James Whitehead, Madness and the Romantic Poet: A Critical History (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2017) 320 pp. £55 Hb. ISBN: 9780198733706
For hundreds of years, scholars, writers, and mental health professionals have debated, discussed, endorsed, rebuked, or reveled in, associations between madness and creativity, specifically between madness and poets. Is the relationship correlational, or causational? Does poetry cause madness, or vice versa? Are our efforts to understand past accounts of poets and their madness anachronistic or otherwise inadequate? In what ways have our glorified mythologies of mad poets, or our ever-evolving cultural and scientific understandings and perceptions of 'madness' and 'creativity' influenced the ongoing debate? In an attempt to make sense of the relationship between madness and poetry, they have explicated poems, combed biographies, conducted studies, and applied various and sundry psychological and psychiatric theory, all with fascinating analyses which result in claims that are far from definitive and occasionally oversimplify, or under-represent, aspects of the discussion. James Whitehead's recent monograph, Madness and the Romantic Poet: A Critical History, situates the public image of the 'Romantic mad poet' in the context of this debate: '[It] offers an account of how a group of associated ideas about poetic "genius", creativity, the imagination, and mental disorder gathered around the British writers who came to be canonized as "the Romantic poets"' (1).
Whitehead's text does not offer its readers definitive answers to any of the above questions about creativity and madness; rather, Whitehead seeks to deconstruct some previous mistaken notions, complicate others, and provide more accurate representation to certain elements of the debate which may have been neglected, as he notes: 'debunking is one goal of this book [...] It may sit here alongside other perspectives from critical medical humanities and disability studies[...] which seek to challenge and confront long-recycled cultural assumptions and norms'(9). Further, he notes that the work is not 'fundamentally hostile' to psychological research on the relationship between creativity and mental illness: 'It would be more accurate to characterize this study as agnostic on such claims, or primarily concerned with pointing out their place, often occluded or obscured [...] Here the goal is not so much to debunk as to understand the forced behind the formation of the "myth", and to move beyond a cycle of endorsement or denial' (9-10).
One example of the way in which Whitehead elucidates previously under-represented aspects of the debate occurs in the first two chapters. In Chapter One, Whitehead carefully identifies classical references of various forms and perceptions of madness, tracing their evolution and transference into the Romantic period. Chapter Two explores the status and perception of madness and mad poets in eighteenth-century culture, setting the stage for a rich discussion of the development of those concepts in the Romantic era.
Chapters Three through Five are likely to be of special interest to readers, as those are the chapters which analyze concepts of madness and creativity in the context of the Romantic era itself. Chapter Three, 'Alienists', explores the history of medicine and the evolution of medical thinking during the Romantic era, as Whitehead notes: 'the chapter draws from less familiar writing to demonstrate how trends in medical thinking and practice changed the connotations of madness in the period' (25). Whitehead's discussion of the development of 'moral management', which 'played down the [...] association between madness and animality, and emphasized the human responsibility and potential still alive in the mad man or woman', is enlightening and prepares readers for the elucidating material in Chapter Four (84). In Chapter Four, Whitehead argues that contemporary literary criticism of the Romantic era deployed a 'rhetoric of insanity', which capitalized on theories of moral management to 'align disreputable poetry with disease and disorder' (99). Notably, he effectively argues that this rhetoric is the locus of the 'main force behind the enduring historical momentum of the mad poet figure', (99) and that the integration of pathological rhetoric into literary reviews 'stigmatized and popularized the Romantic mad poet', (25). Chapter Five, then reveals the ways in which biographies of the Romantics, subsequent to the Romantic era, perpetuated the mythology of the 'Romantic mad poet', fueled by the rhetoric of insanity which appeared in literary criticism: 'biographies [...] acted out a similar process to that of the first hostile reviews in constituting the emerging canonical figures of literary Romanticism in the public gaze by exaggerating biographical details [...] and consequently acted as subtler narratives of judgement, moral management, and sequestration' (128).
In Chapter Six, Whitehead examines the ongoing legacy of the association of madness with creativity and genius. In a clever move, he notes that some of this work is based on biographical data about the iconic mad artists which, as he showed in Chapters Four and Five, may offer somewhat skewed depictions: 'Whatever their apparent statistical validity, these studies retain an inescapable connection to the biographical, and assumptions and practices bound up with biographical traditions and practices [...]' (160). Chapter Seven turns to the poets themselves, examining the ways in which they may have interacted with their own public images as mad poets, claiming that they were, 'partly anticipating, partly co-creating, and partly resisting the discourses and stereotypes of medicine, journalism, and biography, or the unholy alliance of the three in the later nineteenth century' (180). In a final and brief conclusion, Whitehead reevaluates 'the importance of the Romantic mad poet' in the broader context of modernity (25).
This text is rich with a wealth of research from primary sources, secondary analyses and literary criticism. It is particularly deft in its dialogue with the work of Foucault and a variety of other notable scholars in the field. That richness, though, does mean that this text is a dense one, unabashedly laden with references and allusions. It is not meant for undergraduates or dilettantes, or perhaps even advanced scholars in tangentially-related fields. In its mission to examine how the mythology of madness coalesced around the British Romantics, this text does a smart painstaking job of debunking and re-contextualizing, and should be incredibly useful to specialized scholars interested in the topic.
Jessica C Hume, University of Louisville