Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

British Romantic Melancholia: Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, Medical Discourse and the Problem of Sensibility

Academic journal article Journal of European Studies

British Romantic Melancholia: Charlotte Smith's Elegiac Sonnets, Medical Discourse and the Problem of Sensibility

Article excerpt

In the context of increasing British discomfort with the cult of sensibility in the 1790s, medical writers redefined the profile of the melancholic as a highly rational, rather than emotional, literary man. Charlotte Smith's representation of melancholia in her Elegiac Sonnets returns to the mid-eighteenth-century understanding of the illness, which portrayed the melancholic as a person of both sensibility and rationality. In her attempt to claim melancholia and its association with literary genius, Smith profoundly influenced the content of what was to be called Romantic poetry.

Keywords: Charlotte Smith; medicine and literature; melancholia; Romanticism; sensibility

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Werther's suicide resulting from unrequited love in the wildly popular 1779 English translation of Johann Wolfgang yon Goethe's novel The Sorrows of Young Werther; the death of Manfred, the tortured melancholic of Lord Byron's play; and the ultimately redeeming melancholia in William Wordsworth's The Prelude, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Dejection: An Ode', and John Keats's 'Ode on Melancholy'--the portrayal of melancholia in these and other literary works made the condition, as Guinn Batten points out, almost synonymous with British Romanticism (Batten, 1998: 10). (1) In this essay I hope to demonstrate the ways in which close attention to the poetry of Romantic-era writer Charlotte Smith (1749-1806), deepens and complicates our understanding of Romantic melancholy. In an insightful and comprehensive introduction to her recent anthology, The Nature of Melancholy, Jennifer Radden (2000) asserts: 'the man of melancholy in Romantic writing was, like the suffering Werther, all feeling, all sensibility' (30). While the equation of melancholia and sensibility would seem to hold for Werther and for a legion of Byronic heroes, for Romantic-era women writers the relationship between melancholia and sensibility had significant complications. In this essay I argue that together the politicization of sensibility and medical accounts of melancholia at the end of the eighteenth century posed sharply gendered challenges for women poets who wished to express melancholia.

During the time that Charlotte Smith wrote her Elegiac Sonnets (1784-97), medical writers struggled to redefine melancholia in response to British culture's increasing discomfort with emotional extremes. Early--and mid-eighteenth-century medical portraits of melancholics had emphasized both their refined sensibility and their extraordinary rational capability. By the 1780s and 1790s medical writers began to associate melancholia with excessive rationality, thus side-stepping any connection to the increasingly feminized and problematic cult of sensibility. Male poets of the period were able to move easily between the medical definition and the literary tradition of melancholia because both were symptomatic of rationality and intelligence for men; both led to literary authority. In contrast, women poets who invoked the literary tradition of melancholia ran the risk of being culturally disempowered by medical definitions of women's nervous illnesses or by an association with unfeminine reason.

In the light of melancholia's cultural complications for women, this essay, then, begs the question, 'Why would a female poet represent melancholia at all?' The very vagueness of melancholia, captured in William Buchan's 1798 description of it as 'Proteus-like ... continually changing shape' (Buchan, 1798: 420), made the illness a useful site for working out the gender, social, and political issues of each age. The male melancholic genius, sketched by Aristotle in his Problems and more fully described in Marcilio Ficino's On Life (1489), is a figure, Juliana Schiesari argues, useful for transforming loss into masculine cultural power (Schiesari, 1992: 29). As Robert Burton's excessive verbal performance in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) demonstrates, the cultural power associated with melancholia is specifically linked to command of language. …

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