Natural Histories of Form

Natural Histories of Form: Charles Darwin’s Aesthetic Science

by Ian Duncan

Arguing that aesthetic preference generates the historical forms of human racial and gender difference inThe Descent of Man, Charles Darwin offers an alternative account of aesthetic autonomy to the Kantian or idealist account. Darwin understands the aesthetic sense to be constitutive of scientific knowledge insofar as scientific knowledge entails the natural historian’s fine discrimination of formal differences and their dynamic interrelations within a unified system. Natural selection itself works this way, Darwin argues inThe Origin of Species; in The Descent of Man he makes the case for the natural basis of the aesthetic while relativizing particular aesthetic judgments. Libidinally charged—in Kantian phrase, “interested”—the aesthetic sense nevertheless comes historically adrift from its functional origin in rites of courtship.

The essay begins:

In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Charles Darwin sought to write the definitive version of an experimental genre of philosophical anthropology, the “natural history of man,” pioneered—and disputed—in the late Enlightenment by the Comte de Buffon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, Johann Gottfried Herder, Immanuel Kant, and other major thinkers as the realization of a universal science of man. With the delivery of human species being to secular history and geography, the old question of human exceptionalism had come to bear with a new urgency on the point at which, and means by which, the human emerges from animal life and comes into its own. Friedrich Schiller’s treatise On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, 1795) forged a crucial link between this philosophical anthropology and divergent traditions, scientific and humanist, of nineteenth-century aesthetic inquiry. Where the history of man splintered among competing disciplinary claims on scientific authority, Schiller’s reframing of its main question, human becoming, as a project of individual development—an education—established a program for the modern humanities or liberal arts. The humanist legacy of the Aesthetic Education is well studied. Less so is its anticipation of Darwin’s key idea, that the aesthetic sense is the medium of a specifically human evolution, in The Descent of Man. More is at stake in the comparison between Schiller’s and Darwin’s conjectural histories of human emergence than an accounting of possible influence. Scrutiny of their common concerns and differences illuminates the originality of Darwin’s own contribution—still insufficiently appreciated—to nineteenth-century aesthetic theory.

On the Aesthetic Education of Man posits an instinct or faculty Schiller calls the “play-drive” (Spieltrieb), which affords the full realization of human nature through the aesthetic apprehension of form. The last letters of the Aesthetic Education sketch a conjectural natural history of this coming-into-humanity. The play-drive originates in animal life, in the body, in the “sheer plenitude of vitality, when superabundance of life is its own incentive to action.” Overflowing physiological function, the life force manifests itself as play. In the case of humans, it springs beyond the determinations of biology (need) and anthropology (custom):

Not content with introducing aesthetic superfluity into objects of necessity, the play-drive as it becomes ever freer finally tears itself away from the fetters of utility altogether, and beauty in and for itself alone begins to be an object of his striving. Man adorns himself. Disinterested and undirected pleasure is now numbered among the necessities of existence, and what is in fact unnecessary soon becomes the best part of his delight. (211) 

Torn from the fetters of utility, beauty in and for itself alone: Schiller’s conjectural history yields the dominant conception of the aesthetic in nineteenth-century writing—a crux, as we shall see, in recent accounts of sexual selection, the agency Darwin identified as shaping human evolution, by historians and philosophers of science.

