“Brown Study” Aesthetics in Romantic Literature

Elizabeth Walker (University of South Alabama)

I. Introduction: “Brown Study” Aesthetics

Wind rattling at the window, fire in the grate, and a poet dozing in his chair are images in William Cowper’s “A Winter’s Evening: Brown Study.” The presence of an aesthetics of a brown study is an issue I invite my classes to study in their theoretical approach to Romanticism from a Survey of British Literature I class. In the class, we study the two stages of composition theory—I: Eingedenken and II: Composition (linguistic)— in writing that appears in poetical works by William Cowper, William Collins, James Thomson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Anna Letitia Barbauld, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Wordsworth. The brown study aesthetics poems each feature the two phases, Eingedenken and Composition. In William Cowper’s The Task “Book 4: A Winter’s Evening,” aesthetic response occurs in a state of unconscious reflection preceding representation in language. The poet is half-awake and daydreaming. The poet appears overcome with images. At rest after a long day, he is, at least for the present moment, inarticulate. The poet’s frame of mind calls up Theodore Adorno’s theory in Negative Dialectics that aesthetic response is pre-linguistic. In the brown study, Cowper’s poet enjoys a “parlour twilight” and “sweet oblivion of the cares of day” (4.278, 4.250). Theoretically, according to Adorno’s model and following models such as Albrecht Wellmer’s in The Persistence of Modernity: Aesthetics, Ethics and Postmodernism, aesthetics precedes articulation (Wellmer 3–4). However, thoughts that follow an aesthetic response may transpire to linguistic utterances as part of a purposeful inquiry inspired by earlier experiences in an aesthetic state (Wellmer 3–4).

The images in Cowper’s The Task and additional period brown study aesthetics poems are part of a module that I included in a Spring 2019 literary studies course for undergraduates. In the module, the class discussed poetical tropes of two-stage composition: (1) the pre-linguistic stage and (2) the linguistic stage. Cowper’s images are a part of a historical tradition of poetical images of slumbers and reflections. Pre-linguistic images precede later images of the compositional phase such as John Keats at his writing office in Joseph Severn’s painting “John Keats at Wentworth Place” (Appendix A).

We begin the module with the first stage of composition, Eingedenken, the pre-linguistic phase William Cowper theorizes in The Task, and we conclude with the second stage of composition, Composition, the linguistic phase. In The Task “Book 3: The Garden,” Cowper claims that he travels widely during his lifetime. However, in order to write poetry, Cowper returns always to the place of his opening theme of repose from “Book 1: The Sofa.” The reflective observation situates the sofa, an upholstered chair with soft cushions in the brown study of a poet’s house, as a primary site of attraction for the itinerant poet. Intent on self-discovery through the process of Eingedenken, the poet must prioritize the sofa, as he explains: "I, designing other themes, and called / To adorn the Sofa with eulogium due, / To tell its slumbers and to paint its dreams" (3.13–15). The poet in Cowper’s account travels widely with the aim to reflect on “themes” which he “designs” in pre-linguistic impressions from outside, in nature, and in the city. He returns to the sofa to digest what he saw in “dreams” and in “slumbers” for reflection, after his first-stage travels take him far:

one who, long in thickets and in brakes
Entangled, winds now this way and now that
His devious course uncertain, seeking home;
Or, having long in miry ways been foiled
And sore discomfited, from slough to slough5
Plunging, and half despairing of escape,
If chance at length he find a greensward smooth
And faithful to the foot, his spirits rise,
He chirrups brisk his ear-erecting steed,
And winds his way with pleasure and with ease;10
So I, designing other themes, and called
To adorn the Sofa with eulogium due,
To tell its slumbers and to paint its dreams,
Have rambled wide. In country, city, seat
Of academic fame. (3.1–16)15

Cowper’s “eulogium” (3.12) on the sofa is a “eulogy” for dead nature without including “mir[e]” (line 4), “slough” (line 5), and “entangle[ment]” (line 2) in a confusion of images now aestheticized in the brown study to be later written down in poetical form. The traveler in the “greensward,” like Cowper’s poet, finds inspiration for writing when he later returns to the sofa to write a formal “eulogium” or a memorial for times passed. During a brown study period, the poet will contemplate themes in nature while in a state of repose, in effect mindfully resting in a state of the Derridean unconscious before he or she later will revive images for writing poetry in an elegiac reconstruction of past events in the phase of Composition (linguistic phase).

