This article addresses the class implications of the eighteenth-century discourse of sympathy and suggests that theatricalized performances of sympathy can be seen as expressions of class. On this account, refined society’s protocols regarding the physical and emotional display of sympathy were a means of ensuring social conformity and meeting cultural expectations. Although eighteenth-century medical discoveries enabled society to adopt a more democratic view of humanity, it also provided the more fortunate with a further means of maintaining their distance from the downtrodden. William Wordsworth’s 1787 “Sonnet on Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress” effectively reads the text of the human body in distress, and considers the mechanisms by which one individual reacts to the pain of another. Through the imagined observation of a body engaged in sympathetic response, Wordsworth invokes several facets of the eighteenth-century culture of sensibility, including its luxurious excesses and the arguably class-conscious aesthetics of pain. This article concludes by suggesting that the artistic engagement with suffering is not necessarily an act for the betterment of society, but a performance that highlights the class distinctions between many Romantic-period artists and the general population.
William Wordsworth; sensibility; sympathy; class; pain; aesthetic pleasure; pleasure-in-pain; Steven Bruhm; Edmund Burke; performativity; Helen Maria Williams; body language; suffering