Noel Jackson, Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry

Noel Jackson, Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). pp. 288+xiv. £50.00 hb. ISBN 978-0521869379.

It is by now a long time since the supposed hostility of Romantic poets to science was shown to be a myth—an extrapolation of Wordsworth’s ‘we murder to dissect’ made by C. P. Snow, among others, to suit his ‘two cultures’ argument. In the 1980s Trevor H. Levere showed Coleridge to have been thoroughly knowledgeable about contemporary chemistry, geology, and life science, while more recently critics including Nicholas Roe, Sharon Ruston and Noah Heringman have explored the scientific experimentation and theorisation of canonical poets including Shelley, Keats and Byron. Lesser known figures such as Joanna Baillie, Erasmus Darwin, John Thelwall and Thomas Beddoes have received book length studies; Romantic-era scientific disciplines such as geology, comparative anatomy, Mesmerism and electro-chemisty have been elucidated in both academic and popular books. Most recently, Richard Holmes’s The Age of Wonder has brought the culture in which experimentation and observation flourished to vivid life, focusing on Humphry Davy, William and Caroline Herschel, and Joseph Banks.

Noel Jackson takes a different tack in Science and Sensation. He is less interested in addressing the history of science and the culture of experimentation than he is in redeeming Romantic writing from the aspersions cast upon it by New Historicists who in the 1980s accused it and its critical admirers of perpetuating a Romantic Ideology, a false consciousness that displaced social and political matters into solipsism and nature-worship. Essentially, Jackson seeks to answer these charges by rehabilitating the Romantics’ emphasis on sensation as a mode of encountering the world. He counters charges of Romantic poetry’s ‘abdication of the social’ by tracing its epistemological and rhetorical relations to science and politics. He derives his focus from the pages of ‘Tintern Abbey’—Romantic poetry’s ‘language of the sense’—showing that language to be a particular formulation derived, in part, from an understanding of sense experience provided by late eighteenth-century physiology and sciences of the mind. By exploring the ways in which Romantic authors engaged with empirical reality by employing this language of the sense and by taking up the methods of the sciences, Jackson demonstrates the historical character of Romantic literary aesthetics. By ‘Romantic’, he means Wilkie Collins and Walter Pater as well as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Keats: one of the book’s virtues is its study of the aesthetics of sensation novels and late nineteenth-century theories of art. But its chief focus is the verse of High Romanticism: Wordsworth and Keats are covered in depth, perhaps because it was their poetry that was singled out for attack in the 1980s by American New Historicists (Marjorie Levinson looms large over the book). Blake appears briefly while, strangely for a work on science and sensation, Shelley, the Romantic after Coleridge most deeply informed about science and most fascinated by questions of sensation and perception, has only a few pages devoted to his verse.

Essentially concerned to renegotiate Romantic aestheticism by practising a historically-aware textual analysis, Jackson produces a wider and deeper discussion of the poetry than he does of the science on which, he argues, the poetry’s sensationalism depends. Students of literature and science will find scarcely any reference to Hartley’s theory of associationism, or of Priestley’s modification of it, despite its fundamental importance to Coleridge (as to previous sensationalist poets such as Akenside and Beattie whom the Romantics admired). And while Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Reid are given some attention, none is paid to the doctors who transmitted their ideas on sensation as therapies: Thomas Beddoes and John Brown. Thomas Wedgwood’s engagement in experimentation on the nature of perception, in tandem with Coleridge, is not discussed either. For scholars wishing for a nuanced historical understanding of the relations between early romantic aesthetics and natural philosophy (and between the poets and men of science involved), the work of Gavin Budge on Brown, Neil Vickers on Beddoes, Alan Barnes on Wedgwood, and Ian Wylie on Hartley and Priestley, will remain essential. Other experimentalist practices of the time in which sensation was manipulated for healing effect—including Mesmerism—are also absent here, despite Coleridge’s and Shelley’s interest and participation in them. On these, and the role of sensation in literature of the period generally, Peter Melville Logan’s Nerves and Narratives (1997) remains an exemplary study.

Overall, Science and Sensation in Romantic Poetry has relatively little to offer scholars interested in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century science: although it contains some perceptive and subtle critical analysis of verse, its understanding of the scientific culture of the time is insufficiently detailed or nuanced for it to be able to supersede the numerous earlier studies of the period: to give one example, Jackson claims that Wordsworth and Coleridge developed Lyrical Ballads as a (form analogous to) scientific experiment on the way men think and feel, yet never demonstrates in detail what experiment, in the hands of the philosophers they admired in the 1790s—Priestley, Jenner, Rumford, Davy—constituted, either as a cultural practice or theorised methodology. Nevertheless, for critics of literary Romanticism, the book offers another valuable reminder that poetry cannot properly be understood unless the critic is aware of and sensitive to the cultural practices and meanings within which its language—and its characteristic innovations—was written and read. Armed with this awareness and sensitivity, albeit not in as detailed a form as this reviewer would prefer, Jackson makes a valuable contribution to the historically-informed reading of aesthetic discourse, refusing to take its proponents assertions of their independence of the ordinary world at face value.

Tim Fulford, Nottingham Trent University