Rethinking the concept of obscenity: the erotic subject and self-annihilation in the works of Blake, Shelley and Keats
This doctoral thesis aims to examine how certain sexual images and motifs commonly deemed “obscene” are represented as a unique aesthetic phenomenon in the works of English Romantic poets, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. It can be observed that sexual desire becomes an emblem that the Romantics use to rebel against political and religious oppression and to establish individual subjectivity free from the restraint of scientific rationalism, further accessing a transcendental state of the “Poetic Genius.” Departing from the long-established readings of sexual desire in the Romantic poetry, this thesis first situates the idea of obscenity in the historical contexts of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to reconceptualise it as an alternative form of aesthetics of self-annihilation correlated with the sublime. In the main chapters, by exploring the oft-ignored dark and violent aspects of eroticism in Blake’s Visions of the Daughters of Albion and Milton, Shelley’s The Cenci and Laon and Cythna, and Keats’s “Isabella” and “The Eve of St. Agnes,” I argue that “obscenity” emerge in English Romanticism as a unique aesthetic phenomenon of self-annihilation, particularly empowered in the experiences of sex, religious ecstasy, and poetic creation itself. The research results of this thesis delineate that in the works of these poets, religion, art, and eroticism form an essential trinity in the human psyche that constantly seeks to build, reshape, escape from, and eventually destroy existing identities. It also epitomises the desire to go beyond the status quo and the ordinary experience of limited selfhood. An examination of this heterogeneous trinity provides an alternative angle to approach other canonised literary works of English Romanticism and explore within them the elements that are “less canonised” and “obscene.” Furthermore, it resonates with the recent studies that have highlighted the material and somatic aspects in the Romantic poets and their works.