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Five Questions: James Whitehead on Madness and the Romantic Poet

James Whitehead is a Lecturer in English Literature at Liverpool John Moores University; he is also correspondent for the Hazlitt Society and The Hazlitt Review and a former lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary.  His major interests include Romanticism and its legacies; psychiatry and mental illness in nineteenth-, twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature; and autobiographical and biographical life-writing.  These interests all combine in his first monograph, Madness and the Romantic Poet: A Critical History, which was published earlier this year by Oxford University Press and which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in the putative links between Romantic creativity and madness?

The book began some years ago as an undergraduate essay.  I still have it somewhere written out longhand, which tells you how old it is!  At that point I was probably more of a callow enthusiast for the idea of ‘mad genius’, but even as I wrote about it then, and tried to assess Cowper, Smart, Blake, Clare, etc. on those terms, I think I realised that a more sceptical and historically defined account might be in order.  (I never finished that essay to my satisfaction.)  When I returned to academia and was formulating a PhD proposal, I was surprised to find nothing comprehensive on the topic; in addition to which Dino Felluga’s Perversity of Poetry, which set out several useful lines of interpretation and argument that I wanted to extend, had just been published, as had the unabridged translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, at last (this was in 2006).  So the timing seemed right.

2) You write in your introduction about the dangers of perpetuating ‘a cycle of endorsement and denial’ when discussing poets and madness.  How did you come to fix upon the form you describe in your subtitle as ‘critical history’ as a means for escaping this cycle?

From the moment of formulating the book as a PhD topic, I always imagined it as a reception study: a study of the posthumous mythologizing of the lives and writings of the relevant Romantic poets.  But I didn’t want it to be just a dismissive debunking of this mythologizing (that would be the ‘denial’).  For a start, that wasn’t really necessary on a case by case basis, because of the amount of information easily available about these canonical writers.  I doubt that anyone who has read any amount at all of Shelley or Blake, for example, and certainly any modern biography and criticism on them, is going to straightforwardly dismiss or celebrate them as simply ‘mad’ any more, although this did once happen in spades, as the book shows.  At the same time I felt that a lot of general critical writing on literature and madness still vaguely assented to or gestured towards the ‘mad genius’ or ‘mad poet’ idea, without really examining it as the product of particular historical moments or discourses (that would be the ‘endorsement’).  In terms of Romantic studies specifically, I also wanted to strike a balance between acknowledging some of the ideologically constructed aspects of canonical Romanticism or ‘Romantic genius’ and providing an account of its real continuing appeal and productivity as a category and idea, rather than making it a bad object to be violently ejected, which recent scholarship has sometimes tended to do; so again, neither endorsing or denying.  ‘Critical history’ is a pun, of a sort, with which I wanted to convey a sense that the book is a sceptical history, critical of the myth from the beginning, but also that it is (in one small way) a history of the critical; of critical assumptions and practices specifically developed around Romantic writers, but also wired into the later construction or study of ‘English’ generally.  In many ways it’s a book about how hard it can be to escape such assumptions once they set in.

3) What would you identify as being the most important forms and discourses that fed into the nineteenth-century construction of the figure of the Romantic mad poet?

For me, they are undoubtedly: periodical reviews and reviewing; literary biography; and pop psychology about genius, in its nineteenth-century manifestations in medical writing.  Each of these gets a chapter, and each concatenates with the others.  Early reviews fed into periodical sketches, and thence biographies; biography provided data-sets for later (pseudo) medical studies; and medical writing had originally provided many of the diagnostic attitudes and ideas that underpinned the reviewers’ rhetoric of madness.  The modern form of the ancient idea of ‘poetic madness’ (furor poeticus) was the product of reviewers, and the new persona of the ‘mad poet’ (the old vesanus poeta) was the product of biographers.  And the last part of the book, chronologically, discusses writing about degenerate genius from the fin de siècle, which I came to see as the unholy alliance of journalism, life-writing, and popular science (the book gives a more detailed summary about how these discursive domains fit together on pages 207–8.)  Again, this pattern seemed compelling to me in the ways that it foreshadowed the piecemeal combination of formal scrutiny from the perspective of the reviewer, the assessment of ‘life and mind’ from the perspective of the biographer, and the systematic elaboration on the nature of the imagination or creativity from the perspective of the scientist or theorist, that characterizes so much later literary critical practice.

4) Do you think that madness, properly contextualised, deserves to continue to occupy an important place in modern conceptions of Romantic artistry, or would you argue for its decentring or reformulation?

Well, while I hope the book provides some new information or a new frame for thinking about the connection between Romantic poetry or creativity and madness, as it was discussed across the nineteenth century and beyond, by writers who mostly were not poets themselves, I can’t pretend that I offer much here that is new on the real nature of literary creativity or poetic artistry.  Because it is mostly a reception study, it is limited to epiphenomena, which may not say anything at all about this, indeed.  However, I think it does raise some interesting questions about whether any conception of ‘Romanticism’ has always been a constellation of reactions and receptions, as well as of primary texts.  And one of the consequences of moving Foucault’s ‘great confinement’ of unreason from physical institutions in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries into cultural institutions and symbolic forms of confinement in the nineteenth century (a necessary move following various critiques of Foucault, and one which I hope the book partly effects) is that Romantic madness cannot then simply be a ‘lightning flash’ of reaction and protest (Foucault’s characterization) against Enlightenment reason: it comes before the real ‘great confinement’.  So Romanticism and its associated stereotypes of madness come to be seen not just as reactions to but as auguries of instrumental rationalism; as part of the powerful processes of conformity and control in modernity where rebellion and deviance from norms are accommodated or projected onto special classes of homines sacri.  But obviously, and more plainly, a genuine openness and willingness to admit the irrational, non-rational, or anti-rational remains an important and enduring part of why we (and I) value the great poetry of this period, and I don’t think I’ve even begun to sound this out fully.  So I hope to continue thinking about this question!

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I have two other ongoing larger projects, although neither of them is really new, and neither is about Romanticism.  There is a sequel of sorts to this book in the form of a monograph, in Liverpool University Press’s Representations: Health, Disability, Culture and Society series, which addresses the representation of schizophrenia in twentieth-century culture.  It’s a sequel in so far as it picks up from where Madness and the Romantic Poet’s account of the modern mythologizing of the connection between madness and creativity ends, in the fin de siècle, and explores how this mythologizing continued into the twentieth century, in divergent ideas about (supposed) schizophrenia or the schizophrenic, and especially in the appropriation of these ideas by modernism and other avant-garde movements.  My other project is amends for writing so much about cultural myths of madness: a book about actual mental illness, and a history of how its experience is communicated in autobiographical accounts.  As a Romanticist, along with the usual teaching, I do practical things for the Hazlitt Society, and continue to think about Romantic prose writing and literary criticism in particular.