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John Stuart Mill's evaluations of poetry and their influence upon his intellectual development Shaw, MiIlo Rundle Thompson


The education of John Stuart Mill was one of the most unusual ever planned or experienced. Beginning with his learning Greek at the age of three and continuing without a break of any kind to the age of fourteen, it constituted an almost total control of Mill's every waking activity, with the important exception of his visit to France at fourteen, until his appointment to the East India Company in 1823. It emphasized the "tabula rasa" theory, the effect of external circumstances on the developing mind, Hartley's Associationist theory, and the judicious use of the Utilitarian theories of the "pleasure-pain" principle. Conceived and carried out by Mill's father, James Mill, and his close friend, the Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham, the education was planned to develop John Stuart Mill as their disciple, reasoner, and advocate who would help the advance of the Utilitarian philosophy. Dependent on John Stuart Mill's native intelligence and docility, this carefully planned education was unusually successful, but it was successful at the price of Mill's emotional development. Mill's education was so much a part of his life that the development of his thought cannot be understood without some appreciation of its nature. A biographical approach is essential to an understanding of Mill. This is particularly true of the development of his poetic theory which itself was developed in a response to his efforts to integrate his views of poetry with his former philosophy. His interest in poetry derived from the time of his mental crisis in 1826, when he discovered that his preoccupation with the improvement of mankind did not provide him with the emotional satisfaction that his personal life demanded. Wordsworth's poetry, with its emphasis on the restorative powers of external nature, its sensitivity to human feelings, and its adherence to observed truths and quiet, contemplative moods, was so suited to Mill's temperament and situation that his reading it marked one of the great turning points in his life. After reading Wordsworth, Mill recovered his spirits, and not only recaptured his enjoyment of life, but also acquired a life-long devotion to poetry. Mill's poetic views were an outgrowth of his experience with Wordsworth's poetry and his desire to integrate all new ideas into his philosophy. Responding to Wordsworth's view that the feeling expressed in a poem gives importance to the action and situation, Mill placed his greatest emphasis on feeling as the essential characteristic of poetry. He agreed with Wordsworth that poetry is spontaneous, and that the thought in a poem is subordinate to the feeling. He explained the latter in terms of Hartley's Associationism. His lifelong concern for truth found its justification in his insistence that the object of poetry was to convey truthfully the feelings to which the poem gives expression. However, his poetic views were much narrower than Wordsworth's inasmuch as he neglected the imagination, and he excluded fiction from poetry in his unusual emphasis on identifying poetry with the lyric. In his efforts to integrate his poetic theory with his philosophical views, Mill followed Wordsworth's thinking that poetry is the opposite of science, and by emphasizing that the common purpose of science and poetry was their devotion to truth, Mill saw their unity in his conception of the complementary nature of their methods of conveying truth, the one by logic and the other by intuition. Mill's poetic theory tended to be narrow in the light of its overemphasis on feeling, its insistence on confining the word, poetry, to the lyric alone, and its relative devaluation of the imagination. Nevertheless, with its Wordsworthian overtones and its sense of purpose, it was essentially a Romantic theory. Its contention that the highest truths are intuitively known by the poet or artist underlined Mill's attempt to find a union of science and art in a devotion to truth.

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