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Frederick Burwick. Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1996. ISBN: 0-271-01488-1. Price: US$49.50.

  • Nicholas Halmi

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  • Nicholas Halmi
    McMaster University

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Frederick Burwick's Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination is one of the youngest and most learned of the progeny of Foucault's Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique, presenting a kind of archaeology of the concept of furor poeticus, poetic madness, in the Romantic period. Like its parent, Burwick's book examines a remarkable range of texts and historical data as it relates the concept of madness—or rather, various concepts of madness—to aesthetic theory, poetic practice, and reception history.

Since his concern is with the paradoxes generated by theories and narratives that sought to acknowledge and incorporate, often indeed to valorize, the experience of irrationality, Burwick eschews offering "case histories" of literary figures like William Cowper and Charles Lloyd, and instead offers readings of representations of madness in Goethe's Torquato Tasso, poems by Byron and Percy Shelley, Nodier's Jean-François les Bas-Bleus, and Blake's Four Zoas, and of the contemporary reception of three "mad" writers, Hölderlin, Nerval, and John Clare. (One of the most interesting connections drawn in the book is between Blake, whose references to madness and corn in The Four Zoas are historicized as a concern with the common occurrence of ergot poisoning, and Nerval, whose own madness is attributed to such poisoning. Lysergic acid, the hallucinogenic compound from which LSD is derived, occurs naturally in ergot fungus.) What links these two sections of the book to each other and to some extent to the first section, which is devoted generally to the relation between inspiration and delusion (and includes a chapter comparing the attitudes of Coleridge and De Quincey toward the Biblical accounts of miracles), is an issue that might best be formulated as a question: how does the poet communicate individual insight, subjective experience, truthfully in the shared medium and externally imposed limits of language? According to Burwick, Hölderlin, Nerval, and Clare—the genuinely mad poets—did so by acts of self-projection, writing texts in which they read themselves "into another text" (p. 259): Hölderlin as St John in Patmos, Nerval as Christ in Le Christ aux Oliviers, Clare as Childe Harold in a rewriting of Byron's poem. Burwick rightly distinguishes these cases, in which the "endeavor rationally to contain the irrational" was ultimately doomed (p. 274), from the celebrations of "madness" in its multiple meanings by other Romantic writers; but he seems to regard the distinction as one of degree rather than kind.

In his introduction Burwick asserts the coincidence of creativity and irrationality, citing a psychiatric study (which I regard as methodologically dubious) that identified a statistically significant rate of affective illness among writers visiting the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa (pp. 14-15). But just here, where the notion of the furor poeticus is taken literally, as if it were, as a psychiatrist of my acquaintance once said about attention deficit disorder, "a real thing," the essentially synchronic archaeological analysis might usefully have been supplemented by a diachronic genealogical analysis, which would have asked, not whether poetry and irrationality are inherently related, but whether there are historical reasons why the Romantics would have related them to one another. For the paradox of Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination is that it presupposes the latter case while arguing the former one. To be sure, Burwick demonstrates how old the concept of the furor poeticus is, and one can easily recognize how it served the purposes of both poets and their opponents equally, though of course differently: it enabled poets to claim a privileged knowledge, and their opponents to dismiss them as failing to conform to the norms of society. But that fact makes it all the more important to establish whether the Romantics were in fact unusually enamoured of the irrational (as Mario Praz, for one, certainly thought), and if so, why. It has long seemed to me that the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were haunted by the identification of the lunatic, the lover, and the poet in A Midsummer Night's Dream (think of Blake's Milton and Hazlitt's On Poetry in General, for example). However, the first question could not be answered without reference to certain phenomena in eighteenth-century literature and aesthetics, including the "graveyard" school of poetry, Gothic novel, and the concept of the sublime; the second could not be answered without reference to the development of aesthetics (as an philosophical discipline capable of acknowledging irrational elements in its objects of study) and the idea of the unconscious. Fortunately the rich materials gathered in Burwick's book provide crucial hints towards those answers.