The Loves of Plants and Animals: Romantic Science and the Pleasures of Nature

[first published in “Romanticism and Ecology,” Romantic Circles Praxis Series (November 2001)

[O]ur intellectual sympathies [rest] with . . . the miseries, or with the joys, of our fellow creatures.

– Erasmus Darwin, Zoonomia (1794)

When Wordsworth notes his faith that “every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes,” or when Keats describes an unseen nightingale pouring forth its “soul abroad / In such an ecstasy,” we may be inclined to classify these lyrical claims as Romantic hyperbole, rhetorically suspect forms of anthropomorphism, overly sentimental and poetically overblown. Likewise, when Wordsworth’s heart fills “with pleasure” at the sight of daffodils, or when Blake says “How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight,” we may think that the poet is protesting too little or offering too much credit to the natural world for what is, in fact, a strictly “human” emotion. In this essay I will examine Romantic claims about pleasure in the natural world and pleasure derived from the natural world in terms of the “science” of the century before Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, particularly the science of animate nature, the belief that all living things (and perhaps even “nonliving” things) were connected by a force that could be described, at least partly, in terms of the natural ability to please or to be pleased. I will conclude with a reflection on connections between the method of observational science in the Romantic period, the writing of poetry, and the sources of pleasure.

Pleasure in the natural world is a concept that links Romantic poetry and Romantic science in significant ways. Pleasure located in the nonhuman world and pleasure taken by humans in the natural world are concepts that co-mingle in a whole range of Romantic metaphors and rhetorical practices, anthropocentric and otherwise. In fact, the apparent anthropocentrism of much eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century scientific and poetic thinking turns out to be much more centered in the nonhuman world than we might think. This essay will link discussions of plant and animal “pleasure” in the works of Erasmus Darwin, and in Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (often by way of Oliver Goldsmith, who introduced many of Buffon’s ideas to a British audience) with the use of “pleasure” in poems by Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats. This link between the poetic and the scientific in Romantic natural history also reveals aspects of our current cultural sense of the interrelatedness of human and nonhuman nature.

Where does Romantic talk about the heart filling with pleasure like dancing daffodils or a bird being described as a “world of delight” come from? It comes, to cite one obvious source, from an otherwise hard-nosed medical practitioner and experimental scientist like Erasmus Darwin. Here is Darwin, in one of his characteristic (and often controversial) descriptions of the love life of plants:

Hence on green leaves the sexual Pleasures dwell,
And Loves and Beauties crowd the blossom’s bell;
The wakeful Anther in his silken bed
O’er the pleas’d Stigma bows his waxen head;
With meeting lips, and mingling smiles, they sup
Ambrosial dew-drops from the nectar’d cup;
Or buoy’d in air the plumy Lover springs,
And seeks his panting bride on Hymen-wings.
(Temple of Nature, II, 263-70)

Darwin was roundly criticized, as had been Linnaeus before him, for this tendency to sexualize the life of plants.1 For Darwin, however, these erotic descriptions of plant love (and even plant lust) were an analogue for human sexuality and an accurate description of the way flowers actually worked. Indeed, almost all of Darwin’s claims about plant sexuality were based on direct observation. He often expanded his poetic rhapsodies on the sex life of plants with prose footnotes that also ascribe a wide range of intentionality and emotion to the plant kingdom: “The vegetable passion of love is agreeably seen in the flower of the parnassia, in which the males alternately approach and recede from the female; and in the flower of nigella, or devil in the bush, in which the tall females bend down to their dwarf husbands. But I was this morning surprised to observe . . . the manifest adultery of several females of the plant Collinsonia, who had bent themselves into contact with the males of other flowers of the same plant in their vicinity, neglectful of their own” (“Economy of Vegetation,” IV, p. 121 n.). Claims like these about plant life consistently suggest that willfulness, intention, and pleasure all extend – albeit in diminished forms – from humans to animals to plants, and even beyond.

