The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Sensations, Feelings, Emotions

by the Editor (Charlotte Mason)
Volume 7, 1896, pg. 614

[This article appears as Chapter 18 - Sensations And Feelings in Volume 2, Parents and Children.]

Part II

              "Those beauteous Forms,
    Through a long absence, have not been to me
    As is a landscape to a blind man's eye:
    But oft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din
    Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
    In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
    Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart,
    And passing even into my purer mind,
    With tranquil restoration:--feelings, too,
    Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps,
    As have no slight or trivial influence
    On that best portion of a good man's life,
    His little, nameless, unremembered acts
    Of kindness and of love."

INSIGHT--the, so to speak, scientific grip of a great poet--is amongst those "more things" in heaven and earth than our philosophy has dreamed of. Wordsworth tells us that after the lapse of years, "these beauteous Forms" (of Tintern Abbey) gave him sensations. Now, we are apt to think that sensations can only be immediate, perceived on the instant that the object is present to the senses; but the poet is, as usual, absolutely right; we may have, so to speak, reflected sensations, as well as those that are immediate, because a conscious sensation depends upon the recognition of an impression in the sensory centres, and this recognition may be evoked, not only by a repeated sensation, but by an association which recalls the image once permanently impressed by the original sensation. Wordsworth is exquisitely right when he speaks of the repeated enjoyment of "sensations sweet." "In lonely rooms and 'mid the din of towns and cities," some sudden touch of the chords of association has brought to him the soothing joy of a picture --"Forms" with every grace of symmetry, harmony, venerable antiquity, in the fresh and gracious setting of a beautiful landscape. The eye of his mind is infinitely gladdened; the ear of his mind, no longer conscious of the din of cities, hears the chord struck by the Wye in its flow, and the notes of the birds and the lowing of the cattle and the lower notes of the insect world. Again he perceives the odours of the meadow-sweet, he touches the coolness of the grass: and all these are as absolutely sensations as when they were for the first time conveyed to his consciousness by the sensory organs.

We have in these few lines a volume of reasons why we should fill the storehouse of memory for the children with many open-air images, capable of giving them reflected sensations of delight. Our care all the time must be to secure that they do look, and listen, touch, and smell; and the way to this is by sympathetic action on our part: what we look at, they will look at; the odours we perceive, they too will get. We heard, the other day, of a little girl who travelled in Italy with her parents, in the days of dignified family travelling-carriages. The child's parents were conscientious, and time was precious, not by any means to be wasted on the mere idleness of travelling; so the governess and the little girl had the coupe to themselves, and in it were packed all the paraphernalia of the school-room, and she did her sums, learned her geography, probably the counties of England, and all the rest of it, with the least possible waste of time in idle curiosity as to what the "faire londes," through which she was passing, might be like. A story like this shows that we are making advances; but we are still far from fully recognizing that our part in the education of children, should be thoughtfully subordinated to that played by Nature herself.

To continue our study of this amazingly accurate, as well as exquisitely beautiful, psychological record:--the poet goes on to tell us that these sensations sweet are "felt in the blood and felt along the heart"--a statement curiously true to fact. A pleasurable sensation causes the relaxation of the infinitesimal nerve fibres netted around the capillaries; the blood flows freely, the heart beats quicker, the sense of well-being is increased; gaiety, gladness supervene; and the gloom of the dull day, and the din of the busy city exist for us no more. That is to say, memories of delight are, as it were, an elixir of life capable, when they present themselves, of restoring us at any moment to a condition of physical well-being. But even this is not the whole. Wordsworth speaks of these memories as "passing into my purer mind with tranquil restoration"--purer, because less corporeal, less affected by physical conditions, but all the same so intimately related to the physical brain, that the condition of the one must rule the other. Mind and brain perhaps have been alike fagged by the insistent recurrence of some one line of thought, when suddenly there flashes into the "purer mind" the cognition of images of delight, re-presented in consequence of a touch to some spring of association; the current of thought is diverted into new and delightful channels, and weariness and brain-fag give place to "tranquil restoration.

If mere sensations are capable of doing so much for our happiness, our mental refreshment, and our physical well-being, both at the time of their reception and for an indefinite number of times afterwards, it follows that it is no small part of our work as educators to preserve the acuteness of the children's perceptions, and to store their memories with images of delight.

The poet pursues the investigation and makes a pointed distinction; he not only recovers "sensations sweet," but "feelings, too, of unremembered pleasure." Very few persons are capable of discriminating between the sensations and the feelings produced by an image recovered by some train of association. Wordsworth's psychology is not only delicately nice, but very just, and the distinction he draws is important to the educator. The truth is "the feelings" are out of fashion at present; [Henry Mackenzie's] The Man of Feeling is a person of no account; if he still exists, he keeps in the shade, being aware, through a certain quickness of perception which belongs to him, that any little efflorescence proper to his character would be promptly reduced to pulp by the application of a sledge hammer. The Man of Feeling has himself to thank for this; he allowed his feelings to become fantastic; his sweet sensibilities ran away with him; he meant pathos and talked bathos; he became an exaggerated type; and, in self-preservation, Society always cuts off the offending limb, so The Man of Feeling is no more. Nor is this the only charge that "the feelings" have to sustain. So long as the feelings remain objective they are, like the bloom to the peach, the last perfection of a beautiful character; but when they become subjective, when every feeling concerns itself with the ego, we have, as in the case of sensations, morbid conditions set up; the person begins by being "over sensitive," hysteria supervenes, perhaps melancholia, an utterly spoilt life.

