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"The life of such dead things": Psychological Obsession in Swinburne's "Félise"

From: Victorian Poetry
Volume 51, Number 1, Spring 2013
pp. 15-35 | 10.1353/vp.2013.0001

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In an 1867 article for the Contemporary Review entitled "The Morality of Literary Art," which lamented the current penchant of London literati for severing artistic endeavors from moral sense, science writer and literary biographer H. A. Page condemned A. C. Swinburne's "isolated imagination," his sameness of subject matter and atmosphere, and the "morbid self-consciousness" that pervaded the poet's infamous 1866 Poems and Ballads. For Page, such traits epitomized the egoism and immorality of modern English literature, possessing value only as a "series of psychological studies" better relegated to the province of science rather than art. In his denunciation of Swinburne's "absolute want of true variety," Page, echoing many of the poet's critics, utilized the language of emerging mental science to diagnose the psychological obsessiveness of both poet and poems. By 1810, psychological obsession had become a medical disease termed "monomania" by French physician Jean Etienne Esquirol; it described a condition of mental and moral alienation in which the mind fixated on a single object or idea, excluding all others. Page's recognition of the insular, unvaried morbidity, or diseased state, of Swinburne's poetics reflects Esquirol's theorization of the obsessive psyche as one of "partial" insanity, a theorization with which, given Esquirol's popularity and mental science's intimate relationship with poetry and biographical writings, Page was no doubt familiar. While Poems and Ballads was most widely condemned for "fleshly" obscenity, accusations of "madness" and "mania" almost without exception can be found alongside those of explicit sensuality in the critical reviews. I neither intend to argue for, nor am concerned with, direct routes of influence between Swinburne and this burgeoning mental science, but through primarily an analysis of "Félise," a poem of the 1866 collection, will examine the various ways literature and Victorian mental science often converged on many of the same themes and ideas, with particular regard for Esquirol's concept of monomania. Consideration of "Félise"'s monomaniacal character both enables readers to understand more fully the psychology of the lyric's speaker in relation to many of Poems and Ballads' more obsessive personas and unveils yet another aspect of Swinburnean moral and cultural subversiveness.

Although Esquirol's 1838 magnum opus Des Maladies Mentales—which houses his most detailed examination of monomania—remained untranslated until 1845, his prior work was greatly admired and referenced by his English counterparts, among them the eminent James Cowles Prichard and John Conolly. Plagued by "chronic cerebral affections . . . characterized by a partial lesion of the intelligence, affections or will," Esquirol's monomaniac labored under a "false principle without deviating from logical reasonings." In other words, monomania described an individual who enjoyed complete sanity save for one "exclusive, fixed and permanent" delirium, the nature of which encompassed all the "mysterious anomalies of sensibility" and was, indeed, synonymous with any exaggerated expression of mental or physical passion. While generally attributed to a physical "lesion," monomania was primarily understood as a failure of the will, or self-control, rather than the body's inability to function properly. Predicated on self and social alienation, monomania was thus frequently correlated with individual immorality and social irresponsibility. By the time Swinburne published Poems and Ballads in 1866, the medical disease had become integrated into the social and cultural fabric of the Victorian age, evident in how literary critics like Page often ascribed Swinburne's lack of poetic variety to moral degeneration and criminality.

Nevertheless, the monomaniac's perceived removal from the social and moral standards of society was challenged by Esquirol, who argued that no difference in kind existed between individuals on either side of the asylum walls. The alienist found the same "ideas," "errors," and "passions," in the insane, intensified only "because man displays himself in all his nakedness; dissimulating not his thoughts, nor concealing his defects" (p. 19). Merely a brazenly honest expression of "normal" thought, mental perversity wasn't so much what was being expressed, as how it was being expressed. Unrestrained license of the mind which neither "dissimulates" nor "conceals" its passions represented a dangerous loss of self-control, man's mental "nakedness" then—as opposed to physical—figuring as another version of obscenity for the Victorians. In...



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