M. M. Mahood, The Poet as Botanist

M. M. Mahood, The Poet as Botanist (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). xi + 269 pp; 8 illustrations. £50.00 hb.  ISBN 978-0521862363.

This eminently readable labour of love offers some of the serendipity of an anthology,  but with a structured critical focus.  The author is Emeritus Professor of English Literature at the University of Kent but also holds a biology degree. Thus, she is ideally qualified for this interdisciplinary study of five ‘poets’, in the broad sense of imaginative writers, informed by the history of developing botanical studies in Britain, and by that substantial knowledge of the plants referred to which is so often lacking in editors only able to reconstruct such knowledge at second hand.

The difficulties of reconciling very different modes of discourse are apparent from the cover onwards. Visually sumptuous, it is based on a best guess as to what species D. H. Lawrence was describing in ‘Bavarian Gentians’, which was not the Bavarian Gentian, Gentiana bavarica. Mahood plumps for Gentianella ciliaris as a best fit for the characters ‘tall’, ‘dark blue’ and ‘fringed’ found in the lesser known of the two versions and some associated writing. This may strike readers who only know the commoner version of the poem oddly, since the obvious choice is one of the Gentiana acaulis group, given the darkness of the flowers (gentianellas tend to be a paler, mauvish blue) and the torch-like shape of the flower. Lawrence mentions Michaelmas, however, and, unlike G. acaulis, the Gentianella is autumn flowering. The tallest of the European blue gentians, Gentiana asclepiada, up to a metre tall and September flowering, might be preferable.

Such considerations are relevant to the force of the main discussion here because the writers selected for extended study (Erasmus Darwin, Crabbe, Clare, Ruskin and Lawrence) all had some botanical expertise, whether through formal education or study, or practical field experience, and all of them offer intensely detailed description of plants. They are framed by two more general chapters which offer a breadth of context by outlining the concurrent developments in literary traditions of response to flowers, and in botany as a science. There is thus only passing reference to poets for whom botany was a less dominant interest, such as Tennyson, though his myopic eye produced much accurate observation of natura naturata, as well as the terrifying perception in In Memoriam of the yew tree as a metonym of a malign Natura naturans.

Chapter 1 provides an historical survey of both poets and scientists from the Renaissance into the nineteenth century. It also offers an unfamiliar link between Wordsworth, Ruskin and Charles Darwin through the motif of the Primrose. This featured widely in such different contexts as Renaissance lists of emblematic flowers and an example of heterostyly as a mechanism for fertilisation. In earlier centuries ‘a surge of scientific interest … did not of necessity influence the way poets saw plants’, but from the 1770s onwards, poets start to ‘pack their verses with the names of wild flowers’ on a different basis.

The central chapters outline five very different kinds of relation between literary and scientific discourses, each of which was itself evolving. Mahood mingles a generous appreciation of Erasmus Darwin’s enthusiastic annotated pastiche of Pope with a sharp and witty recognition of his weaknesses as he allegorizes the Linnaean sexual classification of plants. She offers a plausible basis for ranking the success of his poems according to their integration with Darwin’s scientific commitment to a more robust interest in plant physiology. Crabbe represents a backlash against the perceived libertinism of Darwin and also against inaccessible classificatory terminology. Although his initiatives in local recording and constructing a plain-English herbal met with little encouragement, his poetry reflects his wider interest in plant communities and in cryptograms as well as higher plants, which fitted his commitment to literary realism. Clare, who worked as a gardener, names three hundred and seventy plants in his poetry and Mahood moves beyond the usual concern with Clare’s local etymologies to demonstrate his ‘lively awareness of the interdependence of life forms’. Ruskin, like Crabbe, attempted a new botanical classification. Rather than seeing this simply as evidence of his derangement, Mahood disentangles his ‘recognition of the biophilic impulse’ and his search for ‘an expression of communal values’ from his eclectic and ill-advised choice of authorities and extreme positions. D. H. Lawrence, who studied botany as part of his degree, was the antithesis of the prudish Ruskin when it came to connecting flowers with sex. His experience of microscopy complemented his love of flowers and his view of photosynthesis (very imperfectly understood in 1915) can be understood in both Heraclitean and philosophical terms as a sexualised congress of the elements.

The conclusion to Mahood’s book connects modernist urban poets’ retreat from the ‘green world’ with the decline in prestige of whole-organism botany, and the loss of plant species themselves. Biophilia is influenced by the shift from an optimistic natural theology to a molecular and genetic-based science that is avowedly non-teleological, and that at least attempts to exclude the figure of the human observer as an emotionally responsive individual. However, the rise of plant ecology is seen to offer a place for a renewed celebration of plants in poetry.  The writers briefly discussed here are a more eclectic and less UK-centred bunch. They have to deal with a realisation alien to Hardy and Gurney, that smelling the smoke from a bonfire of couch grass is not a universal experience, and to resist the trope of identifying women with floral fragility. Mahood ends with Les Murray, who is praised for his ability to maintain a distinct ‘centre of reality’ through his Catholic faith.

For such a broadly interdisciplinary work, the academic apparatus gives some cause for concern. This is not a matter of its quality, but its quantity. Where footnotes occur they are succinct, informative and often offer up-to-date reference to recent scientific work. However, not all potential readers will belong to the specialist camp of those equally scientifically and critically literate. One example of insufficiency is the definition of an ecocritic on p. 6, attributed only to ‘one of the abler claimants to the title’, not to William Howarth. Nor is it to the credit of such a high-ranking university press to issue books without bibliographies. This lightness of documentation should not, however, impede the experience of reading this rich and thought-provoking study.

C. M. Jackson-Houlston, Oxford Brookes University