Savarese, "Lyric Mindedness and the 'Automaton Poet'"
"Lyric Mindedness and the 'Automaton Poet'" 
University of Texas, Austin
1. Coleridge’s most orthodox concerns sometimes led him to unorthodox conclusions. In Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, for instance, his defense of human autonomy and agency caused him to identify the Bible as a human document rather than a divinely dictated set of revelations. Coleridge was deeply invested in the Biblical writers’ status as full human agents, not mere vessels for the inspired word. In Confessions he makes this argument most forcefully as a claim about poetry, specifically about the Biblical poet King David:
2. This essay is about the privilege poetry enjoyed as a marker for a particular Romantic-era argument about the mind’s internal structure. Coleridge’s repudiation of the “automaton poet” is but one example of the overdetermined status of poetry in Romantic-era philosophy of mind. His most frequent target was the materialist claim, launched from various angles throughout the period, that if the mind was identical with its physical substrate (the pineal gland, the vital spirits, the nerves, or the brain), then it could be divided into, or reduced to, its component parts. Poetry, on the other hand—as Coleridge famously puts it—“brings the whole soul of man into activity” (Biographia II:13). The first part of this essay shows how, on this argument, poetry modeled cognition as at once an embodied process, and one that could not be divided into its component parts. I then turn to an alternative formulation in Waverley, where Walter Scott embraces "automatic" poiesis, or something like it, in the character of Davie Gellatley, the cognitively disabled minstrel of Tully-Veolan. With Davie, Scott toys with the notion of reducing lyric expressivity to the brute elements of memorization and counting time. He thus raises the specter of the “automaton poet” that Coleridge had sought to exorcise. I conclude with a look at the broader turn Scott signals toward this competing account of the poetic mind, which gained particular traction in late Romantic Edinburgh.
3. Coleridge had already invoked the “automaton poet” in Biographia Literaria, in order to accuse David Hartley’s associationist system of being deterministic. According to Hartley, Coleridge alleges:
4. While this argument culminates in Coleridge’s allusion to the imagination as a transcendental faculty, it begins with a claim about how the mind is organized. The Biographia’s most sustained objection to association theory is that it makes people into automata because of its impoverished model of the sensorium. Because in Hartley’s system impressions were tied to particular physical locations, Coleridge argues, they could only influence one another by “proximity in place,” and the whole of mental life would reduce to a set of determined interactions between them. “[I]nstead of being the determining causes of association,” then, “the will, the reason, the judgement, and the understanding [...] must needs be represented as its creatures, and among its mechanical effects” (I:110). Setting aside the question of whether Coleridge was taking aim at a straw man here, the result was an insistence that mental functioning hinged on central processing.  Mindedness may involve many different abilities, but its core is one centralized power that can take hold of the “immense” and “unwieldy spectacle” presented by sensation. Poetry offered a model of such central processing. Increasingly aligned with “feeling” (at once a term for embodied response and inward, subjective experience), poetry offered to demonstrate most robustly that the mind was one single, indivisible entity, which had access to the full storehouse of signifiers to use according to its will or whim. If people have diverse faculties, poetry “brings the whole soul of man into activity, with the subordination of its faculties to each other, according to their relative worth and dignity” (II:15-16). The poet, whether Southey, Byron, or King David, imaged a mental life that coordinated the sum total of experience to the purposes of free human action.
5. Entangling his claim about mental processing with a claim about poetry was a risk, since Coleridge’s model of poeisis was hardly the only one in circulation at the time. Walter Scott’s Waverley, for example, invokes quite a different model of poetic production. Scott’s most striking figure of the poetic process is another David: not the Biblical psalmist, but the minstrel figure Davie Gellatley, the Baron of Bradwardine’s cognitively-disabled attendant, who first enters Waverley’s pages singing “with great earnestness, and not without some taste, a fragment of an old Scotch ditty” (41). Davie has a penchant for memorizing scraps of traditional songs, and he sings apparently by rote, taking advantage of what the novel calls his “prodigious memory" (58). It is an openly pondered question—by the narrator, and by local gossips—whether he knows more than he lets on, or simply repeats without understanding the songs he learned in childhood. When he first approaches Waverley, Davie is totally engrossed in his minstrelsy, to the point that he fails to notice Waverley and almost runs into him. When Waverley asks him (“though with little hope of receiving answer to any constant question”) if Baron Bradwardine is at home, Davie “replied, and, like the witch of Thalaba, ‘still his speech was song’”:
The Knight’s to the mountain
His bugle to wind;
The Lady’s to greenwood
Her garland to bind.