Commentary on the Aesthetic Education of Man has downplayed Schiller’s late turn to natural history, in which the aesthetic apprehension of form marks the transition from the animal to the human state. Discussions of the work’s Victorian legacy tend to prioritize one of the terms of Schiller’s title over the other, the aesthetic or education. The aesthetic education provides a disciplinary program for what Herder called a Bildung der Humanität, a “formation of humanity” or evolutionary perfection of human species being, in his most ambitious of late-Enlightenment philosophical anthropologies, Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit (Ideas for a philosophy of the history of mankind). Pedagogical projects to foster and direct “the general harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature” in the individual person—constituting “our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality”—supply the precondition for projects of social and political reform in the best-known Victorian version of the aesthetic education, Matthew Arnold’s. In Culture and Anarchy Arnold pays tribute to Schiller’s legacy in the educational system bequeathed to the Prussian state by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Later Victorian affirmations of the aesthetic reacted against its conscription into didactic programs and regulative systems. Schiller’s Twenty-Second Letter became a “locus classicus for Victorian aesthetes,” according to Angela Leighton, as they sought to repatriate aesthetic experience to individual sensuous life. “In a truly successful work of art, the content should effect nothing, the form everything,” Schiller wrote, defining “the real secret of the master in any art: that he can make his form consume his material” (155–57). The Oxford editors of the Aesthetic Education note that the biological metaphor implicit in Schiller’s word vertilgen, “consume,” that is, digest, metabolize, disappears in Victorian reformulations, which “make it sound as though Schiller wants to empty art of subject-matter if not of content” (267; clxxvi). “To make form obliterate, or annihilate, the matter will be the difficult, sometimes guilty, sometimes provocative, aim of Schiller’s aestheticist followers,” Leighton comments, citing Walter Pater and Oscar Wilde.

The triumph of form over content or material in order to constitute it as the proper object of aesthetic attention points behind Schiller to Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment, which prescribes form’s purification from contingent sensuous interest. More decisively than Schiller, Kant wrested the aesthetic away from its earlier modern meaning of “sensitive cognition” or “sensuous knowledge” (Alexander Baumgarten’s term), by positing sensuous intuition (the imagination) and cognition (the understanding) as distinct faculties, to prescribe the alignment of subjective perception with universal norms of judgment. German idealism broke with a largely British empiricist tradition of scientific aesthetics, developed in eighteenth-century medico-physiological treatises, which grounded aesthetic effects in sensation and the body—in William Hogarth and in Edmund Burke, the sexed and gendered body. The empiricist tradition, with its conception of aesthetic form as “a concordance between the human mind or body and the order of nature,” continued however to flourish in nineteenth-century Britain. Scholarship “has continued to under-estimate the importance of physiological and evolutionary aesthetics in shaping discussions of art and beauty in the 1870s and 1880s,” writes Jonathan Smith, citing John Ruskin’s late work Proserpina. Benjamin Morgan recovers the links between canonical writers on aesthetics, including Ruskin and Pater, and Victorian scientific materialists, whose “aspiration to uncover a formal patterning in nature eventually extended to an interest in a physiological patterning of the body and the nervous system, whose attunement or non-attunement to nature’s forms provided one explanation for the experience of beauty or ugliness.” Continue reading …

IAN DUNCAN is Florence Green Bixby Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the editorial board of Representations. His books include Modern Romance and Transformations of the Novel (Cambridge, 1992); Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton, 2007); and, most recently, Human Forms: The Novel in the Age of Evolution (Princeton, 2019).

New from Ian Duncan!

Human Forms
The Novel in the Age of Evolution

by Ian Duncan

A major rethinking of the European novel and its relationship to early evolutionary science

The 120 years between Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871) marked both the rise of the novel and the shift from the presumption of a stable, universal human nature to one that changes over time. In Human Forms, Ian Duncan reorients our understanding of the novel’s formation during its cultural ascendancy, arguing that fiction produced new knowledge in a period characterized by the interplay between literary and scientific discourses—even as the two were separating into distinct domains.

Duncan focuses on several crisis points: the contentious formation of a natural history of the human species in the late Enlightenment; the emergence of new genres such as the Romantic bildungsroman; historical novels by Walter Scott and Victor Hugo that confronted the dissolution of the idea of a fixed human nature; Charles Dickens’s transformist aesthetic and its challenge to Victorian realism; and George Eliot’s reckoning with the nineteenth-century revolutions in the human and natural sciences. Modeling the modern scientific conception of a developmental human nature, the novel became a major experimental instrument for managing the new set of divisions—between nature and history, individual and species, human and biological life—that replaced the ancient schism between animal body and immortal soul.

The first book to explore the interaction of European fiction with “the natural history of man” from the late Enlightenment through the mid-Victorian era, Human Forms sets a new standard for work on natural history and the novel.

Part of the book’s chapter 5, “George Eliot’s Science Fiction,” was first published in Representations 125.

