Romanticism and Cultures of Popular Magic in the 1790s

  • Stephanie Churms

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This thesis offers a historicist engagement with both canonical and non-canonical authors of the 1790s with the aim of revealing the investment of the period’s imaginative writing in contemporary cultures of popular magic. It is a subject Romantic Studies has too long neglected. The Introduction profiles this neglect and reveals the richness of the field for historicist literary study. The first chapter proceeds to offer a profile of the dynamic contours and intersections of various modalities of popular occult practice, from cunning men and women to astrologers and conjurors, and taxonomises the available evidence. The emphasis is on both the material economies of such practices and the forms in which they gained complex literary representation. In Chapter 2, an analysis of the cultural resonance of popular magic in the formative public debates of the 1790s is followed by a case study of John Thelwall’s adoption of the persona of ‘conjuror’ as a response to political exile and personal disillusionment. This leads, in chapters 3 and 4, to an excavation of Wordsworth’s and Coleridge’s 1798 Lyrical Ballads that brings into view its complex and conflicted attitudes to popular magic. A radical disjunction between the two poets is identified in their differing responses to, and deployments of, material occult culture in fascinatingly transatlantic contexts. While Wordsworth came to look on the adoption of occult identities as potentially empowering for disenfranchised subjects, Coleridge anxiously regarded the superstition on which such identities relied as mentally incarcerating – a view complicated by his own guilty apostasy. Chapter 5 moves to consider Robert Southey’s negotiations with Lyrical Ballads and his engagement with a non-domestic occult through which he articulated his own contested public identity at the close of the 1790s. One of the main aims of the thesis is to defamiliarise orthodox readings of Romantic literature by offering a new lens through which to read the period’s imaginative productions against the background of sub-cultures neglected by literary critics and only recently recovered by social historians.
Date of Award10 Oct 2016
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Aberystwyth University
SupervisorDamian Walford Davies (Supervisor) & Richard Marggraf Turley (Supervisor)

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