II. The “Curtain of Repose”: Nature in the Mindful Unconscious

The author’s awareness of the pre-conceptual space is the “mindfulness [Eingedenken] of nature in the subject,” according to Albrecht Wellmer in The Persistence of Modernity: Aesthetics, Ethics and Postmodernism (74). Nature is the state of the unconscious in a brown study repose. The author’s mindful attention to the state of repose evokes in the author his or her own consciousnesses of the boundaries that necessarily are in existence between his or her mind and the objects of thought. As Wellmer explains, the author achieves Eingedenken “within the medium of conceptual thought, the necessary condition being that the concept itself is turned against the reifying tendency of conceptual thought” (4). The thought is a delimitation of the awareness of a state of natural repose. The brown study in Romantic literature such as Cowper’s The Task is the state of fading thoughts during the twilight hours of a “curtain of repose” (4.248) that may exist, for poets, prior to a state of enlightenment that occurs later on. In present-day critical theory of brown study compositional poetics by Tilottama Rajan and Richard Adelman, the authors examine the truth value of synthesis and reconstructive aesthetics, known as an alethiology, or truth discovery.

Theodor Adorno’s theory in Negative Dialectics examines the unconscious or pre-linguistic phase as a corrective to the presence of the conscious. The source of truth is found in the unconscious state, such as in idle contemplation, dreaming, or brown study mental repose (Adorno 348). Sigmund Freud also uses the unconscious for what he perceives to be an other apparent in the consciousness, as Gayatri Spivak explains in the translator’s preface to Derrida’s On Grammatology (Spivak 86). Jacques Derrida too critiques the foundational theory of a conscious intentionality. Joseph Adamson explains: following Sigmund Freud’s discovery of the unconscious memory, the Derridean “critique of metaphysics and of the ‘presence’ of consciousness” leads towards Derrida’s own idea of the unconscious, which “owes much to Freud’s discovery of the unconscious and theory of unconscious memory” (Adamson 296).

Derrida forms his thoughts on deconstruction out of his thoughts on the unconscious, which indeed are a source of Derrida’s own theory of deconstruction. In Derrida’s critique of the foundation of metaphysics, Joseph Adamson shows, he aims to provide a corrective to the overwhelming presence of the conscious in metaphysical theory: “Derrida’s writings critique the Western metaphysical tradition, which he sees as dominated by a discourse of ‘presence’ in the assumption, for example, that truth is a function of the presence of consciousness to itself and to its object. . . . What Derrida calls deconstruction consists in an analysis which overturns these tenacious metaphysical foundations” (Adamson 296). The direction of the critique of the conscious is the recovery of the unconscious from alterity.

Cowper’s “curtain of repose” in The Task draws out the rest of unconsciousness in a “recess” from the outside world of travel and consciousness (4.248, 4.308). During the recess, Cowper dreams of the process of defoliation he has seen out of doors. The activities of the harvest take in the “golden” summer growths leaving an “upturned” soil of “mellow brown” (4.314–15). The harvester takes apart the growth of spring and summer with the scythe of autumn. Variegated nature appears in images of the “rough wind,” “frost raging,” “faded” meadows, “lands . . . of a mellow brown” reaped by the “forceful share”:

How calm is my recess! and how the frost
Raging abroad, and the rough wind, endear
The silence and the warmth enjoyed within!
I saw the woods and fields at close of day
A variegated show; the meadows green5
Though faded, and the lands, where lately waved
The golden harvest, of a mellow brown,
Upturned so lately by the forceful share;
I saw far off the weedy fallows smile
With verdure not unprofitable, grazed10
By flocks fast feeding, and selecting each
His favorite herb; while all the leafless groves
That skirt the horizon wore a sable hue,
Scarce noticed in the kindred dusk of eve.
To-morrow brings a change, a total change,15
Which even now, though silently performed
And slowly, and by most unfelt, the face
Of universal nature undergoes. (4.208–25)

The time for memorializing the past seasons of spring and summer is during the seasons of adverse weather and during the seasons of autumn and winter. The period of recess occurs because the poet is unable physically to participate in activities outdoors due to the adversity of the late autumn weather.

Like Cowper, William Collins reflects that his spring and summer rambles end when the adverse fall weather occurs. He seeks a woodland cottage where he may contemplate “dim-discovered spires” and “hamlets brown” (Collins line 37). The process of observations and obscurity call to mind a cityscape in the evening or in the nighttime hour like Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s nighttime composition in “Frost at Midnight.” William Collins writes

But when chill blustering winds, or driving rain,
Forbid my willing feet, be mine the hut
That from the mountain’s side
Views wilds, and swelling floods,
And hamlets brown, and dim-discovered spires,5
And hears their simple bell, and marks o'er all
Thy dewy fingers draw
The gradual dusky veil. (33–40)

Collins’s poet is able to remark the pre-linguistic music of the church bell and the shades of the evening in gradually darkening “dim” and “dusky” tones of grey and brown (37, 40). Coleridge’s poet, contemplating in a brown study during the evening in winter, remembers “cloisters dim” while at school when he recalls his own childhood and his son Hartley Coleridge’s travels to come:

In the great city, pent 'mid cloisters dim,
[I] saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,5
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language (Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight,” lines 52–61)

The “eternal language” is a composite of the pre-linguistic “shapes and sounds” that appeal to the aesthetic nature of the poet and his family in the “image[s]” of the outdoors, “mountains,” “clouds,” “lakes,” “shores,” “crags,” “sky,” “stars,” and “frost” (Coleridge, “Frost at Midnight” lines 1–61). The elegiac tone of the odes is audible and visible as well for Keats’s thresher, who is an eponymous personification of the fall in his ode To Autumn. The harvest laborer sits among the reaped fields and listens to the wordless songs of the season in an elegy of loss:

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn5
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The red-breast whistles from a a garden-croft10
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies. (lines 23–33)

The images of the overripe fruits of spring pervade the poem with a sense of premonition of the coming iciness of winter. Elegiac tones are present in the memorialization of the lost season in the reaper’s dreaming as he harvests, breaking off fruits of the spring and the summer, threshing, pressing, and tapping juice from apples, and drawing off sap from the field of poppies:

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,5
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,10
Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours. (12–22)

The drowsy thresher is “sound asleep” after a day of processing the fruits of the spring and summer. As the evening falls, the speaker deconstructs the experiences of spring and summer in Keats’s ode are deconstructed by the speaker in an allegory of his own state of unconsciousness, evocative of Wellmer’s Eingedenken, the mindfulness of “nature in the subject” (74). The poet’s contemplation of the passing of the day occurs while under a “brown” twilight or under an obscure “curtain of repose” (Cowper 4.248). The phase of unconscious reflection for a poet could sometimes last several hours or take over the day; Keats in his letter number 41 to Benjamin Bailey demands that his friend “give me” some time to compose in “a long brown plain” or stretch of time for several hours to take up the whole of “my morning” in his Letters from Teignmouth on Friday on March 13, 1818. Severn’s “Portrait of Keats” shows the author staring sightlessly at a book, bearing the “real symptoms of sadness” from his late life, and the image is reminiscent of the elements of Cowper’s “eulogium” (3.12) for natures past, an elegiac celebration of past experiences in brown study aesthetic repose.