Ian Duncan is professor and Florence Green Bixby Chair in English at the University of California, Berkeley, and a member of the Representations editorial board. His books include Scott’s Shadow: The Novel in Romantic Edinburgh (Princeton).

Rarity in George Eliot

The Stamp of Rarity: Ancestrality and Extinction in Daniel Deronda


The essay begins:

In chapter 40 of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda we learn that the title character’s “more exquisite” quality lies in his “keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness,” his “profound sensibility to a cry from the depths of another.” Earlier on, Deronda is said to have “the stamp of rarity in a subdued fervor of sympathy, an activity of imagination on behalf of others” (178). This is not a casual trope. Deronda is extolled for being “receptive instead of superciliously prejudging,” and “receptiveness” is described as “a rare and massive power” (492). The terms rare and rarity recur in the novel, denoting what is very uncommon or unusually fine. As a modifier, rare is almost invariably paired with the nouns of Jewish singularity—moral “receptiveness” (496), vocal-physiognomic “perfection,” verbal “quality” (809), and “visionary excitement” (513). By the time Gwendolen realizes that her feelings have turned Daniel “into a sort of trust less rare than the fidelity that guards it” (430), the suggestion that moral redemption presupposes rarity is simply overbearing. The rationale of the polysemy is catachrestic because scarcity connotes value. The rare item is precious because its limited currency eludes the wider circulation of commodified objects and persons in liberal-capitalist society:

To save an unhappy Jewess from drowning herself, would not have seemed a startling variation among police reports; but to discover in her so rare a creature as Mirah, was an exceptional event which might well bring exceptional consequences. (378; emphasis mine)

Like the jewels bartered back and forth by the novel’s characters (Gwendolen, the pawnbroker, Daniel, Grandcourt, Lydia), something rare is valuable because it is ontologically unlikely: its ancestrality attests to the value of survival, and its exposure to the risk of extinction folds back on the value. However temporarily coopted by wider trade orbits, the jewels remain an intractable, inassimilable surplus. And so do Deronda’s Jews, always on the brink of an excessive, sacrificial, and sublime self-waste. Even the renegade Baruch Spinoza got “his crust by a quiet handicraft” (472) in lens-grinding before completing his Ethics. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of rarity.

The contention that “receptiveness is a rare . . . power” involves a twofold implication: first, that receptiveness is a power, and second, that receptiveness is rare. Mesmerized by the range of hermeneutic possibility that the concept of sympathy affords, Eliot’s critics have addressed the former implication while neglecting the latter. Predictably, then, the response to Daniel Deronda has been spellbound by the shine of a familiar faculty (moral sympathy) that, because in principle unrare in Eliot’s narrative world, seems in little need of special examination. Indeed, the near scientific symmetries of a plot conceivably modeled upon the Goethean allegoresis of elective affinities reinforce the impression that everything in the story depends on moral relatedness. On the one hand we have the English characters, with the rich Grandcourt at the extreme of emotional stolidity. Then comes Gwendolen Harleth, an ungenerous dweller in “the border-territory of rank” (Deronda, 23) who marries Grandcourt to allay social anxiety. This doesn’t prevent her from cultivating an interest in Daniel, the character that occupies the novel’s central position. Daniel enjoys the best of both worlds: groomed impeccably as an English gentleman, he can also boast of “the keenly perceptive sympathetic emotiveness” that, in the novel’s logic, belongs to the Jews. Because, it turns out, he is also a Jew. On the other hand we have Mirah and Mordecai—Deronda’s Jews—which I designate as such to distinguish them from the common, money-minded, shop-keeping Hebrews also present in a novel where, let me recall, “there are Ezras and Ezras” (567). Mordecai is placed at the extreme, in figurative opposition to Grandcourt, whom he never meets. He is a concentrated, unproductive version of Jewish rarity: the passionate man who sacrifices his life to dig up the historical grounds of his people’s moral superiority. Grandcourt and Mordecai are both unrealistic, near Dickensian characters who belong in the world of romance (if not romantic farce): significantly, both die before the tale comes to a close. Between Mordecai and Deronda stands Mirah, Mordecai’s sister, a destitute Jewish girl, in a position of structural equivalence to Gwendolen. Like the English girl, she is saved by Deronda and falls in love with him. Unlike Gwendolen, she becomes the object of Deronda’s favor. The end of the novel describes their wedding and trip to Palestine to start a new life devoted to the construction of the nation of Israel.

