Protean Madness and the Poetic Identities of Smart, Cowper, and Blake
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This thesis offers a comparative analysis of the poetic identities of Christopher Smart (1722-71), William Cowper (1731-1800) and William Blake (1757) in the context of contemporary understandings of madness and changing ideas of personal and spiritual identity from c.1750-1820. Critical attention is focused on the chameleonic status of madness in its various manifestations, of which melancholy, particularly in its religious guise, is particularly important. This thesis adopts an historicist approach that emphasizes poetic voice, and registers a close analysis of the arguments and diction employed in poetry, prose and medical writing associated with eighteenth-century madness. Rather than assuming a pathological status for these poets, I have paid close attention to the way in which madness is represented in the work itself and drawn contrasts with significant contemporary ideas in influential medical discourse. The thesis looks at key long poems including Smart’s Jubilate Agno (written c.1758-63), Cowper’s series of moral satires in Poems (1782), and Blake’s The Four Zoas (written c.1797-1807), as well as some prose writing and letters, all of which contend with issues that underlie the public and medical scrutiny of madness in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the line between madness and strong religious convictions; the relationship between the body and the soul; anxieties about the social order and the national character; and a burgeoning individualism. The argument is attentive to the importance of language in medicine as well as poetry, and analyses the diction employed by several eighteenth century mad-doctors, most notably the St. Luke’s physician, William Battie (1703-1776); the cleric, physician, and poet, Nathaniel Cotton (1707-1788); and the controversial Bethlem apothecary and prolific medical writer, John Haslam (1764-1844). Although historically grounded, the thesis makes connections between the eighteenth-century culture of madness and contemporary understandings of mental disturbance.
AuthorsStern, Richard Paul
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