News and Commentary from the British Association for Romantic Studies

Applications welcome for new BARS Secretary

The ​Executive Committee of the British Association for Romantic Studies is recruiting a new Secretary.

The Secretary is responsible for the organisation and minuting of face to face and on-line Executive meetings, and serving as the first contact point for the Association. They circulate funding applications to the Executive Committee and liaise with applicants. Members of the Executive Committee are expected to attend three meetings (one at the biennial conference) and contribute to one ‘virtual’ meeting in a two-year cycle.

The post does not carry remuneration but it is an excellent opportunity for an early-career Romanticist to gain valuable experience and skills. 

Informal enquiries about the role should be directed to the outgoing Secretary, Helen Stark ( Applications should be made to the President, Ian Haywood ( and comprise a CV and a statement (up to 300 words) detailing the applicant’s qualification for the role. The start date is negotiable but no later than June 2018. Deadline for applications: 19 Feb 2018.

Call for Papers: Romantic Exchanges, 1760-1840 – 2018 BARS Early Career and Postgraduate Conference

Call for Papers

Romantic Exchanges, 1760-1840

British Association for Romantic Studies Early Career and Postgraduate Conference

University of Glasgow, 15–16 June 2018


Keynote Speakers: Professor Gerard Carruthers (University of Glasgow) and Dr Susan Manly (University of St Andrews)


The BARS Early Career and Postgraduate Conference will explore the concept of exchange in Romantic-period literature and thought. It will bring together postgraduate and early-career researchers whose work addresses this idea from a wide range of perspectives: from the economic exchange of objects and commodities, to the transnational circulation of books and ideas, to neglected connections between writers, texts and contexts.

We invite proposals for themed panels, as well as proposals for the traditional individual twenty-minute paper. Applicants might choose to address some of the following, though we also encourage you to interpret the theme more widely:

  • Commercial exchange: trade, commodities, the literary marketplace, economic value.
  • Epistolary exchange: letters, correspondence, bills of exchange, legal documents.
  • Financial exchange: money, gifts, credit, indebtedness, political economy.
  • Historical exchange: transmission and reception of writers and works across generations.
  • Intellectual exchange: literary networks and coteries, periodicals and print culture, public opinion.
  • International exchange: travel, intercultural encounters, translation, transnational circulation.
  • Interpersonal exchange: influence, collaboration and conversation between writers.

Please send abstracts of up to 250 words for individual papers or 750 words for themed three-person panels (including name and institutional affiliation of all proposed speakers) to by 9 March 2018.

Follow us on Twitter @BARS_PGs

Organisers: Honor Rieley (Glasgow) and Paul Stephens (Oxford)

Download this CfP here.

Call for Papers: Frankenstein – Parable of the Modern Age

Please see below for a Call for Papers from the Inklings Society for Literature and Aesthetics for a September 2018 conference on Frankenstein in Ingolstadt, close to the very building in which Frankenstein – if he had existed – would have attended his medical studies and worked on his creation.

Deadline February 15 2018
Please submit proposals of up to 500 words, along with a short CV to:

1818 · 2018
International Symposium of the Inklings-Society
Ingolstadt, 28th – 29th September 2018


The year 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of a novel that has had a lasting impact on literary fantasy, but also on thinking about ethics and science. The fact that Mary Shelley thought of more than a mere scary story when she anonymously published her novel Frankenstein in 1818 is illustrated by the alternative title: The Modern Prometheus. By referring to the ancient myth of Prometheus, it implies the relationship between creator and creature. One of Shelley’s fundamental literary innovations is to tell the story from the creature’s own point of view over substantial parts of the book. Coming into existence, Frankenstein’s creature at first desires nothing more than to be accepted as a human being in the community of humans. He becomes a danger, because even his own creator refuses to acknowledge him. Shelley deals with an existential question that can be extended from Frankenstein’s fictional laboratory in Ingolstadt to the phantasms and the real sceneries of contemporary history. If This Is a Man one might ask with the title of Primo Levi’s autobiographical report. Is fictional Frankenstein a myth standing for imagination creating monsters and then being afraid of them?

For our conference we are looking for contributions that deal with Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, its adaptations to the present day, and their potential as a model of interpretation for the modern age. The organizers encourage comparative studies that may – among others – reflect upon following topics:

– Battlegrounds: Shelley and Frankenstein between revolution and restoration
– Gods: literary perspectives on and of creators and creatures
– Enlightenment at its limits: abysses between sensibility, rationality and horror
– Poles and laboratories: Topographies of progress between the slaughterhouse and the permafrost
– Vivisections: Interpretations of the Frankenstein parable in later adaptations
– The Last Man: Images of the future between zombie and superhuman

The symposium will take place on September 28 and 29 2018 at the very place where Frankenstein – if he had existed – would have attended his anatomical and medical studies in Ingolstadt around 1800. The building complex now houses the German Medical History Museum.

A limited number of travel allowances might be available for successful applicants.
Lectures should not exceed 25 minutes. Conference languages are English or German.
Contributions will be published in the next issue of the Inklings Yearbook for Literature and Aesthetics.

Please send your abstract of up to 500 words and a short CV until Thursday 15 February  2018.

Entries should be submitted to:
Inklings Society for Literature and Aesthetics
c/o Prof. Dr. Karl R. Kegler

Stephen Copley Research Report: The Lewis Walpole Library

The following report details research by Lauren Nixon, who visited the University of Yale supported by a BARS Stephen Copley Bursary.

Stephen Copley Research Award Report

Lauren Nixon: Researching Henry Seymour Conway at the Lewis Walpole Library


The Stephen Copley Research Award funded my visit to the Lewis Walpole Library, part of the University of Yale, which houses a large collection of materials relating to Horace Walpole (1717-1797) as well as an extensive array of rare books, prints and paintings. Thanks to the award I was able to spend a week in November 2017 studying the correspondence of Henry Seymour Conway (1721-1795), a cousin and friend of Horace Walpole and a British Army Officer who served during the Seven Years War (1756-1763). This research will form a part of my PhD thesis, ‘Conflicting Masculinities: The figure of the soldier in Gothic literature, 1764-1826’, and I hope to have the opportunity to present a snapshot of my findings at a conference this year.

Though significant critical work on exploring gender constructs within the early Gothic novel has been undertaken, very little has focused upon the military and the figure of the soldier. Yet the soldier, be it in the guise of an ancient knight, clansman or chevalier, appears frequently throughout the Gothic fiction of the period. My thesis analyses the ways in which Gothic writers employed the soldier and the military to redefine and reconsider masculinity, and charts shifting perceptions and presentations of the military in the eighteenth century.  As part of this research I am interested in the state of the military and social perception of the soldier during and in the aftermath of the Seven Years War, a conflict which Britain emerged victorious but which would have drastic lasting financial strains. Despite being heralded as heroes during the Seven Years War, the years after saw the private soldier turned loose without pay. Left to poverty and vagrancy, the British soldier of the 1770’s and 1780’s was far from a champion of national vigour and virtue – that is, until the renewed threat of conflict with France after the French Revolution.

In addition to the Gothic novels of authors such as Walpole, Ann Radcliffe, Regina Maria Roche and Mary Shelley, my research also incorporates a number of primary materials such as songs, pamphlets and speeches. During my week in the Lewis Walpole Library, I was able to further this study by analysing Henry Seymour Conway’s correspondence with his brother Francis Seymour Conway, 1st Marquess of Hertford (1718-1794) and three books of his military correspondence charting his service in Europe during the Seven Years War. This not only provided enlightening and intriguing insights into the military profession and the notion of the soldier’s duty during the eighteenth century from unpublished, understudied texts, but also indicated a crucial connection to the Gothic. Walpole and Conway were not just cousins, but close friends and frequent correspondents. In 1764, when Conway was abruptly dismissed from both parliament and his military command after speaking out against the Government on the John Wilkes controversy, Walpole supported Conway both financially and publically. As the Castle of Otranto was published later that same year, I believe there is an argument to be made for Conway’s identity as a soldier and his belief in the soldier’s chivalric masculinity influenced the novel. This is an avenue I had not previously considered, but now aim to pursue in the future.

I am extremely grateful to BARS for granting me the Stephen Copley Research Award, as without it I would not have been able to make the trip. The research I undertook at the Lewis Walpole Library was of great value to my thesis, but also to my development as a researcher. The library itself, located in the town of Farmington, Connecticut (about forty minutes drive from Yale University), has a varied and fascinating collection, including their current exhibition Global Encounters and the Archives: Great Britain’s Empire in the Age of Horace Walpole. 

– Lauren Nixon

On This Day in 1817: 28 December, The Immortal Dinner

The ‘On This Day’ series continues with a post by Ana Stevenson to celebrate 200 years since a gathering of remarkable intellects…


Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1824 – 1820 by Benjamin Robert Haydon


The Immortal Dinner
by Ana Stevenson

Born in 1786, Benjamin Robert Haydon was a history painter who surrounded himself by men whose genius he judged equal to his own. Although Haydon is less well-known today, he was highly regarded as an artist in his own time. In 1804 he entered the Royal Academy Schools in London and exhibited there for the first time at the age of 21. Although this led to recognition and commissions, he did not have a steady income, meaning that he was in constant debt and struggled financially until the end of his life.

In 1817, however, Haydon moved to 22 Lisson Grove, where he was in possession of his own furniture and house-appliances for the first time. He wrote that he had used ‘my own tea cup and saucers. I took up my own knife. I sat on my own chair. It was a new sensation!’.


Benjamin Robert Haydon, 1825 portrait by Georgiana Zornlin


Fond of social gatherings, his new house also inspired the painter to invite some selected friends to dine at his home during the Christmas period. Haydon had an impact in the Literary world, with William Wordsworth, John Keats, and Leigh Hunt writing verses dedicated to the artist, therefore it is not surprising to find these poets amongst the guests who attended his dinner – except Leigh Hunt, who was excluded due to an argument between the host and Hunt’s wife.

The guestlist for this exceptional evening included Wordsworth, Keats, Charles Lamb, Tom Monkhouse, Joseph Ritchie, a few more of Haydon’s acquaintances, and a man named John Kingston, who invited himself as “a friend of Wordsworth”. Thanks to Haydon’s habit of documenting his life in journals, there is a detailed account of what took place that evening, and the event is known as ‘The Immortal Dinner’.

The party was welcomed by Haydon’s current project, ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’, which hung over the guests. Wordsworth and Keats are featured in this painting along with other notable figures of the era, a fact that stimulated conversation on the evening. The artist was delighted by the good humour the setting inspired and watched his friends partake in a gleeful discussion. Apart from Kingston, all were to some extent acquainted with one another. Haydon documented in his journal that once they retired for tea, Kingston, whom he forgot to introduce to the party, decided to take upon himself to engage with Wordsworth. He enquired ‘Don’t you think, sir, Milton was a great genius?’. Until this point, Keats was occupied examining Haydon’s books, and Lamb, who had a bit too much to drink and ‘got exceedingly merry and exquisitely witty’, was sat by the fire. When the question was asked, everyone turned their attention to Kingston’s remark.


John Keats, c.1822, portrait by William Hilton after Joseph Severn


Keats looked at Haydon, Wordsworth looked at Kingston, and Lamb said ‘Pray, sir, did you say Milton was a great genius?’ to which the man replied that he had asked Mr Wordsworth if he were not. Lamb then declared ‘Oh, then you are a silly fellow’. After a brief interruption by Wordsworth, everyone went quiet. Not content, Kingston decided for a second attempt: ‘Don’t you think Newton a great genius?’. At that point Keats hid his face in a book, Haydon could no longer stand it, Wordsworth did not know what was going on, and Lamb got up asking ‘Sir, will you allow me to look at your phrenological development?’. Kingston realised that Wordsworth did not seem to know who he was, therefore, in a third attempt to engage with the poet, he expressed that he had the honour of some correspondence with him, to which Wordsworth could not remember. Kingston seemed to finally give up, but at that point, Lamb was much amused. Haydon describes in his journal Lamb getting up and singing ‘Hey diddle diddle, The cat and the fiddle. Diddle diddle dumpling, my son John,’ while Wordsworth cried ‘My dear Charles!’ trying to stop Lamb, but to no avail.

‘Do let me have another look at that gentleman’s organs.’ Lamb shouted, as Keats and Haydon locked him in a different room while bursting into laughter. After this event, the party tried to console Kingston, who stayed for dinner but no longer attempted to further engage with the guests in the same manner. Peace was seemingly restored; the guests were occupied in their discussions and trying to move on from the incident, but Kingston had lost his dignity and the matter could not be forgotten as Lamb could still be heard calling from the other room: ‘Who is that fellow? Allow me to see his organs once more’.


William Wordsworth, 1818, portrait by Richard Carruthers


This event was not only immortalised by Haydon’s words, but the fun aspects of a casual event attended by a group of notorious figures from the time remains a topic of great interest until the present day. It is rare to be immersed into situations such as this, which appears to be of little importance to the attendees’ works, but incredibly relevant when it comes to understanding how they interacted with one another on a personal level. The Immortal Dinner truly proved itself to have a longer life than the ones who were present at that evening:

‘Keats made Ritchie promise he would carry his Endymion to the great desert of Sahara and fling it in the midst.

Poor Ritchie went to Africa, and died, as Lamb foresaw, in 1819. Keats died in 1821, at Rome. C. Lamb is gone, joking to the last. Monkhouse is dead, and Wordsworth and I are the only two now living (1841) of that glorious party.’

Two years after Haydon transcribed his account, Wordsworth became Poet Laureate and proceeded to survive the whole party as Haydon took his own life in 1846.

Primary Sources:

Benjamin Robert Haydon’s Autobiography and Letters

CfP: 44th International Byron Conference


Improvisation and Mobility

44th International Byron Conference

Ravenna 2-7 July 2018

Call for Papers


The Italian Byron Society is pleased to announce the 44th International Byron Conference to be held in Ravenna from 2 to 7 July 2018. Website here.

Byron’s most famous use of the word “mobility” is in Don Juan, Canto 16, stanza XCVII, where he uses it to describe Lady Adeline Amundeville, adding a footnote in which he defines it as “excessive susceptibility of nimmediate impressions”. Since then the word has been taken up by critics and biographers from Thomas Moore and Lady Blessington onwards, to refer to what seems an essential quality of Byron’s personality and poetry (and, particularly in more recent years, politics). The word has sometimes been linked with the notion of improvisation, especially when considering the spontaneity (or apparent spontaneity) of his verse: “I rattle on exactly as I’d talk / With any body in a ride or walk.” (Don Juan, 15, XIX). The conference will welcome 20-minute papers on topics including, but not necessarily limited to:

– formal experimentalism and improvisation

– multiplicity of voices

– hyphenated identities

– genre hybridity

– experience and imagination, fact and fiction

– geographical mobility

– cosmopolitan visions and identities

– political mobility and improvisation

– reinterpretations of Byron’s mobility in later periods

The organisers also welcome prospective delegates to suggest ready-formed panels (of three 20-minute papers) on the following topics: Byron and Ravenna; Byron and Italian politics; Byron and Italian art.

Please send 250-word abstracts for individual papers or ready-formed panels to by 1 March 2018.

Information on conference registration and accommodation as well as on the cultural programme of the conference will be posted later on the Conference website.

