Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Roaring Alligators and Burning Tygers: Poetry and Science from William Bartram to Charles Darwin1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Roaring Alligators and Burning Tygers: Poetry and Science from William Bartram to Charles Darwin1

Article excerpt

THIS WONDERFUL EXHIBITION, Stuffing Birds, Pressing Plants, Shaping Knowledge: Natural History in North America, 1730-1860, reminds us how much the early years of America were described in terms of a new vision of the natural world. Natural history was central to our emerging national identity: Jefferson's mastodon, giant ground sloth, and fossil bison, all of which would be used to prove to the comte de Buffon back in Paris that North America did not represent some degenerate version of the Old World; Charles Willson Peale's turkey and Alexander Wilson's bald eagle, vying for ascendancy as symbols for the new nation; and the wonderful painting of Peale himself, pulling back his massive red curtain to reveal, not only the treasures of this new world, but the painter's palette that would be used to render them artistically for posterity. As we walk through this exhibition we see not only printed works of science, but also a wide range of cultural, artistic, and literary productions: botanical and zoological specimens, astonishing works of visual art, children's books, poetry, personal letters. As these objects suggest, developments in natural history, and related progress in experimental science, had a greater impact on the literature of this period than has been fully recognized. Likewise, natural science from 1730 to 1860 relied more directly on literary images and on figurative thinking than we might at first imagine.

We often assume that Charles Darwin announced a new era in human understanding of the natural world with the publication of On the Origin of Species (1859). In fact, Darwin's theory was the culmination of decades of scientific speculation about connections between human beings and nonhuman nature. In addition, Darwin provided a systematic explanation for ideas that had been developing over several centuries. These ideas were reflected not only in the work of natural scientists, philosophers, and theologians, but also in the images and ideas of poets, novelists, and visual artists. Nature writers, for example, drew on complex and conflicting definitions of nature in order to describe their experiences of the nonhuman world. Likewise, scientists regularly employed poetic or religious terms to present their empirical and speculative findings. The American Philosophical Society participated deeply and directly in these developments in America by bringing together thinkers from a wide range of intellectual backgrounds and pursuits for the purpose of "promoting useful knowledge."

We should recall, however, that the early decades of the Society were also the years during which William Wordsworth corresponded with Humphry Davy, while Davy was making a number of his most significant chemical discoveries: electrolysis, magnesium, nitrogen, and nitrous oxide (laughing gas), which Davy tried out on Samuel Taylor Coleridge among others. At the same time, the scientist Davy was writing and publishing numerous lyric poems in imitation of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Indeed, other natural scientists like Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley showed an interest in, or skill as practitioners of, the literary arts. Meanwhile, the poet Coleridge was attending almost every lecture on physiology being offered at the time in London. When asked why he went to so many scientific meetings, Coleridge replied, "To increase my stock of metaphors." Percy Shelley experimented with chemicals and "electrical machines" in his rooms at Oxford, and his wife Mary was discussing Erasmus Darwin and the Italian electrobiologist Luigi Galvani on the night she first imagined Frankenstein and his monster. Likewise, many of the poets we have come to think of as "Romantic," and certainly all of those best known then and now as "nature writers," had a keen interest in the serious science of their own times. Let me now offer several examples of the interconnections between science and poetry in the decades represented by this exhibition.

William Bartram was the American natural historian and author who had perhaps as much impact on Romantic writing as any other eighteenth-century naturalist. …

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