Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The "Fellowship of Sense": Anna Letitia Barbauld and Interspecies Community

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

The "Fellowship of Sense": Anna Letitia Barbauld and Interspecies Community

Article excerpt

THROUGH CONCERTED SCHOLARLY EFFORTS SINCE THE 1990S, ANNA Letitia Barbauld's poetry has regained its richly deserved canonical status after what William McCarthy has termed "more than a century of near-total obliteration." (1) McCarthy and Olivia Murphy's coedited collection of critical essays about Barbauld marks a watershed in Barbauld scholarship and simultaneously illustrates the enduring relevance of her poems in the context of the twenty-first century. Due primarily to the poet's multifarious engagements in contemporary dissenter politics, science, moral and aesthetic philosophy, literary taste, and education in late-eighteenth-century Britain, her poems display a wide range of topics and voices. Among those, Barbauld's concerns with nonhuman species are prominent and take on increasing exigency, especially when read in the context of recent posthumanist scholarship advocating environmental ethics. (2)

Scholarly responses to Barbauld's treatment of the nonhuman have varied widely. Sylvia Bowerbank, Darren Howard, and Michelle Levy have construed the animal presence within Barbauld's poems and prose works as an apt vehicle to enlighten and educate children. (3) Similarly, Felicity James and Ian Inkster highlight Barbauld's symbolic significance as a Unitarian educator who deftly employed the trope of personification primarily for a pedagogical purpose. (4) With a focus on the Scientific Revolution, Julia Saunders and Mary Ellen Bellanca place Barbauld's animal poems within eighteenth-century women's engagement in science, moral philosophy, and theorization of feelings. (5) Indeed, the emotions of pity, sympathy, and benevolence Barbauld expresses in the face of vulnerable, helpless creatures are connected to crucial cultural discourses of sentiment that had been prominent in Britain since the mid-eighteenth century. Building on such historicist readings of Barbauld's treatment of nonhuman species, Laura Mandell and Alice G. Den Otter respectively investigate the intersection of the political and the literary: the former persuasively articulates the political dimension of Barbauld's use of personification, a literary device designed to "stimulate political activism" by contesting the status quo. (6) Den Otter, in a similar vein, connects Barbauld's representation of the caterpillar to contemporary British sympathy with the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte and the concomitant efforts at pest control in late eighteenth-century Britain. (7) Under the banner of disparate theoretical practices, these scholars share the common assumption that nonhuman species play a predominantly representational role in Barbauld's animal poems, providing Barbauld with a poetic subject instrumental for her references to supposedly broad and significant human realms of social and ethical concern. For example, the caterpillar--probably the most often-discussed poetic object in Barbauld's animal poems--has long been read as a metonym for suffering political subjects in the 1790s, including dissenters, women, slaves, and Corsicans.

This essay, however, argues that Barbauld's animal poems elucidate an eighteenth-century posthumanist formulation of self and community, one that arises from the poet's ability to register the beauty and vitality manifested in nonhuman species. (8) The birds, insects, flowers, and trees that populate Barbauld's poetry and prose constitute an integral part of both her ethical and aesthetic concerns. (9) Focusing on encounters between human observers and nonhuman creatures in poems like "The Caterpillar" (1816) and "The Mouse's Petition" (1773), I assert that these poetic meeting points epitomize a two-way street where a nonhuman tames a human subjectivity in profoundly ethical ways. (10) Conversely, Barbauld also reveals how the ethical human subject--one who discerns nonhuman agency and vitality--can help to create an affective community in which species differences are properly addressed and respected. …

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