Natural History and Earth Sciences

After the middle of the century, and especially after the classification scheme of Linnaeus had become commonly available, the vogue for astronomical and microscopic physico-theological sublimity began to wane, and a new emphasis on natural history emerged in British poetry. The already popular traditions of landscape description in genres such as the georgic absorbed and were revivified by an infusion of scientific interest and imagery. Poets of all types embraced a more modest scale centered on animals and birds, flowers and plants; the accessibility of natural-historical pursuits such as botany and ornithology opened a greater space for women to participate in the confluence between the organic sciences and poetry. The aesthetic aspects of the natural world were also being imported into people's homes in the form of lavishly illustrated color engravings, especially of birds and flowers: an art that had benefited from recent developments in print technology.

The gifts of science to poetry were theorized in Dr. John Aikin's Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry (1777). Aikin, the brother of Anna Barbauld, argued that natural history could enliven the "worn down, enfeebled, and fettered" state of modern poetry: "While the votary of science is continually gratified with new objects opening to his view, the lover of poetry is wearied and disgusted with a perpetual repetition of the same images, clad in almost the same language" (1777: iv). James Thomson's descriptions of nature in his Seasons — praised by Aikin — were hugely influential in the second half of the eighteenth century and beyond, providing a model for the incorporation of scientific knowledge and imagery into verse. In his Lives of the Poets Dr. Johnson noted that Thomson's knowledge of natural history had helped him "to recollect and to combine, to range his discoveries and to amplify the sphere of his contemplation" ( Johnson 1975: vol. 2, 359).

A further impetus to the rise of natural history was the expansion of empire and the concomitant scientific exploration of foreign lands. The combination of a long tradition of importing flora and fauna to various institutions for medical and other purposes and the general increase in trade resulted in poems like James Grainger's The Sugar-Cane (1764) which, as well as being an important document in the history of the slave trade, provided large tracts of information on the natural history of the West Indies. Poems such as George Ritso's "Kew Gardens" (1763) and Henry Jones's "Kew Garden" (1767) described and praised the rich collections there and reflected the importation of the exotic in the homeland. The almost incidental mention of the flora and fauna of Corsica in Anna Laetitia Barbauld's primarily political poem of that name (1773) reveals the absorption of natural history into all kinds of poetry:

Thy swelling mountains, brown with solemn shade Of various trees, that wave their giant arms O'er the rough sons of freedom; lofty pines, And hardy fir, and ilex ever green, And spreading chestnut . . .

Wildly spreads The arbutus, and rears his scarlet fruit Luxuriant, mantling o'er the craggy steeps; And thy own native laurel crowns the scene.

(ll. 48-62, in Fairer and Gerrard 1999: 473)

Barbauld had clearly used her reading on the subject of Corsican natural history — itself inspired by James Boswell's Account of Corsica (1768) — to reinforce a point about an indomitable Corsica as the symbol of freedom: the "native laurel" at the end of the passage is a culminating totem of victory for the hardy island.

Advances in what one can call the "earth sciences," including geography, vulcan-ology, mineralogy, hydrography, and, relatedly, paleontology, influenced poets and fashionable society in general throughout the period. Pope's famous grotto, filled with geological specimens, was constructed in precise consultation with a scientific adviser, while polite ladies as well as gentlemen would take tours around mines and other notable sites, as in John Dalton's "A Descriptive Poem, addressed to Two Ladies at their Return from Viewing the Mines near Whitehaven" (1755, in Hamblyn 2003: 141). Geology also mirrored the discoveries in astronomy in that it expanded the eighteenth century's idea of time which, like the universe, seemed much more vast than before. Earthquakes, particularly the disastrous Lisbon one of 1755, prompted poetic reflection on the destructive power of nature and whether a just God could allow such events. In England, the general response reflected Pope's optimism. In a different context he argued that "Whatever is, is Right" (Essay on Man, i. 294): natural phenomena that seem to be senselessly destructive are part of a larger plan unknown to limited mortal vision. As the cult of the sublime gathered pace, mountains assumed greater importance in their mysterious vastness, and became occasions for poetic inspiration in contemplating the glories of God (Nicolson 1959). Helen Maria Williams's "A Hymn written among the Alps" (1798) ends with the unequivocal statement: "In nature's vast, overwhelming power, / Thee, Thee, My God, I trace! (ll. 79—80, in Fairer and Gerrard 1999: 539). Even the new mining technology, with its "vast machinery," might seem sublime to the awestruck observer, as Anna Seward's "Cole-brook Dale" illustrated (Fairer and Gerrard 1999: 525 and headnote).

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