In the early 19th Century, one could use the word ‘soul’ and, it seems, mean something by it.  For romantic poets, ‘soul’ must have had many contexts: empiricist philosophy, German idealism, medicine, and “natural philosophy” or mechanist science.  Where Hume, arguably one of the first psychologists, reduces the soul to the unknowable background of ‘hot’, lively, mutable impressions and cooled-down, stolid ideas, Kant reinvents the soul as pure, transcendent reason.  Science – in its search for the vital principle, for instance – imagined a radical split of matter and ‘spark’ that made the material world seem all the more dead and mechanical; from this sprung a strange ambivalence – was ‘feeling’ (sensibility, subjectivity) simply the play of different stimuli over the range of nerve-endings, such that the difference between a cadaver (exposed to galvanism) and a person might collapse?  If electricity, at play over the nerve-endings, was the vital, animating principle, then what use the notion of an individuated soul?  Electricity is simply an impersonal flow of charged particles, a kind of raw power, that ‘animated’ the puppet of the human body (as in Ure’s galvanic experiments, which inspired Frankenstein), playing its nerve endings like the inner guts of a piano.  This leads to a truly odd inversion: the ‘force’ that flows through matter is not divinely sensitive and intelligent spirit, but raw current.  And, the ‘feelings’ that seem so human and spiritual are, in fact, strings in the body waiting to be plucked to produce the similitude of subjectivity or of what (to complicate this analogy) Kant called the ‘free’ and synthetic play of the faculties.  What does this do to the image of the Aeolian Harp when the ‘wind’ that blows over the ‘strings’ does not communicate feeling to the strings so much as set strings in motion that themselves play the various notes we interpret as ‘feeling’?  And, what happens when we tranfer all this to postructural theory, like Sianne Ngai’s work on “animatedness,” which proves that the animation or excess is in language: certain signs in the semiotic system are invested with charges that possess and animate the subject that is, as (de Man) puts it, not an experience but “a linguistic act” (“The Concept of Irony”).

Even in Kant’s model, how ‘free’ is aesthetic response when the sensibilities on which matter (and raw power) plays are ‘hard-wired’ or taken to be ‘natural’ in a fixed, reductive sense?  Even if the subject experiences a kind of ‘freedom’ in aesthetic experience (because the subject encounters a ‘purposiveness’ in his own faculties that is in sympathy with the ‘purposiveness’ of nature – that is, a kind of accord between mind and matter expressed in the tendency of both to play at beautiful syntheses without apparent aim) such aesthetic experience takes place within the rigid framework of a unitary, rational, moral agent.  That is, a ‘sweetness’ of sheer purposiveness without purpose is circumscribed at the core of a rational agent or citizen whose actual ‘purposes’ are clearly defined within a ‘naturalized’ or unquestioned social order.  To give this a formula: convention on the outside, imagination on the inside.

One suspects that at times romantic poets, like Wordsworth, accept this formula, and at other times reject it.  Tracing where, when, and why they shift policy may prove interesting.  The place to look, it seems, is the sublime.