Life: Organic Form and Romanticism

Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    What makes something alive? Or, more to the point, what is life? The question is as old as the ages and has not been (and may never be) resolved. Life springs from life, and liveliness motivates matter to act the way it does. Yet vitality in its very unpredictability often appears as a threat. In this intellectually stimulating work, Denise Gigante looks at how major writers of the Romantic period strove to produce living forms of art on an analogy with biological form, often finding themselves face to face with a power known as monstrous.

    The poets Christopher Smart, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats were all immersed in a culture obsessed with scientific ideas about vital power and its generation, and they broke with poetic convention in imagining new forms of "life." InLife: Organic Form and Romanticism,Gigante offers a way to read ostensibly difficult poetry and reflects on the natural-philosophical idea of organic form and the discipline of literary studies.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-15558-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History of Science & Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. 1 Introduction
    (pp. 1-48)

    Romantic poets and makers of all sorts—from the philosophical to the fictional, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Victor Frankenstein—were in quest, literally, of the principle of life. Such a principle or power, whose permutations were many, promised to relieve “the burden of the mystery” by explaining “the mystery of life.” We are all too familiar now with the latter phrase; the former (for which Keats had a particular fondness) derives from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” in which the speaker enters that “blessed mood” when “the breath of this corporeal frame, / And even the motion of our human blood”...

  6. 2 Smart’s Powers: Jubilate Agno
    (pp. 49-105)

    Christopher Smart’s brilliant (if baffling) poemJubilate Agnohas form, though it is certainly not preformed. It is no ode, romance, blank-verse epic, or Augustan assemblage of heroic couplets. What remains of it are seven pairs of folio sheets (there were originally eleven, but four were lost) scribbled in a cramped hand, one or two lines per day, during the four years (1759–63) that Smart was confined to George Potter’s private madhouse in Bethnal Green.¹ Many of these versicles, as the extremely long lines of the poem are called, are self-conscious meditations on generation, poiesis, and autopoiesis that put...

  7. 3 Blake’s Living Form: Jerusalem
    (pp. 106-154)

    Smart’s vociferous challenge to post-Newtonian mechanism paved the way for William Blake’s visionary illuminated works, which he also conceived as “Living Form.” Nowhere in Romantic poetry, in fact, are the problems and possibilities of living form more powerfully featured than in Blake’s final prophecy,Jerusalem, intermittently produced from 1804 through 1820. This poem portrays the regeneration of a universal human (Albion) into organic wholeness from the discrete, anatomized particulars of his fallen condition. InThe First Book of Urizen(1794) andMilton, produced contemporaneously from 1804 through 1810 or 1811, Blake narrates the fall of this universal human into four...

  8. Color illustrations
    (pp. None)
  9. 4 Shelley’s Vitalist “Witch”
    (pp. 155-207)

    Percy Bysshe Shelley shared more with William Blake than visionary power and a conception of poetry as prophecy. We might say that in keeping with the greater Romantic project, all his major poetry, from “Queen Mab” through “The Triumph of Life,” constitutes an aesthetic inquiry into life, “the great miracle” that bears no reduction. By the end of the eighteenth century, as we have seen, the concept of life had been vitalized or energized into a power, and by the early decades of the nineteenth century, this power had become confused with the idea of a physiological soul running through...

  10. 5 Keats’s Principle of Monstrosity: Lamia
    (pp. 208-246)

    Walking in Hampstead in April 1819 just before composingLamia, Keats ran into Coleridge and Joseph Henry Green (Keats’s anatomical demonstrator from Guy’s Hospital, who was also a friend of Coleridge’s) and became privy to the older poet’s thoughts on a range of topics from “Metaphysics” to “Monsters.” Although we can never know for sure whether the mythic monsters known as lamiae fell under the scrutiny of the two poets during their walk—Keats mentions the Kraken, mermaids, and ghosts among “a thousand things”—we do know that Coleridge thought of them as self-determining forms of life that challenged the...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 247-286)
  12. Index
    (pp. 287-302)