- Why a “Romantic” Natural History?
- Backgrounds: From Aristotle to Erasmus Darwin
- The Anxiety of Species: Toward a Romantic Natural History
- The Loves of Plants and Animals: Romantic Science and the Pleasures of Nature
- Additional Topics in Romantic Natural History
- Darwin’s Evolution: A New Gallery of Images
- A Romantic Natural History Timeline: 1750-1859
- Natural Historians
- Spencer F. Baird
- Henry David Thoreau
- Charles Darwin
- Louis Agassiz
- John D. Godman
- Adam Sedgwick
- Geoffray St. Hilaire
- William Smith
- Georges Cuvier
- Alexander von Humboldt
- Benjamin Rush
- Jean Lamarck
- William Paley
- Thomas Jefferson
- William Bartram
- Joseph Priestley
- Erasmus Darwin
- Oliver Goldsmith
- Gilbert White
- George-Louis Buffon
- Carolus Linnaeus
- Literary Figures
- Letitia Landon
- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
- John Keats
- John Clare
- Felicia Hemans
- Percy Bysshe Shelley
- Lord Byron
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge
- William Wordsworth
- Ann Radcliffe
- Robert Burns
- William Blake
- Charlotte Smith
- Anna Laetitia Barbauld
- William Cowper
- Thomas Warton
- Christopher Smart
- Thomas Gray
- Thomas Beddoes
- James Thomson
- Alfred Lord Tennyson
- Robert Browning
- John Dyer
- Temple of Nature (1803)
- Dorothy Wordsworth
- Geologist Poets
- Rhinos, Crocs and other Monsters
- Global Exploration
- Amphibious Thinking
- Poetry Lab with Dr. Frankenstein
- Galvani’s Electric Romanticism
- Frog Fish from Surinam
- Boundary between Plant and Animal
- Mimosa: The Sensitive Plant
- The Venus Fly Trap and the Great Chain of Being
- Humans as a species of Animal
- Monkeys, Men and Apes
- Jardine’s Natural History of Monkeys
- Human Monsters and Reproductive Mysteries
- Human Taxonomy
- Goldsmith’s History of Earth and Animated Nature
- Erasmus Darwin and the Frankenstein Mistake
- James King Davidson’s Journal
- Zoos as a 19th Century Spectacle
- Mammoths and Mastodons
- Fontana on the Venom of the Viper
- Celestial Bodies
- Coleridge on Plants and Animals
- Baird Report as Curator of Museum
- Artists & Illustrators
[first published in The Wordsworth Circle 28:3 (1997): 130-36]
We sometimes think that the concept of mutable species burst on the world like a thunderclap with the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. So great was Darwin’s own anxiety about the revolutionary power of his idea, that he wrote to J. D. Hooker in January of 1844 claiming that he felt like a violent criminal: “I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion [sic] I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable” (81). Natural histories written between 1780 and 1830, however, reveal the extent to which pre-Darwinian natural historians anticipated the idea of the mutability of species. In addition, such works often argue for an organicist view of natural life that describes species as much more closely linked to one another than traditional views would have allowed. The writings of many natural historians remind us of the extent to which late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century science often connected with a wider Romantic sensibility. In fact, a specifically Romantic natural history comes to link all of “animated nature” into what Coleridge, by 1796, will call “the one Life within us and abroad” (“The Eolian Harp,” 26). This idea of an organic unity linking all living things challenged the hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being, replacing it with a more dynamic, less stratified, model of natural order. Such a Romantic natural history–not only in scientific works, but in poetry, prose, and the visual arts–also emphasizes connections among humans, animals, and all other living organisms on the planet. Insofar as the radical split between “science” and “art” was essentially a postromantic phenomenon, Romantic natural history is an essential precursor of any contemporary romantic ecology.
The state of natural historical knowledge by 1800 can sometimes look like a chaotic amalgam of mythology, half-knowledge and limited observation: spontaneous generation, living mastodons, and man-apes were all still being described as distinct possibilities well into nineteenth century. While there was much wildly speculative thinking about the natural sciences during this era, there were also a number of powerful ideas that came to be increasingly supported by observational evidence. Among the most significant of these was the idea that species might not be as distinct as earlier naturalists had supposed. In addition, related ideas about hybridization were receiving widespread attention by 1800. Not only horse breeders, but also pigeon fanciers, vintners, and agriculturalists were, for the first time, breeding and crossbreeding numerous animals and plants. At the same time, botanists and naturalists were speculating on the causes of variation within living types, as is clearly evident in a sampling of titles: Samuel Collins, Paradise Retriev’d: plainly and fully demonstrating the most beautiful, durable and beneficial method of managing and improving fruit trees (1717); Anonymous, A Philosophical Essay on Fecundation; or, an impartial inquiry into the first rudiments of progression and perfection of animal generation, particularly of the human species (1742); James Logan, Experiments and Considerations on the generation of plants (1747); James Parsons, Philosophical Observations on the analogy between the propagation of animals and that of vegetables (1752); William Speechly, A Treatise on the Culture of the Vine (1790); Archibald Cochrane, A Treatise shewing the intimate connection that subsists between agriculture and chemistry (1795); John Sanders Sebright, The Art of Improving the Breeds of Domestic Animals (1809).
In 1816, Mary Shelley penned a famous sentence that offered a natural historical explanation for Victor Frankenstein’s desire to create a new sort of living being: “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Robinson I: 85). The line appears in the original 1818 edition (Hunter 32) of the novel and unaltered in the revised version of 1831 (Smith 55). In Charles Robinson’s recent facsimile edition of the manuscript, “species” appears to have been Mary Shelley’s third word choice after “creation” and “existence” (I: 85). Much recent scholarship has emphasized Mary Shelley’s biography and state of mind during the Frankenstein summer. Additional work on the novel has analyzed the scientific advances of the era; both Galvani and Volta were experimenting with electrical impulses and muscular contractions during the 1790s. Less attention has been given to an equally important question: what precisely did Mary Shelley think the word “species” meant in 1816, and how did her sense of the concept of species relate to a wider Romantic natural history?
John Ray had, in the second half of the 1600s, defined a species as a “group of individuals that breed among themselves, so that ‘one species does not grow from the seed of another species’.” (Chambers 8). Carolus Linnaeus, who classified and named most of the world’s known plants and animals, formulated “Observations” in the first edition of his Systema Natura (1735) that clarified the species issue beyond debate: “there are no new species (1); as like always gives birth to like (2); as one in each species was at the beginning of the progeny (3), it is necessary to attribute this progenitorial unity to some Omnipotent and Omniscient Being, namely God, whose work is called Creation. This is confirmed by the mechanism, the laws, principles, constitutions and sensations in every living individual” (18). By 1760, Linnaeus was willing to consider the possibility that “new species” might be “produced by hybrid generation,” but he was not willing to follow this insight to its logical conclusions: “whether all these species be the offspring of time; whether, in the beginning of all things, the Creator limited the number of future species, I dare not presume to determine” (Dissertation 55-56). Of course, it is precisely the earlier Linnaen premise that “like always gives birth to like” that will come to be radically questioned by the time that Mary Shelley can imagine Victor Frankenstein actually creating “a new species.”
Barr’s English edition of the Comte de Buffon’s Natural History echoes the traditional view of species as it was still understood in 1792: species are “ancient” and “permanent,” “always the same,” organized in a divine, if rigid, hierarchy. “Of these unities the human species is to be placed in the first rank; all the others, from the elephant to the mite, from the cedar to the hyssop, belong to the second and third orders” (10: 342). Buffon’s effort to argue for the fixity of species is complicated by a question that he has difficulty answering: “What purposes then are served by this immense train of generations, this profusion of germs, many thousands of which are abortive for the one that is brought to life? (10: 347). Although Buffon wants to argue for “fixed” and “constant” species, he is forced to acknowledge that nature often produces “failures,” “abortions,” and “monsters.” These failed representatives of supposedly stable “types” pose continuing problems for Buffon’s definition of species. In fact, Buffon anticipates Darwin–and famous lines by Tennyson–when he notes that “individuals are of no estimation in the universe; it is species alone that are existences in nature” (10: 342). The solution to the problem of variety in Buffon’s account is not variation of stable species (hybridization), but the production of what he calls “varieties”: “the figure of each species is an impression, in which the principal characters are so strongly engraven as never to be effaced; but the accessory parts and shades are so greatly varied that no two individuals have a perfect resemblance to each other; and in all species there are a number of varieties” (10: 353). So species are fixed, but varieties within species are not. We might see this distinction as comparable to current debates among evolutionary biologists about the status of subspecies. The test case for Buffon is, interestingly, our own; the human species, he says, is “fixed and constant,” and yet “in all species there are a number of varieties. The human species, which has such superior pretensions, varies from white to black, from small to great, &c. The Laplander, the Patagonian, the Hottentot, the European, the American, and the Negro, though the offspring of the same parents, have by no means the resemblance of brothers” (10: 353). Buffon needs a way to explain variation, but he also needs to argue for the absolute stability of each species. As a solution he offers a theory of “varieties”–actually an attempt to explain human races–which clearly undermines the rigid boundary between species.
Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, takes Buffon’s troubling question and turns it into a new way of thinking about natural order and biological unity. The earlier Darwin is clearly the natural historian most directly responsible for many of the ideas that made their way into a wide range of Romantic literary writings. He is referred to in the introduction to Mary Shelley’s 1831 Frankenstein (Smith 22), was praised by Coleridge as having “a greater range of knowledge than any man in Europe” (Barber 210), and was used by Wordsworth in”Goody Blake and Harry Gill” (Wordsworth 688). Erasmus Darwin’s capacious and synthetic mind worked consistently to question the notion of immutable species. He not only personified and humanized the sexual life of plants (in “The Loves of the Plants”), for which he was parodied and reviled, he also anticipated the outlines of his grandson’s subsequent theory of evolution. In his Phytologia (1800), Erasmus Darwin described the “muscles, nerves and brains of vegetables,” concluding that plants have sensations and volition, “though in a much inferior degree than even the cold-blooded animals” (133). In The Temple of Nature (1803), he describes the Lycoperdon tuber, a plant that “never rises above the earth, is propagated without seeds by its roots only, and seems to require no light. Perhaps many other fungi are generated without seed by their roots only, and without light, and approach on the last account to animal nature” (48).
Darwin also argues, in Zoonomia (1794), that nature is full of complex forms of variation and metamorphosis within the lives of single creatures as well as types. He cites caterpillars changing into butterflies, tadpoles into frogs, the “feminine boy” into the “bearded man,” and the “infant girl” into the “lactescent woman” as examples of dynamic and mysterious changes in individuals (Zoonomia 2: 233). He also marvels at “great changes introduced into various animals by artificial or accidental cultivation, as in horses” (2: 233). This line of thinking allows him to conclude that “all animals have a similar origin, viz. from a single living filament” and that “it is not impossible but the great variety of species of animals, which now tenant the earth, may have had their origin from the mixture of a few natural orders” (2: 230-31). He even goes so far as to cite David Hume’s claim that “the world itself might have been generated, rather than created” with the resulting conclusion that all organisms would then derive not only from earlier organisms but ultimately from inorganic substances (2: 247).
Darwin offers an image that will dominate the thinking of next two centuries when, in a note to The Temple of Nature, he imagines life as originating from the ancient seas: “all vegetable and animals now existing were originally derived from the smallest microscopic ones, formed by spontaneous vitality” (1: 295-96). This speculation leads to some of the most often quoted lines in The Temple of Nature:
Organic Life beneath the shoreless waves
Was born and nurs’d in Ocean’s pearly caves;
First forms minute, unseen by spheric glass,
Move on the mud, or pierce the watery mass;
These, as successive generations bloom,
New powers acquire, and larger limbs assume;
Whence countless groups of vegetation spring,
And breathing realms of fin, and feet, and wing. (1: 295-302)
Darwin argues that sexual selection is far superior to asexual reproduction precisely because it introduces hybrid variation and mutability into individuals which can be passed on and altered in subsequent generations.
Beyond the challenges posed to Judeo-Christian thinking by such speculations on the part of naturalists, the species debate was fostered by the astonishing proliferation of known biological forms in a relatively short span of time. In 1758, Linnaeus listed 4,162 distinct species in his Systema Natura. By 1898, the Victorian classifier Mabuis included 415,600 (Barber 65). Lynn Barber notes a “species obsession” among the natural historians of the first half of the nineteenth century. This obsession was based partly on the desire to expand Linnaeus’s classification to include all forms of life on earth, and partly on the dramatic results of exploratory voyages that were bringing hitherto unknown creatures back to Europe from Asia, Africa, and the New World: display cases filled with gigantic insects, piles of bird and animal skins, living rhinoceroses and crocodiles, and an astonishing array of bones and fossils. We need only imagine a crowd on the London docks witnessing a living rhinoceros arriving in England, or the looks on the faces of Londoners examining an Ichthyosaur skeleton, to appreciate European amazement at species diversity and variation in the century before Charles Darwin.
