Whether watching a favorite film, browsing the internet, or scrolling through channels on TV, we are saturated in powerful emotions: anguish, anger, euphoria, awe. Emotions are not in and of themselves negative. To the contrary, they’re an essential part of human existence. But these days, I find myself a bit wary of the emotion-driven ways media is used to influence us. It’s not just political rancor that rattles me, but also the emotional roller-coaster of films where all the boring moments of life are erased in favor of stringing together moments of high drama. I imagine I’m not alone in sometimes feeling overwhelmed.
It’s easy to identify some of the recent technological advancements that have contributed to our emotionally charged culture. But I’ve tended to look further back in time—about two hundred years back. Hear me out.
Romanticism was an intellectual and artistic movement at the turn of the eighteenth century that broke with the rationalism of the Enlightenment period, by privileging emotion sometimes over reason. Many of us have probably been exposed to some piece of Romantic literature. One common example is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose character Victor Frankenstein describes himself as being in “the depths of despair” for most of the book. It’s from the Romantics that we’ve gotten what Poets.org refers to as “the stereotypes of poets and poetry that exist to this day (i.e., the poet as a tortured and melancholy visionary).”
To underscore the role of emotion in Romantic thought, in his “Preface” to his Lyrical Ballads, prominent Romantic poet William Wordsworth says that “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” Frankly, this definition makes me a little nervous. In a world where the immediate reaction is prized (videos of people reacting to other videos are now a genre) and incredibly accessible thanks to the internet, we are more likely to encounter viral negativity and internet rage, negative by-products of raw expressions of emotion. The “spontaneous overflow of emotions” is not necessarily a healthy thing. We may feel dispirited or disturbed by emotional content we encounter, and perhaps even tempted to emotionally withdraw from people and platforms where such strong emotions are displayed.
But upon rereading, I’ve come to realize that Wordsworth’s “Preface”—and other Romantic works—actually offers a more dynamic vision of emotion than I first perceived. Far from being about powerful feelings alone, emotion’s role in Romantic poetry is actually twofold. The full definition Wordsworth gives is: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Perhaps, I reflected, this was the key to dealing with the emotional overwhelm that the Romantics so wholeheartedly embraced. But what does it even mean to recollect emotion in tranquility?
The concept of emotion regulation may shed some light on the topic. “Emotion regulation,” according to Abigail Rolston and Elizabeth Lloyd-Richarson from the Cornell Research Program on Self-Injury and Recovery, is “a person’s ability to effectively manage and respond to an emotional experience.” Positive emotion regulation, the authors suggest, requires that we “pay attention to the way the thought-emotion-behavior relationship works for each of us.” In other words, self-regulation requires time for reflection.
The article names journaling, meditation, and noticing as ways to promote self-regulation, and the turn toward these forms of self-regulatory practices in the past ten years suggests that many of us are seeking tranquility. Speaking to O magazine, psychotherapist Ashley Bush observes, “I think often people look for circumstances to help achieve a sense of inner peace. . . . In fact, this calm, compassionate, deep awareness is actually within each person. It’s as if we have a deep reservoir of peacefulness and serenity inside us. What we have to learn to do is tap into it.” The Romantics probably would have delighted in an article like this, as they, too, offer us entry-points into tranquility.
Engaging with the natural world
Spending time in the natural world was something the Romantics prized, and, for myself, I’ve found it to be one of my favorite ways to enter into tranquility. Poets like Wordsworth struggled with the noise, dehumanization, and the destruction of nature that were by-products of an increasingly industrialized world. According to the Norton Anthology of English Literature, “Longer Romantic ‘nature-poems’ are in fact usually meditative, using the presented scene to suggest a personal crisis; the organizing principle of the poem involves that crisis’s development and resolution.” In a word, the Norton Anthology suggests, Romantic poetry helped its writers think through the problems with which their poems engaged.
The act of engaging with the natural world to prompt thought makes a lot of sense to me. In a writing class in grad school, I remember an instructor encouraging me to go for a walk whenever I had writer’s block. The beauty of a flower, fresh air, and the sound of wind rustling through the trees offered me points of meditation other than my own worries. I’d return home if not inspired, then at least more clear-headed, my body and spirit refreshed by engagement with the natural world.
I think Wordsworth may have felt this way about nature too, as he reflects on the beauty of a field of daffodils in the last stanza of his poem, “I wandered lonely as a cloud”:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Wordsworth describes moods that we’ve probably all felt at one time or another: boredom, restlessness, being full of deep and perhaps gloomy thoughts. Being welcomed into a scene of tranquility through this poem makes me realize that it’s not only the act of spending time in nature that can help me regulate my emotions, especially when I’m in the grip of the winter blues.
It’s also the memory of a beautiful scene I’ve encountered that can come to my aid when I’m feeling down. Poetry has a special way of evoking memory; its spareness gives us room to explore our feelings and images, to remember our stories of beauty. Especially in the midst of winter, I find poems like the one above a reminder that the grey, icy landscape will give way to spring again, and counterbalance my winter blues.