Conference academic committee:

• Gioia Angeletti

• Shobhana Bhattacharji

• Gregory Dowling

• Olivier Feignier

• Alan Rawes

• Diego Saglia

On This Day in 1817: Keats and Negative Capability, 21-27 December

After a hiatus, ‘On This Day’ continues with a post by Ellen Nicholls (University of Sheffield). Ellen is a third year PhD candidate and Wolfson Scholar, studying under the supervision of Dr Madeleine Callaghan. Her thesis explores the interdependency of pleasure and pain in the poetry and letters of John Keats, thinking about how far Keats uses the poem as an experimental space in which to engage with, advance, and depart from a medical understanding of bodily experience. Alongside her studies, she is also working with the Keats-Shelley Association of America as a Communications Fellow, collaborating with and promoting the many bicentenary celebrations of the Romantics through online media.

We return to this series to celebrate an iconic moment from 1817 which will be familiar to many scholars of Romanticism and readers of Keats. Here Ellen explains the significance of this bicentenary and also discusses the short lyric ‘In Drear-nighted December’.

More ‘On This Day’ posts to follow. If you want to contribute to this series, please contact Anna Mercer (


‘Drear-Nighted December’ and the Bicentenary of Keats’s Negative Capability Letter


This Christmas marks the bicentenary of Keats’s ‘Negative Capability’ letter. Written roughly between 21-27 December 1817, this important anniversary leads many romantic scholars and enthusiasts to reflect on Keats’s considerable achievements. As this time approaches, I am not only reminded of the astonishing creative energies that Keats displays in his letter, but also drawn to Keats’s attentiveness to the season in which he is writing. Critics are often attuned to the role darkness and mist play in Keats’s conception of negative capability.[1] But very little has been said of how ‘Drear-nighted December’, the month and time of day in which Keats was writing to his brothers Tom and George, informs one of his most famous poetic speculations. December 21 1817 was the winter solstice, and the shorter, darker days of winter, alongside the many indoor festivities that accompanied them, were not far from Keats’s mind while he was writing to his brothers in Teignmouth.

The composition history of this significant letter remains somewhat shrouded in the ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ (Letters: John Keats I, 193) that it so famously sets forth.[2] The letter survives from a transcript by John Jeffrey; second husband to George’s wife, Georgiana. Hyder Edward Rollins points out Jeffrey’s misdating of the correspondence, a fact that is unsurprising given Keats’s habit of composing letters over fragmented periods of time. But Rollins conjectures that the letter’s main passage on negative capability was ‘very likely’ (Letters: John Keats I, 194) written the night of 26th December, after Charles Brown and Charles Wentworth Dilke accompanied Keats to the Drury Lane Christmas pantomime: Harlequin’s Vision, Or, The Feast of the Statue.

It is Keats’s busy social life throughout the festive period that not only interrupts the letter’s composition, but that is also vital in informing its content. Keats wryly comments upon how he has ‘been out too much lately’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192), describing how he: watched one of his favourite actors, Edmund Kean, in Shakespeare’s Richard III; spent ‘two very pleasant evenings with Dilke’ (Letters: John Keats I, 191-192); viewed Benjamin West’s painting Death on the Pale Horse with Charles Jeremiah Wells— an artistic experience that was central in elaborating his thoughts on the ‘close relationship […] [between] Beauty & Truth’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192) ; ‘dined with Haydon’ (Letters: John Keats I, 192); dined also with Horace Smith, Smith’s two brothers, Thomas Hill, John Kingston, and Edward Du Bois; and, of course, attended the Christmas pantomime with Brown and Dilke.


‘Death on the Pale Horse’ by Benjamin West (1817)


It is the spirit of conviviality, converse, and merriment that accompanied Keats’s busy social calendar between 21 and 27 December that led him to set out his theory of negative capability. Reflecting upon his walk to and from the Christmas pantomime with his two friends, Keats writes:

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, on various subjects; several things dovetailed in mind, & at once it struck me, what quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously— I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason— Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge (Letters: John Keats I, 193-194).