More important for my argument than Darwin’s specific descriptions of the sexual life of plants are his views, most clearly summarized in the poetry and footnotes of The Temple of Nature (1803) about natural pleasures. In this work, Darwin clearly describes pleasure in any one part of animate creation as an aspect of pleasure extending through the whole of the terrestrial biosphere: “From the innumerable births of the larger insects, and the spontaneous productions of the microscopic ones, every part of organic matter from the recrements of dead vegetable or animal bodies, on or near the surface of the earth, becomes again presently re-animated; which by increasing the number and quantity of living organisms, though many of them exist but for a short time, adds to the sum total of terrestrial happiness” (Temple, 189 n.). Pleasure in the entire biotic realm is increased not only by the prolific reproduction of “insects” (the word means “small creatures” to Darwin) and microscopic organisms but by the death and organic regeneration of larger creatures: “The sum total of the happiness of organized nature is probably increased rather than diminished, when one large old animal dies, and is converted into many thousand young ones; which are produced or supported with their numerous progeny by the same organic matter” (Temple, 190-91 n.). Darwin also notes that the Pythagorean belief in the transmigration of souls derives merely from the organic and “perpetual transmigration of matter from one body to another, of all vegetables and animals, during their lives, as well as after their deaths” (191 n.). This chemical and organic movement of elements through the bodies of living creatures leads, over eons, to a unified and complete “system of morality and benevolence, as all creatures thus became related to each other” (192 n.) in terms of the matter that composes them. What Darwin calls the “felicity of organic life,” is a function of the “happiness and misery of [all] organic beings”; this felicity, he says, depends ultimately, on “the actions of the organs of sense” and on “the fibres which perform locomotion” (194 n.). Every living thing, Darwin concludes, is subject to “immediate sources” of “pains and pleasures,” the encouragement or avoidance of which might “increase the sum total of organic happiness” (194-95 n.). Pain and pleasure, he goes on to argue, are a function of the expansion and contraction of nerve and muscles fibers of sensation, organic elements which exist in all living things, albeit in a variety of forms and intensities. All emotional responses – pleasure, pain, happiness, sadness – are thus based solely on the motion of material parts of each life form.

Finally, and perhaps most dramatically, Darwin’s understanding of geology leads him to conclude that the planet itself is a record of the pleasures of earlier ages of animate beings: “Not only the vast calcerous provinces . . . and also whatever rests upon them . . . clay, marl, sand, and coal . . . gave the pleasure of life to the animals and vegetables, which formed them; and thus constitute monuments of the past happiness of these organized beings. But as those remains of former life are not again totally decomposed . . . they supply more copious food to the successions of new animal or vegetable beings on their surface . . . . and hence the quantity or number of organized bodies, and their improvement in size, as well as their happiness, has been continually increasing, along with the solid parts of the globe” (Temple, 195-96 n.). More dry land over eons, more living things century upon century, more happiness produced from millennium to millennium. At this point, Darwin breaks down the boundary between organic and inorganic as part of his wider economy of nature, what we might now call his “ecology.” Material processes, compounds, and elements—which he always describes in fundamentally chemical terms (clay, sand, coal, heat, oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, phosphorus)—compose, decompose, and re-compose, first into inorganic, then into organic, and ultimately into animate creatures, including human beings.

Darwin also argues that the plant and animal kingdoms are connected by the possibility of sensation. In Zoonomia, he describes “Vegetable Animation”: “The fibres of the vegetable world, as well as those of the animal, are excitable into a variety of motions by irritations of external objects. This appears particularly in the mimosa or sensitive plant, whose leaves contract on the slightest injury ” (I, 73).2 But the “fibres” responsible for sensation are also related to pleasure: “when pleasure or pain affect the animal system, many of its motions both muscular and sensual are brought into action . . . The general tendency of these motion is to arrest [i.e. stabilize] and to possess the pleasure, or to dislodge or avoid the pain” (I, 31). The conclusion Darwin draws is obvious: “the individuals of the vegetable world may be considered as inferior or less perfect animals” (I, 73).

The belief that sensation might spread through all of animate creation was widely discussed in Europe and America throughout the eighteenth century by natural scientists, natural theologians, and poets, among others. As Christoph Irmscher has written recently, this was an age “that ascribed sensitivity, even souls, to plants” (31). But as Erasmus Darwin suggested, the point was not merely that plants might have souls, but that “souls” might turn out to be nothing more than complex combinations of material (i.e. muscular, nervous, electro-chemical) motions. John Bartram, writing to Benjamin Rush, noted that there was much to be learned about “sensation” in plants, even though many animals were already known to be “endowed with most of our [that is, human] faculties & pashions & . . . intelect” [sic] (690).

