Thesis ID: CBB238384847

Vascular Aesthetics: Blood and British Poetry in the Long Nineteenth Century (2023)


This dissertation examines how medical discourses of blood animate the physiological aesthetics of four nineteenth-century poets: William Wordsworth, John Keats, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and Algernon Charles Swinburne. Building on concepts from Paul Youngquist, James Robert Allard, and Jason R. Rudy, I use the term “physiological aesthetics” to refer to poetic constructions and meanings that reveal an interest in the material conditions of embodiment and health that is informed by contemporary developments in physiology. While scholars of nineteenth-century British literature have examined how medical knowledge inspires poetic discourse in the period, few studies consider the agency attached to the blood in Romantic and Victorian poetry and the salience of blood in nineteenth-century medical paradigms. As emerging and entrenched ideas about blood, its composition, and its motions enriched physiological conceptions of health and disease, so, too, did Romantic and Victorian poets use blood to articulate the aesthetic intricacies of their poetry, especially the embodied complexities of creativity and desire. Vascular Aesthetics analyzes poetic texts alongside medical texts from the period and incorporates the works of Romantic and Victorian writers into a comprehensive investigation of blood and poetry that follows the history of medical ideas from the 1790s to the 1860s. Specifically, this dissertation addresses historical discourses of neurophysiology, gynecology, surgery, and experimental physiology and shows how blood was understood to participate in a range of physiological processes: cerebral circulation, respiration, menstruation, inflammation, and arousal. Theories of bodily economy, in which the blood is conceived as a finite resource, and therapeutic methods of blood regulation are especially important to Vascular Aesthetics. The argument demonstrates how blood circulates as both a vital and dangerous force through the poetry of Wordsworth, Keats, Barrett Browning, and Swinburne, linking the familiar features of their poetry—Wordsworth’s growth of the mind, Keats’s pathological desire, Barrett Browning’s proto-feminism, and Swinburne’s sadomasochism—to a more corporeal, vascular vision of embodied subjectivity.

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Authors & Contributors
Allard, James Robert
Altschuler, Sari B.
Bewell, Alan
Budge, Gavin
Day, Carolyn A.
Henderson, Andrea
Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Eighteenth-Century Life
Ethics, Place and Environment
Journal of Literature and Science
Journal of the History of Ideas
University of California, Berkeley
New York, City University of
Cambridge University Press
Bloomsbury Academic
Johns Hopkins University Press
Medicine and literature
Poetry and poetics
Science and literature
Wordsworth, William
Keats, John
Blake, William
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor
Darwin, Erasmus
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
Time Periods
19th century
18th century
17th century
Great Britain
United States

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