Tag Archives: Romanticism and science

Laura Moriarty and Geologic Motions

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Art.Science.Gallery – a fresh and inventive place that is nestled in Austin’s Canopy Studios of artists, musicians, galleries and other creative spaces. Hayley Gillespie, Ph.D., the founder of the gallery, is an ecologist and artist with a specialization in endangered salamanders. Though the mission for the gallery is to exhibit art merged with science, Gillespie and her team incorporate events and lectures that help to promote science literacy and increase communication between other scientists, artists, and the public.  It’s hard not to be smitten with a gallery that also has a Laboratory for classes – but not a typical art class listing. This summer at Art.Science.Gallery, you can register for Climate Science 101. Continue reading Laura Moriarty and Geologic Motions

NGSC E-Roundtable: “Three Ways of Looking at Romantic Anatomy”


Emily, Laura, and Arden are three graduate students who share interests in Romantic medical science and anatomy. We illustrate our contrasting methods in responding to this article (“Corpses and Copyrights”), which discusses the history of dissection in England through pictures of a medical textbook, William Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, or A New Administration of the Muscles (London, 1724) and legal issues with respect to both bodies and texts as shared properties. The article celebrates the connections between literary and medical fields through its focus on Laurence Sterne’s body-snatched corpse, and the rediscovery of his anatomized skull in the 1960s. In this collaborative post, we each respond to the question: how can our distinctive approach cast new light on such a text? Within the specific field of dissection, we focus on different approaches and questions with respect to the imaginative work of illustration and fiction to depict the body, the power of the body (and its parts) as an object and artifact, and the gendered nature of dissection and the spectacle it created.

Laura Kremmel is a PhD candidate at Lehigh University, specializing in Gothic literature, particularly in the Romantic period, but with teaching interests across all manifestations of the Gothic. Her dissertation considers Gothic literature in the context of medical theory and the Gothic’s imaginative ability to experiment with the limits of those theories and offer literary alternatives. She has also published on zombies and is currently developing an online class on ghosts and technology.

Emily Zarka is a PhD student in Romanticism at Arizona State University focusing on gender and sexuality studies and representations of the undead in the period. She is interested in tracing the literary history of horror monsters from the modern period, and exploring the different ways in which men and women write about and reflect on the undead. Emily has given public talks on why zombies matter, and has an upcoming publication exploring the undead in Wordsworth, Coleridge and Dacre.

Arden Hegele is a PhD candidate at Columbia University, with a dissertation focusing on Romantic medicine and literary method. Her most recent work explores Wordsworth and Keats’s hermeneutic engagement with post-Revolutionary techniques of human dissection, and she will soon be teaching a self-designed course about Frankenstein.

Human torso, with arms tied behind the back
Human torso, with arms tied behind the back


I love the ideas brought up in this article that conflate the actual bodies on the dissection table and the bodies depicted in the illustrations, and I’m most interested in the aspects of this comparison that get left out in able to make that conflation possible. What immediately strikes me about medical images of the eighteenth century is the sterility of the body and the cleanliness of it, which would not be an accurate depiction of the body on the dissection table: we’re missing all the fluids and the deformity of decay that would have made the body an object of repulsion and abjection. These “ugly” aspects worried Dr. Robert Knox (of Burke and Hare fame), who was disgusted by the interior of the body and thought that seeing it would actually ruin an artist’s sense of beauty (Helen MacDonald writes about this in her book, Human Remains (2006)). In his Great Artists and Great Anatomists (1825), Knox pleads with the artist to always draw a dead arm next to a living arm in order to preserve a division between the dead body as an object of disgust and the beauty of the living. Earlier, in the introduction to his Atlas of Anatomy of the Human Gravid Uterus,” William Hunter explains that there are two ways to illustrate the cadaver: to draw it exactly as it is shown, thus accurately reproducing one single body, OR to draw it taking into consideration all of the other bodies you have seen, thus producing an informed idealization of the body. Hunter himself claims that he much prefers this second, more imaginative method of depicting anatomy.

Thus, the illustrations take on the ability to fictionalize the body to some extent, prioritizing a style that would serve a pedagogical purpose, if not a realist one. It emphasizes the act of seeing the body, but only seeing the right kind of body. The same is true for preparations made of the body, and John Hunter is famous for making thousands of these: isolated and “prepared” parts of the bodies that would become preserved for the purpose of teaching anatomy (and, indeed, to carry on the idea of the body as property and commodity, unique preparations and parts of the body were a common gift to and from physicians). This is also the way in which fiction plays with ideas of the body, uninhibited by the limits of current medical knowledge. Physicians understood the essential role of the dissected body for understanding anatomy, but physiognomy remained somewhat in the shadows: without opening a living body, it was difficult to grasp how it worked. Thus, they were frustrated by exactly the distinction to which Knox refers. The Gothic is particularly interested in the interior of the body–a large part of which produces fear and shock–and it has an ability to stretch the limits of the body, both living and dead, in ways medicine could not. Writers like Matthew Lewis took the opposite approach to most medical illustrations, embracing the abject body and all its dripping, oozing effects, exploring new ways for the body to function in the process, expanding ideas of vitalism, circulation, and digestion.

