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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Romantic descent : poetry and the aesthetics of disappointment, 1790-1820 Mathes, Carmen Faye


Romantic Descent investigates disappointment as a minor, or non-cathartic, critical and aesthetic category in Romantic poetry and prose. Major aesthetic categories, long a focus of Romantic scholarship, have been understood to affirm individual self-cultivation and communal praxes of meaningful progress. However, recent work on affect has theorized alternative models for embodiment and relationality that have allowed new, radical and material, approaches to aesthetic phenomena. My dissertation critically intervenes in these developments by reconsidering Romanticism through its experimentation with disappointment as a negative aesthetic, and in so doing reveals a Romantic poetics of adjustment after the loss of an attachment to a self-affirming outcome or ideal future. Rather than start anew, such a poetics compels readers to persevere in encounters with difficulty, asking them to strive and struggle in ways both socially oriented and radically negative. Through close readings of eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philosophy, poetry, letters, and the occasional novel, this dissertation traces writers’ mobilizations and responses to aesthetic disappointment in myriad formal and conceptual ways: falling figures (allegory and metaphor); structural recursion (repetition and tautology); metrical irregularities (what Coleridge calls “downfalls”); and stilted or bathetic stylistic conventions. Such “descents” I situate in light of significant intellectual, social and political changes occurring in the period, including British and German responses to the revolutions in France and Haiti; changing cultures of reading; the tensions between philosophical skepticism and the Swabian educational system; and stylistic developments in Romantic theatre. As these contexts suggest, aesthetic activations of disappointment emerge on scales both national and coterie, and what is at stake in this dissertation are the diverse and unexplored affective relations captured but not quite contained by these writings. From Wordsworth’s sympathetic sinking alongside the suffering of slaves; to Coleridge’s projection of reading irregular meter as proprioceptive loss; Hölderlin’s calculated formal downturns; Keats’s affective reciprocity; and finally, Austen’s ironic censure of interrupted novel readers, this dissertation reveals how the critical and aesthetic category of disappointment responds to the dissonant sense between hope and fear, striving and failure, movement and suspension, that permeates Romantic literature.

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