George Eliot has a fine figure which aptly illustrates the subjective condition of the feelings. She tells us that a philosophic friend had pointed out to her that whereas the surface of a mirror or of a steel plate may be covered with minute scratches going in every direction, if you hold a lighted candle to the surface all these random scratches appear to arrange themselves and radiate from the central flame: just so with the person whose feelings have been permitted to minister to his egoistic consciousness: all things in heaven and earth are "felt" as they affect his own personality.

What are the feelings? Perhaps they are best expressed in Coleridge's phrase of "a vague appetency of the mind"; but we may do something to clear our thoughts by a negative examination. The feelings are not sensations, because they have no necessary connection with the senses; they are to be distinguished from the two great affections (of love and justice) because they are not actively exercised upon any objects; they are distinct from the desires because they demand no gratification; and they are distinguishable from the intellectual operations which we call thought, because while thought proceeds from an idea, is active, and arrives at a result, the feelings arise from perceptions, are passive, and not definitely progressive! Every feeling has it positive and its negative, and these in almost infinitely varying degrees: pleasure, displeasure; appreciation, depreciation; anticipation, foreboding; admiration, contempt; assurance, hesitancy; diffidence, complacency; and so on through many more delicate nuances of feeling that are nameable; and yet more so delicate that language is too rough an instrument for their expression. It will be observed that all these feelings have certain conditions in common: none are distinctly moral or immoral; they exist vaguely in what would appear to be a semi-conscious intellectual region. Why then need we concern ourselves about this least known tract of that terra incognita which we call human nature? This "why" is the question of the prose-philosopher; our poet sees deeper. In one of the most exquisitely discriminating passages in the whole field of poetry, he speaks of feelings of unremembered pleasure as having no slight or trivial influence on a good man's life, as the source of "little nameless unremembered acts of kindness and of love." Even the feeling of "unremembered pleasure"--for it is possible to have the spring of association touched so lightly that one recovers the feeling of former pleasure without recovering the sensation, or the image, which produced the sensation, but merely just the vague feeling of the pleasure, as when one hears the word Lohengrin [Wagner's opera] and does not wait, as it were, to recover the sensation of musical delight, but just catches a waft of the pleasure which the sensation brought--intangible, indefinite as they are, produce that glow of the heart which warms a good man to "acts of kindness and of love," as little, as nameless, and as unremembered as the feelings out of which they spring. Nameless as they are, our poet does not hesitate to rank these trifling acts as "the best portion of a good man's life." But it is only out of the good man's heart that these good issues come, because, as we have said, the feelings are not in themselves moral, they act upon that which is there, and the point brought before us is that the influence of the feelings is as powerful as it is indirect. Why should the recollection of Tintern Abbey cause a good man to do some little kind thing? We can only give the ultimate answer "that God has made us so," that a feeling of even unremembered pleasures prompts the good man to give forth out of the good treasure of his heart in kindness and in love. We have but to think of the outcome of feelings at the negative pole to convince ourselves of the nice exactitude of the poet's psychology. We are not exactly displeased, but unpleased, dull, not quickened by any feeling of pleasure: let us ask ourselves if, in this condition of our feelings, we are prompted to any outpouring of love and kindness upon our neighbours.

This is an aspect of the feelings of very great importance to us who have the education of children.

    "I do not like you Doctor Fell,
    The reason why I cannot tell,"

is a feeling we all know well enough, and is, in fact, that intuitive perception of character--one of our finest feelings and best guides in life--which is too apt to be hammered out of us by the constant effort to beat down our sensibilities to the explicit and definite. One wonders why people complain of faithless friends, untrustworthy servants, and disappointed affections. If the feelings were retained in truth and simplicity, there is little doubt that they would afford for each of us such a touchstone of character in the persons we come in contact with, that we should be saved from making exigeant demands on the one hand, and from suffering disappointment on the other. The public orator plays, by preference, upon the gamut of the feelings. He throws in arguments by the way: brightens his discourse with graphic word-picture, metaphor, simile; but, for his final effect he relies upon the impression he has been able to make upon the feelings of his audience and the event proves him to be right.

Not only our little nameless acts but the great purposes of our lives arise out of our feelings. Enthusiasm itself is not thought, thought it arises when we are

    "Stung with the rapture of a sudden thought;"

it is a glowing, malleable condition of the forces of our nature, during which all things are possible to us, and we only wait for a lead. Enthusiasm in its earliest stage is inconsequent, incoherent, devoid of purpose, and yet is that state out of which all the great purposes of life shape themselves. We feel, we think, we say, we do; this is the genesis of most of our activities.

