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Pathetic fallacy

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“Pathetic fallacy" was a term first coined by John Ruskin to attack the sentimentality that was common to the poetry of the late 18th century, and which was rampant among poets including Burns, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley and Keats. Wordsworth supported this use of personification based on emotion by claiming that “objects … derive their influence not from properties inherent in them … but from such as are bestowed upon them by the minds of those who are conversant with or affected by these objects.

John Ruskin at Glenfinlas, Scotland (1853–54), by John Everett Millais.

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When Modern Painters III (1856) explains that emotional distortion characterizes the art and literature since the Romantics, Ruskin places major emphasis upon the fact that "an excited state of the feelings" makes a person "for the time, more or less irrational"(5.205). From this awareness of the effect of the emotions comes his definition of the pathetic fallacy: "All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the 'pathetic fallacy'" (5.205).

Ruskin's discussion of the pathetic (or emotional) fallacy directly confronts the problems of basing a theory of art upon emotion. He always tried to demonstrate that an art centered on the feelings was not inevitably solipsistic, and this continuing struggle to protect his notions of painting and poetry from the dangers of subjectivity turns out to be as paradigmatic of his age as was the course of his religious belief.

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PROBLEM OF FALSE APPEARANCEHis introduction of the problem of false appearances reveals two kinds of poetic falsehood or distortion, only one of which he calls the pathetic fallacy. Before concerning himself with the distortions of deep emotion, he first explains the delightful fallacies of fancy. As an example he quotes these lines from Oliver Wendell Holmes's Astrea which describe

The spendthrift crocus, bursting through the mouldNaked and shivering, with his cup of gold. [5.204]

Ruskin first comments that, while very beautiful, these lines are nonetheless untrue, for the crocus is not spendthrift but hardy, not gold but saffron. These lines exemplify "the fallacy of wilful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed"(5.205).

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 In contrast to the fanciful, self-conscious distortions of wit Ruskin opposes "the other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion"(5.205), and as instance he presents these lines from Kingsley's Alton Locke:They rowed her in across the rolling foam —The cruel, crawling foam.

From this point of view, then, the distorting effects of emotion, once understood correctly, are not solipsistic, are not isolating. Rather, by manipulating a portion of reality which both speaker and listener share, the pathetic fallacy allows one to glimpse the passions within the consciousness of another human being. Since we know that foam does not crawl and since we know it cannot be cruel, when someone thus describes the sea we understand that he or she suffers from grief

According to Ruskin, grief has so affected this speaker's mind, so distorted his vision of the world, that he attributes to the foam the characteristics of a living being. In so doing he tells us more about his state of mind, his interior world, than he does about the world which exists outside his mind, and it is this psychological truth that moves and delights the reader. The distorted version of reality does not itself please us, but we can ignore it, for "so long as we see that the feeling is true, we pardon, or are even pleased by, the confessed fallacy of sight which it induces: we are pleased, for instance, with those lines of Kingsley's above quoted, not because they fallaciously describe foam, but because they faithfully describe sorrow. (5.210

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FUNCTION OF PATHETIC FALLACYThe distortions of the pathetic fallacy function like the voice inflections which a speaker gives to a common, shared language: they permit something to be communicated which it would be difficult to state "directly." The pathetic fallacy, then, allows the poet to dramatize grief and joy, communicating them far more effectively than would the simple statement that the speaker suffers from sorrow or feels joy.

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This idea that the pathetic fallacy effectively conveys truths of man's inner world makes it fulfill what Ruskin takes to be the role of art, which is to present things, not as they are in themselves — the role of natural science — but as they appear to mankind. Science studies the relations of things to each other: but art studies only their relations to man: and it requires of everything . . . only this, — what that thing is to the human eyes and human heart, what it has to say to men, and what it can become to them. [11.48]

The truth conveyed by the pathetic fallacy is phenomenological truth, the truth of experience, the truth as it appears to the experiencing subject. In particular, these emotional distortions of exterior reality much resemble the Ruskinian notion of imaginatively depicted landscape. The higher mode of landscape, we remember, presents not the topographical facts of a scene but the impression which its trees and rocks, sky and water made upon the great, imaginative painter. Although the emotional and imaginative interpretation of a landscape might seem a mere distortion of facts to the uneducated or unreflective viewer — as indeed Turner's late works appeared to the critics — such depiction contains truths unattainable by other methods. According to Ruskin, therefore, imaginative painting of landscape has the advantage over our presence at the depicted scene precisely because its "expression of the power and intelligence of a companionable human soul" gives us the "penetrative sight" (5.187) our own more limited faculties cannot provide.

