Michelle Faubert, Rhyming Reason

Michelle Faubert, Rhyming Reason: The Poetry of Romantic-Era Psychologists, The Enlightenment World: Political and Intellectual History of the Long Eighteenth Century Series (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2009), 304 pp. £60.00 hb, ISBN 9781851969555

In Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, Hunter and Macalpine noted the curiosity that many eighteenth- and nineteenth-century psychiatric physicians wrote verse. They also noted that such verse was mostly ‘minor and long forgotten’. Michelle Faubert, in Rhyming Reason: The Poetry of Romantic-Era Psychologists, seeks to challenge this. She begins with an interesting premise. Taking eleven doctors of the period, including Erasmus Darwin, James Beattie, Thomas Beddoes and Thomas Brown, she claims that as poets, they ‘can be viewed as a distinct group’ (xi) because of their broadly similar medical understanding and humanitarian principles, the roots of which she traces to their training in the medical schools of the Scottish Enlightenment. Beyond this, she posits their conscious choice of verse ‘as a means of disseminating knowledge about their field, delivering psychological therapy, or guiding the reader in accordance with psychological principles’ (2). Through this, Faubert claims her study encourages a re-evaluation of both Foucault and Romantic literary criticism. In addition, she intends to ‘trouble the accepted critical narrative about the literary expression of nerve theory in the culture of sensibility’. And finally, she offers ‘the means of reframing the history of psychology through its literary expression’ (7).

These are grand claims. To substantiate them one needs not only a Porter-like grasp of the history of medicine, but a profound understanding of the literature of the period. Faubert has undoubtedly read widely – her bibliography may be a useful starting point for new readers – but her copious use of secondary material is more illustrative than analytical. Any reader with an interest in this field will not need to be told, as Faubert does at some length, of the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment, nor will new readers learn much from her oddly flattened account which gives the impression that all Scottish Enlightenment thinkers shared identical beliefs and were uninfluenced by intellectual advances in Europe (she is puzzled by a reference to the university of Leiden). She is unable to explain that an important reason why Scottish medical schools outshone their English counterparts was the independence of the former from the established church.

However, the central omission of the book is of any discussion of the discourse of the soul. How was mental illness explained while there was a consensus that the immortal soul was somehow contained within the body? What, therefore, were the implications of Thomas Willis’s insistence that the soul was contained solely within the brain? She takes no account of theological debates of the period, and is seemingly unaware that at least one of her subjects, Nathanial Cotton, was a fervent Evangelical. It would have been genuinely interesting to consider his influence as such on his patient, William Cowper. In singling out her chosen subjects for their ‘democratic’ endeavours to disseminate practical information about health to the labouring classes, she omits Buchan’s Domestic Medicine, and makes only a passing reference to Wesley’s much-reprinted Primitive Physic.

Faubert uses the terms ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Romantic’ of various physicians, but without pointing out the crucial sea-change in medical understanding in the 1790s, when a new breed of medical materialists, including Erasmus Darwin, rejected the notion of the immaterial soul. ‘Mind’, ‘brain’ and ‘soul’ therefore need to be used with a sharp awareness of their changing usages. This is something that Faubert does not do. Similar care needs to be taken with other terms whose meanings have subtly shifted, such as ‘literature’ and ‘science’ and indeed ‘psychologist’.

Thus we come to the coinage of the label ‘psychologist-poet’ for the men of her study. Neil Vickers has recently traced the English adoption of ‘psychology,’ in the sense of examination of the workings of the unconscious mind, to the late 1790s to the intense interest of Beddoes and Coleridge in Kant (whom Beddoes translated) and German Naturphilosophie. Faubert is less precise: she uses ‘psychology’ as a catch-all for anything whatsoever to do with the mind. More worryingly, she presents her ‘psychologist-poet’ anachronistically as a kind of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century psychotherapist with ‘leftish’ leanings and a penchant for writing light verse.

