Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism

Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism

Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism

Reading with John Clare: Biopoetics, Sovereignty, Romanticism


Reading with John Clare argues that at the heart of contemporary biopolitical thinking is an insistent repression of poetry. By returning to the moment at which biopolitics is said to emerge simultaneously with romanticism, this project renews our understanding of the operations of contemporary politics and its relation to aesthetics across two centuries.

Guyer focuses on a single, exemplary case: the poetry and autobiographical writing of the British poet John Clare (1793-1864). Reading Clare in combination with contemporary theories of biopolitics, Guyer reinterprets romanticism's political legacies, specifically the belief that romanticism is a direct precursor to the violent nationalisms and redemptive environmentalisms of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Guyer offers an alternative account of many of romanticism's foundational concepts, like home, genius, creativity, and organicism. She shows that contemporary critical theories of biopolitics, despite repeatedly dismissing the aesthetic or poetic dimensions of power as a culpable ideology, emerge within the same rhetorical tradition as the romanticism they denounce. The book thus compels a rethinking of the biopolitical critique of poetry and an attendant reconsideration of romanticism and its concepts.


In his last lecture of 1975–76, Michel Foucault focused on “power’s hold over life,” and in particular the emergence in the nineteenth century of sovereignty as a power over life, rather than death, sovereignty as “the right to make live and let die.” As Foucault explains in the History of Sexuality, “The old power of death that symbolized sovereign power was now carefully supplanted by the administration of bodies and the calculated management of life,” two “techniques” that Foucault identifies not in philosophy but “in the form of concrete arrangements.” Foucault’s insight has opened up the epoch of biopower, providing the terms and frames though which everything from sexuality to human rights can been understood as occurring in the aftermath of this shift in the very significance of life itself.

British (and French) poets writing at more or less the same time as the planners and statisticians Foucault considers—that is, from the late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries—might also be understood to register a new significance of life itself. As Denise Gigante has argued in Life: Organic Form and Romanticism, a preoccupation with life—in her case, understood as organicism, vitality, or nature—binds the poets we typically call romantic. For Gigante, the romantics were writers (like the scientists who are their contemporaries) “committed to defining and representing the incalculable, uncontrollable—often capricious, always ebullient—power of vitality.” This is a power that the poets also sought to categorize, calculate, and manage, if not through new forms of record keeping and sanitation then through new uses of older tropes and figures and a new conception of the meaning and life of poetry. Taken literally, poetry can be understood as another of the “concrete arrangements” or “techniques” of power for the management of life, another site of the power over life, like vaccination or the variety of emergent forms of public health to which he alludes. This is true in both a thematic and a strategic sense: Literature of the period takes the power over . . .

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