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The pathetic fallacy has found its way' into so many' poems that the reading public has come to believe that it is a poetical device to be used whenever possible. However, it is Ruskin's opinion that a close examination will show that “the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness that it is only the second order of poets who take much delight in it.” With the pathetic fallacy in mind, Ruskin places poets in one of three classes. In the first rank are the creative poets, Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. They compose his third class and they are the men who, in spite of their emotions, see things as they are. They, to John Ruskin, are the greatest poets.

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Percy Bysshe Shelley painted by Amelia Curran in 1819

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Shelley gives examples from ‘Mont Blanc’, sees the winds ‘drinking’ the odours of the pines(lines 22–3); he endows the ‘hidden buds’ of winter with ‘feeble dreams’ ( lines 88–9); the glaciers ‘creep / Like snakes that watch their prey’ (lines 100–1).

David Miall argues that these are not only figures of speech. Whether an object is animate (a cat, a bee) or inanimate (a tree, a precipice), we have the capacity to reconstitute in our own minds the forces that make it what it is, whetheranimate or inanimate, which, in turn, makes it more likely that we will anticipate correctly what it may do or become next.

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PATHETIC FALLACYJohn Keats: Grecian Urn

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In order to achieve the purposes of clarity and convenience Ruskin has arranged fallacies in two separate and distinct classes. There is "the fallacy of willful fancy', which involves no real expectation that it will be believed. Then there is the fallacy “caused by' an excited state of the feelings, making us more or less irrational.

Perhaps John Keats has given the answer in his Ode OnGrecian Urn when he said , “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”. A fallacy which is in harmony with the rest of the poem and which makes the reader, for the time being, see with the eyes of the poet is a pleasant device; and to the extent that it enables the reader to catch the spirit of the poet, it is justified and, for that moment, true.

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Today the term is used more neutrally, and the phenomenon is usually accepted as an integral part of the poet’s craft. It is related to personification and anthropomorphism, but emphasizes the relationship between the poet’s emotional state and what he or she sees in the object or objects.

For instance, in William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” the speaker sees a field of daffodils “tossing their heads in a sprightly dance,” outdoing the nearby lake’s sparkling waves with their “glee.” The speaker, in times of solitude and introspection, is heartened by memories of the flowers’ joy.

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The fallacy of willful fancy is elaborately illustrated in Wordsworth's poem called

To The Same Flower.

With little here to do or see Of things that in the great world be, Daisy! again I talk to thee, For thou art worthy, thou unassuming common place of nature, with that homely face, And yet with some thing of a grace Which Love makes for thee !

Oft on the dappled turf at ease I sit and play With similes, loose types of things through all degrees, Thoughts of the raising; And many'a fond and idle name I give to thee, for praise or blame, As in the humor of the game, While I am gazing.

A nun demure of lowly port; Or sprightly maiden, of love ‘s court, In t hySimplicity the sport of all temptations; a queen in crown of rubie s dressed;a starveling in a scanty vest; are all, as seems to suit thee best, thy appellations.

a little cyclops with one eye staring to threaten and defy that thought comes next----and instantly.the freak is over, the Shape will vanish---and behold .a silver shield with boss of gold, that spreads itself, some fairy bold In fight to cover!

I see thee glittering from afarand then thou art a pretty star; not quite so far as many are In heaven above thee! Yet like a star, With glittering crest, self-poised in air thou seemest to rest-May peace come never to his nest, Who shall reprove thee!

