Five Questions: Matthew Ward on Romantic Poets and the Laughter of Feeling

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Matthew Ward is Lecturer in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Birmingham. His work focuses on British Romanticism, poetic traditions and intellectual history – he is especially interested in the history of humour, questions of influence, emotions and affect studies, the nature of sound, and issues in ecology. Recent publications include Byron Among the English Poets: Literary Tradition and Poetic Legacy (co-edited with Clare Bucknell), ‘Funny Feelings in Nature‘ (with Erin Lafford), ‘Burns, Satan, and the Sin of Rhyme‘ and ‘Lord Byron, Thomas Hood, and the Tides of Feeling‘. His first monograph, Romantic Poets and the Laughter of Feeling, which we discuss below, has just been released by Oxford University Press.

1) How did you first become interested in laughter in the Romantic period?

In many ways it can be traced back to when I was a postgraduate student. I worked on Byron’s sense of humour for my MA, and that evolved into a PhD on the sound of laughter in Romantic poetry. I’d found humour a rather tricky topic to get hold of in some respects – it’s something that tends to slip through our fingers, I think. And so I’d wanted something that felt a little more identifiable, or that could be traced through and thought about in relation poetry. I’d been interested in sounds in literature, and I remember wondering what we were meant to do with certain odd, inexplicable moments of laughter (William Wordsworth’s ‘To Joanna’ was formative in that respect). I was preoccupied, too, with whether laughter was harmonious with our sense of the poets, or something that felt out of place in Romanticism. Laughter was of interest to me even then because it seemed to be something that invited a feeling for and with others and at the same time aped and lampooned thoughts of that kind. It took me years to draw out some of the implications of these ideas, but the seeds of the book were sown during that time.

2) To what extent did Romantic-period laughter differ from that of earlier periods?

One of the arguments of the book is that laughter plays a crucial, though fraught and ambivalent role, in ideas around sympathetic feeling in the Romantic period. The language of feeling has long been associated with tears, and I wanted to show how vital laughter was as well, to find more room for the ridiculous as well as the sublime in our understanding of Romantic emotions and affect. In 1840, Thomas Carlyle wrote that ‘laughter means sympathy’, but such an idea sits incongruously with so much of what came before. Though we should be suspicious of broad historical sweeps, I think we’re on relatively safe ground to say that before the latter half of the eighteenth century, the vast majority of discourse on laughter identified it with ridicule. In Plato’s Philebus, Socrates says that the pleasure we experience when we laugh is a sign of our cruel enjoyment at the expense of another’s misfortune. Aristotle notes in Rhetoric that mirth expresses our contempt or condescension. The Bible, too, is full of accounts of laughing to scorn. This was the tradition of laughter in one form or another for centuries, so when Thomas Hobbes linked it to his ideas of self-love as the governing principle of human nature, calling it a ‘sudden glory’ that voices feelings of superiority over others, he was in many respects echoing well-established ideas. Critics like Stuart Tave have done a brilliant job of showing how Shaftesburian forms of sociability gradually led to the polishing away of some of the rougher edges of the humorous, but what struck me as odd was how much the Romantics (and especially poets) were left out of this account, or didn’t fit within it, and how often laughter itself struggled or refused to fit within that cosy narrative. One of the things that’s most interesting to me about Romantic laughter is the way it both acts as a vehicle for sympathy and serves as a rebuke to it. It’s that animating tension that’s at the heart of the book. In Romantic writing we see surprising and ambitious ideas about the promise of what laughter might encourage or accomplish in terms of the sympathetic imagination, but this frequently co-exists with doubts, equivocations, and rebukes. In the book I show that these ironies aren’t just about laughter, but the nature and force of sympathy itself: Romantic laughter tests out the implications, prejudices, and constraints of feeling for and with others, even as it often serves as an expression of hopes for how poetry can be what Seamus Heaney called a ‘dissolver of differences’.

3) How do the affordances of poetry in particular lend themselves to channeling the affective power of laughter?

Most studies of the laughable focus on social history, or are about broader cultural matters and issues. I wanted to write a book about laughter itself, and how it relates to poetry in various ways, not least in the Romantic period, when writers were especially drawn to the affective measure of their writing. Laughter (as an embodied experience) and Romantic poetry (with its concern for how we feel but also for how an aesthetic object makes us feel and can be a form of feeling itself) are both affective matters. So Romantic Poets and the Laughter of Feeling presents a prosody of laughter: it explores how laughs are conveyed through the materiality of verse, how bodily affect might be expressed through textual affect. In the second part of the book, I explore how a poem can embody a laugh and at times be unsettled by one. Laughter swells and surges, splits and breaks, it overwhelms and undoes us, but we might also try to stifle, suppress, or deflect it. When laughing, the pace of our breathing and the natural rhythms of our bodies get disrupted; we may jerk and jolt; our vocal cords expel strange sounds. What happens to a body of verse, then, when a laugh erupts? How might a laugh influence, confer, confirm, or disrupt the various moods and inclinations of a poem, and its formal features? What does it suggest when a laugh sounds a harmonious, overblown, dull, or discordant note, exceeds or unsettles the parameters of a line, or its rhythms disturb the dominant or anticipated metre? What might we infer when a laugh fails to rhyme, or too comfortably rings true? Or when the rhythm of a line begins to shake? How should we read and hear such things? And what do these instances tell us about what a poet hopes to achieve, or may at times be unconscious of? These and other questions are considered throughout the book, but in ways that I hope don’t necessarily provide concrete or definitive answers. Rather, I try to embrace the mixed and contradictory feelings that the sound of laughter and the sound of poetry play through and invite.