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, describes many of the animals he catalogues in terms of human passions and intellect. Buffon’s marmot “delights in the regions of ice and snow” (121). His elephant is “susceptible of gratitude, and capable of strong attachment” (152) and “loves the society of his equals” (153). If “vindictive,” the pachyderm “is no less grateful” (159). Numerous writers were willing to extend pleasure even into the realm of lower life forms. A 1792 compilation by several natural historians of insects includes comments such as the following: each insect, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is “adapted for procuring its particular pleasures” (2); indeed, every insect, like every creature, “was formed for itself, and each allowed to seize as great a quantity of happiness from the universal stock . . . each was formed to make the happiness of each” (6). “The butterfly, to enjoy life, needs no other food but the dews of heaven” (75) and “it is impossible to express the fond attachment which the working ants shew to their rising progeny” (125). Animals, of course, had been connected to humans sensation and emotional response since ancient history: loyal dogs, sagacious elephants, wily foxes, diligent ants. What was new by 1790 was the sense that these were not just rhetorical comparisons of behavior between human and animal realms, but that such observationally supported comparisons reflected a deeper – and organic – unity of all living things.

Eighteenth-century talk about emotion and sensation in “lower” life forms was also related to an underlying philosophical monism, well articulated by Goethe. In “the Experiment as Mediator between Subject and Object” (1792) Goethe offers a holistic critique of “living Nature” that was designed to counter the fragmentary quality of empirical science: “Nothing happens in living Nature that does not bear some relation to the whole. The empirical evidence may seem quite isolated, we may view our experiments as mere isolated facts, but this is not to say that they are, in fact, isolated. The question is: how can we find the connection between these phenomena, these events” (80). Likewise, Goethe is willing to include “joy and pain” among the categories that are applicable to any “organism”: “Basic characteristics of an individual organism: to divide, to unite, to merge into the universal, to abide in the particular, to transform itself, to define itself, and, as living things tend to appear under a thousand conditions, to arise and vanish, to solidify and melt, to freeze and flow, to expand and contract . . . . Genesis and decay, creation and destruction, birth and death, joy and pain, all are interwoven with equal effect and weight; thus even the most isolated event always presents itself as an image and metaphor for the most universal” (52). So while observational science is suggesting that expansion, contraction, attraction and repulsion of tiny particles are physical properties of all living (and perhaps nonliving) things, the metaphysic of Romantic science argues that characteristics found in one part of nature are likely to exist throughout the entire natural system, albeit in differing – reduced or expanded – forms.

Oliver Goldsmith, whose A History of the Earth and Animated Nature was drawn largely from Buffon and other European naturalists, restrains himself from extending sensation into the realm of the inorganic, but he too indicates how widespread was the belief in common elements pervading the germ plasm, a unity behind the dazzling variety that characterized the animate world. He says that the prevalence of invisible living creatures, animals and plants too small to see, has led “some late philosophers into an opinion, that all nature was animated, that every, even the most inert mass of matter, was endued with life and sensation, but wanted organs to make those sensations perceptible to the observer.” (IV, 322). The link between human and animal pleasure thus reaches well into the plant kingdom by the 1790s, producing a view well summarized by Buffon himself: “it is impossible to finish our short review of nature [over 30 volumes!] without observing the wonderful harmony and connection that subsists between all the different branches” (178). Pleasure described in one part of nature reflects the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of pleasure spread throughout all of nature.

Now let us consider a poet like Percy Shelley, who can load every rift of his imagery with ore derived from the natural science of his age, often in ways that precisely link human and nonhuman “feelings.” In one of the best known examples of this tendency – taken from “Ode to the West Wind” – Shelley imagines plants beneath the sea in sympathy with plants on land: “The sea-blooms and the oozy woods which wear / The sapless foliage of the ocean, know / Thy voice [the wind’s], and suddenly grow gray with fear, / And tremble and despoil themselves” (ll. 39-42). Shelley adds a footnote to these lines that sounds as though it could have come directly from Erasmus Darwin: “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” (577). Shelley’s science here may be wrong, but his imaginative insight links with the emerging science of his own time to produce an idea that is surely correct: organic activity beneath the waves has important – Shelley says “sympathetic”; we might now say “ecological” – connections to events on the land.