Bright flower! for by that name at last, When all my reveries are past, I call thee, and to that cleave fast, Sweet silent creature ! That breath’st with me in sun and air, Do thou, as thou art wont, repairMy heart with gladness and a share of thy meek nature

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The entire poem is written in a whimsical vein which belies any thought that the fallacies might be believed. Wordsworth has explained at the beginning of the poem that it is a pastime for him to play with similes and to imagine new names for the daisy. By the end of the poem , he says in no uncertain terms that he knows it is only a flower.

Personification is one type of willful fancies". One need not read far before he discovers numerous lines where abstract ions such as sorrow, reason and truth are personified. In cases like these, the writer is fully aware that these abstract qualities may not accurately be given human attributes.

The second type of fallacy has already been defined as being caused by' a highly emotional state of mind Which makes the poet, for the time, more or less irrational. It 1s evident that this style is different from the fallacy of willful fancy. The emotional condition of the writers of each type is antithetical. The impression left with the reader is very different in each case.

It is the second type of fallacy, the fallacy which is occasioned by intense feeling which makes the faculties for observing faulty, that Ruskin styles the pathetic fallacy. If the feeling back of the error is true and only the impression is false.

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It is said that Tennyson's lyrics “are a perfect blending of emotional impulse and exquisite form. Certainly there is a perfect example of the pathetic fallacy in his lyric poem Maud:

The slender acacia would not shakeOne long milk-bloom on the tree; The white lake-blossom fell into the lakeAs the pimpernel dozed on the lea; But the rose was awake all night for your sake, Knowing your promise to met The lilies and roses were all awake, They sighed far the dawn and thee.

Queen rose of the rosebud garden of girls, Come hither, the dances are done,In gloss of satin and glimmer of pearls, Queen lilies and rose in one;Shine out, little head, sunning over with curls, To the flowers, and be their sun

There has fallen a splendid tear From the passion-flower at the gate. She is coming, my dove, my dear; She is coming, my life, my fate; The red rose cries, 'She is near, she is near;' And the white rose weeps, ‘She is 1ate ; The larkspur listens, ‘ I hear, I hear;' And the lily whispers, 'I wait.'

She is coming, my own, my sweet;Were it ever so airy a tread, my heart would hear her and beat, Were it earth in an earthy' bed; My dust would hear her and be at, Had I lain for a century dead; Would start and tremble under her feet, And blossom in purple and red.

The young lover believes that even the flowers are responsive to the nearness of his loved one. The poem is lovely and the fallacies might easily be the impressions that came to him as he thought of his love. There is no discordant note.

Ruskin insists that the pathetic fallacy, so far as it is a fallacy, is the sign of a comparatively weak mind, saying that a great mind is able to maintain its sense of proportion and see things as they really are .

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 You naked trees, whose shady leaves are lost,Wherein the byrds were wont to build their bowre:And now are clothd with mosse and hoary frost,Instede of bloosmes, wherwith your buds did flowre:I see your teares, that from your boughes doe raine,Whose drops in drery ysicles remaine

Spenser utilizes pathetic fallacy as an outward manifestation of Colin’s internal grief, and the dead of winter shows no sign of alleviating Colin’s blunted hope in attaining Rosalinde’s affection.

The naked trees, and the bitter pastoral setting, then, are not only literal, but serve as extended metaphors for Colin’s bare emotive state as the lovesick and dejected shepherd, in line with the pastoral convention. The shady leaves lost therefore symbolize Colin’s own loss of  vivacity; the shedding of former greenery becomes suggestive of a funeral loss of youth, and the omnipresence of physical degeneration signals Colin"s metaphoric death as a result of his being jilted.

Indeed, the imagery in this passage indicates the departure of life in accordance to the calendric cycle; the “byrds “who “were wont to build their bowre” (1.32) have migrated to warmer climates, and  “hoary frost,” emblematic of aging, now shrouds the abandoned nests (1.33). Spenser’s oscillation between the past tense of the blossoms which “did” flower and the tears that “doe” rain suggests an irreversibility, at least in Colin"s eyes, to the “drery” season of winter (l. 36). Whilst the cosmic seasons run in cycle, Spenser hyperbolizes the elimination of universal symbols of life.