Keats comically draws attention to the friendly spirit of disagreement, typical of the festive period, which characterised his conversation with Dilke by means of rejecting the term ‘dispute’ in favour of ‘disquisition’. The rigorous discussion and questioning that the verb ‘disquisition’ implies becomes important for understanding ‘what quality’ Keats is attempting to spell out. Keats writes in response to Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, published the same year that this letter was composed, and in which Coleridge suggests that the poet should aim to reconcile ‘opposite or discordant qualities’ through a synthetic imagination.[3] Entering into dialogue with Coleridge, Keats suggests that reaching after reconciliations and conclusions can lead to the ‘verisimilar’, or that which appears true, but is ultimately fallacious. Instead, negative capability proposes an ability to remain at ease with the ‘uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts’ of contradiction and disagreement, advancing the idea that the poet should have a disquisitional mind that is content with ‘half knowledge’ and in which meaning is neither fixed nor debate shut down. It is with such a dialogic openness of mind that Keats conceives of negative capability. With a characteristically contradictory turn of phrase, Keats highlights how holding ‘several things’ in equipoise within his imagination paradoxically leads his ideas to ‘dovetail’, uniting together to form his important poetic concept. Creativity, for Keats, is not inhibited but enabled by the inherent equivocality of tensions so much so that the ambiguities and indeterminacies of ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’ would become one of the defining features of Keats’s poetic style.

Considering the season in which Keats sat down to write this letter 200 years ago, brings into relief the receptivity of his creative imagination. A mind continually responsive to and informed by his surroundings, encounters, and conversations with friends, the negative capability letter demonstrates the inextricability between Keats’s life, letters, and poetry. It was on another day in December 1817 that Keats wrote and poetically reflected upon the season in the short lyric, ‘In Drear-nighted December’. This winter poem does not contain depictions of friendly converse and companionship that we see in Keats’s negative capability letter, instead presenting harsh and ‘sleety’ (6) images of dismal ‘frozen thawings’ (7). But Keats’s sense that nature might find contentment with its winter condition, with the darkness and dreariness of a season in which life clings on so tentatively, resonates with his thoughts on ‘uncertainties, mysteries, doubts’. As John Barnard writes: ‘The poem reflects Keats’s ideas on “Negative Capability” and “intensity”, which he outlined in his important letter to Tom and George on 21-7 December 1817’.[4] The ‘crystal fretting’ (14) of Keats’s poem is centred on how we might share in nature’s contentment with ‘drear-nighted’ (1) uncertainty without writhing (20) at the ‘passed joy’ (20) of summer’s ‘budding’ (8) stability:



In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy tree,

Thy branches ne’er remember

Their green felicity:

The north cannot undo them,

With a sleety whistle through them;

Nor frozen thawings glue them

From budding at the prime.



In a drear-nighted December,

Too happy, happy brook,

Thy bubblings ne’er remember

Apollo’s summer look;

But with a sweet forgetting,

They stay their crystal fretting,

Never, never petting

About the frozen time.



Ah! would ’t were so with many

A gentle girl and boy!

But were there ever any

Writhed not of passèd joy?

The feel of not to feel it,

When there is none to heal it,

Nor numbèd sense to steal it,

Was never said in rhyme.[5]


