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 31st, 2019




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, Professor of English Literature and the Health Humanities, University College London

About The Author

Brittany Pladek is Assistant Professor of English, Marquette University.