Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Romanticism, Medicine and the Poet's Body

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

Romanticism, Medicine and the Poet's Body

Article excerpt

ROMANTICISM, MEDICINE AND THE POET'S BODY. By James Robert Allard. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007. Pp. viii + 166. ISBN 978 0 7546 5891 7. £50.00.

The aims of this book are to be applauded: since Catherine Gallagher's and Thomas Laqueur's work on this subject we have become aware, in James Robert Allard's words, of 'the nature of our bodies and the various ways our bodies are and have been treated, depicted, and claimed, and more importantly, how such treatments, depictions, and claims rely on anxieties and authorities that we would do well to question and examine'. Allard's objective is to examine the body in what he terms the 'Romantic Century', taking in authors from Wordsworth to Baillie, Thelwall, Keats and Beddoes. The non-canonical nature of many in this collection of poets, dramatists and prose writers is refreshing: Beddoes in particular often finds himself at the margins of discussions of Romanticism, where here, with his medical profession and training, he is placed at its centre.

My favourite chapters are those on Thelwall and Beddoes, who deserve so much more critical attention than they have received in the past. Thelwall attended lectures in anatomy and physiology at Guy's Hospital in London, and in 1793 was invited to speak to the Physical Society there, publishing his talk as An Essay Towards a Definition of Animal Vitality in 1793. In Thelwall, Allard finds what he calls throughout the book 'body consciousness': 'not only an awareness of himself as a physical, embodied being subject to certain laws and a vision of the nation as existing by those same laws, but a conception of politics as embodied in order to be politically effective'. The debate between Edmund Burke and Thelwall, utilising these metaphors, is very interesting. Where Burke talks of 'the distempers of a relaxed fibre [which] prognosticate and prepare all the morbid force of convulsion in the body of the State', Thelwall attacks him on his medical inaccuracies. Thelwall retorts in his Rights of Nature: 'Having exhausted his stock of Newgate wit, the metaphorical Proteus now turns his hand to medicine and surgery, and cures low fevers with amputation and the caustic.' This use in political invective of medical analogy demonstrates how, by being alive to the language of science, we can see a text differently. Allard also find echoes of the essay on 'Animal Vitality' in Thelwall's The Peripatetic and argues that this further solidifies 'the identification of politics and medicine manifested as sensibility'. …

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