Helen Maria Williams, "Sensibility" (1786) lns. 1-24

In Sensibility's lov'd praise
I tune my trembling reed;
And seek to deck her shrine with bays,
On which my heart must bleed!

No cold exemption from her pain
I ever wish'd to know;
Cheer'd with her transport, I sustain
Without complaint her woe.

Above whate'ver content can give,
Above the charm of ease,
The restless hopes, and fears that live
With her, have power to please.

Where but for her, were Friendship's power
To heal the wounded heart,
To shorten sorrow's ling'ring hour,
And bid its gloom depart?

'Tis she that lights the melting eye
With looks to anguish dear;
She knows the price of ev'ry sigh,
The value of a tear.

She prompts the tender marks of love
Which words can scarce express;
The heart alone their force can prove,
And feel how much they bless.

One must wonder how the Helen Maria Williams who was imprisoned in France during the Terror (where she began her translation of Paul and Virginia) thought back on the Helen Maria Williams of "Sensibility." This ode drips in the platitudes of sensibility -- the soothing powers, the transports, the "value of a tear" -- that must have seemed naive in light of the brutalities of the revolution. By 1786 we have come a long way from Lady Bradsheigh's questioning of Richardson on the definition of "sensibility"; here the ethic seems nearly pellucid, perhaps even cartoonishly simple. Perhaps most interesting in this definition poem is an understanding of sensibility as a force beyond language, of something "Which words can scarce express." We also notice the a masochistic turn at certain point that is highlighted later in the gothic: on the shrine of sensibility the poet must bleed and the "restless hopes, and fears that live/ With her [sensibility], have power to please."

Related terms:

a dictionary of sensibility
term list
source bibliography
critical bibliography