AffiliationUniversity of Derby
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AbstractClare’s mental and physical health has long been a source of interest and contention in his critical reception. Approaches to his ‘madness’ have ranged from retroactive diagnoses of bipolar disorder, to interrogations of insanity as a discourse of clinical power. If the result of these debates is that critics are more willing to read pathology as performance, or even to suggest that Clare’s disorder might not have been straightforwardly ‘real’, then this essay asks what can be gained from returning to some fleeting claims about the poet’s mental and physical health that express a struggle between reality and imagination, but have not yet received sufficient attention. I refer here to suggestions, both from his contemporary moment and from his subsequent critical reception, that Clare was a hypochondriac. Clare has been overlooked in critical conversations that discuss the significance of hypochondria as a facet of the Romantic medical imagination and cultivation of ‘fashionable disease’ but, as I hope to show, hypochondria should be taken seriously as a conceptual lens through which to read his poetic imagination in relation to illness and disorder. Hypochondria occupies a distinct interpretative space of uncertainty and of literary associations that, this essay argues, is better able to approach Clare on his own terms. I consider hypochondria in two interrelated ways: as a social and literary culture that Clare wanted to participate in and that also framed some of his writing, and as a form of poetic imagination and attention that emerged from Clare’s anxious scrutiny of his own body and mind. I also explore, through a final reading of a sonnet Clare published in the London Magazine in 1821, how hypochondria can become an important lens through which to consider his lyric subjectivity, uncovering as it does the ambiguously pathological experiences or registers that might disrupt his observation of the natural world.
CitationLafford, E. (2020). 'Fancys or feelings': John Clare's hypochondriac poetics'. In Kovesi, S., and Lafford, E. (Eds.). 'Palgrave advances in John Clare Studies'. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 1-34.