Friday, 20 January 2012

Reading Group Report: Romantic Poetry & Science

 'Enlisting Imagination under the Banner of Science'
19 January 2012

Led by Leanne Stokoe (Newcastle)

Leanne opened the session with a short overview of Erasmus Darwin, Sir Humphrey Davy, and Percy Bysshe Shelley, introducing us to their activities in the spheres of both science and literature and setting out some points of intersection to be discussed further. We first noted the archaic style of Darwin’s poetry, his appropriation of earlier poetic forms, and discussed the possible reasons for this stylistic choice. Then discussion widened to query the title of the session, drawn from Darwin’s ‘Advertisement’ to his 1791 publication of The Botanic Garden: ‘The general design of the following sheets is to enlist Imagination under the banner of Science’. We talked about the implications of enlisting imagination for the purposes of science, and asked whether it is more apt to think of science being enlisted for the subject or style of imaginative works, and spoke about the importance of this linguistic twist and its different weighting in the early nineteenth century, the later nineteenth century, and in our own current environment. We also noted the connotations of the terms ‘enlist’ and ‘banner’ in relation to the contemporary political climate.

Attention then moved towards the wider question of the transmission of data into artistic form. Broadly, we discussed what it means to transmit scientific data into the imaginative realm, highlighting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s distinction between the vulgar copy and the favoured ‘imitation’ of nature. In the latter, it is the process of transformation which the subject undergoes from data (be it scientific or sensory) to artistic and imaginative representation which is important. This led us to mention the renewal of the daffodil between Dorothy and William Wordsworth in their writing; Richard Menke’s essay in this book provides a further elucidation of this point. We then looked in detail at the extracts Leanne provided, noticing the impact of scientific references and their role in the poems. We highlighted the cyclical movement from chemical and mechanistic language to more organic and physiological terms in Davy’s ‘Lo! O’er the Earth’ (1801). Further, the distinctly poetic form of Darwin’s Index to Part II of The Botanic Garden (‘The Loves of the Plants’, 1789) was highlighted.

Whilst talking of form in the extracts, we discussed the arrangement of Darwin’s The Botanic Garden and compared it to Shelley’s Queen Mab (1813). The former presents its notes alongside the poetry, whereas Shelley was adamant that the notes must be kept separate and at the back of the poem. The differing reading experience of this form was then mentioned, and we linked Shelley’s arrangement to his sentiment expressed in a letter to Hookham (26 Jan 1813, I, 350): ‘The notes to Queen Mab will be long and philosophical. I shall take that opportunity which I judge to be a safe one of propagating my principles, which I decline to do syllogistically in a poem. A poem very didactic is I think very stupid’. The reaction here was read with reference to the earlier form of Darwin’s arrangement in which the poem and its notes are literally read alongside each other.

Finally, we talked about the importance of language and signification. Fixing upon this line in Darwin’s Notes: ‘When air is expanded in the air-pump, or water evaporated in steam, they drink up or absorb a great quantity of heat’, we spoke about how descriptions of these types of experiments and their reactions would later be coined endothermic. The importance of naming things, of defining and thereby setting boundaries, was key to our discussion as it demonstrates the protean spheres of the sciences and the arts in this period. After all, the term ‘scientist’ was only coined in 1834 by William Whewell, a number of years after the extracts we had been discussing.

Although we didn’t get chance to discuss in detail the letters from Southey and Coleridge to Davy which Leanne provided, their spirit of excitement and curiosity as to the latest experiments and findings encapsulate the openness between these two discourses. ‘When you write, and do write soon, tell me how I can get your Essay on the Nitrous Oxide. […] Are your Galvanic discoveries important? What do they lead to?’ Southey writes (Oct 9, 1880). Ardency for discovery and a keen interest in modes of expression was something shared by both literature and the sciences, and it is perhaps this mirrored drive to find an adequate system of language which makes this such an interesting topic for study and critical debate – thanks to Leanne for a well-selected programme of extracts to enable this.

Nicole Bush (Northumbria)


  1. I'd just like to pass on a recommendation from Jodie Laird (Newcastle) about the following book: 'How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Infomatics' by N. Katherine Hayles (U of Chicago P, 1999). Details found here: and an excerpt here:

    As Jodie points out, although this book deals with a much later period, its examination and theorisation of the 'feedback loops' between literature and science may be interesting to those who want to read further into the topic of Leanne's reading group session.

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