The bower of Burd Ellen
Has moss on the floor,
That the step of Lord William
Be silent and sure.
6. Presumably sticking close to Waverley’s point of view, the narrator here suggests that Davie’s recitation is a kind of automatically-prompted tune. The comedy of the scene derives from Davie’s response to a serious question with an apparently whimsical association: a reflex-like turn to his mental storehouse of verse, whether memorized by rote or “remixed” from multiple balladic sources. The song draws its proper names and its keywords from traditional ballads, notably “Burd Ellen and the Young Tamlane.” Burd Ellen is a disaffected mother who, when the young Tamlane asks her to rock their child, replies bitterly, before Tamlane goes to sea. The first line of the ballad locates her sitting “in her bower window” (Child I:256). So, although Scott’s footnote asserts that the song is “original,” the model of authorship actually at work draws on existing sources, takes meanings out of context, and splices them into the word-game or children’s rhyme that appears in the text.
7. I am thinking here of Alan Richardson’s reading of Davie as a figure marking a historical shift in the way cognition was understood: rather than a general slowness of thought, Davie’s disability is characterized by a selective overdevelopment of one particular aptitude—the lyrical—at the expense of others. Richardson links selective overdevelopment to the nascent “biological psychology” that would culminate in phrenology, and which generates a small repertoire of “‘partial’ idiots” in Romantic literature (164). It is telling, though, that Davie’s selective ability is for poetry, rather than some other task. He is not an “automaton poet,” but his poetic practice seems associative or automatically prompted, a poetics of the "fancy" that runs afoul of Coleridge’s association of poetry with rationality and freedom.
8. This rote poetics would have invoked a long history of identifying the prodigious with the mechanical, or indeed with the “automatic.” It was Descartes’ description of selective overdevelopments, after all, that underwrote the eighteenth-century discourse of automation, as well as arguments about the relation between humans and nonhuman animals. For Descartes, mind and body were two separate substances, and while he argued that the mind was immaterial, unitary, and free, he did so by painting a thoroughly mechanistic picture of both the human body and of animals (which he conceived as mindless bodies). Unlike humans, animals simply acted according to the disposition of their various organs, and even their greatest abilities could be regarded as symptoms of mindlessness. When animals outdo humans, Descartes writes:
9. One of the most direct retorts to that Cartesian position was Locke’s insistence that birdsong itself could not be an automatic activity. While hearing a tune could “mechanically cause a certain motion of the animal Spirits” in a bird’s brain, which would “contin[ue] on to the Muscles of the Wings,” Locke attributes this to the role song could play in warning a bird of danger and “tend[ing] to the Birds Preservation.” But Locke can find no such explanatory basis for automation in singing, “which imitation can be of no use to the Bird’s Preservation” (154-5). Not even poetry, but the birdsong to which it is compared in caricatures of Romantic poetics, was too willful an activity to be considered automatic. For Locke, song breaks free from the explanatory power of material psychology.