Desmond King-Hele, author of the most comprehensive book on Erasmus Darwin and Romantic writing, points to Diderot, De Maillet, Goethe, and Maupertuis as also contributing evidence for the variability of species between 1740 and 1790 (Erasmus Darwin 66). In all such cases, however, naturalists lacked a coherent explanation for the differences, we might now say the mutations, they were describing. In addition, work on hybrids was carried on primarily among agriculturalists; natural historians acknowledged the varieties produced by cross-breeding, but they had little systematic understanding of the processes at work in reproduction, much less in reproductive variation. Among other important contributors to the proto-evolutionary thinking of the Romantic era we should add Thomas Malthus (Essayon Population, 1798), Jean Baptiste de Lamarck (Philosophie zoologique, 1809), J. C. Prichard (Researches into the Physical History of Mankind, 1813), W. C. Wells (Essay on Dew, 1818) and Charles Lyell (Principles of Geology, 1830). All of these authors, in different ways, attributed biological change in living individuals to a hybridizing principle of some sort, or they suggested that natural change has been misunderstood because of the difficulty of assessing minor incremental changes over vast periods of historical and geologic time.
What does all of this have to do with Romantic literature and a wider Romantic discourse? By the time Mary Shelley claims that a “new species” might bless a human creator for its existence, Romantic poets and writers were hinting at the biological connectedness of all living things, even without the precise scientific details that would allow them to explain such links. When Coleridge refers to the “one Life within us and abroad, / Which meets all motion and becomes its soul, / A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,” (“The Eolian Harp,” 26-29), he is clearly imagining a naturalized version of divine unity. Erasmus Darwin might have called Coleridge’s “one Life” a “vegetative” energy that pervades and links all living things (“all objects of all thought / And rolls through all things” as Wordsworth would add ["Tintern Abbey" 102-03]). In “The Eolian Harp,” Coleridge imagines “all of animated nature” as “organic Harps diversely fram’d,” and he refers to the animating principle as “Plastic and vast.” The phrase “animated nature” was used widely by natural historians to distinguish those aspects of creation that were responsible for their own motion (anima: breath, wind) from inanimate (spiritless) objects. The phrase also hinted at some unifying vital principle that separated living from nonliving things.
Percy Shelley’s related claim that “Nought may endure but Mutability” (“Mutability” 16) concludes a poem about lyre sounds that give a “various response to each varying blast” (6). Shelley’s conception of a vital principle related to water, like the biological germ-plasm that survives from individual to individual, is confirmed when Shelley’s poetic cloud laughs at its own “cenotaph” (“The Cloud” 81). The closing lines of “The Cloud” invoke water, the basis of all life, in an image of biological renewal that affirms the ironic permanence of transience: “Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb, / I arise, and unbuild it again” (83-84). In fact, a survey of well known Romantic works suggests how closely linked are ideas of natural historians and images adopted by Romantic writers. My purpose in drawing these connections is not merely to note intertextual similarities within the works, but rather to argue for a widespread and emerging discourse of Romantic natural history between the 1790s and the 1830s.
William Blake’s “A Poison Tree,” for example, invokes an exotic species of plant to provide a metaphoric link between botanical poison and a psychological portrait of human destructiveness. Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden includes a note on the Boa Upas, a poisonous tree on the island of Java. This tree produces a poison so toxic that “the country round it, to the distance of ten or twelve miles from the tree, is entirely barren. Not a tree nor a shrub, nor even the least plant or grass is to be seen” (2: 247). Blake draws on this image of a natural object that kills everything for miles around it as the basis for his portrait of human “wrath.” While Blake’s figurative tree bears “an apple” like the tree in the Garden of Eden, its destructive power is closer to Darwin’s botanical description. The link is confirmed in “The Human Abstract,” where Blake lodges a metaphoric poison tree firmly in the human skull:
The Gods of the earth and sea
Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree,
But their search was all in vain:
There grows one in the Human Brain. (21-24)
In this case, the naturalistic metaphor is more than figurative; it hints at a link between human and nonhuman nature. Blake’s powerful visual imagery could provide the occasion for an extended discussion of precisely such a link. As his printed and illuminated texts remind us, Blake’s imagination constantly saw natural objects in terms of their interconnectedness rather than their discrete separateness. His caterpillars and butterflies have human faces. His human figures often sprout roots and branches. His bird’s tails and wings echo flower stalks and vines, while his mythic figures often connect the human form with the botanic or the bestial. In Blake’s imaginative universe, to be in “Nature” is to be always fallen, but that does not prevent him from suggesting a powerful connectedness that unites all living things.