 The most vivid image in this passage, the yisicles (l. 36 ) on the tree, personified as teares (l.35) becomes a psychological mirroring of Colin"s own melancholy. The finality of the last line, made heavy with its concluding stress, remaine, (l. 36) marks an inability to propel forward suggesting a sense of permanence in mourning.

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Psuedonym for Michael Field- Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper Thomas Hardy Oscar Wilde

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“ Pathetic fallacies," were used in consciously and deliberately especially during the Victorian period, where precise visuality and secularism may have discouraged certain interpretations of the world. Poets such as Michael Field, Thomas Hardy, and Oscar Wilde employed versions of the pathetic fallacy in ways that made clear the subjective and figurative labor of such a description. The pathetic fallacy, then, was employed to call attention to the poet's own ordering of the world, and not so much a providential ordering.

To begin, Michael Field attempts to make apparent the relationship between the poet/ speaker and the structuring of the world, within the logic of the poem "Cyclamens," written in1893. The poem explicitly refers to the poet/speaker's vision: "Yet I who have all these things in ken," (line 5). By referring to sight, Michael Field refers to the subjectivity of the scene, and the reader is made aware of the poem's status as an exercise of thought, rather than solely a universal truth (not to say there is no relationship between the two). This subjectivity is extended to the subject of the poem, the flower cyclamen: "[I] Am struck to the heart by the chiseled white/ Of these handful of cyclamen," (ll 6-7). First, Michael Field utilizes the pathetic fallacy by referring to the flower as "chiseled.“

Thomas Hardy explored the pathetic fallacy using natural landscapes, but used personification in order to posit its limits. In the "Darkling Thrush," written in 1900, Hardy justifies the use of pathetic fallacy, by describing nature as an actual human body: "The land's sharp features seemed to be/ the Century's corpse out leant," (Hardy ll 9-10). In doing so, and unlike Michael Field, Hardy extends the logic of the pathetic fallacy to the point of surrealism:if nature feels emotion, then it must have the capacity to feel emotion, and therefore must belong to a body. Additionally, the subjective limitations are marked by the qualifier "seemed," which exist throughout the poem: "And every spirit upon the Earth/ seemed fevourless as I," (ll 15-16). It must be noted, too, that as with the Field poem, Hardy makes apparent the emphatic process that the pathetic fallacy requires of a poet/observer. This is achieved with using "seemed," but especially with using "as I." By revealing the speaker's emotional state as parallel to the scene, Hardy reasserts the subjectivity of the pathetic fallacy.

Oscar Wilde deliberately understands nature as artificial and consumable through poetry and description. For example, in the poem "Fantasies Decoratives II. Les Ballons," the subject of the poem is an object of processed material, and Wilde describes the movement of this object thought natural scenery. However, the scenery is just as artificial as the object that moves throughout it: "Against these turbid turquoise skies," (Wilde line 1), "Turbid," which means cloudy, can refer to the states of the sky, or the quality of a gemstone. This ambiguity is heightened as the sky is described as "turquoise," which refers to both the color and the stone used in jewelry. In this way, Wilde is extending the logic of the pathetic fallacy.

Michael Field demonstrates and makes apparent the process of emphatic interpretation, while Hardy marks the limits of doing so, by hyperbolically extending the logic of the fallacy. Wilde extends the logic of the fallacy as well, but in ways that defeat its purpose: by removing emotion completely. All three demonstrate a conscious acknowledgment of the trend, and attempt to negotiate its demands within poetry.


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REFERENCES1. Ruskin, J., "Of the Pathetic Fallacy", Modern Painters III (1856) http://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/ruskinj/

2. Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms, 7th edition. Fort Worth, Texas: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1999. ISBN 0-15-505452-X.

3. Groden, Michael, and Martin Kreiswirth (eds.). The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-8018-4560-2.

4. The constitution of Shelley’s poetry: The argument of language in Prometheus..Edmund Duffy

5.1817 poetry-www.wikiwand.com6. www.victorianweb.org7. www.poetryfoundation.org8. Edmund Spenser, January in The Poetical Works of Edmund Spenser , ed. by S.K.Heninger, Jr. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin &Company, 1970), II.31-6.9. Retreating the Pathetic Fallacy in Victorian’s Poetry