The Creation of the Man of Feeling : Age of Sensibility and Romanticism in 18th-century England

In the Preface of the Lyrical Ballads (1798) seen as the manifesto of Romanticism, Wordsworth made this momentous and pivotal statement that “all good poetry is the spontaneous overflowing of powerful feelings”. He goes on to emphasize feelings over action (“it is this, that the feeling therein developed gives importance to the action and situation, and not the action and situation to the feeling”). Before him but sadly not as famous, Mary Wollstonecraft -despite her previous critic of sensibility, see below- anticipated his ideas and mentionned in her essay « On artificial Taste » « the transcript of immediate sensations, in all their native wildness and simplicity » by “the poet, the man of strong feelings” (The Monthly Magazine, 3, 1797).

This focus on personal emotions and passions appeared quite radical at the time. Indeed so far the literary canon had been dominated by Augustan epics, tragedies and decorum (emphasis on reason and order) at the top of the hierarchy. The lyric was then regarded as a minor kind while sentimental fictions -especially by women writers- were mocked and debased. Nonetheless it became a major and essential form for the Romantics. This turning point did not come out of nowhere though. English literature did not move from the Augustans straight to the Romantics even though the transitioning step(s) is (are) often missing in most English academic/school textbooks… Indeed, in addition of the (French and American) revolutions, it is the result of a combination of social and economic factors that came to be known as The Age of Sensibility (according to the phrase coined by the literary critic Northrop Frye in 1956 and sometimes also called a bit vaguely and derogatorily « pre-romanticism »), during the second half of the 18th century. “Sensibility grounds Romanticism which belongs to the long age of sensibility”, reminds rightlty Christophe Nagle, despite the denial of the Romantics themselves who looked down on their predecessors (and inspirators!) as « vain » and guilty of « solipsistic self-consciousness » (Todd 13).

This evolution led, among others, to a redefinition of “manhood”. Indeed a new approach to masculinity emerged in 18th century novels, in opposition to coarser, less civilized and more brutal figures of warriors along with a revised conception of God.
The latter eighteenth century also witnessed a transformation of the « Man of Reason » as Genevieve Lloyd calls him in her eponymous essay, embodying the ideal of rationality promoted by 17th century philosophers, into the « Man of Feeling« . Mary Wollstonecraft records this evolution (and crisis) by juggling multiple designations in her Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) : the « man of sense and feeling » (to refer to Rousseau), « sensible men« , “men of lively sensibility”, « reasonable men » or the dangerous « men of wit and fancy » for « rakes ».
The proponents of this new man advocated in particular new “social affections” encompassing sympathy, compassion, benevolence, humanity, and pity – against selfishness. Yet, this shift triggered conflicts over definitions of genders, a (timeless) thorny question.

I/ The Man of Feeling: A New « Softened » Manhood

The man of Feeling represents a “genuinely moral” movement, and an “upsurge of new attitudes and emotions” as the English historian Lawrence Stone wrote it. At the heart of this new culture of sensibility lies the reformation of manners aiming notably at making men conscious of women’s minds, wishes, interests, and feelings. The sentimentalists’ targets were men who were “hard”, “hard-hearted”, and “unfeeling” to women. Thus, the triumph of sentiment was the outcome of this revolution in

a/The Reformation of Male Manners in 18th-century England

It started during the late years of the 17th century and took up the cause of Puritans to regulate improper behaviours (“the expression of carnal worldly appetites”). Sentimentalists defined unacceptable masculinity through the imposition of “standards of shame, delicacy, and self-control” over the period from the 16th through the
19th centuries. This led to a discipline of “appetites” and manners of the “drink-and-betting” based male culture, which also very violent (including a great deal of cruelty to animals like « bear-baiting » or « cock-fighting ») (“Norbert Elias, The civilization process” cited by Barker-Benfield, p.78 Chapt 2).

b/The Religious Influence on the Shaping of the Man of Feeling in 18th-century England

18th century religion played an important role in the change of the public male manners through the inculcation of “the Protestant ethic”. The shift in the perception of God relation to humans turns out to be particularly significant. After a century-long dispute, instead of a hard-hearted, arbitrary cruel tyrant, God took on a
more sympathetic figure, prompted by feelings and benevolence. This brings about a new “sentimental piety” rendered by a sentimental literature enjoying the “luxury of grief” or “indulging one’s feelings”. The new male ideal was then identified with Christian piety (cf. The Christian hero by Richard Steele 1712), endowed
with an “innate human goodness” and a « strong moral sense” according to the father of sentimental ethics, the Earl of Shaftesbury (in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, 1711). In addition, the idealization in sentimental fictions of men capable of virtuous suffering can be connected to the “feminized”
figure of Christ.