Blake’s “The Tyger” also hints at a natural unity that transcends species variation. The lyric clearly implies that the same force (natural or supernatural?) lies behind the tiger and the lamb: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”(20). Blake’s tiger is presented with a beauty that is fascinating (“burning bright”) in spite of, or perhaps because of, its destructiveness. Oliver Goldsmith’s Natural History (1795) offers a naturalist’s tiger that is very similar to Blake’s. After describing the physical beauties of the creature, Goldsmith says, “Unhappily, however, this animal’s disposition, is as mischievous as its form is admirable, as if providence was willing to show the small value of beauty, by bestowing it on the most noxious of quadrupeds” (2: 135). Erasmus Darwin reports anatomical evidence for a comparable natural “problem” in the human species, a problem which Blake put to powerful use in “Infant Sorrow.” Darwin wrote “The repeated struggles of a foetus in the uterus must be owing to [...] internal irritation: for the foetus can have no other inducements to move its limbs but the tedium and irksomeness of a continued posture” (Zoonomia 38). Blake’s imagination turns the biological observation of the struggling foetus into a commentary on human birth as a fall into consciousness: “My mother groaned! My father wept. / Into the dangerous world I leapt” (1-2). The newborn that has forced its way into the world, however, finds little improvement in its sensory situation and thus repeats its prenatal strife: “Struggling in my father’s hands: / Striving against my swaddling bands” (5-6). Even from our fallen state, however, Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence” reminds us that if we upset natural balances, we do so at our own peril: “The wanton Boy that kills the Fly / Shall feel the Spider’s enmity” (33-34).
Shelley’s “The Sensitive Plant” presents another example of a specifically Romantic natural history invoked for poetic purposes. The sensitive plant (mimosa), as Erasmus Darwin had noted, posed a scientific mystery because its responsive movements seemed so much like those of an animal: “Naturalists have not explained the immediate cause of the collapsing of the sensitive plant; the leaves meet and close in the night during the sleep of the plant . . . in the same manner as when they are affected by external violence” (Botanic Garden 2: 40). Any plant that could be said to “sleep” might well provide Shelley with a botanical species that could represent human characteristics. Earl Wasserman points out that “the traditional botanical and biological classifications were seriously under question in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and the sensitive plant was one of the most frequent examples of those ambiguous border-forms sharing both vegetable and animal characteristics” (157). Such border forms were particularly interesting to a poet like Shelley who often assumes that a unified “Power” we cannot see nonetheless “inhabits” animated nature. For Shelley, this border between living and nonliving is comparable to the barrier that separates unseen “Power” from the visible effects of power in a poem like “Mont Blanc.”
Chambers Cyclopedia (1753) described the sensitive plant as “an herb sufficiently known to the world for its remarkable property of receding from the touch, and giving signs, as it were, of animal life,” while Soame Jenyns compared the sensitive plant to the “shell-fish” noting that the “lowest” animal and the “highest” plant are both distinguished by sensitivity; the bivalve opening “to receive the water which surrounds it,” just as the plant is observed “shrinking from the finger” that touches it (Wasserman 157n). The sensitive plant embodies precisely the anxiety about hybrids that posed such problems for early naturalists. It looks like a plant but “behaves” like an animal. Erasmus Darwin discussed the sensitive plant in relation to the Tartarian Lamb (Polypodium barometz), a fern that can look like an animal but that always “behaves” like a plant. The “Lamb” was actually an Asiatic shrub that projected its roots into the ground in a way that made it appear to have legs. Even cases like this, where the observational data is conflicting, remind us how early nineteenth century thinkers found apparent boundaries (even plant vs. animal) to be less absolute than had been previously imagined.
Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind” includes a typically Romantic image of sympathetic interactions across such boundaries in the natural system. Once again, the conception implies a close connection between apparently disparate aspects of the natural world. In often quoted lines, Shelley envisions undersea plants responding to the terrestrial change of seasons announced by the west wind (“thy voice”):
The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear
The sapless foliage of the ocean, know
Thy voice, and suddenly grow grey, with fear,
And tremble and despoil themselves: O Hear! (39-42)
Shelley’s science is not strictly accurate but, once again, his impulse is a powerfully ecological one, as he indicates in his note to the lines: “The phenomenon alluded to . . . is well known to naturalists. The vegetation at the bottom of the sea, of rivers, and of lakes, sympathizes with that of the land in the change of seasons, and is consequently influenced by the winds which announce it” (222). Plants of the sea are described as entering into a cycle of nature that includes plants on the land. From a twentieth-century perspective, we might say that Shelley imagines ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny; that is, he implies that the plants of the sea and the plants of the land might share common processes because they spring from a common origin. My point is not that Shelley anticipates evolutionary thinking (his science is simply wrong), but that his sense of natural history allows him to imagine “nature” as an interdependent system rather than as distinct species incapable of interaction or variation. Of course this notion of interdependence also drives the human impulse evident throughout the West Wind ode. The human speaker longs to possess precisely that energy that he identifies with the wind itself. Whatever force it is that causes this wind to blow is also credited with the power to plant “winged seeds” in the ground, bring them to life in the spring, drive “loose clouds” across the sky to drop “rain and lightning,” and cause waves to roll the length of the “Atlantic’s level powers.” Shelley’s poem addresses the wind directly and self consciously, as if to say, “I feel connected to the power of these natural processes; now let me feel more fully identified with that power.”
Keats’s “To Autumn” offers a comprehensive example of just such a unifying and synthetic view of natural process, even in the context of death and decay. A nature that can “load,” “bless,” “bend,” “fill,” “swell,” “plump,” and “set budding” is not the theocentric “fallen” nature of Milton, or even of Blake, but is closer to “nature” as described by Erasmus Darwin, where every living thing contains the legacy of its biological origins (“the living filament”) as well as indications of its connectedness to other living things. The nonspecific vital energy implied by Keats’s verbs in “To Autumn” is as abstract as the concept of a “season.” The poet personifies “autumn” in part to suggest that the power that loads the vines and swells the gourds is identical to the life-force heard in the bleating “lambs” and whistling “red-breast” at the poem’s close. Keats makes no reference to his own mind amid all of this organic life; part of the rhetorical power of the poem lies in the way it links human consciousness to a natural world that can be described so unselfconsciously. There is no monotheistic divinity invoked in the poem; instead, the natural processes described here are self sustained and self sustaining. Keats’s “nature,” like Erasmus Darwin’s, exists without need for, or appeal to, any form of “super nature.”
As is so often the case in Romantic writing, natural creatures in “To Autumn”–wailing gnats, bleating lambs, signing crickets, whistling robin, twittering swallows–seem to speak a language that the human observer cannot quite understand. It is not that these creatures know something unknown to the poem’s speaker, but rather that they seem, by their very existence, to partake of a unity that the human observer can only hope for or imagine. Blake describes a similar longing in The Book of Thel, where the self-conscious Thel–unlike the cloud, the lily, or the worm–is unable to accept her position in an organic cycle that will require her to suffer and die. The sense of impending death in “To Autumn” is countered by the forcefulness with which images of ripeness and completeness pervade the poem. The “songs of spring” are not needed in the lyric because images of annual renewal fill these lines with a cyclical promise. In biological terms, most of the plants and animals mentioned in the poem did not exist twelve months before the autumn day that Keats is invoking, nor will they exist in a matter of weeks or months after the moment the poem describes. “Ripeness” is “all” in this poem precisely because ripeness invokes the clearest “message” the poem contains, a biological one: living things reach their fullness and die after preparing the way (organically and reproductively) for new living things, new forms of organic life. Keats’s powerful language at the close of “To Autumn” has been interestingly linked to the less exalted, but no less accurate, imagery of the biologists W. Kirby and W. Spence in An Introduction to Entomology (1817): “tribes of Tipulidae (usually, but improperly, called gnats) assemble . . . when the sun shines, and form themselves into choirs, that alternately rise and fall” (Allott 653). Choirs of “small gnats” like these have often been commented upon by naturalists precisely because of the brevity of their existence; such species, for the most part, live long enough only to mate and then die.