4) How did you settle on William Wordsworth, Percy Shelley and John Keats as the subjects for the three longer chapters in your book’s second part?

I’m aware it’s not exactly ideal to have three male poets as the main focus, and there’s undoubtedly an opportunity for others to think about the migration of laughter across other poets in the period. The masculine modes of feeling that are central to my study are obviously part of a wider cultural discourse and shaping of social networks, which would be interesting to explore still further. The decision to focus on these three, however, was really for a few reasons. First, laughter is gendered in the period: for women it is particularly bound up with, and focused on, social conduct and various forms of restraint and license. We might think of the testing of the boundaries of decorum that Jane Austen’s Bennet sisters’ love of laughter exhibits as a fictional example of the different circumstances facing women at the time. This way of reading women’s laughter as a subversive and often liberating response to restrictive modes of behaviour has been the subject of notable critical works. It is an approach connected more broadly to movements in literary and cultural studies that have sought to reassert autonomy for women through laughter. It has been designated, for instance, as symbolic of that intermixture of female body and text we label ‘women’s writing’, and distinctively, if cryptically, voiced in Hélène Cixous’s proposal that the text is ‘the rhythm that laughs you…that part of you that leaves a space between yourself and urges you to inscribe in language your woman’s style’.

Romantic male canonical laughter, in contrast, has had very little scholarly attention, I think for two contrasting reasons. First, because the sublimely serious associations long allied to male poets have tended to occlude their sillier sides, and second, on account of the more recent, and extremely necessary expansion of our reading and critical habits – particularly in relation to race, gender, and class – that has better enabled us to understand the ideologies and power structures of a global Romanticism. While this has led to a richer appreciation of myriad identities and voices, it has also sometimes meant the re-establishment of traditional assumptions towards canonical writers. In other words, just as the monumentalising process of canon formation has often cast the most prominent male Romantics as solitary, solemn, and sublime, attempts to go beyond the canon have at times propped up these very notions as part of a revisionary contrast, and thus ignored the much more nuanced and complex forms their writing takes.

A further reason, though, is that – with the possible exceptions of Hazlitt, Lamb, and Coleridge (writers fundamental to my argument in the first half of the book) – it is Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats who, for me, engage in the most complex ways with the nature and consequence of sympathy, and who make the most sustained case for pleasure as an essential provocation for poetry. As I show, laughter is bound up with their sense of the sympathetic imagination, and often becomes a reflection of it. Laughter frequently complicates the forms of intimacy and imaginative engagement upon which their poetry is built. While these three poets show the effect of a revolution in laughter towards more sympathetic feeling, they also bring it into the most comical doubt. Each of them understood poetry as a vehicle and site for exploring the pleasures and pains of sympathy, and I wanted to reveal how important laughter was in that enterprise. The sound of laughter often comes to sound like what they conceive poetry to be – or a test of it – and reflects the complexities of their poetic feeling and sources of inspiration.

Finally, I find their poetry to be endlessly fascinating in the ways it reveals and conceals itself to us – promises intimacy or familiarity, a sense of knowing, even as we become more aware of the limits of our understanding. They’re so drawn, as well, to forms of knowing that might be felt but not quite understood – poetry emerging from places that defy categorisation, or that we struggle to put into words. Such things fitted very well with laughter, given that it exists somewhere between instinct and intention, and defies rational explanations. Georges Bataille spoke of the way ‘laughter hangs in suspense, affirms nothing, alleviates nothing’, and that ‘what is hidden in laughter must remain so’. Countless moments of Romantic poetry – and, I found, particularly the writing of Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats – seems to emerge out of that strangeness, where something is voiced and felt, but where the experience leaves us less sure of ourselves. Laughter brings us into sight of our own alterity, and that of others, but it is also a kind of alterity itself.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on two projects. One continues my interest in Byron: I’ve recently become one of the editors of the Longman Annotated English Poets series for his works, and will be co-editing with Professor Jane Stabler the writing from 1820-21 (in particular the plays – Cain, The Two Foscari, Sardanapalus). This requires producing entirely new reading texts from the manuscripts wherever possible, as well as the sort of extensive headnotes and footnotes expected in the Longman editions. It feels daunting but also very exciting, and I hope it’ll enable me to develop ideas of close reading in relation to manuscripts, alongside the main role of textual scholarship and editing. My other aim at the moment is to think more about poetic feeling in relation to the natural environment, though I’ve yet to settle on quite the direction this might take. I’ve a long-standing interest in the environmental humanities and have recently published a couple of pieces in relation to emotions and ecology to test the waters a bit. I’m thinking about funny feelings – the strange and inexplicable as well as the ha-ha – and how attending to them might offer a different approach to the seriousness with which environmental matters (very understandably) are generally handled. I’m also fascinated by water, though – the flow of rivers, seashores, depths of oceans, but also puddles and sludge, and the strange, not quite transparent nature of watery surfaces, water’s relation to narcissus and echo, and ideas of immersion. So, I guess you could say I’m keen to think more about a poetics of feeling in relation to a poetics of place, even if I’m not quite sure what that place is – or my place within it. After several years working on the monograph, having a bit of time to see where my reading takes me is a very pleasing prospect.