New Approaches Blog: “Emotion, Deixis, and Wordsworth” by Madeleine Roepe

One of the first things we learn to do is to reach, or point, to things and people which become important to us. Our need for pointing in order to be understood manifests itself in language, and this essential cognitive tool has a name: deixis.


Pronouns are common deictic devices used to indicate boundaries of “I,” “you,” and “we.” The pronoun “she” for example semantically indicates a female-presenting person, but once placed into conversation comes to mean (or becomes synonymous with) one particular person with which the ‘pointer’ establishes a relationship. Space is also defined via deictic terms to clarify particular location: “here,” “there,” “near,” “far,” etc. We’re used to seeing this kind of thing with the Romantics: broadly speaking, the experiential nature of poetry by Coleridge, Wordsworth, and others is often rooted in this sense of particularity.


Take Coleridge’s “This Lime-tree Bower my Prison” – the very first word is deictic. The imagined conversation within Wordsworth’s “We Are Seven” endlessly concerns itself with relations built through deixis, a miscommunication between “we”s, “you”s, and “in”s. 


In the past, linguistic understandings of deixis haven’t been explicitly connected to cognitive theories of emotion. However, in observing the ways in which Romantic poets (particularly Wordsworth) rely on deictic terms to communicate meaning in personal experience, I’ve come to suspect that there is a link between the two.


Poems like “This Lime-tree Bower” and “We Are Seven” prescribe certain value judgments to a reader by virtue of deictic phrases: “this” is marked as significant, “we” in a family includes a count of the dead and not just the living. It is this inherent system of value encoded within poetic language and the cognitive process of building value that interests me as a scholar. I thus aim to close read Romantic poetry through a new lens: a reimagining of emotion as fundamentally evaluative and the basis of everyday decision-making, rooted in neuroscientific research dating back to the mid-1990s.


Cognitive approaches to Romantic texts have been undertaken before by scholars like Richardson, Bruhn, Spolsky, Zunshine, and more – my own methods arise directly from this precedent. But even within these innovative projects in ‘cognitive Romanticism,’ figurative language reigns supreme as more explicitly ‘emotional.’ (Many lab studies conducted on neurological effects of language have also historically focused on metaphor.) These analyses are rarely connected to the essential non-cognitive appraisals that scholars now cite as origin points for emotions themselves, and where I hope to intervene in this growing subfield is with my unique emphasis on the importance of background textual elements such as pronouns, prepositions, and other articles of speech typically overlooked as empty of emotional content. 


Through analyses of poems like “Tintern Abbey,” it is my proposal that deixis concretizes a reader’s spatial orientation within a poem to the effect of building a system of value within that poem. This system affects a reader’s final judgment of the poem’s content, like the presence or implied presence of other bodies. These close readings can also be supported by several recent studies detailing the importance of background text in comprehension.


Including deixis and other traditionally “non-emotional” content in analyses of emotion constructed through text transforms not only the ways we read canonical Romantic poetry, but also how we understand reading more generally. Literature in every form calls upon us to make value judgments as we engage with it in order for it to have any meaning; how exactly these judgments are built into poetic structure is a pressing issue for many scholars, and it is my hope that this continued research may reach across discipline lines to begin that conversation.


Short author biography:

Maddie Roepe is a fourth-year PhD candidate at the University of California, Santa Barbara specializing in Romanticism and neurological theories of emotion. Beginning with her undergraduate education at Boston University’s Kilachand Honors College and in her current role as the UCSB Literature and the Mind RA, her passion in academics lies in encouraging interdisciplinary conversations about meaning and the human condition. Her dissertation is entitled The Hidden Language of Emotion: Cognitive Romanticism in Wordsworth and Shelley.