Many writers of the Gothic were physicians themselves or close to medical thought, such as Mary Shelley and Lord Byron (close to John Polidori), and dramatist Joanna Baillie (niece of John and William Hunter and brother of Matthew Baillie, who spearheaded an interested in autopsy). The underlying principles of dissection are inherent in many of these works, especially the emphasis on empirical observation of the body in order to understand it. Much critical work has been written about Baillie’s play De Monfort (1798), which ends by displaying two bodies side-by-side (a murderer and his victim) in a type of moral autopsy. The murderer, De Monfort, had been so affected by seeing the corpse of the man he killed that it drove him mad and caused his death. In cases like this, the emphasis on seeing the body, whether on the dissection table, the illustration, or the stage, enters into other areas, such as commercial gain (as the article explains), as well as justice.


What I find compelling in this article is the emphasis on body-snatching as a way of experiencing a privileged intimacy with a literary legend: here, the act of dissection becomes a physical method for the exegesis of both a literary body and a body of work. As “Corpses and Copyrights” describes, Sterne’s body was taken from his grave and recognized as being the author’s by students in the autopsy theatre. This particular grave-robbery of a literary lion was, apparently, a chance one, prompted by the medical school’s need for demonstrational corpses. As Keats’s hospital training confirms, most corpses for autopsy in the Romantic period were indeed procured by body-snatchers, who were paid off by Sir Astley Cooper and other major surgical instructors. And, since some European medical schools guaranteed their students 500 bodies annually, odds were good that students would eventually identify their “Man in the Pan.”

Skull, brain, and hand
Skull, brain, and hand

But, with the disinterred shade of Shakespeare’s Yorick hanging over Sterne’s corpus (“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him well, Horatio”), we do have to wonder about Sterne’s actual disinterment as serving a more deliberate purpose. As Colin Dickey’s book Cranioklepty (2010) discusses, the purposeful body-snatching of artists was surprisingly prevalent during the Romantic Century. Other artists suffered similar fates to Sterne’s: Haydn, Beethoven, and Mozart’s skulls were reportedly stolen from their graves by admirers (in Mozart’s case, since he was buried in a pauper’s grave, the future thief placed a wire around his neck before burial to help identify him later); in 1817, a malformed skull reported to be Swedenborg’s was offered up for sale in England; Schiller’s skull was mounted by a noble friend in a glass case in a library in 1826; and Sir Thomas Browne’s skull entered the Norwich and Norfolk Hospital Museum in 1848. More familiarly, the physical tokens of the Romantic poets continued to circulate after their deaths: Shelley’s heart was snatched from the funeral pyre and preserved in wine, while (in spite of his request to “let not my body be hacked”), Byron’s autopsy was published, his internal organs were scattered throughout Europe, and his corpse was disinterred in 1938 and lewdly examined in the family crypt. Even now, the Keats-Shelley house at Rome boasts various physical relics of the poets, including locks of their hair.

Why were (and are) Romantic artists’ dissected bodies so fascinating? For me, the anatomizing of Sterne’s skull, which bears marks of abrasions from medical implements, reflects on an important moment in the advances of surgical dissection and autopsy at the end of the eighteenth century, as the parts of the dissected literary body became relics for reanimative reading. Though Sterne’s dissection might be coming out of the anatomy in a satirical tradition (like Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy [1621]), as Helen Deutsch describes in Loving Dr Johnson (2005), at the end of the eighteenth century, the autopsy of a literary giant could bring the reader into an intimate encounter with the truths of his or her body, and even offer a kind of memorializing reanimation. In the case of Johnson, the Preface to the 1784 published account of his postmortem (“Dr Johnson in the Flesh”) described the corpse as “a work of art” that was still “of importance to his friends and acquaintances,” and the postmortem text is positioned as a way for the bereaved Johnsonian to reanimate the body through a deep encounter with its fragmented parts. Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791) picks up the same language of reanimation through dissection: the directly reported records of Johnson’s speech allow the reader to “see him live,” in contrast to other biographies “in which there is literally no Life.” For Deutsch, this is part of a broader eighteenth-century trend of sentimental dissection: the body of the eponymous heroine in Clarissa (1748), for instance, is “opened and embalmed,” and Lovelace promises to keep her heart, which is stored in spirits, “never out of my sight.” (The real-life corollary of this is perhaps the circuitous journey of Percy Shelley’s heart, the “Cor Cordium” acting as postmortem metonym for the poet’s self). For the Romantics, insight into a fragmented body part seems to have had a reanimating quality for the whole body, and, as I think about it in my dissertation, I find links between medical dissection of human bodies, and practices of excisional close reading of organic literary forms, during the Romantic period.