Making time for solitude
Emotional regulation also plays an important role in the novels of Jane Austen. Austen, it could be argued, was living in the Romantic period, but was not wholly of it. Her work expresses both Romantic and Enlightenment ideals. Therefore, especially in her later work, she offers a distinctive look into a Romanticism that allows both powerful emotion and tranquility to prevail in equal measures. I think this is particularly clear in her novel Persuasion. Heroine Anne Elliot has to recollect herself many times in the novel: not only must she deal with snubs from her family, but she also must bear with being in close proximity and ignored by her wounded lover Captain Wentworth, whom she refused eight years ago.
Austen is careful to mark Anne’s need for solitude to cope with powerful emotions. Though the preceding eight years have been painful ones and “her spirits were not high,” Anne is skilled at regulating her emotions. To help her find comfort for her roused spirits, Anne often takes time to recollect herself.
For example, when she hears early on in the novel that Captain Wentworth’s sister will be renting her father’s house, Austen notes Anne’s reaction to this rather distressing news: “Anne, who had been a most attentive listener to the whole, left the room, to seek the comfort of cool air for her flushed cheeks; and as she walked along a favorite grove, said, with a gentle sigh, ‘a few months more, and he, perhaps, may be walking here.’” In this moment, Anne allows herself to both feel her feelings and experience relief from them.
At another point in the novel, where Anne is obliged to accompany her sister and sisters-in-law for a walk with Captain Wentworth, Anne delves into her store of memorized poetry to help her cope with being in her former lover’s presence: “Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day . . . and from repeating to herself some of the few thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn.” In this way, she’s able to bear the strain of being near Captain Wentworth and almost wholly ignored, tapping into what Ashley Bush calls her “deep reservoir” to reestablish tranquility in the midst of distress.
Cultivating positive affective presence
In most circumstances in Persuasion, Anne exhibits what has been termed as positive “affective presence.” A 2019 Atlantic article describes affective presence as “the way a person tends to make others feel.” If you have a positive affective presence, you are more likely to make the people around you feel at ease. Dr. Hillary Anger Elfenbein, who first described the concept of “emotional presence” with her co-author Noah Eisenkraft and is cited in the article, thinks there may be a connection between one’s affective presence and their emotional regulation:
Throughout the day, one experiences emotional ‘blips’ as Elfenbein puts it—blips of annoyance or excitement or sadness. The question is, ‘Can you regulate yourself so those blips don’t infect other people?’ she asks. ‘Can you smooth over the noise in your life so other people aren’t affected by it?’
Though Elfenbein makes clear that “positive affective presence isn’t inherently good”—its goodness derives from how it’s used in relationships—for Anne, it offers a way for her to be both available to others and available to herself, to spend time with her emotions without necessarily sharing them with everyone else.
For Anne, recollecting her own strong emotions in tranquility allows her to be more readily available to characters who have not developed this skill. She is able to bring order and peace to the home of her younger sister, Mary, who is easily shaken out of good spirits: “Indisposition sunk her completely; she had no resources for solitude.”
Anne is also able to befriend the mourning Captain Benwick, who uses Romantic poetry not to calm but to stoke his melancholy: “He repeated, with such tremulous feeling, the various lines which imaged a broken heart, or a mind destroyed by wretchedness.” For him, Anne is able to suggest that he find reading material that won’t sink his spirits.
In my own life, cultivating a positive affective presence has looked like being an attentive listener to friends and acquaintances, inviting through my physical and virtual presences the ideas and beliefs of many people, and, like Anne, taking time away—from media outlets and other people—when I need to regroup.
This doesn’t mean I don’t vent to a close friend from time to time, or go through periods of intense sadness or frustration. As a pretty sensitive individual, I’ve found developing a positive affective presence is less about hiding my feelings, and more a matter of not wearing my emotions on my sleeves. It allows for greater dynamism to my emotional world: I can be anxious about my job prospects and happy for my friend who just landed her dream job; I can be deeply appreciative of a friend’s kind words and express my struggles in another area of my life. Positive affective presence reminds me that my emotional reins are in my hands; I can choose what and how to share.
So, what can Romantic writers like Wordsworth and Austen teach us about emotional regulation? They encourage pausing a moment before furiously responding to an emotion-laden social media comment or a poorly-worded email. They invite taking a moment to regroup after a stressful meeting or difficult interaction with a family member. Our feelings should most definitely be felt and honored, but they shouldn’t run our lives. Though the Romantics may seem to laud emotion, even at the expense of reason, they do remind us to spend time with our emotions, to see in our emotions springboards for creativity and the good of others. As a character like Anne Elliot show us, properly cared-for emotion helps us not to be shaken by every wind of opposition that blows our way; rather, emotional regulation strengthens us to respond to others and our world with more genuineness, generosity, and compassion.