Romantic Poet Legislators: An End of Torture

Julie A. Carlson

in Speaking about Torture

Published by Fordham University Press

Published in print September 2012 | ISBN: 9780823242245
Published online January 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780823242283 | DOI:
Romantic Poet Legislators: An End of Torture

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This chapter considers the resurgence of debates regarding the legitimacy of torture in the context of British Romantic-era affirmations of the centrality of imagination and the arts to social policy legislation. It examines anarchist philosopher and novelist William Godwin’s engagement in Book 7 of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) with Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments (1764), the book long credited with galvanizing the movement to abolish torture in Enlightenment Europe. It then reads radical poet and son-in-law Percy Shelley’s family tragedy The Cenci (1819), the best literary treatment of torture in the period and one of the darkest plays on record as an endorsement of imaginative sympathy understood in a Shelleyan light: as actively seeking difference or “before unapprehended” connections between things. It delineates how Shelley’s poet legislators affect a culture’s ability to imagine difference differently so that one does not have to envision torture victims as one’s family members in order to provoke taking action against torture.

Keywords: Poet legislator; Imagination; Sympathy; Simile; Non-violence; Cesare Beccaria; William Godwin; Percy Bysshe Shelley; The Cenci

Chapter.  11541 words. 

Subjects: Literary Theory and Cultural Studies

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