In a curious misreading, Cheyne becomes the exemplar of an unnamed gang of ‘snobbish celebrity nerve-doctors and ivory-tower Humean sceptics’ (22). He is the straw man of this account, making repeated entrances as a shameless toady in contrast to Faubert’s chosen subjects, who all are said to have favoured ‘egalitarian’ principles. Anita Guerrini’s excellent 1999 study of Cheyne, which does not appear in the bibliography, would swiftly counter this crude view.

Faubert devotes surprisingly little space to the verse itself. There is a certain charm to some of the quoted extracts, such as Nathaniel Cotton’s jolly satire on the doctors of ‘Warwick-lane’:

The thoughtful Doctor feels your Pulse,
(No matter whether Mead or Hulse)
Writes – Arabic to you and me , -
Then signs his Hand, and takes his fee (45)

For the most part, however, the verse appears commonplace and Faubert’s explication heavy-handed. When, for example, Thomas Bakewell celebrates the cheering effect of writing poetry (‘When piercing heart-felt griefs invade,/ My muse often lends her cheering aid’), Faubert comments: ‘Here, Bakewell establishes not only that his verse has a therapeutic psychological function by claiming its ability to cure melancholy (“griefs”) or “the spleen” but, by asserting that it can cure both ailments in himself, he further establishes a link of common humanity between himself and the reader. In several ways, then, Bakewell performs his identity as a moral manager’ (92).

There is much of potential interest in the figures Faubert presents. Beattie’s poetry clearly influenced the first generation of Romantic poets, and further scholarship on Thomas Beddoes can only be welcomed. But as a study, this book lacks substance. Faubert would have done better to trace the changing medical understanding of conditions that were eventually to become labelled as ‘psychological’: hypochondria, melancholia, hysteria – the so-called ‘nervous’ illnesses. As to the poetry itself: it seems to be doomed to remain ‘minor and long forgotten’.

Jane Darcy, King’s College London

Michelle Faubert replies:

I am thankful to John Holmes, the Review Editor at BSLS, for offering me this opportunity to respond to Jane Darcy’s review of my book.  No one will be surprised that I’m disturbed by it, not least because I fear being unfairly judged by those who will only read the review and not the book itself, given the errors and misreadings in the review.  This response will delineate a few of those errors.

To begin with, Darcy writes, “the central omission of the book is of any discussion of the discourse of the soul,” and, later, “‘Mind’, ‘brain’ and ‘soul’ . . . need to be used with a sharp awareness of their changing usages.”  Darcy is erroneous in her delineation of the supposed omissions of my book.  I quote just one passage from Rhyming Reason that proves my point: “This social focus is the last stage in the transformation of the soul as a private, incommunicable phenomenon into the object of study called the mind, a process that would eventually see the term ‘moral philosophy’ replaced with ‘psychology’ by the end of the Romantic period.  Reed notes of the early nineteenth century that ‘psychology had more or less abandoned the soul and replaced it with the mind.  Nevertheless ... most psychologists still expected this science of the mind to reinforce important religious beliefs’” (41).

Darcy: “In a curious misreading, Cheyne becomes the exemplar of an unnamed gang of ‘snobbish celebrity nerve-doctors and ivory-tower Humean sceptics’ (22).”  Darcy takes this phrase from a passage in which I do not mention Cheyne; by applying it as a whole to him, she accuses me of calling Cheyne a “Humean sceptic,” which even a cursory reading would show is far from the truth.  Moreover, if the idea that Cheyne was a “snobbish celebrity nerve-doctor” is a “misreading,” it is one with a worthy lineage.  One of my sources for this reading is none other than Roy Porter, whom Darcy holds up as the standard against which I am judged early in the review.  For the Cheyne reference in Porter’s work, please see “The Rage of Party: A Glorious Revolution in English Psychiatry?” (Medical History: A Quarterly Journal Devoted to the History of Medicine and Related Sciences 27 (1983): 35-50); on pages 42-3 of that article, Porter identifies Cheyne as part of a “clutch of fashionable psychiatric doctors.”  In short, Darcy does not take issue with my scholarship here, but Roy Porter’s, and others (like John Mullan in Sentiment and Sociability: The Language of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988; please see page 203 for his description of Cheyne as a “celebrity nerve-doctor”).

Darcy again: “She takes no account of theological debates of the period, and is seemingly unaware that at least one of her subjects, Nathanial Cotton, was a fervent Evangelical. It would have been genuinely interesting to consider his influence as such on his patient, William Cowper.”  In fact, almost my entire discussion of James Beattie’s psychological poetry concerns how it contributes to the theological debate about skepticism and “infidelity” (63), as Beattie called the loss of faith.  As for her concern that I do not consider the “genuinely interesting” topic of Cotton’s influence on Cowper, I am delighted that she would find my book so pleasing if she had read it closely.  About this topic, I write, “our knowledge about his psychological approach depends upon evidence in his poetry and in letters written by his most famous patient, William Cowper, who resided in Cotton’s madhouse during his second period of mental illness, from December 1763 to 17 June 1765. Cowper describes his treatment under the psychologist-poet in a way that confirms that Cotton identified cure of his patients’ minds with the cure of their souls, their faith” (42).  I go on to detail how Cotton’s psychology was entirely based on his desire to spread Christian belief – obviously an evangelical desire – and to discuss Cowper’s response to his treatment (43).  This discussion, I suggest, more than answers Darcy’s complaint that my study does not “consider [Cotton’s] . . . influence on his patient.”  I may add here that I do not discuss Cowper’s poetry at length – although Darcy does not call for it – because I have eleven other poets to describe and many of these totally unknown to most readers.  Since Cowper has been so thoroughly studied already, I leave the reader to her own conjectures about how Cotton’s religious psychological approach affected his verse.  Perhaps Darcy could write an article about this topic.

Darcy: “care needs to be taken with other terms whose meanings have subtly shifted, such as . . . ‘psychologist’.”  Early in my introduction, in fact, I begin the discussion for which she calls: “The issue of the proper terminology for early doctors of the mind is highly contentious. Roy Porter explains that the word ‘psychiatry’ was used by the late eighteenth century and Allen Thiher confirms that the German Dr J. C. Reil (1759-1813) gave us the word ‘psychiatry’ – although it seems rather unlikely that the German document in which this information appeared would so immediately become known to, and its contents and terminology so quickly adopted by, British medical professionals. Edward Shorter confirms that the term only originated in 1808 with Reil’s work and adds that ‘The use of the new term spread rather slowly’, even in Germany.  We can safely assume, then, that Romantic-era doctors of the mind were not called ‘psychiatrists’ in England.  Yet, in their seminal work, Three Hundred Years of Psychiatry, 1535-1860, Hunter and Macalpine use ‘psychiatry’ and its variants to refer to all doctors of the mind, including those who practiced before the nineteenth century.  They embrace in this vast compendium of major figures throughout ‘three-hundred years of psychiatry’ such figures as Thomas Beddoes the elder, a doctor who never consulted with the insane” (8).  I would call this discussion in my book, and others like it, “care” for my terms.

One more criticism from the review, this one truly mysterious in its origins: “(she is puzzled by a reference to the university of Leiden).”  This comment is totally unsubstantiated.  How and where in my book do I seem “puzzled” about the University of Leiden?  In none of the three instances in which I mention Leiden do I say anything that might give rise to this odd conjecture.  At one point, I write that some “may be surprised at Cotton’s [religious] methods, given his medical tutelage at Leiden under the empiricist Boerhaave” (43), but Darcy must have skimmed the passage very quickly indeed to if she assumes that the word “surprise” in this passage refers to my reaction to the University of Leiden.

I could go on, but I hope I have shown the faults of this review sufficiently.  Darcy ends it by writing what she thinks my book should have been about: “Faubert would have done better to trace the changing medical understanding of conditions that were eventually to become labelled as ‘psychological’: hypochondria, melancholia, hysteria – the so-called ‘nervous’ illnesses.”  I invite her to write such a monograph.  I, however, never intended to write about her subject.  I intended to write about eleven virtually unknown Romantic-era doctors of the mind, their poetry, and their psychological approaches; this subject did not afford me the freedom to describe her topic, if I had cared to do so.

Michelle Faubert, University of Manitoba

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