A Romantic Discovery–Mill’s Autobiography

What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling, under the excitement of beauty. They seemed to be the very culture of the feelings, which I was in quest of. In them I seemed to draw from a Source of inward joy, of sympathetic and imaginative pleasure, which could be shared in by all human beings; which had no connexion with struggle of imperfection, but would be made richer by every improvement in the physical or social condition of mankind. From them I seemed to learn what would be the perennial sources of happiness, when all the greater evils of life shall have been removed. And I felt myself at once better and happier as I came under their influence. (21)

This is a significant passage from Mill’s Autobiography in that it relates to last week’s reading and study of William Wordsworth’s poem, “Tintern Abbey”, in addition to a historical re-birth of romanticism. In discussing this poem during class we focused on the descriptive and personal nature of the poetry. The emotional content and beauty of Wordsworth’s writing is what attracted and sparked a major self-discovery for Mills. A major theme that runs throughout this chapter of Mill’s Autobiography is the idea of self-reflection and self-discovery.

It is in the excerpt above that the author expresses the importance of Wordsworth’s poetry to his own acknowledgment of his personal emotions and their connection to romanticism and the arts.The title of chapter five, “A Crisis in My Mental History”, describes the period of depression and disillusionment that Mills experiences. During this time of “crisis” John Mills reports being in a “dull state of nerves” (2).  The author’s statement about his dull nerves, conjures the question: why he had this crisis to begin with? In reference to his logic based upbringing, Mills writes, “My course of study had led me to believe, that all mental and moral feelings and qualities, whether of a good or of a bad kind, were the results of association” (5). Because of the cultural emphasis on science and reason during the time of his education, it is likely that Mills was instructed to approach life in a systematic, logical way. As the reader, understanding these details about the author’s education and then reading the excerpt from paragraph 21, explains exactly why he suffered a “mental crisis”. “What made Wordsworth’s poems a medicine for my state of mind, was that they expressed, not mere outward beauty, but states of feeling, and of thought coloured by feeling…” (21). In this quotation from the passage Mills makes it clear that as an individual he needs more than just analytical stimulation; he needs to be exposed to artistic, emotional thinking.

This excerpt reflects a relatively distinctive type of thinking for the 1820’s society and its educational goals. In writing chapter five of his Autobiography, Mill’s does a lot of reflecting on his own mindset. He makes the discovery that personally he needs the arts, as well as freedom to express his emotions, in order to be a well-rounded individual with self-understanding.

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