But our feelings, as our thoughts, depend upon what we are; we feel in all things as "'tis our nature to," and the point to be noticed is that our feelings are educable, and that, in educating the feelings, we modify the character. A pressing danger of our day is that the delicate task of educating, shall be exchanged for the much simpler one of blunting the feelings. This is the usual result of a system where training is given en masse, but not the necessary result, because the tone of feeling of a head master or mistress is conveyed, more or less, to a whole school. Still, perhaps, the perfect bloom of the feelings can only be preserved under quite judicious individual culture, and, therefore, necessarily devolves upon parents. The instrument to be employed in this culture is always the same--the blessed sixth sense of Tact. It is possible to call up the feeling one desires by a look, a gesture; to dissipate it by the rudeness of a spoken word. Our silence, our sympathy, our perception, give place and play to fit feelings, while they discourage, and cause to slink away ashamed, the feeling which should not have place. But let us beware of words; let us use our eyes and our imagination in dealing with the young; let us see what they are feeling and help them by the flow of our responsive feeling. Words, even words of praise and tenderness, touch this delicate bloom of nature as with a hot finger, and behold! it is gone. Let us consider carefully what feelings we wish to stimulate, and what feelings we wish to repress in our children, and then, having made up our minds, let us say nothing. We all know the shrinking, as of a sore place, with which children receive some well-meant word from a tactless friend.

The sense of spiritual touch is our only guide in this region of the feelings, but with this alone we may tune the spirits of the children to great issues, believing that they are capable of all things great. We wish them to revere. Now, reverence is a feeling before it becomes a thought or an act, and it is a communicable feeling, but communicable like the flame of a torch, only by touch. The sentiment of reverence fills our own souls when we see a bird on its nest, an old man at his cottage door, a church in which have centred the aspirations of a village for many an age; we feel, and the children feel our feeling, and they feel, too: a feeling is communicated by sympathy, but perhaps in no other way. The ignoble habit of depreciation is in the first place a feeling. It is quite easy to put the children into that other attitude of feeling called forth by the fitness and goodness of the thing regarded, and we all know that it is easy to appreciate or depreciate the same thing. These opposed feelings illustrate the importance of the delicate culture we have in view, for among the minor notes of character, none tend more to differentiate persons than this of perceiving cause of dissatisfaction in the same object or person. An appreciative habit of feeling is a cause of tranquil joy to its possessor, and of ease and contentment to the people connected with him. A depreciative habit, on the contrary, though it affords a little pleasurable excitement because it ministers to the vanity of the ego (I dislike this person or this thing, therefore I know better or am better than others), disturbs tranquility, and puts the person out of harmony with himself and with his surroundings; no stable joy comes of depreciation. But even in dealing with feelings of this class, we must remember that tact, sympathy, and communicable feelings are our only implements; the feelings are not thoughts to be reasoned down; they are neither moral nor immoral to challenge our praise or our blame; we cannot be too reticent in our dealings with them in children, nor too watchfully aware that the least inadvertence may bruise some tender blossom of feeling. This is the risk which attends the habit of persiflage and banter in family talk; a little is thoroughly good and wholesome, but this kind of play should be used with very great tact, especially by the elders. Children understand each other so well that there is far less risk of hurt feelings from the tormenting school-boy, than from the more considerate elder.

There is only one case in which the feelings may not have free play, and that is when they reflect the consciousness of the ego. What are commonly called sensitive feelings--that is, susceptibility for oneself and about oneself, readiness to perceive neglect or slight, condemnation or approbation--though belonging to a fine and delicate character, are in themselves of a less worthy order, and require very careful direction lest morbid conditions should be set up. To ignore wisely is an art, and the girl who craves to know what you thought of her when she said this or did the other, need not be told brutally that you did not think of her at all; it is quite enough for her to perceive that your regard is fixed upon something impersonal both to her and you; she takes the hint and looks away from herself, and nothing is said to cause her pain. It appears to be an immutable law that our feelings, as our sensations, must find their occupation in things without; the moment they are turned in upon themselves, harm is done. The task of dealing with the susceptibilities of young people is one of the most delicate that falls to us elders, whether we be parents or friends. Undiscriminating sympathy is very perilous, and bluntness of perception is very damaging; we are between Scylla and Charybdis and must needs walk humbly and warily in this delicate work of dealing with the feelings of children and young people. Our only safeguard is to cherish in ourselves "the soft, meek, tender soul," sensitive to the touch of God and able to deal in "soft, meek, tender ways" with children, beings of fine and delicate mould as they are.

[Being "between Scylla and Charybdis" is like being between a rock and a hard place. They were two mythological sea monsters that guarded the Straits of Messina, one that crushed ships against the rocks, the other that sank them in a whirlpool.]

Proofread by LNL, Oct. 2020