent work done on similar lines by Danish physician Carl Lange, James proposed that the physiological response precedes the feeling of an emotion, in other words he believed that emotion was the mind’s perception of the physiological response to a stimulus. The famous, if perhaps somewhat tongue-in-cheek, example he used to explain it is that we don’t see a bear, fear it, and run, but instead see a bear, run, and then interpret the situation as fear. Our experience of high levels of adrenaline and rapid heart rate IS the emotion. Think about that the next time you stumble upon a bear in the woods—once your heart slows down, you can be like Wordsworth, recollect that emotion in tranquillity, and write a poem about it! As you might imagine, this could have important implications for any theory of aesthetics. James had been taught by German physician and physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, who had also worked on perception, devising theories of vision, colour vision, and the visual perception of space, rejecting Kant’s argument that the perception of space followed Euclidean geometry. Helmholtz was also interested in the perception of sound and how this relates to aesthetics, writing in his book Sensations of Tone about how and why certain vibrations and tones produced music while others simply produced noise, though I guess his student William James, who had amusia or tone-deafness, wasn’t able to fully appreciate that part of his teacher’s work — and you can add that to our growing list of sensory impairments.
Now Helmholtz’s research methods involved careful measurement and various apparatuses to accumulate experimental data of perception, and he was inspired in this regard by the work of Gustav Fechner, who essentially invented the field of psychophysics, the scientific study of the relationship between physical stimuli and physical sensations and perceptions, thus proving Kant wrong in his belief that the mind could not be measured and quantified. Fechner, like Swedenborg, was also the son of a churchman but in later life became an atheist. He rejected the notion of mind-body dualism and believed that the mind and the body were two aspects of the same existence, again similar to Swedenborg’s work on the body and soul connection. Therefore he set about trying to define the relationship between the physical and psychological, so he had to find a way of measuring the intensity of mental processes, and that’s when he devised, through much experimentation, the Weber-Fechner law which describes the mathematical relationship between the actual change in a physical stimulus and the perceived change in a physical stimulus. It’s called the Weber-Fechner law because Fechner used the work of his teacher Ernst Heinrich Weber in formulating it. Fechner realised that measurement requires both a zero point to measure from and a measurement unit. He borrowed from the work of Johann Friedrich Herbart, who was Kant’s successor in his professorship at the University of Königsberg, who not only worked on aesthetics, but also established the concept of the limen or threshold of consciousness, which became Fechner’s zero point — and if you want to know more about Herbart’s connections to Romanticism and the sublime, again watch our video “Sublime”. From Weber, Fechner borrowed the measurement unit the Just Noticeable Difference, which Weber had been studying by increasing in small increments the weight being lifted by his experimental subjects, in other words how much did a weight have to change in order for the subject to notice that difference. Fechner determined that the relationship was logarithmic, that in order for the perception to increase arithmetically the stimulus had to increase geometrically, or for those not mathematically inclined, the higher the overall stimulus the higher the change in stimulus needed to be in order to be noticed. As it turns out, William James reviewed Fechner’s work, and though he admired his work overall and his contributions to psychology, he was skeptical of his findings. Fechner also had more literary pursuits, writing poetry and humorous pieces under a pseudonym. Among Fechner’s other scientific works were his speculations about the corpus callosum, that bridge between the hemispheres of the brain that Swedenborg figured allowed the two parts to communicate, correctly predicting that splitting the corpus callosum would result in two separate minds or streams of consciousness, though this wouldn’t be proven until well after his time. He also worked on vision and colour, making important contributions in those fields, until, ironically, he developed an eye disorder forcing him to resign from his professorship at Leipzig. One of his achievement in the study of colour was some early work on synesthesia, producing the first empirical survey on the synesthetic relationship between colours and letters. Synesthesia, which comes from the same root as aesthetics combined with the prefix syn- “together” thus meaning literally “perceiving together”, is a perceptual phenomenon in which a stimulus on one sense triggers sensation in another sense, like having the experience of colour when hearing a particular sound.
