Refusing Recovery in the “Palace of Disease”
(listen to the selection, read by the author)
During the early stages of my dissertation research, my bouts of chronic pain and brain fog became increasingly frequent and intense. At first, I worried that my scoliosis-related disabilities were progressing in a way that even my spine specialist had not anticipated and that I would experience the vertigo and migraines that left my mother hospitalized while we were still living abroad. Writing a dissertation on the history of vaccination forced me to confront my long-standing anxieties about my own precarious health, and as I spent so many of those fellowship years recumbent, I found myself frequently returning to eighteenth-century life-writing because of how it provided models for narrating the disorientation of illness and disability. As a poet, I wanted to know what poetic form could do with the seemingly formless states of pain and cognitive difference that have increasingly defined my experience of spinal curvature. The first writer to model how I could write from the experience of disability was William Hay whose Deformity: An Essay (1754) featured one of the very first expressions of disability pride in Britain. Hay’s essay boldly spoke from the position of spinal deformity to make a claim for disability’s value in improving Hay as a statesman and man of letters. To better understand how this work might be done through poetry, I found myself returning to the work of William Thompson (c. 1712-1766) whose epic poem on smallpox profoundly challenged my assumptions of what disability poetics can do to reimagine illness and disability beyond linear narratives of recovery.
William Thompson was born the son of Reverend Francis Thompson, a vicar in Westmoreland in the northwest part of England. Thompson received his MA in 1738 from Queen’s College, Oxford and would later become a fellow of the college. He would later become a parish rector in Oxfordshire. While Thompson published his collected poems in two volumes in 1757, he is best known for his 1745 epic poem Sickness: a Poem in Three Books1, in which he explores in blank verse the harrowing experience of having contracted a virulent case of smallpox. David Shuttleton, in his Smallpox and the Literary Imagination, 1660-1820, reads Sickness as Thompson’s transformation of a common, devotional verse form of thanksgiving by smallpox survivors into an epic poem of moral triumph that alludes to seventeenth-century poetic precedents like John Milton’s Paradise Lost and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene. Fitting for a man of faith, Shuttleton writes, and “unlike modern restitution narratives celebrating the ‘miraculous’ powers of medical science, Sickness affirms the healing power of Christ, presenting surviving smallpox as a stern reminder of mortality and a doctrinal lesson in the redemptive purpose of suffering.”2 The profound experience of smallpox and its accompanying disabilities like blindness are catalysts for spiritual transformation and revelation. Thompson’s convalescence prompts him to meditate on smallpox’s spiritual lessons that ultimately affirm a sound “theological model of redemptive, providential suffering.”3
For years, Shuttleton’s reading was the reading of Thompson’s understudied religious poem about smallpox, but what always unsettled me about both Shuttleton’s reading and Thompson’s own narrative of his miraculous recovery is the presumed “soundness” by which this providential model gets affirmed. I remain curious about Thompson’s decision to transform his own experience of smallpox into what reads like a gothic battle between good and evil. I remain even more skeptical than Shuttleton is about the poem’s purported resolution into spiritual and bodily health. As Shuttleton himself admits, “Thompson’s protracted tinkering with the original three-part sub-division of Sickness to create five books for the second edition of 1757 is indicative of a struggle to find the right structure to bring his disorienting experience under suitable narrative control.”4
While it is anachronistic to categorize Sickness as disability poetry before the formation of disability as a politicized identity category, I do so as a means of recovering how works like Thompson’s might inform the larger project of disability poetics continuing to develop now. In my reading of Sickness, the disorienting form of the poem, as well as its uneven narrative trajectory, work against curative resolution and even against Thompson’s own reparative desires that would align physical and moral wellbeing. This, to me, is the poem’s most crip quality—its formal experimentation draws into question the neatness of religious writing on illness. To frame this differently, why should we insist on the certainty of Thompson’s cure narrative at all if the poem itself offers unexpected resistance to its own belief in recovery and, to use Shuttleton’s term, “restitution” after major illness? If the purpose of pathography is to mend the narrative ruptures of a life impacted by illness, what would it mean to read Thompson’s Sickness as a poetic refusal of this restoration to health? Thompson’s emphasis on illness’ counterintuitive value underscores the limits of Christian Providential thinking that can accept no outcome other than redemption and recovery.
