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Taste: A Literary History

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    What does eating have to do with aesthetic taste? While most accounts of aesthetic history avoid the gustatory aspects of taste, this book rewrites standard history to uncover the constitutive and dramatic tension between appetite and aesthetics at the heart of British literary tradition. From Milton through the Romantics, the metaphor of taste serves to mediate aesthetic judgment and consumerism, gusto and snobbery, gastronomes and gluttons, vampires and vegetarians, as well as the philosophy and physiology of food.

    The author advances a theory of taste based on Milton's model of the human as consumer (and digester) of food, words, and other commodities-a consumer whose tasteful, subliminal self remains haunted by its own corporeality. Radically rereading Wordsworth's feeding mind, Lamb's gastronomical essays, Byron's cannibals and other deviant diners, and Kantian nausea,Tasteresituates Romanticism as a period that naturally saw the rise of the restaurant and the pleasures of the table as a cultural field for the practice of aesthetics.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13305-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  5. 1 Aesthetics and Appetite: An Introduction
    (pp. 1-21)

    Romantic gastronomers, self-proclaimed professors of taste, considered the profoundly physical pleasures of the palate to be the pinnacle of aesthetic appreciation. Various “committees of taste” established in early nineteenthcentury Britain elevated food to the status of the fine arts, adopting the same juridical language and concern with philosophical principles that defined the eighteenth-century discourse of aesthetics. Just as the Enlightenment Man of Taste worked hard to distinguish specific qualities of beauty and to pronounce exact judgments of taste, the Romantic gourmand worked with equal aesthetic imperative to distinguish among different flavors of food.¹ Yet food had never been far from...

  6. 2 Mortal Taste: Milton
    (pp. 22-46)

    That Milton’s Romantic readers should invoke the “taste” of his epic poetry suggests an awareness beyond the anecdotal. For Milton complicates the category of physiological taste in such a way as to set the terms for the emergence of aesthetic taste theory in the early years of the eighteenth century. Milton was not the first to use the termtastein its metaphorical capacity to indicate mental discrimination, but he narrates the tale of “mortal taste” announced in the second line ofParadise Lost,and such critics as Christopher Ricks have noticed his “ruthless and relentless pressure on ‘taste,’ ”...

  7. 3 The Century of Taste: Shaftesbury, Hume, Burke
    (pp. 47-67)

    By the middle of the eighteenth century taste encompassed the fields of art, architecture, landscape, furniture, dress, manners, and eventually gastronomy. As George Colman and Bonnell Thornton remark inThe Connoisseur,a mock-Addisonian journal published from 1754 to 1756, “in this amazing superabundancy of Taste, few can say what it really is, or what the word itself signifies.”¹ Standard histories of the development of the bourgeois public sphere recognize that the political and economic restructurings that took place in the latter part of the seventeenth century realigned civil society as a culture of consumption. “Taste became the vogue” at this...

  8. 4 Digesting Wordsworth
    (pp. 68-88)

    In “Preface toLyrical Ballads,“Wordsworth links taste to feeding when he refers to the faculty of aesthetic discernment as “the great spring of the activity of our minds, and their chief feeder”; on the degree of refinement of this faculty, he claims, “depend our taste and our moral feelings” (PW1:148). For Wordsworth, taste refers to the positive intellectual acts of the imagination, but he prefers the metaphorfeedas a way to revitalize a term whitewashed with too much abstraction.¹ Wordsworth’s most memorable depiction of the feeding mind occurs at the climax ofThe Prelude(at once the...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 Lamb’s Low-Urban Taste
    (pp. 89-116)

    Unlike the transcendental food of Wordsworthian infinity or the inspirational breezes drifting through Coleridge’s “Eolian Harp,” the air that Charles Lamb breathes acquires a “substantial and satisfying” meatiness; his London fog “is also meat and drink at the same time: something between egg-flip andomelette soufflée,but much more digestible than either” (WCL1:351). Taking refuge from the pure diet of high Romanticism, Lamb participates in an urban, early nineteenth-century genre of gastronomical writing in which the literary writer poses as an expert in the “art of eating,” leading public opinion in matters of taste (a topic to which we...

  11. 6 Taste Outraged: Byron
    (pp. 117-138)

    According to Byron’s friend Edward Trelawny, Byron insisted he had no palate, and if Trelawny exaggerates he nevertheless renders visible the extreme to which the poet would go to maintain a studied indifference toward food.¹ Unlike Keats, who supposedly “covered his tongue & throat as far as he could reach with Cayenne pepper, in order as he said to have the ‘delicious coolness of claret in all its glory,’” Byron doused his stale food with vinegar to annihilate whatever taste it had left.² Most critics who have paid any attention to the topic of Byronic food and eating speculate that...

  12. 7 Keats’s Nausea
    (pp. 139-159)

    Keats is known to have as perplexed a relation to the sensory—particularly the savory—as any poet. For Elizabeth Bishop, he was “almost everything a poet should have been in his day,” except, that is, “for his unpleasant insistence on thepalate.”¹ For Carlyle, he was “a miserable creature, hungering after sweets which he can’t get; going about saying, ‘I am so hungry; I should so like something pleasant!’ ”² Yeats portrayed him as a schoolboy with face and nose pressed to a sweet-shop window.³ Critics from the time of Lionel Trilling continue to read him as “possibly unique...

  13. 8 The Gastronome and the Snob: George IV
    (pp. 160-180)

    This literary history of taste concludes with a cultural figure of Regency England, George Augustus Frederick of Hanover, Prince of Wales and later George IV, whose image proliferated in verbal and visual satire of the Romantic era through the Victorian. George Cruikshank caricatured him asThe Prince of Whalesin 1812, and Charles Lamb, picking up the cetacean image (“Not a fatter fish than he / Flounders round the polar sea”) found George to be fitter for classification by “Buffon, Banks, or sage Linnaeus” than the more nuanced social categories of tasteful distinction.¹ In his biography of George inThe...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 181-228)
  15. Index
    (pp. 229-242)