Satires

From its very inception the New Science was promising material for satire, especially in its institutional manifestation, the Royal Society. To early modern eyes, used to a nonexperimental world-view, the activities of the scientists could seem downright bizarre, if not actually atheistic. The main target was the "virtuoso" or person who collected all kinds of oddities and grotesques from nature in the name of science, thus violating both moral and aesthetic codes at once. Dr. Samuel Garth's mock-heroic poem The Dispensary (1699) famously satirized an undignified squabble between the physicians and apothecaries (roughly equivalent to today's pharmacists) and described Horoscope, a "virtuoso" apothecary who collects all manner of strange objects from mummies to shark heads, flying fish to alligators, and "dry'd bladders" to "drawn teeth" (ii. 122ff.). Pope, whose Rape of the Lock had been influenced by Garth's poem, famously attacked scientists in the fourth book of his Dunciad (1742), where they feature in the parade of false learning. Pope's thwarted political hopes lead him to use science here - in contrast to the progressive vision of Windsor-Forest - as an emblem of political disintegration. The scientists, "A tribe with weeds and shells fantastic crown'd," present Queen Caroline with a rare flower and name it after her: for Pope, Britain's Whig rulers encourage dullness and an obsession with irrelevant trivia (iv. 398ff.). Although his focus here is on natural history, not on the glories of Newtonian science, nevertheless the end of the Dunciad constitutes an anti-Newtonian apocalypse: not as an attack on Newton, but in the tradition of divines and poets imagining the end of the world, now updated by New Science ( Jones 1966: 47).

As might be expected, female pretensions to scientific knowledge were the butt of much anti-feminist satire. Edward Young's Universal Passion, Satire V, "On Women" (1727) attacks the fickle attentions of a society lady to science: "Of Desagulier she bespeaks fresh air / And Whiston has engagements with the fair" (Young 1774, vol. 1, ll. 335-6). All enthusiasm vanishes, however, when her lap-dog proves more compelling: "Lo! Pug from Jupiter her heart has got, / Turns out the stars, and Newton is a sot" (ll. 341—2).

The shift to natural history later in the century brought with it new opportunities for satire, not least when the return of Sir Joseph Banks from a scientific expedition to the South Seas with Captain Cook in 1773 and his potential election to the presidency of the Royal Society made him a perfect target for ridicule. Particularly suspect to many was the investigation into an apparently promiscuous plant sexuality that poets and scientists alike could not help anthropomorphizing: "An Historic Epistle, from Omiah, the Queen of Otaheite" attacked the grotesque combinations discovered by the virtuosi, "How Zoophyte plants with animals unite, / Where corals copulate, and spunges bite" (quoted in Jones 1966: 195). James Perry's "Mimosa: or, the Sensitive Plant" (1779) used the famous plant, apparently endowed with animal sensibility, as a phallic metaphor, the poem itself — dedicated to Banks — detailing sex scandals of the day in botanic language (Grant 2003: 107). The obscenity of the poem's plant analogy is blatant:

Can Lady Fete-champetre want A touch of this elastic plant, When she so much adores it? No — on the wings of love she flies, And at an Inn, the plant she tries; In absence of her Dors—T.

Perry had supplied a note explaining that the lady in question rode to meet her husband "for a tete a tete" but missed him and ended up spending three days "in the rage of a frolic" with his friend, Captain S-(Grant 2003: 118).

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