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Poetic Madness and the Reception of British Romanticism 1800-1870

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

This thesis examines nineteenth century writing that linked poetry and poets to madness, including journalism, criticism, biography, medical literature, and poetry itself. Its purpose, more specifically, is to offer an account of the development and dissemination of the idea of ‘the mad poet of genius’, and how this idea interacted with the varying fortunes in reception and reputation of some British poets, their works, and conceptions of Romanticism generally.
The first part provides an account of the most important contexts for the subject, including: the currency of popular myths on the topic, the relevance (or otherwise) of later study on madness and creativity, and the existing critical and scholarly literature in English studies, which lacks a historical account of the sort provided here. The next part deals with reception, broadly conceived, discussing the Romantic conversation with classical and early modern ideas about poetic madness, attitudes towards the creative and literary mind in the mental medicine of the period, then contemporary reviews of new poets and the hostile rhetoric of insanity they deployed, showing how this both increased the popularity of and stigmatized the mad poet. It then analyses madness in life writing, moving from early brief lives and popular anthologies of the ‘infirmities of genius’ to the larger narratives of irrationality in Victorian literary biography.
In conclusion, the thesis briefly returns to three poets and their poetry in particular: William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Clare. It discusses how these writers contributed to, or interwove with their own life and art, new and rediscovered mythologies of poetic madness; anticipating and resisting the public images of journalism or biography described previously. Finally, the ‘mad poet of genius’ is considered in relation to the position of canonical Romanticism in English literature, and the idea’s cultural trajectory and afterlife is suggested.
Original languageEnglish
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Thesis sponsors
Award dateJan 2011

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