Similarly, Shelley’s sky-lark sings with “shrill delight” (l. 20) while his sensitive plant (mimosa) is described as having once “trembled and panted with bliss” (l. 9). Shelley’s sensitive plant derives directly from Erasmus Darwin’s reflections on the mimosa as a strange bridge between the plant and animal kingdoms. Yet Shelley goes beyond the mere ascription of sensation to the plant, suggesting a direct connection between this plant and certain sorts of human emotion (of course, his real subject in the poem is clearly a “sensitive” poet like himself). The affinity of plants for other plants, and the image of plants as analogous to forms of attraction throughout the material universe, reaches an apotheosis in lines from Shelley’s botanical poem. These flowers

Shone smiling to Heaven, and every one
Shared joy in the light of the gentle sun;
For each one was interpenetrated
With the light and the odour its neighbor shed
Like young lovers whom youth and love make dear
Wrapped and filled by their mutual atmosphere.
(ll. 64-69)

Of course, the suggestion that aspects of the entirety of nature might be analogous to human nature is as old as poetry itself. What is new in a poet like Shelley is the sense of how an emotion like pleasure can organically link humans with the nonhuman world. In a rarely discussed poem entitled “The Birth of Pleasure,” Shelley is explicit about the central role of pleasure, even at the dawn of creation: “At the creation of the Earth / Pleasure, that divinest birth, / From the soil of heaven did rise, / Wrapped in sweet wild melodies” (584).

Consider, from this perspective, Shelley’s cloud, whose nourishing water offers sustenance to “thirsting flowers” and provides shade for delicate leaves in their “noonday dreams” (ll. 1,4). In this proto-ecological vision of the hydrological cycle (“I pass through the pores of the oceans and shores; / I change, but I cannot die” [ll. 74-75]), Shelley elaborates electrical attractions between ground and clouds – only recently described by Benjamin Franklin and by Shelley’s own science teacher Adam Walker (from Syon House Academy and Eton) – as a kind of “love” between earth and sky. He also says that the “moist Earth” is “laughing below” (l. 72) as the cloud brings various forms of pleasure to each part of this natural cycle. Even a satiric and imaginative flight of fancy like “The Witch of Atlas” is shot through with precise details drawn from the natural science of Shelley’s time, and linked to powerful “sympathy” between the natural and the human realms: “Vipers kill, though dead” (l. 2), “a young kitten” may “leap and play as grown cats do, / Till its claws come” (ll. 6-7) and Mary Shelley’s gentle hand would not “crush the silken wingèd fly” (l. 9). The may-fly dies almost before it is born, and even the swan’s song in the sun evokes a smile as serene as Mary’s (stanza ii).

Wordsworth, in a famous passage from The Prelude, links a similarly “scientific” form of observation to a pleasure that is essential to the very definition of the poetic. Wordsworth, however, sees this link in much more psychological terms than Shelley: “To unorganic natures I transferred / My own enjoyments, or, the power of truth / Coming in revelation, I conversed / With things that really are” (1805, II, 410-13).Wordsworth sees this interaction as more than merely a symbolic representation of his inner states in the outer world. Rather, he links feelings of pleasure in himself directly to emotions that he ascribes to the rest of the world: “From Nature and her overflowing soul / I had received so much that all my thoughts / Were steeped in feeling” (II, 416-18). This is not, however, just watered down, Wordsworthian pantheism: his 1805 description of the unity of natural process owe as much to the natural science of the era as it does to his own emerging “theology”:

I felt the sentiment of being spread
O’er all that moves . . .
O’er all that leaps, and runs, and shouts, and sings,
Or beats the gladsome air, o’er all that glides
Beneath the wave, yea, in the wave itself

. . . in all things
I saw one life, and felt that it was joy.
(II, 420-21, 425-27, 429-30)

A passage like this reflects the natural history of Wordsworth’s time while also connecting his emotional (and poetic) power to similar powers that he attributes to the plants and animals around him. His daffodils are only the most famous example of this recurrent tendency: “A Poet could not but be gay / In such a laughing company” (ll. 9-10) leading to, “And then my heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the Daffodils” (ll. 17-18).

