Judy A. Hayden, ed, Literature in the Age of Celestial Discovery

Judy A. Hayden, ed, Literature in the Age of Celestial Discovery: From Copernicus to Flamsteed (London and New York: Palgrave 2016) ix + 224 pp. £50.99 PDF, £63.99 Hb. ISBN 978-1-137-58345-1

This collection of nine essays examines literary responses to the astronomical theories debated throughout the Early Modern period.  In her introduction, Judy Hayden sets out the context of this work, outlining the various flavours of astronomical debate, from disputation of the Earth’s motion to distrust of telescopic observation.  Moreover, she neatly expresses the disturbance, confusion and, often, downright anxiety prompted by the abundance of conflicting, yet entirely unprovable, theories.  The essays themselves investigate a wide range of texts.  As you would expect from such a compilation, there are a number of texts which crop up repeatedly, such as Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone and John Wilkins’ The Discovery of a World in the Moone.  Pleasingly, however, there are also texts represented which are much less frequently discussed, including Edward Howard’s The Six Days Adventure, or the New Utopia, examined by Hayden herself in Chapter Seven, and Voyages et avantures de Jacques Massé by Tyssot de Patot which is tackled by Daniel J. Worden in the final chapter.

The book opens with Pietro Daniel Omodeo’s essay discussing three texts written in the wake of Copernicus’s publication of De Revolutionibus: Anton Francesco Doni’s I Marmi (The Marbles) and I Mondi (Worlds) and Giordano Bruno’s Spaccio de la bestia trionfonte (Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast).  In his treatment of these texts, Omodeo references Thomas Kuhn’s suggestion that Copernican astronomy was at the centre of a crisis surrounding the traditional image of man, and demonstrates that Doni and Bruno, despite their stylistic similarities, approach Copernicus’s work in distinctly different ways.  Overall, Omodeo concludes that, in these texts, ‘astronomy offers the occasion to reflect on the human condition’, allowing for the raising of cultural questions and problems (38).  The texts are significant at a broad, cultural level, not merely as reflections on developments in astronomy of the time.  As such, Omodeo’s piece sets the scene well for the chapters that follow.

Two of the essays in the collection claim ‘firsts’ for their subject matter.  Gabrielle Sugar begins in Chapter Four by proposing that Ben Jonson was the first playwright to ‘discover’ life on the moon in his masque News from the New World Discovered in the Moon.  She focuses her essay on the comic presentation of the ‘new world in the moon’ which, she suggests, is found chiefly on the stage in this period, rather than in prose treatments of the same theme.  Sugar discusses the religious difficulties presented by the idea of an inhabited moon in order to demonstrate that dramas centred on this concept tend to ‘emphasise the comic’ and ‘disregard the crises that arise from a vastly expanded world’ (94).

The second claim for precedence comes from Catherine Gimelli Martin in the following chapter.  Here, she argues for Francis Godwin’s The Man in the Moone to be considered as the first example of science fiction, highlighting the fact that the moral judgment found in earlier myths and folkloric tales of ‘human presumption’ is missing in Godwin’s story (110).  The essay proposes that three developments were behind the change in outlook permitting The Man in the Moone to become science fiction - the new astronomy, the rise of empirical experimentation and the new age of geographical discovery – and discusses the way those factors transformed the ‘Early Modern utopian imagination’ (112).  In particular, Martin considers the relationship with religion, concluding that ‘science, social advance and Christian piety are not only perfectly compatible with but actually mutually conducive to one another’, leading to the optimism found in early science fiction (123).

The relationship between religion and astronomy in this period is also a topic highlighted by David Cressy in Chapter Two.  Although this essay is a reprint of a 2006 American Historical Review article, it is still a solid survey of the Early Modern literature and reflects the period’s fascination with the moon and debates on the mobility of the Earth.  Cressy predominantly deals with the religious complications brought about by the concept of an inhabited moon.  The article demonstrates that such difficulties cut across religious denominations, although Cressy theorises that the ‘Roman Catholic condemnation of Copernicanism only drew more attention to its theories and may have recommended them to protestant Europe’ (50).