The value of the central characters (Gwendolen, Daniel) is a measure of their ability to relate to characters standing—or seeming to stand—across the Gentile-Jew divide. Understandably, critics have been less interested in the dynamics of that ability than in the origin and function of Eliot’s sympathy toward the Jews. This sympathy most critics take for granted. I argue, however, that the overdetermined specificity of the cultural-ethnic division dramatized in Deronda forces Eliot to depart from the more generic-universal treatment of moral sympathy at work in her other narratives. And she certainly knows it: “Nothing is here narrated of human nature generally” (Deronda, 91). It forces her to realize, somewhere in her narrative unconscious, that sympathy is a passion not exclusively based on receptivity (the ability to receive the other), since it also depends on the givenness of the other. And her novel, I contend, construes the Jew as a poorly given, if not ungiven, alterity. The reason for Jewish ungivenness is rarity, a quality that stands in direct proportion to receptivity within the group: the higher your receptivity to those of your group (race, nation), the less chance you have of being received—even by the people inside the group whom you are most willing to receive. The “unpleasant” grabbing of Deronda’s arm, an action performed twice, first by the white-bearded Joseph Kalonymos in the Frankfort synagogue (368) and second by the consumptive Mordecai in the secondhand bookshop (387), testifies to the dilemma of ethnical-cultural asynchronicity and moral interruption that my article sets out to explore. The fact that rarity is bound up thematically and rhetorically with the parallel notions of ancestrality and extinction calls for biological considerations that Eliot may have discovered, as I will argue, in Charles Darwin. But insofar as these notions (ancestrality and extinction) map out a deep time without human time, Eliot’s depiction of Jewish rarity in Deronda raises the kind of metaphysical challenge that Immanuel Kant aimed to meet in his first Critique: What is the ontological status of nonhuman time? And what kind of epistemic (narrative, rhetorical) processing does it demand?

My attention to the rhetorical effects of this thematic focus on rarity may result in a corrective to standard accounts of George Eliot’s philo-Semitism. Although this is not the primary goal of my article, I do not disown it as a hermeneutic corollary. The fact that readers with a stake in Eliot’s philo-Semitism unfailingly overlook the existence of deconstructive approaches to the novel shows that disregard for the novel’s complex rhetorical texture can foster belief in versions of Eliot as a utopian ideologue, a champion of either proto-Zionism or cosmopolitanism. My interpretation, by contrast, draws on extant deconstructive and rhetorically focused readings of Daniel Deronda by critics such as Cynthia Chase, Catherine Gallagher, and Ian Duncan and yet seeks to reach beyond them by putting into play the metaphysical question of time that instigates the rhetorical-narrative processing of temporality.