We should recall that Wordsworth’s image derives not only from his own observation, but also from Dorothy Wordsworth‘s journal text. Dorothy’s recollection sounds initially like that of a natural historian: “The hawthorns are black and green, the birches here and there greenish but there is yet more of purple to be seen on the twigs . . . a few primroses by the roadside, wood-sorrel flower, the anemone, scentless violets, strawberries, and that starry yellow flower which Mrs. C. calls pile wort. When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side” (109). Then, in an important transitional sentence, Dorothy reveals her “fancy” going to work on these objects of nature: “We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up. But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them [the end we did not see (erased)] along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road” (109). Only at this moment does Dorothy launch into the poetic possibility that these flowers can be more closely linked to human emotions than we might think, even as she gives up on formal grammar and syntax: “I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing” (109, 15 April 1802).

An earlier passage from Dorothy’s journal reveals a similar connection of wind-caused motion, animation, and the link between human emotion and the natural world. The scene takes place during a winter wind on Grasmere Lake. I quote the passage in its entirely because it so clearly reveals the rhetorical movement from inanimate images (wind on the water), to animate images (“peacock’s tail,” “they made it all alive”), to humanized emotion applied to a flower (“let it live if it can”):

We amused ourselves for a long time in watching the Breezes some as if they came from the bottom of the lake spread in a circle, brushing along the surface of the water, and growing more delicate, as it were thinner and of a paler colour till they died away. Others spread out like a peacock’s tail, and some went right forward this way and that in all directions. The lake was still where these breezes were not, but they made it all alive. I found a strawberry blossom in a rock. The little slender flower had more courage than the green leaves, for they were but half expanded and half grown, but the blossom was spread full out. I uprooted it rashly, and I felt as if I had been committing an outrage, so I planted it again. It will have but a stormy life of it, but let it live if it can” (82-3, 31 January 1802).

Dorothy’s sudden emotional response to a flower here reminds us of her brother’s pantheistic reaction to his own impulsive destruction of nature in “Nutting”: “I felt a sense of pain when I beheld / The silent trees and the intruding sky – / Then, dearest Maiden . . . with gentle hand / Touch, – for there is a Spirit in the woods” (ll. 50-52, 53-54).

A manuscript text from 1798 reveals just how far William is willing to go in linking his own sentiments about the nonhuman world to the natural “science” of his time, a science that could associate all animate and inanimate objects into a naturalistic unity:

There is an active principle alive in all things;
In all things, in all natures, in the flowers
And in the trees, in every pebbly stone
That paves the brooks, the stationary rocks,
The moving water and the invisible air.
All beings have their properties which spread
Beyond themselves, a power by which they make
Some other being conscious of their life

Coleridge understands this connection between pleasure within the self and pleasure taken from the external world, although he describes the link more dispassionately and more ambiguously than even Wordsworth. We might call Coleridge’s version of this phenomenon transference: that is, our own emotions can be transferred onto nature for psychological reasons. Here is Coleridge’s clearest example: “A child scolding a flower in the words in which he had been himself scolded and whipped, is poetry – passion past with pleasure” (Animae Poetae 10). The child transfers his own enjoyments, and miseries, out onto the objects of nature that surround him. For Coleridge, in “To Nature”: “It may indeed be phantasy, when I / Essay to draw from all created things / Deep, heartfelt, inward joy that closely clings” (ll.1-3). But we should remember that this is the same poet who longs passionately for what we might now call a unified ecosystem (“all of animated nature”), a unity in “Nature” that he describes as a strange music of mind identified with joy:

O! 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,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance every where.
(“The Eolian Harp,” ll. 26-29)

Coleridge connects romantic science to the pleasures of nature in precisely the ways I have been describing. His wild goat looks at the cataract “in awe” (“On a Cataract,” l.18). The ox in “Recantation” may be described in Coleridge’s footnote as a symbol for the French Revolution, but the animal is nevertheless presented in terms of its naturalized emotions: “The ox was glad, as well he might, / Thought the green meadow no bad sight / And frisk’d, – to shew his huge delight” (ll. 9-11). Likewise, the sympathetic creature described fraternally in “To a Young Ass” (“I hail thee Brother” [l.26]) has a “moping head,” (ms. 1794), and the poet asks if its “sad heart thrill’d with filial pain” (l. 13). Coleridge’s most famous image in this regard is perhaps the transformed description of the sea-snakes in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.” Within the space of fifty lines of this nature-anthem, the “thousand thousand slimy things” (l. 238) crawling on the surface of the ocean are re-imagined by the mariner as “O happy living things!” (l. 282). Coleridge is also honest enough to admit, however, in “The Nightingale,” that it is often merely the poet who fills “all things with himself” and makes “all gentle sounds,” including the song of the nightingale, “tell back the tale / Of his own sorrow” (ll. 19-21). The “joy” we feel within ourselves often seems to be reflected back on us by the natural world beyond us. Then again, as the always ambivalent Coleridge might say, maybe not; perhaps our feelings belong only to us.