Another early researcher into synesthesia was Francis Galton, who studied synesthetes who involuntarily picture numbers in physical space, and was also interested in Fechner’s work on psychophysics, as he was also into quantification and statistical analysis. Galton, who is also known for developing the science of fingerprinting, which you can learn more about in our video “Clue”, was obsessed with measuring people, largely as a result of his belief in eugenics, taking his cousin Charles Darwin’s ideas to some dark places. Galton wanted to use Fechner’s psychophysics to measure a person’s mental qualities, and compare them in terms of their relative strengths and weaknesses. He began experimenting and collecting data, and came to the conclusion that “women of delicate nerves” do not possess “acute powers of discrimination”, and yet men “have more delicate powers of discrimination than women”, and if you find that contradictory, join the club — basically he was saying that women were too sensitive to be rational, but not sensitive enough to be discriminating. But wait, it gets worse. He believed the same was true of workers, “idiots”, “savages”, and the blind, all inferior to, surprise surprise, English gentlemen, and concluded that the most sensitive people were also “intellectually ablest” and should therefore be the most ideal for reproduction. Thus he used psychophysics as his justification for eugenics. He also took aim at the deaf, believing that they shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce, and what’s more wanted to suppress sign language and rejected “the philanthropic custom of massing the deaf and dumb together in separate societies, and of making their life as happy as possible in those societies”. Now if you’re getting all riled up about Galton, you can take some comfort in the knowledge that he got something of a comeuppance, when he himself began to lose his hearing. Unsurprisingly his attitude shifted, replying to a letter from Darwin’s son George collecting money for the blind, writing “I fully sympathise and gladly send £2 to help it. But my strongest sympathy is with the deaf. Had I a fairy godmother, I would petition that every experimental physicist should be made as deaf as I am, until they had discovered a good ear trumpet, and then that as many fairy-gifts should be heaped on the discoverer as should exceed all he could desire, as well as the thanks and gratitude of all whom he had relieved!” But you know, I think we can all agree that Francis Galton should never have a fairy godmother. In coping with his hearing loss, Galton turned again to the research of Fechner and others, believing that faint below the threshold stimuli might still come into the unconscious mind and might therefore be augmented and brought to the threshold through the imagination, that buzzword of Romanticism. Indeed he turned to Romantic poets such as Wordsworth to find evidence of this. Galton figured that we already had a kind of auditory imagination that we develop when we read silently, recreating the flow and rhythm of the spoken word. It does make sense when you think about reading poetry and appreciating its use of sound and metre. Like Kant before him, he concluded that it was the combination of the mind and the material world that produced sensations.
So I suppose in a sense this is not unlike the phenomenon of synesthesia, with sense perceptions being triggered by another type of stimulus. And in fact you don’t have to look hard to find examples of synesthesia in poetry. It was commonly used by many Romantic poets as an intentional form of figurative language. For instance, Percy Shelley has the lines “Of music so delicate, soft, and intense / it was felt like an odour within the sense” [The Sensitive Plant], and in Ode to a Nightingale Keats calls for wine “tasting of Flora and the country green, / Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth”. And in Coleridge’s response to his erstwhile partner Wordsworth’s definition of poetry, he points out that the imagination involves “the balance and reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”. And that brings us right back to one possible definition of poetry: something made imaginatively from our rich perceptions of the world into a new medium that stimulates the perceptions and emotions of others.
Thanks for watching! Depending on when you’re seeing this, there either is already, or will soon be, a companion video to this in which we talk about the technical characteristics that define poetry — like metre, genre, and figurative language, so check that out! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe, & click the little bell to be notified of every new episode. And check out our Patreon, where you can make a contribution to help me ma ke more videos. I’m @Alliterative on Twitter, and you can visit our website alliterative.net for more language and connections in our podcast, blog, and more!