Poetry and Delirium

I felt there was a neat connection between some of the poems found here and the Second Part to Arthur Mervyn, (shades of Arthur Mervyn and his being shot)

“Doctors raving and disputing, death’s pale army still recruiting–

What a pother

One with t’other!

Some a-writing, some a-shooting.”

– Philip Freneau Philadelphia, 1793

however what is more revealing are the discrepancies between Arthur Mervyn and some of these works that illustrate a more intense scene of chaos and despair than in Arthur Mervyn where often plague takes a back seat to character conflict.

Hot, dry winds forever blowing,

Dead men to the grave-yards going:

Constant hearses,

Funeral verses;

Oh! what plagues—there is no knowing!

– Philip Freneau Philadelphia, 1793

Also, with an eye to the medical aspect of the plague and the passage where Arthur journeys to Baltimore, it is interesting to note the actual symptoms of yellow fever which include “brain dysfunction, including delirium, seizures and coma” but also that there are two distinct stages of the disease in between which there is a brief respite where all the symptoms all but disappear, a bizarre ‘eye of the storm’, if you like.

 

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  1. Nice find. I’m glad you brought in those Freneau poems. Another poem I kept thinking about over the last few weeks, but less directly related, is Blake’s “London.” Mervyn gives us some pretty gripping plague scenes, but his take on urban life itself seems far less bleak than Blake’s.

    I’m glad you guys brought up the issue of fever symptoms as well. We didn’t talk much about black vomit over the last few weeks. When Brown’s friend EH Smith was dying of yellow fever he coughed up black vomit and exclaimed: “Decomposition!” I’ve always found it interesting that Mervyn seems to narrate himself in the opposite direction: he becomes more composed as the novel goes on. He uses that vocabulary as well, as if his habits of writing and truth telling end up giving him shape and substance. Of course, according to many readers that would all just be a clever performance …

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