We should perhaps also recall that Keats’s poetic “natural” worlds can include a character like Lamia, a woman who is also a snake. Coleridge’s “nature” (in “Christabel”) similarly includes Geraldine, a woman whose connection to the “natural” is best described in terms of biological sexuality, even if her figurative representation is linked more closely to folklore and witchcraft. Gender raises complex biological questions for Romantic natural history in relation to hybridization, hermaphroditism, and androgyny. Consider, to choose just one example, the issue of male lactation. Erasmus Darwin, in The Temple of Nature, argues that humans exhibit a form of hermaphroditism because males possess nipples; he adds that in desert countries certain males have produced milk for infants (53). In Zoonomia, Darwin notes that male teats are a sign of an original single sex in humans, adding that male pigeons appear to produce some sort of milk (2: 246). We know that Shelley tried to suckle at least one of his own infants, although Peacock attributes the attempt to the desire for a “miracle,” rather than suggesting that Shelley might have gotten the idea from his reading of natural history. Shelley’s attempt at wet-nursing followed Harriet’s refusal to breast-feed Ianthe: “at last, in his despair, and thinking that the passion in him would make a miracle, he pulled his shirt away and tried himself to suckle the child” (White 1: 326). Darwin cited Buffon as the source of the idea that “there are some instances of men having had milk secreted in their breasts, and who have given suck to children” (Zoonomia 2: 267).
Buffon worries, throughout his discussion of reproduction, about the respective roles of men and women in the creation of new life. He describes conflicting theories about which parent plays the larger role in determining the characteristics of the offspring. He disputes earlier theories that “the resemblance of children to parents only proceeds . . . from the imagination of the mother” (2: 55) claiming instead that the “formation of the foetus is, then, made by the union of the organic particles contained in the mixture of the seminal liquor of both sexes” (3: 244). Erasmus Darwin likewise discusses reproduction at length, arguing against cases of apparent parthenogenesis (reproduction by the egg alone) in humans, but describing “monstrous births . . . which appear to be new conformations, or new dispositions of parts in respect to each other, and which . . . may depend on the imagination of the male parent” (Zoonomia 2: 258). Many critics have noted the extent to which “monstrous” births seem to have been on Mary Shelley’s mind during the summer of 1816. Once again, a whole range of Romantic concerns–reproduction, sexuality, androgyny, incest–link in important ways to emerging ideas about the science of life. Biology, as a science, not only came into being in the nineteenth century, it eventually dominated much of that century’s sense of how the 1859 world of Darwin’s Origin of Species differed from the 1735 world of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae. Biology may not appear to determine destiny in the nineteenth century–as it so often does at our own cultural moment–but a Romantic natural history helps us to see how the “Nature” of Newton and Linnaeus becomes the “nature” of Stephen Hawking and Stephen Jay Gould.
If species are mutable, then they are linked in ways that no static view of creation could allow. In addition, the “barrier” that once separated species from one another is gradually superceded by a dynamic system that produces “new” species out of “old” ones. One implication of modern (genetic) theories of inheritance is that there is, in one sense, no such thing as a species; or rather, all species are constantly transforming themselves into new forms, new aspects of creation. Mary Shelley did not know precisely what a “species” was when she used the term in 1816, but neither did Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, or Charles Darwin. Romantic anxiety about species was not merely the result of uncertainty about the origins of organic nature; it was part of a much wider cultural movement away from an atomized view of discrete natural “types” toward a model of nature as an organic whole, what we might now call an ecological system.
My point is not that Romantic writers were good scientists, or that their literary images always derived from accurate information. Sensitive plants, poison trees, and “new species,” however, indicate a pervasive paradigm shift, away from a “nature” that was static and unchanging toward a “nature” characterized by dynamic links between all living things. Such a view is, of course, much closer to our contemporary claim that nature is not here for us, but that we are part of a vast web of genetic links and animate interrelatedness. Romantic natural history deserves more scholarly attention than it has hitherto received, in part because it helps us to see the origins of our own rhetorical practices. Our current emphasis on Romantic ecology does not arise solely from a contemporary “Green” sense of the interdependence between organisms and their environments; it derives as well from earlier Romantic thinkers. In the century before Charles Darwin, a wide range of scientists and writers saw human beings as organisms with important connections to their environment. These same connections, as we have come to understand, have profound implications for all life on the planet we share with the rest of “animate” nature.
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