III. “To Adorn the Sofa with Eulogium Due”: Creative Minds at Home

In the theory of brown study compositional poetics, writing that follows contemplation of experience is subjective and offers a truth value of synthesis and reconstructive aesthetics, known as an alethiology. The alethiology is a truth value discovered through access to the “nature of truth” (OED), seen in Eingedenken, the brown study’s first, aesthetic stage of creativity preceding the conceptual thought of the second, compositional stage of creativity. In a Romantic poem written in the brown study aesthetic, the element of “undecidability” should precede the concept, according to Tilottama Rajan (472). As the initial experiences are digested in a deconstructive and self-aware pre-conceptual process, authors unconsciously select and make distinctions. The aesthetic experience is especially powerful in what Richard Adelman defines as the idle or vacant mind, where space occurs between the experience of an object and the concept of the object itself. The period of idle reflection in Cowper’s brown study passage is a stage in contemplation between “voluntary and involuntary” processes of thought, as Adelman explains (76). Despite the involuntariness of contemplation, the mind has a “particular set of abilities” to produce a concept for reconstruction of an idea (Adelman 64).

Following the Derridean deconstructive stage of creativity, named in poetics by Cowper as the brown study stage, “it is not necessary . . . to reassemble the disjecta membra” of the day’s experiences in a structured form (Rajan 464). The deconstructed text of nature in the poet’s experience “can still be alethiological, because the very process of undecidability discloses truth” (Rajan 464). Poetical fragments, notes, marginalia, and free writing are written expressions of undecidability. For poets who are writing in a two-stage process, an idea for a theme is drawn from the brown study and the “thematic expression” then leads to the secondary phase of the rhetorical structure of the poem (Rajan 452).

The deconstructive process provides material in fragments, notes, and marginalia that are recorded during composition to be taken into the second stage reflections. The class’s survey of composition processes in the second stage of writing covers William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads preface, Anna Letitia Barbauld’s The Invitation, James Thomson’s The Seasons, Mary Wollstonecraft’s Letters from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and William Cowper’s The Task and Other Selected Poems, each paired with introductory scholarship on the composition processes of the author.

In Paul de Man’s essays on Romanticism, Tillottama Rajan explains, “the problem of intentionality is historically localized in romantic literature, which is in transit from a medieval literature that grounded allegorical representation in anagogic presence towards a kind of Mallarmean pure poetry that would not be undone by any desire to emerge from the palace of art” (Rajan 455). Schiller writes in Naïve and Sentimental Poetry of the aesthetic pre-concept: “Just as nature began gradually to disappear from human life as experience . . . so we see her arise in the world of poetry as idea and object. . . . The poet, I said, either is nature or he will seek her” (Schiller 105–10). The poet deliberately seeks the Eingedenken or nature of the mindful unconscious in order to generate natural or inspired poetry. William Wordsworth theorizes the nature of Romantic poetry in Preface to Lyrical Ballads: ‘I have said that Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from origin recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the mind. In this mood successful composition gradually begins, and in a mood similar to this it is carried on; but the emotion, of whatever kind and in whatever degree, from various causes is qualified by various pleasures, so that in describing any passions whatsoever, which are voluntarily described, the mind will upon the whole be in a state of enjoyment. Now if Nature be thus cautious in preserving in a state of enjoyment a being thus employed, the Poet out to profit by the lesson thus held forth to him. (183)’ Wordsworth creates “the poet as a prophetic figure who [is] defining a subjectivist, expressivist poetics that continues to condition poets’ and critics’ understanding of the lyric,” as Nicholas Halmi explains in the notes to Preface. Anna Letitia Barbauld, in her poem The Invitation, suggests a creative mood in “nature” overseen by a “muse” of poetry (1.97, 1.13). Barbauld also intends an “invitation” of creativity to her friend Miss Belsham, the poem’s dedicatee. A cultural ingenuity in cultivated composition is emphasized in Barbauld’s writings; William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft explain: “She seeks, both in herself and in others, to cultivate the disposition (which she assumes exists) to respond 'naturally' to experience” (McCarthy and Kraft 19).