When Deronda’s friend Hans Meyrick boasts that “there is really little difference between me and—Maimonides” (642) he is wrong in ways that go beyond—and against—his intended irony. In the novel’s moral-lexical economy, difference-making rarity is the exclusive property of the Jewish people. But they pay a great price for this distinction. They reach the present from an immemorial past—David Kaufmann has stressed “the enigma of their marvelous preservation”—and have limited hope of reaching the future. Compared to some of the substantial English people dwelling in the novel’s present, they seem hardly real. The figural etymology of rare underpins this unreality. Since the mid-fifteenth century, the adjective rare has meant both “unusual” and “thin, airy, porous.” The more specific implication of rare as “few in number and widely separated, sparsely distributed, seldom found,” can be traced back, via Old French rere (“sparse”), to the Latin rarus, meaning “thinly sown, having a loose texture; not thick; having intervals between.” Thus Jewishness and rarity concur in a shared implication of dissemination or diaspora. Thinly sown, airy, and scattered, Deronda’s Jews are inexorably disembedded, whence their paradoxical status as archaic ultramoderns. They roam the narrative as dialectical images of an Urgeschichte (prehistory) whose discrepancy in and for the present might harbor a utopian future. Alienated from the English community, they also risk losing touch with their related particulars: Deronda nearly missing Mirah, Deronda on the verge of discounting Mordecai, Mirah close to overlooking her family, Deronda, of course, forgone by his mother. The existence of these singularities is, moreover, steadily encircled by a void. If their future is dizzily open, their past is a riddle and a mire. Daniel, described at one point as a “yearning disembodied spirit” (365), ignores his origins; Mirah flees from them and attempts suicide; Mordecai tumbles into them and dies. Remote and obscure like Mordecai, elusive and unfocused like Daniel, fragile and fugitive like Mirah, these Jews cherish nonetheless a gift—a rare talent—of moral receptiveness that is at odds with the utilitarian lifestyle of most of the English. Hence the paradox: the differential aspect (the stamp of rarity) that deepens their unrelation—with the English, at least—is precisely their ability to relate, their extraordinary receptivity. This doesn’t mean that the problem is an English incapacity to receive them. In the novel this is less a problem than a fact. The problem—and Eliot makes it very clear that there is a problem—lies with the Jews, who cannot be received because, however fit to receive others, they themselves posit an unacceptable otherness. Though explicitly perspectivized through English prejudice—Deronda’s, the Meyrick women’s—the first forthright depiction in the novel of a Jewish person (Mirah) answers no other purpose than to uphold the racist preconception, denounced by Kaufmann, of the Jews as “a peculiar people.” Recall that, in its extended meaning, rare also means anomalous. Or that no English character wishes to keep the diamonds: the jewels end up “scattered around [Gwendolen] on the floor” (359). Just like the Jews at the end, shipped toward the uncertain. The jewels: the Jews: their stamp of diaspora. Continue reading …

There are patterns of continuité discontinu (Derrida) in the figural transactions between human groups and between humans and animals in George Eliot’sDaniel Deronda that remain underexamined. By emphasizing ironic incommensurability and difference, this essay seeks to reveal the logic of ungivenness organizing human interactions in a novel haunted by images of deep time and species extermination. Eliot’s interest in ancestrality and extinction was fueled by her readings in geology and biology (Darwin), but it also evinces a metaphysical concern with uncorrelated time (Kant) that is inseparable from her fascination with the idea of moral rarity.

JULIÁN JIMÉNEZ HEFFERNAN is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Córdoba, Spain. He is the co-editor (with Paula Martín Salván and Gerardo Rodríguez Salas) of the volume Community in Twentieth-Century Fiction and publishes on Victorian literature, modern fiction, narrative theory, and deconstruction.

Anthology Life

Specimen Poetics: Botany, Reanimation, and the Romantic Collection

by Dahlia Porter

The essay begins:

It is now commonplace to say that the canon wars of the 1980s and early 1990s provoked changes to anthologies in the following decades. What we read in the Norton, Blackwell, or Broadview anthologies of British or American literature is not what we read thirty years ago. The change has been characterized as a movement away from aesthetic criteria—Matthew Arnold’s famous “the best which has been thought and said in the world”—to a more representative selection, one that conveys the diverse literary landscape of a defined historical period or national tradition. In the 1990s, space opened for underrepresented authors, genres, historical moments, and worldviews; John Milton and William Wordsworth now mingle with Anne Finch and Olaudah Equiano, appearing alongside anonymous popular ballads, snippets of periodical essays, excerpts from novels, and a smattering of letters and speeches—varied content that projects an overall tilt toward diversity of matter, form, and authorial identity. Ours is not, however, the diversity promoted by the literary miscellany, that popular, eclectic, omnivorous genre so omnipresent in earlier periods. Twenty-first-century anthologies seek to represent a broad and varied spectrum of literary production, but they retain a defining feature of the anthology as it was consolidated at the end of the eighteenth century: organization by author in chronological sequence. Even with the addition of thematic sections, anthologized literature as we know it today remains fundamentally historical, and each selection implicitly functions as a representative specimen, an illustrative example standing in for a larger authorial corpus or class of work.

