According to Bruce Haley, nineteenth-century theories of moral physiology permeated both "the specialized language of science" and also but literary criticism. "In both cases morality, psychology, and health were related concerns. Macaulay traced the luxuries of Walpole's prose to an "unhealthy and disorganized mind;" Rousseau's books, wrote Carlyle, "like himself, are what I call unhealthy; not the good sort of Books"; Richard Holt Hutton found in Clough's verse an "almost morbid craving for a firm base on the absolute realities of life;" Leslie Stephen confessed that his gorge rose whenever he encountered Swift's "morbid interest in the physically disgusting."
Victorian critics, in other words, often took a medical approach to literature, assuming that they could — and should — "diagnose a work, looking for signs of disease or soundness, then looking further for cause of the disclosed condition. To read new poetry, Walter Bagehot declared, one must surrender his mind to the "delicate task of detecting the healthiness of unhealthiness of familiar states of feeling." Today that sort of clinical vocabulary strikes us as crude and unpalatable." Since these methods were baed on commonly shared assumptions about the the healthy mind, examining them tells us much about Victorian conceptions of the human.
"'The greatest poetry,' Leslie Stephen wrote, '"like the highest morality, is the product of a thoroughly healthy mind.' His comparison between moral and creative excellence is not casually made. Like most Victorian critics, he believed that they should be--and are in the "healthy" mind--functionally related. What F. W. Roe has said of Carlyle's critical theory may be almost universally applied: "Art is moral because intellect and morality are indistinguishable in the sound mind. . . . The pathological use of the term "moral" in those days was very broad. The "moral" cause of a disease might include, say, venality or gluttony, but also anxiety and overwork. In its most general sense the moral condition was the state of the psyche induced by a pattern of life and a pattern of thought. Likewise, a person who was "morally insane" had of course lost the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, but at the same time his other faculties were affected. His perceptions generally were unreliable. More important, his will was impaired and with it the internal, responsible direction of his own conduct. Volitional paralysis, delusion, and immorality were all symptoms of the same degenerative process. . . . [By contrast], in the "thoroughly healthy mind" perceptions and concepts are given shape and direction by moral volition’whatever external reality the healthy mind contemplates--social, natural, or divine--it perceives not only variety, movement, and palpability, but also structure or design. To live harmoniously within ourselves, we must, in [Matthew] Arnold's words, see life steadily and see it whole--we must take in life coherently. Victorian critics put special stress on the artist's ability to get hold of his subject mentally, to master it. --Bruce Haley. The Healthy Body and Victorian Culture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978
If Haley has correctly assessed these issues, what sort of critical response do you think various poets in the nineteenth century would have received? What do you think they would have thought of Robert Browning's poem, "My Last Duchess," with its murdering husband? Or of "Porphyria's Lover," with its insanely deluded protagonist? Would they have thought that the poems had "shape and direction by moral volition" of the poet, but not of its characters? Would it matter whether or not the poet had "hold of his subject mentally" even if his subject was mad and committed immoral acts?
What do you think they thought of Shelley, or of Coleridge, who apparently wrote "Kubla Khan" after taking opium and suffered from neuroses? How do you think the diffuse style and seemingly "perverted" subject material of some of Swinburne's poems would have been regarded?
Is "healthiness" an appropriate aesthetic standard in contemporary times? Does it defy definition?
Last modified April 1991