Barbauld aims to encourage Belsham’s creative awakening in nature. Barbauld and Belsham walk the grounds of Warrington Academy—a school of sciences and arts for young gentlemen established by Barbauld’s father John Aikin—and view the riverbanks of the Mersey River and the trees of the grounds. “Will Delia [Belsham] at the muse’s call retire / To the pure pleasures rural scenes inspire?” she asks (lines 13–14). May “fair ideas all her fancy fill,” hopes Barbauld (8):

Will she from crowds and busy cities fly,
Where wreaths of curling smoke involve the sky,
To taste the grateful shade of spreading trees,
And drink the spirit of the mountain breeze? . . .
But soon returning on the western gale,5
She seeks the bosom of the grassy vale;
There, wrapt in careless ease, attunes her lyre
To the wild warblings of the woodland quire;
The daisied turf her humbled throne supplies,
And early primroses around her rise. (15–32)10

In James Thomson’s The Seasons book 4, the speaker notes celebratory elements when he awakens in an allegory of daylit awareness and composition. Thomson contrasts the compositional phase with the previous stage of obscure “brown” evening light in the study phase. His inspiration has been undertaken in what he describes as a “brown night” of dreams (4.52). He writes a hymn, a “sacred song” inspired by “every Muse” of the day (4.63, 4.78). In the morning, “Man” may “awake” to enjoy composing during “the silent hour / To meditation due”:

Brown Night retires: young Day pours in apace,
And opens all the lawny prospect wide.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
The wild deer trip, and often turning gaze
At early passenger. Music awakes5
The native voice of undissembled joy;
And thick around the woodland hymns arise.
Rous'd by the cock, the soon-clad shepherd leaves
His mossy cottage where with Peace he dwells;
And from the crowded fold, in order, drives10
His flock, to taste the verdure of the morn.
Falsely luxurious, will not Man awake?
And, springing from the bed of sloth, enjoy
The cool, the fragrant, and the silent hour.
To meditation due and sacred song?15
For is there aught in sleep can charm the wise?
To lie in dead oblivion, losing half
The fleeting moments of too short a life;
Total extinction of the enlightened soul!
Or else to feverish vanity alive20
Wilder'd, and tossing through distemper'd dreams
Who would in such a gloomy state remain
Longer than Nature craves; when every Muse
And every blooming pleasure wait without,
To bless the wildly-devious morning-walk?25
But yonder comes the powerful King of Day,
Rejoicing in the East. The lessening cloud
The kindling azure, and the mountain’s brow
Illum'd with fluid gold, his near approach
Betoken glad. Lo! (Thomson 4.52–85)30

“The cool, the fragrant, and the silent hour” is the compositional time the author sets aside for putting words to feelings (Thomson 4.62). In the metaphorical prose of Wollstonecraft’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway and Denmark, the author shares her experiences of walking outdoors and thoughts on observing the details of the landscape, the flowers, fields, and rocks, around the town of Gothenberg in Sweden.

Following the day’s travels, Wollstonecraft explains, she writes at home about her experiences in a quiet hour. Ingrid Horrocks, in her introduction to Wollstonecraft’s oeuvre, points to a “nostalgic strain in philosophical . . . thought” in the Letters as Wollstonecraft eulogizes the day and her separation from family (Horrocks 25). Like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who sits around the fire in the grate at midnight with his infant son in the poem “Frost at Midnight” , Wollstonecraft contemplates, “Why fly my thoughts abroad, when every thing around me appears at home? My child was sleeping with equal calmness—innocent and sweet as the closing flowers” (Wollstonecraft 59). However, due to the brightness of the moon, “I could write at midnight very well without a candle. I contemplated all nature at rest; the rocks, even grown darker in their appearance, looked as if they partook of the general repose, and reclined more heavily on their foundation” (Wollstonecraft 59). Earlier in the same day described in “Letter 1,” Wollstonecraft describes “still little patches of earth of the most exquisite verdure, enameled with the sweetest wild flowers” and she mourns the passing of the day (57).

