The Poetics of Palliation

BookThe Poetics of Palliation

The Poetics of Palliation

Romantic Literary Therapy, 1790–1850

Romantic Reconfigurations: Studies in Literature and Culture 1780-1850, 8


May 24th, 2019

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Can literature heal? The Poetics of Palliation argues that our answers to this question have origins in the Romantic period. In the past twenty years, health humanists and scholars of literature and medicine have drawn on Romantic ideas to argue that literature cures by making sufferers whole again. But this model oversimplifies how Romantic writers thought literature addressed suffering. Poetics documents how writers like William Wordsworth and Mary Shelley explored palliative forms of literary medicine: therapies that stressed literature’s manifold relationship to pain and its power to sustain, comfort, and challenge even when cure was not possible. The book charts how Romantic writers developed these palliative poetics in conversation with their medical milieu. British medical ethics was first codified during the Romantic period. Its major writers, John Gregory and Thomas Percival, endorsed a palliative mandate to compensate for doctors’ limited curative powers. Similarly, Romantic writers sought palliative approaches when their work failed to achieve starker curative goals. The startling diversity of their results illustrates how palliation offers a more comprehensive metric for literary therapy than the curative traditions we have inherited from Romanticism.

'This erudite and beautifully written book stages a dialogue between historicist work on Romanticism and medicine, disability studies, and the emerging field of the health humanities. Starting from the premise that the Romantic period was the first to conceive of literature as the stuff of medical therapy, Pladek shows it was also the first to criticise a naïve version of that view. In five crisp chapters, she shows how writers as diverse as Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Thomas Lovell Beddoes, John Stuart Mill and Mary Shelley thought of literature as a palliative, not a cure, for human suffering. In each of these discussions, she reveals how romantic literature anticipated some of the most controversial ideas in the health humanities today, notably the notion that to be effective medicine must treat the whole person, and she also traces fascinating genealogies of a great many ideas in modern medicine that are assumed to have no romantic pedigree. The result is an interdisciplinary dialogue of the first order and a literary tour de force.'

Neil Vickers, University College London

The Poetics of Palliation offers a serious and expert engagement with the field of the health humanities as a legacy of Romantic literature and criticism. Extensively researched, it will be an invaluable resource for anyone interested the relationship between those two areas, as well as in the intertwined genealogies of therapeutic holism, the New Criticism, and certain strains of liberalism. A reparative reader in the sense proposed by Eve Sedgwick, Pladek maintains her commitment to literature’s ability to give and to model care, but without assuming that it can – or should – cure.’

Kevis Goodman, University of California, Berkeley

‘Pladek’s book reaffirms the importance of the Romantic period in its identification of the era as witnessing the origin of New Critical ideas of unity and wholeness in literature and therapeutic holism in the health humanities. It places the literature of the period center stage in debates that are still ongoing now.’
Sharon Ruston, European Romantic Review

Author Information

Brittany Pladek is Associate Professor of English at Marquette University.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
1. Therapeutic Holism: The Persistence of Metaphor39
2. From John Stuart Mill to the Medical Humanities75
3. ‘Soothing Thoughts’: William Wordsworth and the Poetry of Relief106
4. Palliating Humanity in The Last Man139
5. John Keats’s ‘Sickness Not Ignoble’172
6. Thomas Lovell Beddoes’s ‘Fictitious Condition’203