Keats’s repeated use of the negations ‘Ne’er’ (3), ‘nor’ (7), ‘never’ (15), ‘not’ (20), sets forth the issue under interrogation: namely, how to articulate a feeling as ambiguous as absence and loss. The poem paradoxically draws attention to the sensation of senselessness, or ‘the feel of not to feel it’ (21), presenting the loss of joy not as a ‘numbèd sense’ (23) in which all feeling is annihilated, but an absent presence or painful void that causes one to writhe (20). The poem proposes an inability for ‘rhyme’ (24) or poetic language to contain such an experience, leading Michael O’Neill to argue that the poem is, ‘called into being by the “feel” it is said never to have found words for, “rhyme” stands apart from “feel” by virtue of its failure to rhyme with any lines in the stanza (it rhymes with the final lines of stanzas 1 and 2)’.[6] Poetic language ostensibly fails to meet the demands of negative capability by being unable to capture the uncertain, mysterious, and doubtful sensation of absence. And yet it is at the point where rhyme is said to fail that the potentiality of such uncertainty is evident. The word ‘rhyme’ may not harmonise with any other line ending in the third stanza, but it shares an important formal and semantic relation to the end words of the previous two stanzas: ‘prime’ (8) and ‘time’ (16). The final words of each stanza are aurally incongruous to the other rhyme sounds in each contained section, isolated within the bleak landscape that they both describe and reflect. But they also serve to link each of the stanzas together as a whole by drawing the eye and ear back to the only words that they share a formal relation with in the other stanzas. By linking these three words together through rhyme, the poem’s outlook of winter desolation is both undermined and belied by the suggestion that ‘drear-nighted December’ (1) is the ‘prime’ (8) ‘time’ (16) for engendering thought and sensation within poetic language. That which is dark, obscure, and uncertain becomes a site of frustration and ‘fretting’ (14) that resists the limitations of language, even as it is presented as a location of ‘budding’ (8) potentiality.

Keats may be a poet who is most frequently associated with autumn, but the importance of winter for his poetic thought should not be underestimated. December reminds us of the remarkable achievement of Keats’s letters as the month that both brought into being and embodies his thoughts on negative capability.

– Ellen Nicholls


[1] See Keats’s 3rd May 1818 letter to Reynolds in which Keats creates a simile for life as ‘a large Mansion of Many Apartments’ (Letters: John Keats I, 280-281). In his analysis of the letter, Alexander Patterson suggests that darkness and mist do not inhibit, but facilitate thought and imagination. Alexander Patterson, ‘A Greater Luxury’: Keats’s Depictions of Mistiness and Reading, Romanticism, 18 (2012), pp. 260-269 (p. 260).

[2] The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958). All subsequent references to the letters will be taken from this edition.

[3] Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Biographia Literaria” (1817) in The Major Works, ed. H. J. Jackson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), pp. 155-482 (p. 319).

[4] See footnotes to ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[5] John Keats, ‘In Drear-Nighted December’, John Keats The Complete Poems, ed. John Barnard (London: Penguin Books, 1973), p. 217.

[6] Michael O’Neill, “The Reading of an Ever-Changing Tale”: Keats (I)’ in Romanticism and the Self-Conscious Poem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 180-209 (p. 182).

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.

The People’s Voice: Scottish Political Poetry, Song and the Franchise, 1832–1918

Please see the following announcement from the BARS Early Career Representative Honor Rieley (University of Glasgow):

Launch Event for The People’s Voice: Scottish Political Poetry, Song and the Franchise, 1832–1918

15 February 2018, Trades Hall of Glasgow

This conference marks the launch of the People’s Voice website, funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and created by staff at the Universities of Glasgow and Strathclyde.

This is a free online resource essential for anyone interested in the popular political culture of Scotland in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, containing details of over a thousand poems as well as song recordings, essays and schools resources. On 15 February, we will celebrate the culmination of our work on this project with a programme of international speakers and musical entertainment. Please join us!

Our speakers will include: Florence Boos (University of Iowa), Alison Chapman (University of Victoria, Jon Mee (University of York) and Mike Sanders (University of Manchester).

The conference is free to attend but registration is required. Tickets available here.

Click here to see our website.

Twitter: @PeoplesVoiceSco

Five Questions: David Fallon on Blake, Myth and Enlightenment

David Fallon is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Roehampton.  He has published widely on topics including the debates surrounding the French Revolution, London bookselling and Romantic-period notions of sociability, but has a particular interest in William Blake, on whom he has published a series of articles and book chapters that have now culminated in his first monograph, Blake, Myth, and Enlightenment (Palgrave, 2017), which we discuss below.

1) How did you first become interested in Blake’s tangled relationship with Enlightenment thought?