Notice how a poetic natural historian, the polymath Oliver Goldsmith, links human pleasure to animal pleasure in ways comparable to Coleridge. In the section of Animated Nature devoted to birds, Goldsmith says: “we now come to a beautiful and loquacious race of animals, that embellish our forests, amuse our walks, and exclude solitude from out most shady retirements. From these man has nothing to fear; their pleasures, their desires, and even their animosities, only serve to enliven the general picture of Nature, and give harmony to meditation” (III, 3). Within a few pages, when Goldsmith claims that “the return of spring is the beginning of pleasure” (III, 14), he is similarly eliding the distinction between human and nonhuman pleasures. But Goldsmith also reminds us that the pleasure provided by nature is not always here for our benefit. In this vernal season filled with pleasures, he continues, the “delightful concert of the grove, which is much admired by man, is no way studied for his [human] amusement: it is usually the call of the male to the female, his efforts to soothe her during times of incubation; or it is a challenge between two males for the affections of some common favourite” (III, 14). Lest we mistake the birds as singing a song for our benefit, Goldsmith reminds us that bird-song is about bird pleasure in mothering or in copulation, not about the desires of poetic or scientific humans.

Finally, let us consider Keats. In “On the Grasshopper and Cricket,” Keats’s grasshopper is as full of the pleasures of life as Goldsmith or Erasmus Darwin could have ever imagined: “He takes the lead / In summer luxury; he has never done / With his delights, for when tired out with fun / He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed” (ll. 5-8). Or, from “Sleep and Poetry”: “What is more soothing than the pretty hummer / That stays one moment in an open flower / And buzzes cheerily from bower to bower?” (ll. 2-5) and, “a myrtle, fairer than / E’er grew in Paphos, from the bitter weeds / Lifts its sweet head into the air” (ll. 248-50). By now we should appreciate that these are not merely hyperbolic flights of imaginative fancy. This is Keats describing the natural world as he understands it. My suggestion is born out by an intertextual reference in Miriam Allott’s note to the “wailful choir” of “small gnats” mourning in “To Autumn.” The lines echo the 1817 entomology written by William Kirby and William Spence: “tribes of Tipulidae (usually, but improperly called gnats) assemble . . . and form themselves into choirs, that alternately rise and fall . . . These little creatures may be seen at all seasons, amusing themselves with their choral dances” (653).

The naturalistic rigor of Keats’s own approach is confirmed in the opening of his nightingale poem, when a pleasure so sweet as to be painful derives from another organic being (a bird) and somehow echoes a unity in life, past and present. The speaker’s heart aches. He is at once drowsy and numb. He is drunk on an emotion as powerful as that produced by a natural intoxicant (hemlock). We should think back at this point to Erasmus Darwin, who describes a chemical affinity between us and the opium poppy (“dull opiate” [l. 3]) that can transport us out of our ordinary pleasure into pleasures of a different, but no less powerful, kind (Botanic Garden, “Loves of the Plants,” II, 57 n.). How might these flowers produce such powerful emotional and narcotic affects unless there was some organic sympathy – Darwin says a chemical “affinity” – between us and these plants.

Keats is happy in an almost excruciating way (“too happy in thine happiness” [l.6]), but this intensity reveals a pleasure that is ordinary for this bird. The bird’s happy lot makes the poet’s lot in life seem somehow diminished. What would a human give, Keats implies, to sing with such “full-throated ease” [l. 10]. Having heard this bird singing, human mortality appears to be much less of a problem to the observant poet. My point is that there is nothing sentimental here, nothing overstated or hyperbolic. From such a naturalistic perspective, there is also no death wish in this poem (“Now more than ever seems it rich to die” [l. 55]). The poet’s final claim is simple. Having heard such a song, and having felt organically connected to such a fellow creature, physical death now seems like less of a curse. Death now feels like part of something greater, even if that greater something is organic and material, like a bird. The bird’s song dies away as the poet’s voice will soon die away: literally. Organic life expressed through song (a bird’s or a poet’s) is, we should add, the one thing that most clearly distinguishes both this bird and this poet from the “Cold pastoral” of the Grecian urn.

