Textual Sensibilities: The Physicality of British Poetry, 1750-1850

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My dissertation argues that key eighteenth and early nineteenth-century poets - including James Thomson and James Macpherson, Thomas Chatterton, Charlotte Smith, and Erasmus Darwin, and William Blake, John Keats, and Percy Shelley - are united by a preoccupation with the physical properties of the text, language, or both. I argue that these writers take the central period concept of sensibility, or the human capacity for sensory perception and emotion, and reconceive it as a textual category, exploring what I call textual sensibility, or the text's capacity to stimulate the senses relative to its intellectual comprehensibility. In major poems these writers foreground the visual and sonic characteristics of words, punctuation, and space, and use various poetic "units"- from one letter to the entire poem - as physical things or effects that frustrate informational reading and force a more experiential approach to the text. I argue that these techniques arise from the widespread focus on the senses in eighteenth and early nineteenth-century British culture.

The dissertation's first chapter defines the salient techniques of physical poetic practice in a range of eighteenth and early nineteenth-century texts; the other chapters concentrate specifically on Blake, Keats, and Shelley as poets who pursue particularly rich, complex, and self-reflexive forms of physical poetic style. My study fills a gap in coverage in the larger field of interest in material affect, which has tended to focus on virtually every other literary period at the expense of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jerome McGann's The Poetics of Sensibility touches upon "affective" versus "referential" language in certain late eighteenth-century poets, and scholars have addressed Blake's material uses of word and image and some aspects of Keats's sensory style. But my study supplies an in-depth account of the diverse techniques of physical poetic practice in the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century period, and of the important epistemological inquiry that underlies them: is reading, and particularly reading poetry, about gaining "information" from the text or "experiencing" it, and can these two effects be combined?