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Organic Form and Romanticism

Denise Gigante

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What makes something alive?  Or, more to the point, what is life? The question is as old as the ages and has not been (and may never be) resolved. Life springs from life, and liveliness motivates matter to act the way it does. Yet vitality in its very unpredictability often appears as a threat. In this intellectually stimulating work, Denise Gigante looks at how major writers of the Romantic period strove to produce living forms of art on an analogy with biological form, often finding themselves face to face with a power known as monstrous.


The poets Christopher Smart, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats were all immersed in a culture obsessed with scientific ideas about vital power and its generation, and they broke with poetic convention in imagining new forms of “life.” In Life: Organic Form and Romanticism, Gigante offers a way to read ostensibly difficult poetry and reflects on the natural-philosophical idea of organic form and the discipline of literary studies.

Denise Gigante is associate professor of English, Stanford University, author of Taste: A Literary History and editor of The Great Age of the English Essay: An Anthology, both published by Yale University Press.

"The idea of the organic has troubled critics from Coleridge through Walter Pater on to their modern scholars. Denise Gigante's Life brings extraordinary clarity and renewed force to this traditional perplexity."—Harold Bloom

"Life develops an important subject with much persuasive force, making use of extensive and careful research. It demonstrates that concepts of 18th-century vitalistic biology are essential to understanding the forms of major Romantic poems."—Karl Kroeber, Columbia University

"Moving gracefully from Smart's animals to Keats' magnetic monsters, this brilliant book asks what the Romantic poets—or anyone—might mean by the deep and easy word 'life.'"—Michael Wood, Princeton University

"Considering how Romantics sought to understand the essence of life and how it originated, Gigante . . . provides a close examination of the concept of life, where life begins, and how "life force" is determined, as viewed through the prism of Romantic ideals of the late-18th and early-19th centuries. . . . An excellent addition to the literature on British Romantic authors, this book affords 21st-century readers a look into the world of writers who continue to influence writers today."—J. Coghill, Choice

"Gigante succeeds nonetheless in introducing the fruitful and highly suggestive concept of an epigenesist poetics."—John Holmes, The British Journal for the History of Science

"Gigante's book is marvelously lucid and accessible, a brand of scholarship that matches rigorous textual historical analysis with a style of consistently transparent argumentation...Gigante offers intimate, tightly knit series of close readings that evidence how the legibility of life can only be grasped as a compelx process of poetic formalization."--Jacques Khalip, The Wordsworth Circle

“…… [An] excellent book…..well written and consistently insightful.”—Year’s Work in English Studies

"Impressively broad in its interdisciplinary research and intrepid in its call to redefine our critical paradigms, Gigante's book is also lucidly readable in its arguments. . . . This provocative, fascinating, and beautifully written study deserves our careful attention both for its subtle and powerful uses of history and its claim to transform the future of Romantic studies."—Nancy Moore Goslee, Studies in Romanticism
ISBN: 9780300136852
Publication Date: May 19, 2009
336 pages, 5.5 x 8.25
5 b/w and 16 color illus.

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