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Assigned: John Stuart Mill. "What is Poetry?" (1044-51); from On Liberty (1051-61); from The Subjection of Women (1061-70); from Autobiography (1070-77).

"What is Poetry?"

1. On 1045, how does Mill, in his capacity as a young philosopher, defend his attempt to define poetry with some precision, rather than dismissing it as too popular or common a thing to bother with? What is the popular understanding of poetry's essence, according to Mill, and why is it not sufficient?

2. On 1045-47, what distinction between narrative ("story") and poetry does Mill develop? Which mode does he consider superior, and how does he justify his choice? To what sort of person does narrative appeal, and to what sort of person does poetry appeal? Do you find Mill's arguments in this vein adequate? Why or why not?

3. On 1048-49, in analyzing the statements of Ebenezer Elliott and a writer for Blackwood's Magazine, what distinction does Mill make between poetry and eloquence? That is, how does poetry differ fundamentally from eloquence in a way that renders it superior? And why, according to Mill, is his conception of poetry's source and effect not weakened by the fact that most poets publish their work?

4. On 1049-51, how does Mill extend his key distinction between poetry and eloquence into a discussion of music and painting? What examples does he discuss? Which artists (and nations) does he prefer, and which does he hold in somewhat lower regard? To what extent does he show an appreciation for the power of eloquence, even if he prefers poetry?

5. General question: in your own words, what is Mill's fullest definition of poetry? To what extent do you find that it stems from and agrees with earlier "Romantic" definitions of poetry by Wordsworth, Shelley, Coleridge, or Keats?

6. General question: the major literary genres are poetry, drama, and fiction (novels, novellas, short stories). What distinctions do you find it most useful to maintain amongst the three, and why? Do you generally find it best to consider a work's genre as absolutely distinct and central to interpretation, or do you prefer to keep genre in the background when you think about a given work? Explain your rationale.

From On Liberty

7. What ideas play a role in Mill's thinking on human nature? See, for example, his comments about von Humboldt (1051-52). What does Mill find so attractive about von Humboldt's views?

8. On 1053-57, on what principle does Mill praise "strong "impulses" and "individuality of desires"? Who or what, according to Mill, enforces his era's "hostile and dreaded censorship" (1054)? How does this censorship operate, and what are the worst effects of its influence?

9. On 1058-60, according to Mill, do "public opinion" and "the despotism of custom" retard strong individuals' pursuit of excellence? How does Mill use China's history (or his interpretation of it, at least) as an example of the dangers that stem from repressing the individual in favor of collective harmony?

10. Mill obviously believes English society should be geared towards individual self-development, not collective conformity. But who or what group will be the agent of change? Consider what he writes on 1058 about "those who stand on the higher eminences of thought." Who are these people, and how might they manage to bring about change?

11. General question: to what extent, and from what specific directions, do today's "strong individuals" face the kind of discouragement Mill laments in his own time? What collective entities and mindsets most influence us as individuals now, in the 21st Century? Are those influences good, bad, or both? Explain.

From On the Subjection of Women

12. On 1061-62, why is it wrong, according to Mill, to naturalize and codify the distinctions often made between people in terms of race, social class, and gender? What drives people to make those distinctions in the first place?

13. On 1063-64, why, according to Mill, is the subjection of women a special case in the oppression of one group by another? What do men want from women beyond simple obedience? How does this additional need affect men's treatment of them?

14. On 1064, why, in Mill's analysis, is the long-continued pattern of male-female relations unsustainable and morally wrong in modern (Victorian) British society?

15. On 1065-70, Mill returns to the question of the "natural" capacities of human beings. How does he refine and elaborate on his earlier argument against naturalizing or essentializing the supposed differences between men and women? How does he respond to the "logic" of men's insistence that women must be confined to the role of wife and mother, exposing its underlying prejudice?

From Autobiography

16. On 1070-71, how does Mill describe the depressive state into which he fell as a young man? What are its chief characteristics? In this state, what question arises within Mill's mind, and why does his answer to it deliver a profound shock to his early enthusiasm for social reform and deepen his personal anguish? What had he been expecting as his reward for helping others?

17. On 1072-73, what, according to Mill, was wrong with the principles underlying the utilitarian education given him by his Benthamist father James Mill? In particular, how did it misconstrue the value of emotion and misapply the basic principle of "association" that governs so much utilitarian thinking?

18. On 1074, how does Mill account for the positive effect that a reading of Marmontel's Mémoires had for him in the depths of depression? What is it about the particular segment he recounts that lightens his mood? What might be inferred from this episode in Marmontel as the thing that truly brings people together and leads them to happiness?

19. On 1074-75, how does Mill, after recovering from his breakdown, redefine his concept of the individual and rethink his understanding of what conduces to and sustains human happiness? How does his statement, "Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so" encapsulate his argument?

20. On 1075, Mill says that he had always found much pleasure in listening to music, but that it didn't help him find his way out of the lowest point of his depression. What limitations does he ascribe to music as an emotional experience? Why, by implication, does he consider it somewhat less valuable than poetry as a means of regaining emotional health?

21. On 1076-77, what power does Mill ascribe to the lyric poetry of Wordsworth -- how did it help him recover from his depressive episodes? What does Wordsworth's poetry do for him that Byron's poetry couldn't, and what does Wordsworth seem to know about human nature that Jeremy Bentham and James Mill did not? Why doesn't it matter to Mill that -- at least in his estimation -- Wordsworth is by no means the greatest of England's poets?

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. Vol. E. New York: Norton, 2006. ISBN Package 2 (Vols. DEF) 0-393-92834-9.