Exploring the Parallels between Christina Rossetti’s Literary and Somatic Expressions of Graves’ Disease

Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), a Victorian poet, was always plagued by poor health, and her mid-life episode of life-threatening illness (1870-1872) when she suffered from Graves’ illness provides an illuminating case study of the ways in which poetry and prose can represent illness. Rossetti, her relatives, and her doctors understood the disease of Graves as a heart condition; but the writing of Rossetti represents a different model, introducing themes of self-attack and a fractured self that uncannily echo the current perception of the disease of Graves as autoimmune in nature. Interestingly, these imaginative depictions indicate an interpretation of this disease mechanism that could not have been understood through Rossetti’s family records and the history of Victorian medicine. Rossetti ‘s writing started to use modern rhetoric and imagery of self-acceptance and hardship as a way of personal improvement after the crisis had ended. This essay addresses the similarities that exist between Literary and somatic metaphors: the body and art of Rossetti are always “saying” the same thing simultaneously, the physical symptoms somatically reflecting the same dynamic reflected in Rossetti ‘s artistic writing in metaphor and narrative. Such a well-documented history of cases poses concerns about how paradigms of disease that are not available to the conscious mind can influence writing. We currently accept that the unconscious mind can be an significant source of artistic creativity: is it possible that the unconscious physical operations of the body in a creative person may also be a source of metaphor? This diverse subject is truly interdisciplinary, as we aim to better understand ways of transmitting disease, raising questions in fields ranging from medicine and cognitive science to philosophy, language theory, literary critique, and aesthetics.

Author (s) Details

Mary Arseneau
Department of English, Hamelin Hall, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON K1N 6N5, Canada.

Dr. Emery Terrell
Faculty of Medicine, Roger Guindon Hall, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, ON K1H 8M5, Canada.

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