In the Preface to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth famously wrote that

all good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: (...).

He later adds (my emphasis):

I have said that poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity: the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred 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 generally 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.

If Wordsworth had written, "the emotion is contemplated till (...) the tranquillity gradually disappears, and feelings/a feeling (...) is gradually produced", I would have understood "emotion" as the original experience and "feelings" as the derived or perhaps renewed experience that leads to the creation of poetry. But I can't see this kind of consistency in the above passage. To make matters worse, he also adds "passions" to the mix.

In fact, the Preface also provide arguments for considering "feelings" as the original experience, or at least closer to it. For example, Wordsworth writes (my emphasis),

Humble and rustic life was generally chosen, because, in that condition, the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language; because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, (...).

Wordworth uses the term "emotion" only four times in the Preface, namely in the second quote above.

Looking at definitions of "feelings" and "emotions" in present-day psychological sources does not help clarify the difference. For example, in What's the Difference Between a Feeling and an Emotion?, Neel Burton makes the following distinction:

  • an emotional experience is brief and episodic; e.g. I am currently proud of X;
  • an emotion can endure for many years and can "predispose to a variety of emotional experiences, as well as thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions"; e.g. I am proud of X;
  • feelings is a broader term that covers both emotional experiences and physical sensations such as hunger and pain.

He adds that "an emotion, being in some sense latent, can only ever be felt, sensu stricto, through the emotional experiences that it gives rise to, even though it might also be discovered through its associated thoughts, beliefs, desires, and actions."

Looking back at the Preface, one might say that emotional exeperiences may be "recollected in tranquility" and so gave rise to a mood that is conducive to writing poetry. Wordsworth uses the word "feelings" for the psychological phenomena that are active in that mood, but that does not accord with Burton's definition.

In What’s The Difference Between Feelings And Emotions?, Debbie Hampton uses other definitions (my emphasis):

Emotions are lower level responses occurring in the subcortical regions of the brain, the amygdala, and the ventromedial prefrontal cortices, creating biochemical reactions in your body altering your physical state. They originally helped our species survive by producing quick reactions to threat, reward, and everything in between in their environments.

Feelings originate in the neocortical regions of the brain, are mental associations and reactions to emotions, and are subjective being influenced by personal experience, beliefs, and memories. A feeling is a mental portrayal of what is going on in your body when you have an emotion and is the byproduct of your brain perceiving and assigning meaning to the emotion.

Since psychology and neuroscience did not exist in the early 19th century, Wordsworth couldn't have come up with these definitions, but there is a parallel with the distinction between emotions as the original experience and feelings as the result of "recollection" that would have helped me make sense of Wordworth. Am I overlooking something in the Preface and does Wordworth really make a consistent distinction? If yes, what is it?

  • Another possibility is that Wordsworth's use of feeling, emotion and passion is just elegant variation and not an attempt to make any kind of technical distinction. – Gareth Rees Sep 14 '18 at 8:27

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.