As well as religion, politics and communication are other cultural themes treated by this collection.  Brycchan Carey’s look at the Moon and America in Chapter Eight proposes that, beginning with Godwin’s The Man in the Moone, there was a vein of colonial discourse running through various seventeenth- and eighteenth-century works that made use of the moon world trope.  His survey includes John Wilkins’s Discovery, as well as Daniel Defoe’s Consolidator and  A Voyage to Cacklogallinia, notable for its overt expression of anti-slavery sentiments.

Chapters Six, Seven and Nine all touch on communication, in its varying forms. J. Ereck Jarvis discusses the hugely enjoyable poem ‘The Elephant in the Moon’ by Samuel Butler in the first of these, arguing that the work critiques the Royal Society’s ‘engagement with the forms of collective vision burgeoning in the seventeenth century’ (131).  Jarvis suggests that Butler uses the visual mediation of the new astronomy to highlight other prevalent mediations, such as publication. The essay discusses the way in which Butler presents the ‘collective vision’ of the poem’s Society as taking each member’s statements, without question, and adding and embellishing until a suitably strange and wonderful account is created.  This is contrasted with John Wilkins’s use of ‘moderate, productive skepticism’ in his Discovery to examine and interpret the evidence formerly put forward by others (142).  However, the resonance Jarvis highlights between the collective assent of the poem’s Fellows, and Wilkins’s acknowledgement that he only began Discovery after taking ‘strength’ from the works of others about the possibility of a world in the moon, is certainly interesting.

Chapter Seven sees Hayden discuss more dramatic communication in her correlation between ‘science’ and the theatre, highlighting astronomy as an especially public science.  Her examination of Restoration playwrights’ interest and engagement with new astronomical ideas focuses on Edward Howard’s The Six Days Adventure, or the New Utopia.  Hayden notes that Howard’s play casts doubt on Copernican theory and responded ‘satirically to contemporary theories of the Moon’ (151).  This, she argues, is an illustration of the way in which the seventeenth-century general public trailed behind astronomers in accepting heliocentricity due to the lack of demonstrable proof available at the time.

In the final essay, Daniel J. Worden examines the different styles of communicating about astronomy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.  Worden achieves this by focusing on a specific passage in Tyssot de Patot’s Voyages et avantures de Jacques Massé, which leads up to the death of the character Du Puis.  In this section of the book, the eponymous Massé spends time trying to explain recent astronomical discoveries to his two companions, in order to keep them moving forward on the ‘adventure’ that Massé himself proposed.  Worden suggests that Massé employs an Enlightenment approach, using mathematical proofs and diagrams, despite the seventeenth-century setting of the work. Only when his companions fail to comprehend his meaning does he turn to fictions and false dreams to persuade them and, here, Worden draws parallels both with Cyrano de Bergerac’s États et Empires de la Lune and Kepler’s Somnium.  The essay argues that ‘the illusions created by such narratives had the power to lend credibility to a hypothesis’, but concludes that Tyssot rejected the genre of the philosophical dream as a mode of conveying knowledge (196).

Chapter Three is a more in-depth examination of Shakespeare’s works using the context of the cosmological discoveries and debates prevalent at the time he was writing.  David H. Levy, writing with Hayden, invites the reappraisal of a number of passages in Hamlet.  He proposes that they can be interpreted as discussion on the composition of stars, the plausibility of infinite space and the doubtfulness of the Ptolemaic system.  Levy suggests that an interest in observation, and the use of the perspective lens and telescope, is threaded throughout Shakespeare’s works.  Considering the final scene of Cymbeline, where Jupiter appears with four ‘apparitions’, the chapter explores a potential connection with Galileo’s observations of the ‘Medicean stars’, or Jupiter’s moons, as first revealed in Siderius Nuncius.

Overall, this collection offers a broad look across the literature of this astronomically turbulent period, achieving a balance between examination of the wider cultural issues, and a more in-depth exploration of individual works and authors.

Nicky Atkins, University of Chichester