The Romantic Insomnia of John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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Hunt, Katie
Romanticism , Insomnia , Identity , Medical History
This dissertation seeks to reestablish insomnia as an essential category of consciousness in the Romantic period on both local and universal scales. First, I establish the medical and cultural history of the disorder in the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, showing that, during this period, insomnia not only emerged for the first time as a primary disorder with its own unique pathology and psychology, but was also consequently considered as a separate state of consciousness, situated liminally between sleeping and waking. Many poets of the period adopted this new conception into their poetry and, through this work, investigated both aesthetically and philosophically their creatively fulfilling negotiation of insomnia’s two conscious facets: sleep’s visionary potential and the waking poetic will. Second, I investigate insomnia’s creative capacity in the works of two of the period’s most important and medically-interested figures: John Keats and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Both poets and intellectuals, these two men navigated this new conception of insomnia in congruent and unique ways. Insomnia is figured in both of their works as an exaggerated analogy for the poetic and intellectual imagination, representing its capacity for both ideal poetic invention and unstable chaos, and for defining creative identity in general. Keats takes the experience of insomnia as an opportunity to revel in uncertainty. Coleridge seeks to reform that uncertainty into a unified selfhood. In both instances, however, insomnia shifts common readings of the established philosophies of these two great Romantic poets. This project will therefore provide new insight into some of the most recognizable Romantic thinkers. It will also establish insomnia as an important thematic preoccupation of the period that can and should be examined in the works of many Romantic writers in and outside of the canon.
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