10. Figures like Davie Gellatley—those dexterous at keeping time, memorizing tunes, or playing with phonemic and prosodic patterns—would have challenged that equation of song with undetermined action, and would have recalled instead the time-keeping of the Cartesian clock. If Davie is, as Alan Richardson suggests, a figure for an increasingly material, differentiated model of the mind-brain that was emerging in the first decades of the nineteenth century, then his variety of popular song additionally offers an alternative to the rational, imaginative, or “organic” models of cognitive functioning that appear as recognizable commonplaces in Romantic discourse. This ground is increasingly being explored by scholars working on the ballad, the “lesser lyric,” and Romantic poetry’s origins in popular narrative and communal song—a body of traditional literature that proceeds collectively, by drawing together disparately memorized materials, and without necessarily having recourse to the expressive or sentimental protocols typically ascribed to the construction of the lyric in the period.  Scott’s deployment of the “automaton poet” figure signals a different Romantic model of poetry, as well as a different sense of what poetic activity illuminates about human mental life.
11. At around the same time that Scott was beginning his series of Waverley novels, a new generation of materialists found in poetry evidence of the sub-rational, quasi-automatic basis of the mind. George Combe, the Edinburgh-based phrenologist, proselytized his new science with case studies that resonate strongly with Davie. In the Transactions of the Phrenological Society, for instance, he notes as particularly illustrative those “cretins,” who, though “endowed with weak minds, are born with a partic[ul]ar talent,” such as “for copying paintings, for rhyming, or for music” (32). Combe’s paradigmatic example is the latter: the local, Scottish example of the “tuneful idiot.” He writes, “In Edinburgh, an idiot is seen upon the streets who whistles correctly several tunes, but cannot connect three abstract ideas; while we all know men of powerful intellects, who cannot perform three notes of the gamut” (30). Examples of such selective abilities, which Combe presents as if they would be familiar to anyone, serve as a kind of common sense evidence for a (supposedly intuitive) materialist account of the mind. Combe concludes, in fact, that “When these facts are seen and considered by men of plain sense they are impressed with the conviction that the human mind is endowed with a variety of powers,” and that those powers are equivalent to particular organs in the brain (30). This “conviction” is actually something that Combe, alluding to the firm foothold phrenology found north of the Tweed, calls a bit of Scottish “common sense,” as opposed to an ostensibly English prejudice in favor of the mind’s unity.  Scots are predisposed, in other words, to the material hypothesis. And, tellingly, they are so predisposed because of examples like Davie Gellatley.
12. Poetry here serves as a window into cognitive functioning for very different reasons than it does in Coleridge’s writing. Yet even in this more materialist climate, the lure of poetry as a quintessentially human activity—as an act of the whole mind—does not go away quite so easily. One anecdote about Robert Burns, with which I will conclude, demonstrates the legacy of the centralized, holistic model of lyrical cognition in late Romantic Edinburgh’s phrenological circles. On March 31, 1834 Burns’s body was exhumed from its grave, in order (as one commentator put it), to “suppl[y] what had so long been desiderated by phrenologists—a correct model of our immortal poet’s head.”  Cranial measurements were taken, casts were made in plaster, and the poet was returned to his tomb. That September, the Phrenological Journal published George Combe’s “Observations on the Skull of Burns,” and launched what remained a major source of interest in Scottish phrenological societies.  On an anniversary meeting commemorating Combe’s birth, in fact, one of the keynote addresses was a lay sermon that in place of theology, used phrenological theory; and in place of scripture offered a reading of the song “A Man’s a Man.”  One of the more interesting documents in what we might call this phrenological Burns canon is Robert Cox’s discussion of the 1834 cranial measurements, his Essay on the Character and Cerebral Development of Robert Burns. The Essay, which first appeared in the Phrenological Journal that same year, and was reprinted by Alexander Stewart (the curator of the Edinburgh Phrenological Museum) for a “centenary celebration” of the poet’s birth, is a medically-based character study (18). Medicalized diagnosis was already an important part of the tradition of Burns biography, as Nigel Leask has recently demonstrated.  Where texts like James Currie’s Life of Burns (1800) grounded their analysis in a philosophy of the will, though, Cox reads Burns’s character by correlating his poetry with his cranial measurements, and cataloguing the various organs those measurements supposedly represented. The Essay catalogues the lot of them: the “organ of Tune,” the organ of “Adhesiveness” or sociability, the organ of secretiveness, and so on. Those which appeared slightly larger or more developed—especially the organs of “amativeness” and “love of approbation”—would, according to phrenology’s main tenet, help confirm or explain Burns’s notorious proclivities and failings.
