Daniel Brown. The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, Science and Nonsense

Daniel Brown, The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, Science and Nonsense (Cambridge University Press 2013) xii + 310 pp. Hb £59.99, Pb £18.99, PDF $24.00. ISBN 9781107023376

Daniel Brown’s The Poetry of Victorian Scientists begins with a counterintuitive premise: how does nonsense serve as a foundation for knowledge, allowing for the development of increasingly professional and specialized fields of science during the Victorian period? By subverting the presumption that rational science necessarily eschews nonsensical thinking, Brown demonstrates how Victorian scientific writers actually depended on nonsensical verse forms like the limerick for the development and defence of their ideas. The book’s methodological contribution is in its deliberate deviation from the typical unidirectional move of tracking the influence of science in canonical literary texts. Instead, Brown’s study highlights the bidirectionality of the movement of ideas and approaches between literature and science as not yet truly separate fields. Brown’s account locates the beginning of this division as precisely when science was institutionalized in 1831 by the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS), which explicitly defined science as an intellectual project that did not include metaphysics, what the association deemed an area of philosophical inquiry. William Whewell’s coinage of the word “scientist” nominally separated Victorian science from the metaphysical obsessions of Romantic natural philosophy and literature. Yet poetry remained a crucial imaginative space of “counterfactual play,” where scientists could experiment privately and publically with the potentiality of the nonsensical outside their field’s disciplinary limitations (31). Within the English scientific community, verse served as a powerful method of debate, exploration, and satire.

Brown excitingly explores an understudied archive of writings by physicists and mathematicians, rather than focusing on the long-studied work of evolutionary biologists. With specific emphases on James Clerk Maxwell and James Joseph Sylvester, Brown reveals how “literary” these figures were in their approaches to scientific thinking. The witty use of puns, for instance, became an “audacious” form of theorizing that dared to “affront established ideas” through the play of semantic doubleness (37). The pleasure of the pun couples with the impulse for scientific discovery - both of which involve an act of problem solving. Brown’s account of Victorian science furnishes an additional dimension to the narrow view of the scientific method as driven primarily by laboratory experimentation, showing that the nineteenth-century scientific community clearly relied on literary thought-experiments that could be widely circulated to test their hypotheses and discuss their implications. The deployment of humorous verse, as in the case study of the Red Lion Club, marked the factional divide between the London metropolitan scientists (led by Tyndall and Huxley) and the members of the “North British Group” who challenged the former’s scientific naturalism with a theistic physics. Brown’s focus on this lesser-known group’s strategic use of poetry highlights an unexpected aspect of science’s professionalization: poetry, with its liberatory creativity, allowed science to laugh at and be critical of itself. The whole scientific enterprise, as these debates through poetry revealed, always risked verging on the nonsensical even at its most positivist.

Despite the novelty of Brown’s study of a neglected archive, The Poetry of Victorian Scientists suffers greatly from its organizational structure. The book lacks both an introduction and a conclusion, which places the burden on the reader of surmising the book’s major arguments and of tracing connections and shifts across chapters. For the most part, each chapter is dedicated to a single author, but this simple organizing principle is undermined by Brown’s choice to separate close readings of poems across different chapters and to place unrelated chapters beside one another. Without the necessary signposting within and between paragraphs, transitions within and between chapters, or even guiding notes alongside the body paragraphs, the reader finds himself constantly mired in the book’s overwhelming amount of detail. As most readers will be unfamiliar with these scientists and their writings, the reading experience even for Victorian specialists might prove difficult, especially when the argumentative stakes remain unclear by the book’s end. Even a short interlude or coda would have helped to clarify the book’s key claims. Brown unfortunately misses valuable opportunities to situate his book and its interventions within the fields of Victorian studies, poetry and poetics, and the history of science.

Most suggestive and surprisingly unremarked by reviewers is Brown’s reading of nonsense as a childish mode of thinking or state of being associated with pleasure and play. Throughout his book, Brown characterizes poetic production as an inhabiting of such childishness, which affords a counterintuitively intellectual freedom otherwise not permitted by the decorum of professional science. Nonsense appears to offer a childish respite from the seriousness of science and the adult world it shaped, of intellectual, technological and economic progress encumbered with the various existential challenges that flowed from such ideas as geological time, Darwinian evolution and entropy. (11)

Brown then moves on to define scientific progress as tied to an adulthood that can and must return to the nonsensical as a therapeutic “respite” from the field’s hyperrational demands. By this logic, Brown seems to suggest that science, as a rational endeavor, depends on a pleasurable irrationality to produce new forms of knowledge. From a history of science perspective, this implicit claim provocatively challenges an enduring Enlightenment progress narrative of Victorian science as the triumph of pure rationality. To phrase this in the terms of Brown’s own developmental language, science seems far less maturely logical than it presents itself to be. Brown’s valuation of nonsense or the irrational might also be valuable for disability studies scholarship seeking to critique the ableist underpinnings of science. If the mentally disabled (or in Victorian terms, “mad”) have been historically framed as immature or underdeveloped, what are we to make of science’s unexpected dependence on childlike nonsense?

Travis Lau, University of Pennsylvania