Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romanticism and the Triumph of Life Science: Prospects for Study

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

Romanticism and the Triumph of Life Science: Prospects for Study

Article excerpt

TO THE MAJORITY OF LITERARY SCHOLARS, THE FIELDS OF ROMANTIC LIFE science remain, along with their speculative import for future inquiry, subjects at once peripheral, discrete, and arcane. Published work on romantic life science by literary scholars even in recent years has been constrained, understandably, by the need to address the canonical writers and their somewhat familiar scientific associations--to Wordsworth's reading of Erasmus Darwin on the senses and his use of geometric symbols; to Coleridge's evocations of German natural philosophy and his interest in Blumenbach's theory of race; to Blake and prevailing theories of generation; to Byron, Cuvier and the catastrophists' obsession with revolutionary chaos; to the Shelleys, Davy's chemistry, Erasmus Darwin's botany, and vegetarianism; to Mary Shelley, monstrosity and obstetrics; to Keats, brain physiology and radical medicine. (1) Surely romantic life science deserves more, and more ranging, attention from us? And surely there could be many more studies of the literary consequences of this fertile science as we address an expanded canon? This essay, with collegial exhortation, will survey those subjects and avenues in the fields of romantic life science that can be mined, fruitfully, in future literary and cultural studies of the period. It will propose topics that are broadly philosophical as well as those that are specific to a given science; it will note exemplary but neglected work from the 1990s and earlier decades that remains both useful and seminal, along with primary bibliographical sources that can support future work; it will also attempt to shift the focus of inquiry away from the canonical and anglocentric to the pioneering scientific ideas shared by English and European life scientists of the period, and to the unexplored cultural concerns engendered by their speculations and propositions concerning life.

The Romantic Conception of Life (2003) by Robert J. Richards, with its wide-ranging and original discussions of the subject, is an ideal place to begin further study. Greg Garrard's 1997 essay, meanwhile, serves as an exemplary piece on the broad and speculative implications for the romantic period of botanical natural history detail. Impossibly titled "An Absence of Azaleas: Imperialism, Exoticism and Nativity in Romantic Biogeographical Ideology," Garrard's essay is an ingenious evocation of the social and political implications of the humble but originally exotic rhododendron in Britain. Brought to England from Asia (purportedly) in 1763 as a curious shrub, cultivated at Kew Gardens that soon-to-be "synecdoche of empire" among other "exotics" from British trading places, hybridized and introduced into the British countryside of Cumberland and Snowdonia during the romantic period, the rhododendron is now considered an alien junk weed (in all its nine hundred varieties!) by English Heritage gardeners; it is at once too native to English soil and not British enough in its origins; a harmful consequence of experiments in colonial hybridity, it is something to be rooted out or "clensed" from the Lake District. (2) Natural historian Carl Linnaeus deserves first blame here for he, first, sought to grow bananas, coffee and other tropical fruits in frigid Sweden, and lusted for coconuts that would sprout in Nordic air--as he declared, "should coconuts chance to come into my hands ... it would be as if fried Birds of Paradise flew into my throat when I opened my mouth." In Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (2000) Lisbet Koerner traces how Linnaeus sought to feed Sweden's peasants and advance his nation's natural history and gustatory empire through the agriculture of exotic fruits. Koerner's research is useful in its implications here because British natural historians followed Linnaeus' example in exotic cultivation, and they specifically used his theory of gradual acclimatization in alien environments for their own experiments in adaptation. (3)

Linnaean trials of acclimatization were preceded, of course, by the easy transportation of living plants between parallel geographies and conducive climates by the botanists of the Portuguese and Spanish empires. …

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