Keats’s human pleasure taken from this bird reminds us that science can also be linked to pleasure in a way that connects with the writing of poetry. John Herschel, the nineteenth-century astronomer, described the “great sources of delight” that might be derived from the study of “natural” sciences (Richardson, Emerson 123). Likewise, Goldsmith justified his “popularizing” version of natural history – first published in 1774 and running to over twenty editions during the nineteenth century – in terms of its ability to provide pleasure: “Natural History, considered in its utmost extent, comprehends two objects. First, that of discovering, ascertaining, and naming, all the various productions of Nature. Secondly, that of describing the properties, manners, and relations, which they bear to us, and to each other. The first, which is the most difficult part of this science, is systematical, dry, mechanical, and incomplete. The second is more amusing, exhibits new pictures to the imagination, and improves our relish for existence, by widening the prospect of nature around us. Both, however, are necessary to those who would understand this pleasing science in its utmost extent. . . From seeing and observing the thing itself, he is most naturally led to speculate on its uses, its delights, or its inconveniences” (I, iii). So science is pleasing to the observer or to the participant, nature possesses its own delights, and the elements of nature can provide delight to the natural scientist and to his readers.

A related analogy is offered by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another poet-naturalist who often invokes connections like those I have been tracing. Here is Emerson, in his Notebooks, describing how language and nature, linked through metaphor, produce pleasure in the observer’s imagination: “The metamorphosis of Nature shows itself in nothing more than this, that there is no word in our language that cannot become typical of Nature by giving it emphasis. The world is a Dancer; it is a Rosary; it is a Torrent; it is a Boat; a Mist; a Spider’s Snare; it is what you will; and the metaphor will hold, and it will give the imagination keen pleasure. Swifter than light the world converts itself into that thing you name, and all things find their right place under this new and capricious classification” (6:18). Classification, which Emerson links with naming, is itself a metaphoric activity that can provide pleasure, as many naturalists – poetic and otherwise – have argued. We classify living things based on their body parts (mammalia), their legs (insects have six), or their sex organs (usually stamens and pistils in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), but the principle is always metaphoric: what seems like something else, what looks like something else, what reminds us of something, or someone, else. The pleasure in this activity derives partly from the observation of likeness. I see that my love is like a red, red rose, and my sudden sense of similarity gives me pleasure. I see that a spider is like a lobster but not like a jellyfish. I see that a lion is more like a lamb than it is like a lammergeyer (bird). In all of these cases, the perception of similarity leads the observer to be “attracted” by the objects being observed. Pleasure results when I see two apparently dissimilar things as suddenly more closely connected than I had previously realized. The result might be science: oh look, that lobster reminds me of a spider. I should describe this spider anatomically and physiologically. Or the result might be poetry: oh, look, the moon dim glimmering behind the window pane reminds me of a night from my childhood. I should write a poem.

Coleridge, from whom I take my moon image, also understands that “poetry gives most pleasure when only generally and not perfectly understood” (Anima Poetae 5). This sentiment of Coleridge’s is also true for much of nature as described in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; it is only generally and not perfectly understood. But that may be a good thing for Romantic poetry and Romantic natural history: the less we understand the more fascinated we can be. In this regard consider Emerson again: “The instincts of the ant are very unimportant considered as the ant’s; but the moment a ray of relation is seen to extend from it to man, and the little drudge is seen to be a monitor, a little body with a mighty heart, then all its habits, even that said to be recently observed, that it never sleeps, become sublime” (Nature 36). This sense of the value of things that are not understood helps to explain the precipitous decline in nature poetry during the early Modernist years of the twentieth century (Edward Thomas is the exception), when science seemed for a time to have explained away the mysteries of biological process. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, when ecology and biochemistry were both being revealed to be much more complex than had previously been imagined, a flurry of nature poetry and nature writing began again.

