Describing an enduring moral puzzle and explaining how it helped to shape a key moment in the history of poetic drama, Fatal Autonomy represents Romanticism as a reckoning with the costs of individual agency. No moral calculus can ever fully determine the relation of events to an individual's actions and failures to act, William Jewett argues; that is why the stubborn belief in such a relationship gives rise to tragedy.
Jewett maintains that tragic drama forces its readers and viewers to confront the ways in which the use of language grants agency. The Romantic poets saw a moral challenge in that confrontation and followed its generic implications toward a new kind of poetry. Fatal Autonomy thus looks to Romantic drama to explain how Romantic poetry came to hold a permanent grip on conceptions of moral life. Tracing the source of major strains in British Romanticism to a politically charged body of dramatic poems, Jewett focuses on two historical moments: 1794-97, which he describes as the political turning point in the careers of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and 1819-22, the years in which he believes Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron wrote their best poetry.
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