I’d originally got interested in Blake through music and he seems to combine the dreamy utopianism of psychedelia with the hard-headed opposition and disillusionment of punk.  I was always drawn to Blake as a contradictory writer and artist, whose difficulty to pin down was part of his fascination.  From my undergraduate days I found him sitting uneasily with traditional notions of Romanticism.  I’d always been captivated by the deep and creative spiritual vision in his poetry and art, but I felt that Blake was too hard-headed to simply be a flaky mystic dreamer, in the way he can sometimes be dismissed.  The work of a number of Blake specialists, including Donald Ault and Matthew Green, suggested there was more to Blake and Enlightenment than opposition and I was keen to trace how this intellectual side emerged through the structures of meaning in his art and poetry.

2) How did you come to choose apotheosis (in Samuel Johnson’s words, ‘Deification; the rite of adding any one to the number of the gods’) as your key point of focus in the book?

The original project, in the earliest days of the PhD was rather broad, looking at Blake and the idea of heroism.  As part of this, I was looking at the pair of ‘spiritual form’ paintings of William Pit and Horatio Nelson from the 1809 exhibition.  They were pretty bewildering, but I noted that the Descriptive Catalogue labelled them ‘grand apotheoses’.  I started tugging away at the key term ‘apotheosis’ and that became the end of the golden string that I spent many years unravelling.  I’d always been fascinated – albeit confused! – by Blake’s interest in transformations and his use of star imagery in his poetry and designs.  I felt I had discovered a context in which these began to make more sense.  The term’s many strands (art history, anthropology, classical culture, religion, political satire and so on) were particularly appealing, as they took me towards a focus which allowed me (hopefully) to do justice Blake as an artist who gleefully capered across disciplinary boundaries.

3) What for you are the most important insights that we can gain from seeing Blake as actively engaged with Enlightenment, as opposed to ‘an exemplary Romantic opponent’?

Blake can be a bit straightjacketed by the label ‘Romantic’, so I hoped that this approach might make room for a lively, different sort of Blake to wriggle out.  The book hopefully allows us to situate Blake’s hermeneutics and myth-making historically.  While rather unBlakean in resisting the embrace of Eternity, this helps to show how his poetry and art could have been more meaningful to his contemporaries and it shows how his model of ‘contraries’ in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell is fundamental to the ways in which he conceived of his creativity.

4) You contend that ‘Blake came ultimately to give precedence to mythopoesis over critical thought’.  How do you conceptualise Blake’s early position on this issue?  Do you see his movement towards mythopoesis as happening in a relatively smooth manner across his artistic career, or was his engagement with Enlightenment and myth (as expressed in his works) more complex and conflicted?

To me, there always seem to be two key features at play in his work, one partaking of Enlightenment scepticism towards myths of power, the other celebrating myth as a powerful mode of collective vision.  Approaching Blake’s visionary imagination in a dynamic relationship with Enlightenment critical approaches allowed me to sketch out shifts in his thought over his career, with his later works representing something of a recovery from his pronounced radical scepticism of the mid-to-late 1790s, albeit still attacking institutions of state repression and deploying that critical impulse productively to enable creative, utopian imaginings.  Some of his annotations from the 1780s and early 1790s suggest he saw himself as a sort of philosophe and the later works are clearly more emphatically Christian, but rather than there being a linear progression, these identities seem to rub along together in different permutations throughout his career.  I’d go for ‘complex and conflicted’…

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

I’m gleaning grains of information about the lively world of eighteenth-century and Romantic publishing, working on my next monograph which is on literary sociability, production, and booksellers’ shops from about 1740 to 1840.  I’ve also co-edited a special issue of Romanticism with Jon Shears on Romanticism and Ageing, which will appear in 2018.  I have an essay on Caleb Williams in the pipeline for William Godwin: Forms, Fears, Futures, which should be out in 2018 too.  There will undoubtedly be a few essays on Blake, too, developing material which has been sparked off by writing the book.