Onno Oerlemans has recently written that “Romantic depictions of animals force us to acknowledge that animals are a kind of life in nature that is at once much like our own, and which is yet different from it, not capable of being reduced to merely human designs or desires” (4). I would like to extend his argument beyond animals to all of animate creation. Oerlemans criticizes anthropocentric forms of criticism that produce only anthropocentric readings of Romantic writers. He argues, instead, that Romantic representations of animals make us “recognize the wider boundaries of life.” Such an argument is not just politically correct eco-criticism. On the contrary, it suggests that the Romantic writers can help us toward a sense of lives beyond our own lives, a sense of other beings and other forms of life that we did not culturally construct and that do not merely reflect our personal points of view. I should add that we do not need a Judeo-Christian concept of deity or ethics to make such a nonhuman world work. My sympathy for living things can be based, as many eighteenth-century thinkers would remind us, on my “internal constitution,” on my organic relation to the innumerable forms of life around me.3

Let me end with Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the man who would put all this talk about pleasure to rest for a century or so, but only until we realized that pleasure, like love, might be a process of brains and organic molecules rather than a process of “minds” or “souls.” Here is Erasmus Darwin linking you and me intimately to ants (which he calls “emmets”) and worms:

With ceaseless change, how restless atoms pass,
From life to life, a transmigrating mass;
How the same organs, which to day compose
The poisonous henbane, or the fragrant rose,
May, with to morrow’s sun, new forms compile,
Frown in the Hero, in the Beauty smile.
Whence drew the enlighten’d Sage, the moral plan,
[That] man should ever be the friend of man;
Should eye with tenderness all living forms,
His brother-emmets, and his sister-worms.
(Temple of Nature, IV, 419-28)

A world full of animate creatures described in terms of their ability to feel pleasure or bestow pleasure on other parts of nature. A world of living things bound together by forces that act and react on all of them in similar ways. A biological world shot through with the possibility of pleasing or being pleased, at once interrelated and interdependent. Not such a bad idea after all.


1  “Linnaeus’s [sexual system of classification] amused some of his contemporaries but scandalized others . . . ‘To tell you that nothing could equal the gross prurience of Linnaeus’s mind is perfectly needless,’ wrote the Rev. Samuel Goodenough, late Bishop of Carlisle, to that devoted Linnaean scholar J. E. Smith in January 1808: ‘A literal translation of the first principles of Linnaean botany is enough to shock female modesty'” (Stearn 245). As late as 1820, Goethe worried that women and children should not be exposed to the “dogma of sexuality” in botanical studies (Stern 245). See also Lindroth, who says of Linnaeus: “How close he stands to traditional wedding poetry in the admired opening to the dissertation on the nuptials of flowers . . . The same applies to the actual message of the work, the description of copulation, the nuptials of flowers in matchless bridal beds. With his hot sensuousness the young Linnaeus was as though obsessed with love, the mysterious drive that kept all living things in motion” (10).

2  Darwin discusses “sensitive” plants at great length. He notes that “many vegetables, during the night, do not seem to respire, but to sleep like the dormant animals and insects in winter. This appears from the mimosa and many other plants closing the upper sides of their leaves together in their sleep” (Botanic Garden, “Economy of Vegetation,” IV, 127 n.). He also classifies the mimosa in terms of its polygamous behavior: “Mimosa. The sensitive plant. Of the class Polygamy, one house. Naturalists have not explained the immediate cause of the collapsing of the sensitive plant” (Botanic Garden, “Loves of the Plants,” I, 29 n.). He also comments on a recent plant “lately brought over from the marshes of America” that is even more remarkable: “In the Dionaea Muscipula there is a still more wonderful contrivance to present the depredation of insects; the leaves are armed with long teeth, like the antennae of insects, and lie spread upon the ground round the stem; and are so irritable, that when the insect creeps upon them, they fold up, and crush or pierce it to death” (“Loves of the Plants,” I, 19 n.).

3   See Paul Feyerabend, who argues that “works of art are a product of nature, no less than rocks and flowers” and, more importantly for my argument, that “nature itself is an artifact, constructed by scientists and artisans, throughout centuries, from a partly yielding, partly resisting material of unknown properties” (223). Feyerabend’s point is not that “nature” is a culturally constructed category, but that anything we say about “nature,” any way we represent nature in science or in art is limited by our own sign systems. In this view, he is reminiscent of Goethe: “How difficult it is, though, to refrain from replacing the thing with its sign, to keep the object alive before us instead of killing it with a word” (33). See also Blake: “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy; / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sun rise” (“Eternity” 179). The view expounded by Feyerabend, Goethe, and Blake is confirmed by current theoretical physicists who admit that we do not know even now what “quarks” or “neutrinos” or “muons” really are.

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