James Robert Allard, Romanticism, Medicine, and the Poet’s Body

James Robert Allard, Romanticism, Medicine, and the Poet’s Body, The Nineteenth Century Series (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007). 174 pp. £50 hb. ISBN 0-7546-5891-7.

(BSLS members receive a discount on all Ashgate titles)

James Allard’s title promises much: a consideration of the poet’s body in Romanticism no less. When one looks inside the book one finds that Romanticism is defined as ‘the Romantic Century’ (1750-1850), a piece of critical imperialism similar to the more long-standing concept of the ‘long eighteenth century’. This stretching of traditional period boundaries is no bad thing, as it forces dialogue between literary-critical ‘camps’ that have traditionally inhabited often dissimilar cultures of expression and interpretation.

Allard’s approach to his chosen period appears to be driven by a Foucauldian agenda: it ends when the clinic, which we can take to be the newly formed authority of the medical establishment, is well and truly born by 1850, and begins with a stress, more peculiar to Allard (via Roy Porter) than Foucault, on the importance of anatomical studies after 1750, particularly in the empirical work of the Hunter brothers in London. Allard finds that issues of medical authority mesh, not always evenly, with those of literary identity throughout this rise of medicine as a science apparently grounded in anatomical observation.

The central question of this book seems to be: ‘what did literary and medical authors of this period mean when they use the word “body”?’ (2). Allard argues that ‘what remains to be explored in detail are Romantic notions about the human body itself, about the body as “field” and “product” of Romantic medicine and as “object” and “subject” of Romantic literature’ (2). It must be said that these issues have not exactly gone unexplored before (as Allard’s following literature review demonstrates), but nonetheless they are ongoing and certainly can use more detailed exploration.

In order to address these problems, the book divides into two main sections: ‘Romantic(izing) Bodies’ and ‘Embodying Romanticism’. The shorter first section, intended as a contextual basis for the second, has two chapters, the first providing a survey of Romantic medicine as it relates to the body, and the second analysing the poetic ‘battlefields’ (15) of the body as manifested in Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads and Joanna Baillie’s ‘Introductory Discourse’ to Plays on the Passions.

The second section has three chapters that select authors because of their status as ‘Poet-Physician’ – although the book does not deal purely with poetry -, or at least exposure to medical training. This decision to keep the poets tied to some form of medical education looks arbitrary and narrows the scope of the book considerably – if not thematically and in terms of gender, then certainly regarding the most influential poets of the period. True, we have Wordsworth and Keats, but to live up to the title some engagement with the Shelleys and Coleridge, not to mention Charlotte Smith and Felicia Hemans, is needed. Chapter Three takes John Thelwall, former student at Guy’s Hospital in London, and reads his Essay on Animal Vitality (1793) against The Peripatetic; or, Sketches of the Heart, Nature and Society, also published in 1793. Chapter Four homes in on John Keats, the most famous poet-physician of all, and examines the Hyperion poems ‘as Keats’s most sustained engagements with the nature of authority and the clearest manifestations of body consciousness in his writings’ (16). This chapter eschews a reading of Keats’s medical notes and their influence on the poems, but chooses to examine the anxieties inherent in Keats’s position as a poet-physician and the way in which others (both friends and critics) chose to place him. The final chapter interestingly picks out Thomas Lovell Beddoes (son of Dr Thomas Beddoes, encountered in the first section of the book, and Anna Beddoes, sister of Maria Edgeworth) and his Death’s Jest-Book; or, The Fool’s Tragedy (published in 1850 after his suicide, but begun in 1825). Beddoes’ suicide seems to be at least partly the product of his attempts to transcend the physical body and his failure in the poetic one.

There is much of local interest in the readings of individual works in each chapter.  Allard is strongest when engaging with the less well-known (or at least taught) texts, like those of Baillie, Thelwall and Lovell Beddoes. The Keats chapter’s conclusions are not exactly surprising and sometimes unwieldy in expression: ‘we see imaginative sympathy as a fundamental characteristic of the Poet-Physician and it would thus seem that one of the side-effects of the ability to feel imaginative sympathy is the need for the Poet-Physician to share the authority to author his identity with the sufferer, for without suffering, particularly the suffering of others, he cannot exercise imaginative sympathy’ (107). Nevertheless, Allard does negotiate usefully between the competing representations of the body (Hyperion, Moneta, the other Titans) in the Hyperion poems. It would have been helpful to have had a female poet and a female poetic persona – Mary Tighe/Psyche? – to contrast gendered concepts of ‘body consciousness’ at this point, but Allard’s rubric inevitably excludes women in this section.

There are some unfortunate problems with the textual body of this book, as it were: as early as page two the font size changes between footnotes 7 and 8; on page 104 we find mention of ‘Hyperion”s identity’, and that is not the only occasion in which a double apostrophe substitutes for a single (possessive) one; on page 105 even the words of Keats are treated to inaccurate punctuation (‘snuff, d’ [sic]). Ashgate is doing a good job of publishing academic work, and for that we should all be grateful, but it does need to keep an eye on quality control, especially technical faults as visible as these. In terms of the more important question of intellectual content, James Allard has made an interesting, if flawed, contribution to the ever-expanding field of literature and medicine in the apparently ever-expanding Romantic period.

Clark Lawlor, Northumbria University

Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *