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ENL 3230
British Literature 1616-1780


Reading Assignment:

    George Cheyne, from The English Malady (1733)
    See handout. (First edition Demaria, p. 659.)

    Anne Finch, The Spleen (1713)
    Demaria, p. 344

    DUE: Weekly Post #13 Scotland and Ireland

The writings for this week highlight the issue of the emotions and the relationship between the body and the mind. The excerpt by George Cheyne labels the distemper of the nerves -- what we might call depression -- Vapours, the Spleen or melancholia, a specifically upper class disease. The poem by Anne Finch, addresses the psychological state of excessive emotion or sensitivity in an elaborate and detailed ode.

With their emphasis on emotion rather than reason these works offer a view of human psychology that challenges the writers who focus on reason. Cheyne and Finch recognize the power of emotion, and sometimes register fear, sometimes frustration. Although the prose will undoubtedly be easier to read, I want to focus our discussion on Finch's poem. Please work through the vocabulary and syntax carefully, and remember that the first level of reading the poem requires comprehension of the literal meaning. Mark the places that raise questions or create difficulties for you, and we will address these in class.

Notes and Discussion Questions:


In Cheyne's influential work, The English Malady: or, a Treatise of Nervous Diseases of all Kinds, as Spleen, Vapours, Lowness of Spirits, Hypochondriacal Distempers (1733), the doctor argues that this particular phenomenon of melancholy is on the rise in his era and due specifically to the causes of luxury and laziness among the upper classes. Note how he assigns material causes for the psychological state. What moral judgments does he make about the distemper?

What role does colonial power or world trade play in the malady? ("we have ransacked all the Parts of the Globe to bring together its whole Stock of Materials for Riot, Luxury and to provoke Excess" p. 660). What are the implications of this argument?

Observe Cheyne's use of language in describing the effects of various conditions, such as rich and foreign foods or overcrowded urban filth. For example: "All which must necessarily sharpen, impoison, corrupt, and putrify their natural Juices and Substances" (660). What is the significance of such word choice?

What are the physical manifestations of the condition?

How does wealth contribute to the disease?

Cheyne argues that all civilizations that introduce luxury and laziness ultimately suffer from this disease of the mind. The historical trajectory looks like this: ingenuity, politeness, effeminacy, luxury, disease, medicine. What are the implications of this order? What causes and effects does he assign for melancholy? What are the broader cultural benefits and costs?



What is an Ode? What are the implications of the form? What does it mean for Finch to write an ode to the Spleen? What is the speaker's tone?

Examine the comparision in line 2 between the psycho-physiological state of the Spleen and Proteus. What are the characteristics of Proteus? What meaning does the comparison then give to the Spleen?

Recall Pope's Cave of Spleen in The Rape of the Lock. How does his satiric allegory compare with Finch's lyric? What does the comparison suggest about the culture's attitude toward this psychological disease?

How does the spleen manifest itself in lines 1-19 -- what forms? what emotions?

Who are the victims of Spleen remembered in this poem? What is the point of including Brutus?

How does the poem describe the mental faculties of pre-lapsarian humanity? What changes after the Fall?

What are the gendered implications in the description of lines 53-63?

Compare Finch's description of fools and wits and poets (including herself in line 74) with Cheyne's argument on the causes of melancholia.

Lines 81-89 describe the female poet's unlikely commitment to her art. What is the context for this choice? What are the implications of these lines?

The poet contrasts the "fantastic Harms" (112) of the Spleen with its more "dire effects" (115). What are the serious consequences of the distemper? How does the disease achieve this effect?

What are the methods for treating the spleen and how effective are they?

She closes with an image of the Physician Lower, who was dedicated to understanding the disease. What happens to him? What are the implications for closing the poem this way?

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