13. It is surprising, then, that after detailing such particularly developed areas, Cox concludes that those differences were minor: “none of the regions of Burns’s brain was, relatively to the others, deficient; its total size, we have also seen, was great, and its activity was uncommon” (9). Though all of Burns’s organs were exceptionally large, in other words, they were all of more or less the same size: he was a rare specimen of an exceptional, well-rounded brain. Cox perhaps owed this concession to literary-critical precedent. He immediately cites Dugald Stewart’s “well-known” pronouncement that “all the faculties of Burns’s mind were, as far as I could judge, equally vigorous; and his predilection for poetry was rather the result of his enthusiastic and impassioned temper, than of a genius exclusively adapted to that species of composition” (10). He no doubt also owed a great deal to Burns’s status as a national hero, someone who ought to be carefully distanced from the image of the rural, “tuneful Idiot,” gifted at numerous verse, but “deficient” in other matters.
14. In Cox’s Essay, then, poetry becomes a general or undifferentiated ability once again, but only because it is the sum of many smaller, discrete abilities, which happen to have developed equally. Cox’s praise of Burns’s poetic abilities thus cites many individual strengths—like “philoprogenitiveness,” a “sympathy for weak and helpless objects in general” that could have attuned Burns to the plight of a field-mouse—but culminates in generalities like his “force of character,” the “respect which men instinctively paid him,” and the “native dignity” he evinced when among great literary minds (9). By backing away from phrenology’s emphasis on local, discrete cognitive powers toward this picture of general well-being, balance, and health (a brain in which “none of the regions [...] was, relatively to the others, deficient"), Cox accommodates the divided mind to the idea of poetry as a unified or coordinated act. The model of poetic production invoked here owes a debt to the longstanding, Coleridgean emphasis on “the whole soul of man”—but reconstitutes it in the new language of the material, divisible mind. Coleridge and Cox agree, in other words, that poetry deserving of the name is the product of the whole person. What makes a poet is not the honing of one specialized faculty, such as a prodigious memory, but an engagement with the full domain of human experience.  Cox’s Essay suggests that one might agree about what poetry must do—bring faculties into a unified harmony, and speak to “the whole soul of man”—but disagree radically about the cognitive architecture underlying the act. Rather than invoking a centralized power, Cox’s model of the great poet simply implies disparate faculties, possessed in equal measures. A great poet might need to operate as if his mind were whole and unified.
15. The “as if” at work in Cox’s rhetoric—the approximation of poetic activity as a mere semblance of a unified mental power—is a formulation that continues to bear on the ways that “the literary” appears in more recent approaches to “the literary mind.”  One tendency in such studies is to attempt to explain literary production as the success of particular, domain-specific skills, whether those skills are attributed to discrete, encapsulated “modules” in the brain, to neurological zones that light up on an fMRI, or simply to evolutionary adaptations. Thus, on one popular evolutionary account of what literature does, fiction “constitutes an adaptation in its own right” because it “exercis[es] our capacities for handling social information.”  The same author describes the lyric in similar terms, but as a manifestation of a different basic drive, “the human disposition to play with pattern.”  In terms of literary form, those descriptions may ring vaguely true. The latter description of lyric, for instance, is strongly reminiscent of Davie Gellatley’s penchant for tunes and for wordplay, a selective ability that the generation after Scott frequently associated with impoverishment in other realms.