The poet in Cowper’s The Task finds “the country wins me still,” and his strategy for translating pre-linguistic reflection into words is to read poetry written by people who write about the country: “No bard could please me but whose lyre was tuned / To Nature’s praises” (4.694, 704–5):

But slighted as it is, and by the great
Abandon'd, and, which still I more regret,
Infected with the manners and the modes
It knew not once, the country wins me still.
I never framed a wish or formed a plan5
That flattered me with hopes of earthly bliss,
But there I laid the scene.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My very dreams were rural; rural too
The first-born efforts of my youthful muse.10
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
No bard could please me but whose lyre was tuned
To Nature’s praises. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
I marvel'd much that, at so ripe an age15
As twice seven years, his [Milton’s] beauties had then first
Engaged my wonder. . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . .
I still revere thee [Cowley], courtly though retired,
Though stretch'd at ease in Chertsey's silent bowers,20
Not unemploy'd, and finding rich amends
For a lost world in solitude and verse. (4.691–730)

The two-stage writing period is clear in the contrast between Cowper’s “very dreams” of childhood rural scenes and his mature writing in the writer’s “bower” among the rooftops of London which offer him “amends” for the “lost world” of youth (4.670, 4.728, 4.729–30). In the physical stage of writing “verse” about nature while living in the city, Cowper states that nature is to him “a lost world” now that he lives in the London town of Chertsey (4.730). Yet, while in London, the poet finds that he can obtain in the process of writing “rich amends / For a lost world in solitude and verse” (4.729–730). Cowper sees his verses written in the city as miniature container gardens representative of a larger nature outside. Adjacent to the “brick” walls of homes in the city are “boxes planted thick / And watered duly. There the pitcher stands / A fragment, and the spoutless tea-pot there,” a synecdoche of “how close pent-up man regrets / The country” (4.771, 4.775–78).

IV. “‘Tis born with all. The love of Nature’s works”: Furnishing the Study

Adelman’s study in Idleness, Contemplation and the Aesthetic, 1750–1830 reclassifies several idle activities during the Romantic era. Adelman’s study “charts the construction of the category of idle, aesthetic contemplation” outside the parameters of the categories of “working.” His study begins with Romanticism’s idleness “up until the very point at which this category is put to work in opposition to the political economy that inflected, and indeed anticipated, its parameters” (Adelman 9). The activities of reading and writing may fall alongside the activities of retirement, rest, and solitude.

For Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the interiority of the study creates an aesthetics of order and structure from chaotic externality. “I then retired to my apartment,” explains Wollstonecraft of her first night of Swedish residency, but “my senses had been so awake, and my imagination still continued so busy, that I sought for rest in vain” (59). Coleridge’s retirement in “Frost at Midnight” at Nether Stowey in Somerset is characterized by interior reflection, and his thoughts similarly move from inside with his newborn child to abstractions about the past day and the nature outdoors:

The inmates of my cottage, all at rest,
Have left me to that solitude, which suits
Abstruse musings: save that at my side
My cradled infant slumbers peacefully. (4–7)

In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud explains, “We are concerned with unconscious thought, and . . . the process may easily be a different one from that which we perceive in ourselves in intentional contemplation accompanied by consciousness” (263). Freud remarks that theme and symbol may “not belong particularly to [a single] dream, but rather to the unconscious thinking” which may be found “in the folklore, . . . myths, legends, and manners of speech…” of a culture, such as in its poems and prose literary texts (245–46).