The justification for a literary collection based on historical representativeness—the legitimating force behind modern anthologies of English, American, or Anglophone literature—emerged in Britain around 1800. It was spurred, as I will argue here, by dramatic changes in what we see as a distinct sphere of knowledge making—namely the collection, organization, naming, and representation of plants in the previous century. This claim is not as surprising as it may seem. Botanical metaphors for the poetic collection have a very long history. Rooted in the Στέφανος, or garland, of Meleagar of Gadara and the Silvae of Statius, for centuries verses have been gathered up into florilegia, anthologia, sylvae, gardens, garlands, woods, wreaths, bouquets, and anthologies, this last from the Greek ἀνθολόγιον, a gathering of flowers. In Britain, collections of vernacular poetry were ushered in with titles like England’s Parnassus; or, the choicest flowers of our modern poets (1600) and Belvedere; or, The Garden of the Muses (1600). Tropes of the bouquet, garden, and forest were regularly deployed throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to legitimate the heterogeneous content of verse and prose collections, but the field of nineteenth-century literary annuals was lush with these figures. This efflorescence of the botanical metaphor for collections was spurred by a vigorous debate about the purpose, audience, and content of poetic collections in the decades around 1800. At the turn of the nineteenth century, compilers took up botanical metaphors to argue whether a collection ought to strive for a historically representative selection or for a selection of acclaimed pieces “carelessly mingled with all the ease and wildness of natural variety.” For antiquarians like Henry Headley, George Ellis, and Robert Southey, compilation was a recovery project, a method of preserving worthy specimens of poetry from oblivion; for their contemporaries Vicesimus Knox, William Mavor, and Samuel Jackson Pratt, among many others, the ideal collection contained a great variety of the most influential, recognized, elegant work, poems of unquestioned merit that displayed the richness and vitality of the poet’s genius, an image of living nature. Carried out in the prefaces, title pages, tables of contents, and introductions to collections, this contentious debate predicted the agon of the canon wars.

Scholars of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century poetic collections have noted the abundance of botanical metaphors, even occasionally employing them to structure their own arguments about literary compilations. Most studies of poetic collections in Britain before the twentieth century, however, focus on a set of issues common to miscellanies and anthologies: the economics of the publishing market, changes in copyright law, canon formation, expanding readerships, and editorial practice. Critics have frequently used literary anthologies to take the pulse of the eighteenth-century book trade: printed anthologies and miscellanies proliferated throughout the period, and the forms they took responded (at least in part) to ongoing legal disputes over publishers’ rights to valuable literary property, increases in literacy and access, and changing technologies of print. Scholars agree that the form and function of the anthology shifted in the decades around 1800, but they disagree about exactly when it occurred, how it was manifested, and what provoked this change. I won’t claim to fully resolve this conundrum, but I will insist that we need to look outside the narrow field of poetic or even literary collecting to understand the changing cultural role of anthologies and miscellanies—and even single-author collections of verse—in the Romantic period. Beyond Barbara Benedict’s acknowledgement that “it is no coincidence that the genre of the literary collection crystallized during the long eighteenth century when collecting itself became a popular activity” as a form of self-fashioning for the emergent middle class, existing studies take little notice of nonliterary collecting practices. As I will argue, Romantic-era collections of poetry were not just metaphorically but also materially conditioned by the projects of botanical collecting, preservation, classification, description, and illustration of the previous century. Editors legitimated their selection and organization of poems in collections by trading on the aesthetic paradigms and material practices of botanical science and art. Further, the evaluative principles structuring poetic collecting in the Romantic period emerged when editors drew on, separated, or combined competing strands of Enlightenment natural history, specifically Linnaean taxonomy and Buffonian vitalism.

