Powell, Rosalind, Perception and Analogy: Poetry, Science, and Religion in the Eighteenth Century

Rosalind Powell, Perception and Analogy: Poetry, Science, and Religion in the Eighteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2021) viii + 296 pp. £85.00 Hb. ISBN: 978-1-5261-5704-1

The eighteenth century witnessed the profound impact of natural philosophy on every facet of cultural expression. Rosalind Powell’s monograph, Perception and Analogy: Poetry, Science, and Religion in the Eighteenth Century, investigates how ways of ‘seeing scientifically’ (p.3) influenced analogical descriptions in literature, natural philosophy, and theology. Her exploration spans various literary, theological, and pedagogical works, highlighting the central role of analogy in articulating new scientific ideas, particularly within religious and topographical poetry. 

Powell’s approach foregrounds the role of poetry as a vehicle for knowledge acquisition. It also explores the interplay between imagination, analogical literary tools, and the relationship between science and religion in physico-theology. Central to her thesis is the definition of analogy as ‘a process of making creative comparisons with known phenomena to formulate and explain new concepts’ (p.10), facilitating the dissemination of knowledge across different domains and making it accessible to a broad audience. By employing analogies, thinkers of the period effectively conceptualised and communicated new ideas, thereby significantly impacting the intellectual landscape of the era.

The monograph is structured into five chapters, each addressing various aspects of eighteenth-century thought through analogy, ranging from astronomy to the human body, providing a comprehensive perspective. The work is replete with textual references and examples supporting Powell’s arguments and inviting readers to fully appreciate her analysis and the dialogical structure of her work.

The first chapter concentrates on astronomy and celestial space, examining how topographical poems and natural philosophy texts employ analogies to create knowledge about the cosmos. Through the lens of analogy, educational dialogues on astronomy, such as John Harris’s Astronomical Dialogues (1719), as well as the works of poets like Henry Baker (1698–1774) or David Mallet (1705–1765), allowed readers to engage and familiarise with astronomical phenomena in the Newtonian era.

In the second chapter, ‘Light, Perception, and Revelation,’ Powell delves into how religious discourse influenced scientific perceptions in the eighteenth century, mainly through analogies involving light and divine revelation. Powell underlines the power of such a literary tool in synthesising these religious associations with new empiricist perspectives. Newton’s Opticks (1706) serves as a pivotal text here. The three main sections of the chapter consider Newtonian poetry and physico-theology, examine new interpretations of the creation, and analyse the poetic use of light analogies at the crossroads between empirical observation and divine revelation.

The central chapter is devoted to the theme of colours, a topic of central interest in the early eighteenth century. In particular, Powell studies topographical poems and their insistent use of colours to enhance the reader’s perception. Among the examined texts, James Thomson’s The Seasons, Sir Richard Blackmore’s Creation, and Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of Imagination, stand out in the analysis. Besides Newton’s famous theory of colours, Powell also contemplates alternative theories. The analogies employed by poets and natural philosophers in this context are thus instrumental in shaping new knowledge aligned with the new empirical understanding of colours. 

‘Understanding the eye,’ arguably the monograph’s most compelling chapter, delves into various interpretations of the eye as a means of perception in medical, philosophical, and poetical contexts. Here, Powell draws on anatomical and optical works and analyses how eighteenth-century thinkers engaged with Irish natural philosopher William Molyneux’s seminal Questions. The portrayal of eyesight by authors such as Richard Blackmore and Henry Brooke (1703–1783) shows how poets integrated contemporary debates on vision into their lyrical descriptions, reflecting evolving scientific knowledge.

The final chapter explores the transition from philosophical, objective, to subjective models of perception, which occurred by the mid-eighteenth century. The scholar examines mid-century topographical poetry by poets like Edward Young (1683– 1765) and evaluates how it grappled with the limitations of bodily perception. The chapter then focuses on more anatomical and physiological understanding of visual processes to creatively express subjective experiences and their thematisation in late-century poetry.

With scholarly rigour, Perception and Analogy exhaustively engages with recent discussions on the intersection of science, religion, and literature. Powell’s exploration also extends to material culture, demonstrating how objects such as telescopes, camera obscuras, and aeolian harps employed by poets and natural philosophers served as tangible manifestations of eighteenth-century Britain’s scientific and religious discourses.

The strength of Powell’s work lies in her meticulous survey of the analogical strategies adopted by poets and natural philosophers to facilitate the integration of new scientific knowledge with familiar religious themes. While some readers may find certain sections dense or challenging, the book is informative and rich in insights for scholars specialising in eighteenth-century studies. Powell’s clear prose and careful analysis make Perception and Analogy an instructive and enriching read for scholars and enthusiasts alike. The volume not only deepens our understanding of how analogies shaped scientific, literary, and religious discourses but also underscores the power of analogy as a literary tool.

Rosalind Powell’s Perception and Analogy stands as a valuable contribution to eighteenth-century scholarship, shedding new light on the intellectual interplay between poetry, science, and religion during the Age of Enlightenment. Powell’s study reaffirms the pivotal role of analogy in integrating diverse discourses, enriching our comprehension of eighteenth-century intellectual life.

Benedetta Burgio, Catholic University of Milan