Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Linnaeus, Analogy, and Taxonomy: Botanical Naming and Categorization in Erasmus Darwin and Charlotte Smith

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Linnaeus, Analogy, and Taxonomy: Botanical Naming and Categorization in Erasmus Darwin and Charlotte Smith

Article excerpt

In his 1782 Ode XII "To a Friend," John Scott of Amwell celebrated botanizing with the Linnaean catalogue in hand:

   Oft we search'd Linnaeus' page;
   The Scanian Sage, whose wondrous toil
   Had class'd the vegetable race:
   And curious, oft from place to place,
   We rang'd, and sought each different soil,
   Each different plant intent to view,
   And all the marks minute to trace,
   Where he his nice distinctions drew. (1)

Considering that Carl Linnaeus designed his botanical textbooks to be portable so that they could be carried in the field, it is easy to envision Scott and his friend classing "each different plant" with book in hand according to the method of the Swedish botanist. (2) There is a real focus on specificity here, as flowers are parsed according to "marks minute" that can be described and counted by "curious" amateurs. In his translators preface to Rousseau's botanical letters, Thomas Martyn urged his readers to recognize the necessity of doing botany in order to understand its language, noting that "botany is not to be learned in the closet; you must go forth into the garden or the fields, and there become familiar with Nature herself." (3) This practical approach is frequently found in didactic texts from the period, such as Charlotte Smith's Rural Walks (1795) and Priscilla Wakefield's Introduction to Botany (1796), where the dramatic techniques of dialogues in natural scenes and letters recording lessons are used to present active botany.

Linnaean botany influenced poets of the late eighteenth century, including both Charlotte Smith and Erasmus Darwin, whose verses aim to transmit the active experience and knowledge of botany through natural description. Their verses demonstrate both the didactic possibilities and the visual challenges of botanical poetry. In his Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry (1777), John Aiken justifies the zoological focus of his own celebration of poetic natural imagery: "the vegetable creation, delightful as it is to the senses, and extensive in utility, yields comparatively few materials to the poet, whose art is principally defective in representing those qualities in which it chiefly excels; colour, scent, and taste." (4) For Aiken, then, the constraints of language limit the literary applications of botanical description, a struggle which can be seen in Smith's poetic and artistic depiction of flowers in Elegiac Sonnets (1784-1800). However, the botanical lessons in her Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804) and in Darwin's The Loves of the Plants (1789), a poem which brings personified plants to life, wield analogy in a positive engagement with Linnaean botany that visualizes and recreates plants on the poetic page.

This is, of course, not the first time that Linnaeus's influence upon British poets has been noted. Sam George, Amy King, and Jacqueline Labbe have all uncovered the impact of Linnaean botany on women's writing and education during the period. (5) Similarly, Theresa Kelley's Clandestine Marriage explores the reception and limitations of Linnaeus's artificial system, whilst Martin Priestman and Patricia Fara have considered the adoption of this system in The Loves of the Plants in particular. (6) Both Catherine Packham and Devin Griffiths have explored Darwin's use of analogy in The Loves of the Plants and Zoonomia (1794). (7) These studies have focused on three broad areas: the sexual analogy and its reception, didacticism in women's botanical writing and instructive personification in Darwin, and Darwin's division of poetic and philosophical analogy. Analogy has been understood in these contexts as a method of drawing similitudes and categories. However, attention to the use of binomial names, themselves a form of analogizing in Linnaeus's work, has received scant attention. Critics have noted Smith's use of binomial plant names in terms of her command of authority, but they tend to assume that her use of both English and Latin terms is fairly arbitrary. …

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