The activity of reading is a common image in portrayals of the brown study aesthetic. Keats speaks of his composition of poetry in “Ode to a Nightingale,” and Joseph Severn paints him in John Keats at Wentworth Place (1821, Appendix A). Severn writes in his letters that Keats was at repose in a compositional phase in the study surrounded by the furniture necessary to writing. The components of the study during Keats’s composition of “Ode to a Nightingale” are presented in detail and are confirmed by Keats’s friend Charles Brown: ‘This was the time he [Keats] first fell ill & had written the Ode to the Nightingale (1819) on the mor[ning] of my visit to Hampstead I found him sitting with the two chairs as I have painted him & was struck with the first real symptoms of sadness in Keats so finely expressed in that Poem. (The room, the open window, the carpet and chairs are all exact portraits, even to the mezzotint portrait of Shakespeare given him by his old landlady in the Isle of Wight. After this time he lost his cheerfulness & I never saw him like himself again.) I had a draw of the room, chairs &c done by Mr Charles Brown who was still living in the same house. (Severn qtd. in Woof and Hebron 90; see Appendix A)’Brown’s drawing of Keats with the furniture of Brown’s brown study in the foreground, chairs, and paneling illuminated by the window of the grounds aft, is lost. For Keats, who is convalescent in a “palace” of art, windows, chairs, carpets, books, and portraits make the study necessarily a physical place of rest as well as a place of intellectual composure (Rajan 455). In the study Keats composes on the “wings of Poesy”:

Forlorn! The very word is like a bell
To toll me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! The fancy cannot cheat so well
As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades5
Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
Up the hillside; and now ‘tis buried deep
In the next valley glades:
Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
Fled is that music: —Do I wake or sleep? ( “Ode to a Nightingale” , lines 33, 71–80)10

Following the classroom lectures on the brown study aesthetics in period literature, undergraduate students complete an assignment that pairs a critical approach to authorship in the Romantic era with an author’s discussion of his or her own practices of authorship in a brown study mood, defined by activity and/or location in a furnished space. The critical approaches (students choose one of three) are William St. Clair’s approach to professional writing in “The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period” ; Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt’s approach to “the triumph of an expressivist and creative notion of language” in “Practicing New Historicism” (Gallagher and Greenblatt 13); and Tilottama Rajan’s theory of aesthetics and “the palace of art” in “pure poetry” in “Displacing Post-Structuralism: Romantic Studies after Paul de Man” (Rajan 455). The students may pair one of the three critical approaches with a text by one of the authors (prose or poetry) studied in lecture.

The students may choose widely from within the authors’ oeuvres corresponding with the poems, letters, and essays listed on the course’s syllabus. Provided the students’ theoretical approaches to the literature are sound, the students may, in ways that may be broadly understood, interpret their texts’ approaches to questions of authorship. Cowper writes of flower boxes in container gardening, a metaphor for writings about nature, in The Task, “Book 4: The Winter Evening” :

are they not all proofs
That man, immured in cities, still retains
His inborn inextinguishable thirst
Of rural scenes, compensating his loss
By supplemental shifts, the best he may?5
The most unfurnished with the means of life,
And they that never pass their brick-wall bounds
To range the fields, and treat their lungs with air,
Yet feel the burning instinct . . . (4.765–73)

Even Cowper’s gardeners who are “unfurnished” in their efforts to cultivate may recapture nature, with comparatively little to represent “the means of life” (4.770). The pre-linguistic phase of admiration is sustained in the compositional recording of the details of the scene, which become imbued with the life of the inner mind. Following the contemplative stage is a reconstruction of experiences into a poem, yet the reconstruction stage preserves the tone and meaning of the pre-linguistic phase. The resonance between the aesthetic pre-conceptual space and the conceptual space is tonally expressed:

‘Tis born with all. The love of Nature’s works
Is an ingredient in the compound, man,
Infused at the creation of the kind.
And though the Almighty Maker has throughout
Discriminated each from each, by strokes5
And touches of His hand, with so much art
Diversified, that two were never found
Twins at all points—yet this obtains in all,
That all discern a beauty in His works. (Cowper 4.731–38)

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Appendix A

Appendix A. Image reproduced with permission. © National Portrait Gallery London. Joseph Severn, John Keats at Wentworth Place, NPG 58.