English, Department of


First Advisor

Stephen C. Behrendt

Date of this Version



A THESIS Presented to the Faculty of The Graduate College at the University of Nebraska In Partial Fulfillment of Requirements For the Degree of Master of Arts, Major: English, Under the Supervision of Professor Stephen C. Behrendt. Lincoln, Nebraska: May, 2019.

Copyright (c) 2019 Michelle E. Trantham


What defines humanity? Is it the soul? The body? In the early nineteenth century, these questions were not purely philosophical. Science, religion, politics, and literature were changing rapidly, and the question of “What is Life?” was central to the public and private pursuit of knowledge. One way to track the evolution of the question through the Romantic period is to look at the work of Dr. John Hunter, the originator of ‘vitalism’, which was the subject in the infamous the Lawrence-Abernethy debates. The question of life, and the nature of life, permeated the literary, scientific, and cultural spheres, influencing Romanticism at its core. Sir Humphry Davy, respected chemist and friend of the Wordsworth circle, contributed to the debate about life in his own research. Wordsworth and Coleridge weighed in through their poetry and prose. And not only Dr. John Polidori, but also Lord Byron and the Shelley Circle, had their thinking and writing shaped by this same anxiety surrounding how humanity should be defined.

Advisor: Dr. Stephen C. Behrendt