Claire Preston, The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in Seventeenth-Century England

Claire Preston, The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015) 320 pp. Hb, £60. ISBN: 9780198704805

The language of early modern scientific inquiry was neither predetermined nor did it elicit consensus among its practitioners regarding the most effective means for conveying information. Instead, as Claire Preston amply demonstrates, the rhetoric of seventeenth-century investigation was indebted to varied forms of literary and oratorical expression: in Preston’s own words, ‘the progress and endeavours of early-modern natural sciences cannot be disengaged from their rhetorical, literary vehicles’ (5). Covering an impressive range of genres, from science’s experimentation with the forms of elegy, satire, and dialogue, among others, to innovative genres such as the experimental report and article, and finally to natural philosophy’s refashioning of existing literary forms such as the essay and the letter, Preston’s work charts the shifting and often all-embracive relationship of scientific investigation to the forms, genres, and styles in literary discourse. Throughout The Poetics of Scientific Investigation Preston pays careful attention to the devices of analogical thinking – similitudes and illustrations – and how these figures and literary genres informed the period’s negotiation of style in scientific writing. Significantly, Preston argues for a mutually constitutive relationship between literary discourse and scientific writing.

Together Chapters One and Two establish an important narrative in the history of scientific discourse; Preston compares the 1640s and 1650s writings of Thomas Browne and Robert Boyle. The first chapter, ‘Orlando Curioso: The Lapsarian Style of Thomas Browne,’ investigates Browne’s relative lack of concern with the problems of literary style in his writings. Both The Garden of Cyrus and Pseudodoxia Epidemica evince a playfulness with language that accommodates, rather than queries, the need for expansive language and conceits to convey Browne’s experiences, experiments, and conclusions. Citing Browne’s neologisms in The Garden, Preston argues that Browne met the challenges of language in the new science through his lexical inventiveness. Browne was part of a growing cohort of natural philosophers who acknowledged the role of philological precision and study, in which etymology was ‘an investigative tool with philosophical, moral, and empirical significance’ (59). Preston turns in the second half of the chapter to Browne’s revisions to a particular section in Pseudodoxia, ‘That the Chameleon lives onely by Aire.’ Here, Browne is just as rhetorically resourceful as in his earlier, less ostensibly empirical works.

Boyle did not share Browne’s ready acceptance of the tools of literary and rhetorical analogical and stylistic invention. In ‘Equivocal Boyle and the Enameled Telescope,’ Preston suggests that Boyle’s adoption of specific genres and discourses was uneasy but nonetheless never entirely divorced from the exigencies of expressing the experiences of the natural investigator. In a close study of Boyle’s remarkable autobiographical essay An Account of Philaretus During His Minority, Preston charts the text’s relationship to conventions of romance and Boyle’s indebtedness to Philip Sidney’s Defence of Poesie. And yet Philaretus does not indiscriminately praise the traditions of rhetorical and literary discourse it replicates: we witness his ambivalent approach to the adornments of style. From these early forays into different modes of expression, however, Boyle contributed the narrative-based experimental essay. Preston concludes the chapter with a look at Boyle’s ‘transition from the literary to the literary-scientific and his deployment of that palette in investigative writing’ (81) in both Occasional Reflections and The Sceptical Chymist. Together, Browne and Boyle represent two different approaches: the former willingly adopts the contingencies of rhetoric in his writing, while Boyle, although more wary of the problems inherent in narrative literary forms such as the dialogue, also refashions literary precedents in his writings to meet the challenges of expression in seventeenth-century science.

Chapter Three, ‘”A Blessing in the Wilderness”: Fictions of Polity and the Place of Science,’ analyzes the seventeenth-century desire for a removed space for scientific experimentation, one that was variously imagined but rarely realized. In light of little evidence of the shifting and still inchoate idea of a private space for scientific study, Preston presents the evidence of how such spaces were represented in the public imaginary, primarily through literary representations in the poetry of authors such as Richard Lovelace and Abraham Cowley. In this tradition, Bacon’s New Atlantis is most prominent, a model which is ‘essentially a scientific romance, and […] sets a generic pattern for the investigative century that followed’ (134). Similarly, early modern natural philosophers drew upon traditions of the locus amoenus in estate poems, verse on retirement from public sociability, and the figure of ekphrasis, or the ‘speaking image.’ This utopian vision of a space for scientific investigation and partially public engagement with like-minded scholars also informed the epistolary tradition in the period’s networks of scientific correspondents. In Chapter Four, ‘Dining Out in the Republic of Letters: The Rhetoric of Scientific Correspondence,’ Preston compares the rhetorical moves in scientific correspondence with the conventions of epistolary communication in the seventeenth century. Once again, authors in natural philosophical circles evinced unease regarding the unnecessarily ornate forms of ceremony in correspondence, which were obligatory evils for establishing and maintaining relationships among intellectuals. As Preston argues, such forms of civility ‘became the very fabric of the scientific utopian’ (162).

The Poetics of Scientific Investigation concludes with a chapter on rhetoric, husbandry, and communication. ‘The Counsel of Herbs: Scientific Georgic’ considers the marriage of the ‘new’ form of early modern husbandry with literary tropes. Preston discusses a wide and diverse group of horticultural authors, including Gervase Markham, John Evelyn, John Beale and Samuel Hartlib, among others. In these writers’ works, the ideal utopian vision of the advancement of knowledge was literally grounded in the toil of husbandry. Many advocated for a style mirroring the humble methods involved in surveying, planting, and tilling. Nonetheless these authors embraced elaborate conceits in comparisons of the gardener’s work with the project of conveying, through georgic, their observations of the natural world.

Scholars of early modern science, literature, poetics, and specialized topics in experimentation, laboratories, and natural philosophical epistolary networks will find Preston’s monograph a valuable resource. Particularly useful are the extensive notes and bibliography, which cover an impressive range of print and manuscript sources. With The Poetics of Scientific Investigation we obtain an intimate, thorough view of the ways early modern authors negotiated different modes of communication, at once relying upon and yet descrying forms of rhetorical ornamentation that shaped the form of scientific inquiry.

Katherine Walker, University of North Carolina