Dometa Wiegand Brothers, The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy: On All Sides Infinity

Dometa Wiegand Brothers, The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy: On All Sides Infinity (Palgrave 2015), Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print, 216pp. £55 hb. ISBN 978–1–137–47433–9.

Jane Taylor’s 1806 poem “The Star,” better known today as the children’s verse “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” highlights the two central and interlocking themes of Dometa Wiegand Brothers’ innovative book: The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy: On All Sides Infinity. In Taylor’s verse, the star, and thus by inference the science of astronomy, guides the traveller and explorer. Brothers contends Taylor’s lines: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, / How I wonder what you are! … Lights the trav’ller in the dark, / Though I know not what you are,” are an appeal to discourses in astronomical knowledge and exploration. As Brothers points out, they are also Romantic in content and form calling for “understanding in the individual,” and employing the poetic trope of the “lone, intrepid traveler setting out into the dark and mysterious unknown” (14-15). Both the traveller to distant terrestrial countries, and the astronomer or star-gazer using the telescope or naked eye, are explorers of the unfamiliar. Both are engaged in promoting understanding or “demystification.” Brothers’ illuminating study investigates the “metaphors of demystification” arising from journeys of exploration and discovery, terrestrial and astronomical, and their use in Romantic poetry by Anna Barbauld, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Dante Gabriel Rossetti (17).

Astronomy changed ideas about time and space in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Notions of infinity arising from astronomical observations caused a rethinking of traditional social, cultural and religious certainties. In particular, Brothers rightly maintains that William Herschel’s discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781 and his investigation of the fixed stars altered conceptions of infinity. During the same period colonial expansion by imperial Britain also changed ideas about space bringing distant unknown lands within the popular consciousness. Across the six chapters, Brothers studies Romantic poetry “through the lens of astronomical research, discovery, and dissemination of knowledge,” fruitfully teasing out the links between the science of astronomy and terrestrial exploration in the period. Her emphasis is on the work of the two Herschels, William and his son John, as motivated by the “Enlightenment Spirit” of the seventeenth-century scientists Edmund Halley and Isaac Newton (6). Brothers begins her inquiry by looking back slightly earlier than the traditional period boundaries of Romanticism to the Transits of Venus of 1761 and 1769, as calculated by Halley in 1714, and the inspiration for James Cook’s 1768-69 voyage to the South Seas. As Brothers lucidly demonstrates, the Transits’ use in the establishment of parallax would enable the discovery of astronomical distance, and were at the forefront of the systematic cataloguing of the heavens and the celestial “mapping” that would consume the minds and means of astronomers (10). But as well as science, the underlying aim of Cook’s voyage was the discovery of new sites for colonial and military expansion.

For Brothers, in albeit a short second chapter, it is Barbauld’s poetry that best encapsulates the bonds between astronomy, navigation, empire, and Romantic creativity. Examining Barbauld’s poems such as “To Miss Kinder on Receiving a Note Dated February 30” and “A Summer Evening’s Meditation,” Brothers reveals images of exploration, navigation, mathematics and astronomy and their associated seemingly unsolvable scientific complexities such as longitude coordinates and the astronomical problem of infinity that produce poetic images of an “alienated Romantic narrator” (41). In the third chapter she establishes Coleridge’s employment of astronomical symbols of space, time and exploration in poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. She argues that these metaphors reflect Coleridge’s desire to incorporate and resolve questions concerning the presence of a Deity or First Cause, arising from the application of Newtonian and Herschelian mechanistic principles of the development and operation of the universe. The fourth chapter informatively explicates the development of institutionalized and disciplinary astronomy, and the networks of knowledge and power between the government, the admiralty and the Royal Astronomical Society. Brothers focusses on John Herschel’s observations at the Cape of Good Hope and his role in promoting colonialization and exploration in Africa. She also positions Mary Somerville’s Mechanism of the Heavens, with its translation of the difficult scientific principles of Pierre-Simon Laplace’s Mécanique Céleste, as promoting astronomical understanding valuable to maritime Britain.

Brothers thought-provokingly shows how astronomical knowledge improved navigational skills and simultaneously affected the British mind – as astronomy disseminated ideas of infinitude the earth seemed smaller, and advances in navigation and steam power reduced terrestrial space making imperial and colonial expansion  realizable. The fifth chapter includes an in-depth study of Keats “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” and the poets’ use of astronomical imagery to interweave navigation, travel and colonial endeavours, “discovery in the form of exploration” being the “connecting conceit” (102). Here, in her most successful chapter, Brothers reveals how astronomical and terrestrial discovery wrecked old world ideologies. She insightfully explains that for Romantic poets including Keats, as seen in his Lamia, the new knowledge was a destroyer of the mystery and magic of the natural world and other cultures such as those of Classical Greece and the African continent. Brothers further articulates her thesis by establishing Shelley’s exposition of the destructive risks of the controlling colonization  of Africa in The Witch of Atlas, and his “epiphanic realization” of the societal damages caused by the revelatory gaze of science and exploration (140). Chapter Six continues this idea of a Romantic reaction against scientific “demystification” through Brothers’ reading of the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This chapter pays close attention to his paintings Ecce Ancilla Domini! and Paolo and Francesca da Rimini, his little acknowledged sonnet “Soul’s Sphere,” and the “Willowood” sonnet cycle. Brothers interestingly situates Rossetti’s abandonment of linear perspective  and adoption of the unchanging cosmos of medievalism as his founding position for exploring the changing models of time and space as infinitely unravelling and recreating, presented by the newer models of the universe revealed by astronomy.

The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy provides an enticing new study of interest to literary scholars, and historians of astronomy, navigation, and colonial expansion. Regrettably, it does present some difficulties for the reader which impair its usefulness. There are instances when the reader is expected to remember which Herschel – William or John – is being written about as the book progresses. There are noticeable errors in the citation of texts and authors, and at times the recurring thematic statements of Brothers’ book become tedious. It is also disappointing, that despite the inherent visuality of astronomy and colonial exploration, Brothers text has only four illustrations. Nevertheless, readers should not be deterred from cautious engagement with this distinctive study.

Gillian Daw, University of Sussex