16. There are other ways to approach literature from the sciences, however. Some seek more broadly to understand embodied experience and its relation to literary practice. In her essay “Making Quite Anew: Brain Modularity and Creativity,” Ellen Spolsky defines artistic creativity in terms of the modular mind (a more recent model of the mind as consisting of many distinct, encapsulated processes, rather than a central, undifferentiated process).  On her argument, because people’s cognitive categories emerge as the result of different, often competing modular systems, on occasion “[s]ignificant and stubbornly resistant conflicts may emerge.” It is at such moments, Spolsky argues, that “we might observe the work of particularly imaginative artists feeding a community facing a particularly hungry cognitive problem by re-representing the situation in a different modality” (94). In Spolsky’s example of Raphael’s Transfiguration, the cognitive systems deployed by (Biblical) textual information needed to be transposed onto those used to process visual information (85). As with Coleridge’s definition of poetry, a quintessentially human ability—here “creativity”—acquires its rhetorical force by emphasizing an ability to cross between encapsulated realms of experience. Of course, Spolsky’s argument also resembles Robert Cox’s reformulation of that Coleridgean argument, in his picture of Burns as a gifted individual (like Spolsky’s Raphael) who is able to compensate for the constraints ordinarily imposed by the mind’s dividedness.
17. Spolsky’s argument joins an increasingly audible refrain in empirical approaches to literature, one that emphasizes “culture” and “literariness” as qualities worth pursuing on their own terms. That impulse—to show that “the literary” mirrors something about human cognitive architecture—has a long, Romantic history. Sometimes, “literature” names one faculty out of many that seems particularly “human”: narrative, social cognition, play with pattern, and so on. On this account, “the literary” continues to name those acts that are quintessentially human. But this version of “literature” is now defined according to many discrete abilities rather than Coleridge’s synthetic power. In other cases, the impulse is still to describe “literature” (or “creativity”) as a triumph of the whole mind over its parts, of central processing over modularity. There are several ways to read that impulse. One would be to see it as an endeavor in the spirit of Coleridge, where an emerging interdisciplinary language offers critics a new purchase on humanistic concepts. Another, somewhat less utopian, would be to compare it to Robert Cox’s dilemma: he needed, on the one hand, to gesture toward domain-general creativity or literariness, because they are the literary critic’s stock in trade; but he also needed to redescribe those concepts in terms of the new and largely antithetical methodology of phrenology, with its enumeration of the mind’s distinct and domain-specific organs. On this latter construal, invoking “the literary” is a simple matter of staking out disciplinary territory by scholars who in fact consider it an outmoded term—like Cox’s approximation of the unified poetic mind within a paradigm that had little room—or need—for it.
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 Thanks to Colin Jager, William Galperin, Jonathan Kramnick, Ann Jurecic, and Sean Barry for many helpful conversations, and for their comments to earlier versions of this essay. BACK
 On the Confessions see especially Balfour and Harding. On the “automaton Poet” passage’s relation to inspiration and literary agency, see Schaffer (especially 77-8) and Barr. BACK
 For the argument that Coleridge chose Hartley as an easy, “dated” target by comparison with more contemporaneous biologies of mind, see Richardson 9ff. BACK
 On the Romantic lyric’s entanglements with an earlier, balladic history see especially Newman and McLane. BACK
 For discussions of Burns’s disinterral, see McGuirk (in terms of Burns’s posthumous reputation), Krishnamurthy (in terms of class politics), and Kurshan (on phrenological accounts of literature more broadly). BACK
 On poetry’s claim to a general sphere of knowledge in the context of Romantic-era disciplinary formation, see Valenza 139ff. BACK
 Brian Boyd’s is one of the best-known versions of this particular use of evolutionary theory (On the Origin of Stories 189, 190). For a critique of the impulse to explain literature as an adaptation, see Kramnick. BACK
 Like the disagreement represented in this essay by Coleridge and Cox, the more recent philosophical debate around modularity centers on the question of central processing: how much mental functioning can be attributed to innate, functionally specific, encapsulated mechanisms, and how much remains the domain of centralized functions like reasoning and decision-making. For the classic starting point of these discussions, see Fodor. For the “massive modularity” argument, which reduces central processing to a minimum, see Cosmides and Tooby. For a more recent overview of the debate, see Barrett and Kurzban. BACK