Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Nancy Yousef

Subject Categories

English Language and Literature


play, Romanticism, The Prelude, Wordsworth


"Fits of Vulgar Joy": Play Anxiety in the Romantic Poets considers the crucial but neglected role of play as a component of the imaginative faculty and as related to the development of moral sensibility in the Romantic era. It examines the Spieltrieb ("play drive") in the works of Coleridge, Rousseau, Wordsworth, Shelley, and John Clare to explore the tension between what is explicitly stated about the relationship between play, intersubjectivity, and aesthetics, and how play is actually depicted in the poetry and essays of the Romantic era. It works to identify how and with what objective the Romantics differentiated so minutely between play, fancy, imagination, and art, investigating the gravity with which the authors worked to parse these variances.

Although the Romantics generally emphasized the influence of childhood on the development of poetic sensibility and heralded the role of "free play" in the imagination, I demonstrate that representations of ludic activity in Wordsworth's Prelude (1805), for example, indicates a deep ambivalence about the spontaneous, chaotic creative impulse typically called "play."

The approach I use is fundamentally interdisciplinary and utilizes play theory, object relations, and the work of Kant, Gadamer, Plato, and Schiller. I also draw from a myriad of primary texts: in addition to readings of The Prelude (1805) and Shelley's "Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation," for example, I examine Rousseau's Emile, in which the destructive potential of play originates in childish vanity-- a paradigm which eerily parallels the English response to Rousseau's infamous reputation. Child's play within nature is acted out in John Clare's "The Progress of Ryhme" and Wordsworth's Boy of Winander through the mimicry of nightingale song and owls' hoots, respectively. Wordsworth uses the eventual death of the boy to mark the end of play and the beginning of poetry. In Clare's work, the poet is paralyzed in grief over his inability to retain that undirected creativity, that harmonious existence within the Helpston fields which marked his childhood. Finally, Shelley's "Julian and Maddalo: A Conversation" offers a departure from these more perplexed examples. Maddalo's daughter reveals the profundity of silent play, but to the comparative denigration of poetics.

The Romantic paradox of play reveals itself in patterns in which effortless frivolity gives way to something more subversive or melancholy. Most often the ludic is inextricably tied to the adult poet's acknowledgement of his exile from nature and his own former, creative, aimless self. These changes are depicted as necessarily accompanying maturation, making possible one's entrance into society and the development of responsible citizenship. The Romantic texts which preoccupy this project collapse those elements which are determined antithetical to the process of maturation -- that which is hedonistic, chaotic, selfish, myopic, excessive-- and deliver it to the reader in the form of child's play.