A crip approach demands that we question why Thompson frames illness’s value as a “school of Virtue” that “save[s] us as by fire: / And purifying off the dross of sin.”5 Health, Thompson suggests, is suspect for the way it deceives the healthy into overconfidence, pride, and ignorance. Without bodily provocation, there is little incentive toward the development of self-consciousness or of healthy habits. “Health’s the disease of morals,” Thompson proclaims in Book I, where he counterintuitively establishes both illness’s value and health’s risk.6 This inversion is strikingly crip in its claim for illness as a state of knowledge-making rather than purely the loss of self. The Christian framework provides a vocabulary for Thompson to narrate his experience of smallpox, but he reinterprets this framework in order to recast health as an invisible social ill only diagnosable when illness disrupts the day-to-day experience of the body. Such a poetic indictment of health raises questions about the very curative resolution Thompson imagines by the end of his epic poem. If we follow Thompson’s own logic, becoming healthy again is hardly the point. Rather, illness leaves the self permanently “sickened” in that health never quite feels or looks the same.
In one of Sickness’s most infamous episodes, Thompson confronts the personification of smallpox, Variola, in her gothic “Palace.”7 Characterized like Spenser’s Echidna as a monstrous female chimera, Variola echoes the familiar Christian trope of disease as sin originating with Eve. Variola’s handmaidens are of course “War,” “Intemperance,” “Melancholy,” “Fever,” and “Consumption.” The horror, Thompson underscores, is Variola’s insidious infiltration of the body via
Her pois’nous particles, of proper size,
Figure, and measure, to exert their pow’r
Of impregnation; atoms subtle, barb’d,
Infrangible, indented; by the laws
Mechanick, or by Geometrick rules
Yet undiscover’d: quick the ruin runs
Destructive of the solid, spirits, blood
Of mortal man, and agitates the whole
In general conflagration and misrule.8
Smallpox corrupts the body to the point that it is no longer recognizable—here in terms of a functioning biological machine whose “mechanicks” become reduced to a state of unruly dysfunction. Thompson’s masculine heroism persists in his suffering against the effeminizing force of disease, which is horrific precisely because it disfigures him. His “Human-field, the Body,” becomes the space upon which moral goodness wages “Contagious War” with disease to “beauties” great “waste.”9 While there is no slaying or razing of the “Palace,” Thompson underscores his heroism with a Jobian dignity—trial after trial, he perseveres and survives.
Yet, as much as Thompson laments how “Pain emptys all her vials on my head, / And steeps me o’er and o’er,” there is an explicit sense of pleasure that opens out into extended passages in Book III, which Thompson calls “Delirious Dreams” that spill into fantastical excess.10 This “steeping” in the very sensations of the sick body deviates from the coercive narrative of spiritual cleansing that marks Thompson’s redemption after smallpox. In a more reductive poetry-as-healing framework, there is no space meandering on the linear path to recovery; the meditations on disease’s pleasures and even benefits are reduced to anomalies in Thompson’s journey back to health. But as Shuttleton notes of Sickness’ structure, Thompson’s “poetic account does not conform to the neatly ordered chronology typically encountered in the diagnostic writings of contemporary physicians.”11 Thompson’s zooming into the intensities of illness refuses the easy narrative of diagnosis and treatment. Instead, Sickness inhabits what disability scholars have described as “crip time” or a tense relationship to normative time bound up with expectations of cure and recovery. Thompson imagines his fifteen days of smallpox in recursive, circular, and expansive terms that defy both medical and religious frameworks for understanding disease. I see this as a crip poetics before crip is supposed to exist—one that subversively coexists with an overwhelmingly moralistic cure narrative that will become more medicalized by the end of the eighteenth century. My crip poetics has embraced Thompson’s spirit of disorientation: of making strange the seemingly normative, neutral state of health, of reveling in the liminal states that constitute my experiences of chronic illness and disability.
- William Thompson, Sickness; a Poem in Three Books (London: R.Dodsley at Tully’s-head in Pall-mall, 1745).
- Smallpox and the Literary Imagination, 1660-1820. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007. 49.
- Shuttleton 52.
- Shuttleton 48.
- Thompson, Book I, lines 196-202.
- Thompson, Book I, line 206.
- Thompson Book I, lines 282-85.
- Thompson, Book I, lines 487-495.
- Thompson, Book II, lines 196-198.
- Thompson, Book II, lines 574-75.
- Shuttleton 64.
“Disability Futures in the Arts” is supported by the Canada Council for the Arts/Conseil des arts du Canada.
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About the Author
Travis Chi Wing Lau (he/him/his) is Assistant Professor of English at Kenyon College. His research and teaching focus on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British literature and culture, health humanities, and disability studies. Alongside his scholarship, Lau frequently writes for venues of public scholarship like Synapsis: A Journal of Health Humanities, Public Books, Lapham’s Quarterly, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. His poetry has appeared in Barren Magazine, Wordgathering, Glass, South Carolina Review, Foglifter, and The New Engagement, as well as in two chapbooks, The Bone Setter (Damaged Goods Press, 2019) and Paring (Finishing Line Press, 2020 forthcoming). Visit his website at: travisclau.com.