A pointed antagonism between taxonomic representativeness and an aesthetics of vital nature is thus central to my argument. The dominant theory of poetic collecting in late eighteenth-century Britain replicated a desire in visual and verbal art to represent the vitality of living nature, a trend spurred by transformations in botanical description and illustration. A confluence of factors changed botanical collecting and publishing in the eighteenth century, including shifts in the geographies of collecting; developments in conventions of botanical naming and systems of nomenclature; the emergence of vitalist theories in natural history; and the application of eighteenth-century aesthetic theories to scientific illustration. As a result of these shifts, living plants were collected, dried, and pressed in a hortus siccus (an herbarium or book of dried plants), becoming botanical specimens that were subsequently imbued with the semblance of life in drawings, paintings, and engravings. This process—what I call aesthetic reanimation—reveals how scientific and aesthetic paradigms merge to dismantle and remake objects of botanical knowledge in print. I trace the consolidation of reanimation as an aesthetic paradigm as it was formulated in William Hogarth’s Analysis of Beauty (1753) and applied to botanical illustration by a group of artists employed by Joseph Banks to illustrate the specimens collected on Capt. James Cook’s Endeavour voyage of 1768–71. I then detail how the reanimated plants of eighteenth-century botanical illustration enter the lexicon of Romantic poetry with Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of an early theory of evolution. Embracing the animating power of prosopopoeia, E. Darwin translated the aesthetic principles of botanical illustration into his two-part allegorical poem, The Botanic Garden (part 1: Economy of Vegetation, 1791; part 2: Loves of the Plants, 1789). In this heavily annotated and illustrated poem, Darwin combines taxonomy with vitalism to promote a particular brand of poetic and aesthetic vitality, one that defined the “nature” of plants collected in his poetic-botanic garden.

Romantic poets variously mobilized and resisted the conventions introduced by Darwin: the philosophical tenets of Enlightenment vitalism find outlets in individual poems ranging from William Wordsworth’s “Lines Written in Early Spring” to Percy Shelley’s Sensitive Plant to John Clare’s ballads. But more important for my argument here, Darwin’s reanimated poetic garden concomitantly changed how authors and editors thought and wrote about poetry in the aggregate. Books of pressed plants, catalogs of specimens, and anthologies of poems began to stand in for one another, their contents crisscrossing disciplinary boundaries in the process of consolidation. These conflations imbued the long-standing botanical metaphor for the poetic collection with a new urgency: as Charlotte Smith’s Conversations Introducing Poetry (1804) reveals, the content and structure of a literary collection of verse might intervene in larger debates about natural history and its representational practices. At the same time, the antipodal figures of the reanimated plant and the dead specimen provided the rhetorical ground for competing versions of literary history and evaluation in the period. The resurgence of botanical metaphors in this period signals a new division in poetic collection, a gulf between vitalist aesthetics and the collection as historical medium, a site where the present of literary culture negotiates its past and writes its future. Turning back to this formative moment in the history of literary collecting illuminates how literary history became embedded in our own anthologies of culled flowers. Continue reading …

This essay argues that the modern literary anthology—and specifically its aspiration to delimit both aesthetic merit and historical representativeness—emerged as a response to changes in eighteenth-century botanical collecting, description, and illustration. A dramatic upsurge in botanical metaphors for poetic collections around 1800 was triggered by shifts in the geographies, aims, and representational practices of botany in the previous century. Yoking Linnaean taxonomy and Buffonian vitalism to Hogarth’s line of beauty, late eighteenth-century botanical illustrations imbued plucked, pressed specimens with a new vitality. Erasmus Darwin’s Botanic Garden (1789, 1791) translated the aesthetic reanimations of visual art into a collection of poetic specimens, spurring compilations that promote a vitalist standard of literary value. By rejecting aesthetic reanimation as the figurative ground for poetic collecting, Charlotte Smith and Robert Southey forward an alternative historical model of literary merit, one grounded in the succession and continuity of representative literary types. These competing metrics for selection and valuation underwrite the anthology as we know it today.

DAHLIA PORTER has taught literature, book history, and the history of science at the University of Glasgow, University of North Texas, and Vanderbilt University. Her book Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, and she is a member of the Multigraph Collective, a team of twenty-two scholars who have collaboratively written Interacting with Print: Elements of Reading in the Era of Print Saturation (University of Chicago Press, 2017).