William Wordsworth and the Poetry of Relief
Chapter three begins the book’s survey of palliative poetics developed by Romantic writers, comparing Wordsworth’s ideas about poetic therapy with medical beliefs of the late eighteenth century. The therapeutic holism later ascribed to Wordsworth by literary critics was held by Romantic medicine to be a restorative power of nature, a ‘vis medicatrix naturae’ that could repair a broken constitution in ways doctors could not. But as medicine professionalized, they saw how claims that nature was the real healer could damage their reputation. Their compensatory shift to a palliative ethic was driven in part by a need to renegotiate medicine’s relationship with nature. Similarly, Wordsworth initially hoped his own poetry could replicate nature’s holistic therapy. But in Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collection whose Wordsworthian lyrics extol the superiority of natural medicine, Wordsworth realized his own art could not mimic nature’s healing power. As a result, he turns towards a poetics of palliation grounded in the ‘delight’ outlined by Edmund Burke’s 1757 Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.
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