Dissected breast
Dissected breast


Upon examining these illustrations and the accompanying article, I was immediately struck by the gendered implications, namely the differences between male and female dissection and how those acts were illustrated. The article claims that “Usually, the bodies used were those of criminals or heretics – predominantly males in other words. The occasional dissection of a woman, it being a public event, attracted large numbers of spectators by the prospect of the exposure of female organ.” Given the ideas of the time that the female body was somehow more sacred or special because of the presumed virtue of the female sex, it does not seem unsurprising that the male body would be more readily violated after death in such a way. However, the connotations of penetration from the scalpels, forceps, and other tools of dissection seem relevant here especially because they all were wielded by a masculine hand. These sharp blades and other disruptive instruments separated, cut and otherwise maimed flesh in an extremely intimate way. When this was occurring with male corpses, there are of course homoerotic undertones, but what really seems relevant is how this violation of phallic metallic apparatuses was deemed taboo except in rare cases. This might in part explain the public audience that attended female dissections as suggested above. Not only was flesh usually hidden promised to be revealed, but the feminine body was in death capable of being poked and prodded in ways living human males could only dream of. The intimacy of such an act becomes fetish as the public gathers to watch the male scientist push the scalpel further and further into the most intimate areas of a woman’s body.

The framing images displayed in “Corpses and Copyrights” appear to validate the theory that even dead bodies were gendered and sexualized in traditional ways. The first image of the series is the front view of a beautiful, naked woman accompanied by props and scenery reminiscent of Neoclassical art and the Grecian and Roman sources that movement drew its inspiration from (see the Roman copy of Praxiteles’ Venus). The only two places marked on this woman’s body are the breasts (A) and vagina (B), highlighting the parts of her body directly associated with sex and reproduction. We can assume that those areas were meant to be detailed one another page in their segmented, dissected form; when the sex separates from the body and becomes an object of its own. Detaching the female form from the person it belongs to would hardly be considered shocking given the culture of the time. The final image in the illustrative series is another woman (possibly the same one, but with a different artistic arrangement), only this time is is her backside that is drawn and marked. Here the letters adorning her body are more numerous, with areas such as the spine, calves and shoulders given special attention in addition to her bottom. I am fascinated by the artists decision to show only a complete female form, although I am not surprised. To me it suggests not only that the female body, at least in its intact form, is considered more beautiful, but that again the connections between sex and death dominate.

Female torso
Female torso

Additionally, the “corpse as commodity” idea challenges the idea of death as escape for men and women alike. For in a culture where women were considered property of men both theoretically and legally, death might be a release from such patriarchal control, albeit in an extremely morbid way. As “Corpses and Copyrights” asserts, “the body was not regarded as property” once dead, and therefore the female could finally be free from her masters, at least in theory. The value given to corpses and prevalence of grave robbing for medical and scientific purposes perverts this supposed freedom by once again giving monetary value to the body, and as the popularity of public female dissections suggests, yet again makes the female form a more rare and valuable object to possess. All of which proves that during the period, nothing could be separated from the politics of patriarchy and gender.

(All images in this post are from Cowper’s Myotomia reformata, and first appeared in “Corpses and Copyrights.”)

Jane Austen and Romantic Mortification

Perhaps surprisingly for its canonical status as a tale of romantic love, Pride and Prejudice (1813) is governed by many distinctly unromantic states of negative affect. Distress, embarrassment, depression, shame, and disbelief are all integral to Austen’s portrayals of character. But one emotional state stands out as being distinctively Austenian: mortification. Elizabeth Bennet is “most cruelly mortified” by her father; Kitty experiences “mortification” at the Forsters’ preferment of Lydia; Darcy feels “incredulity and mortification” at Elizabeth’s initial rejection, and later, “trouble and mortification” as he searches for the renegade Bennet sister in London; and even Miss Bingley “was very deeply mortified by Darcy’s marriage.” Most famously, at the scene of the Netherfield ball, Elizabeth’s “mortification” accrues with each outrageous Bennet performance, and she even enters into “dances of mortification” with Mr. Collins. The Austen reader might well ask, what is this state of mortification, and why is it such a key term for describing Austen’s characters?

As a synonym for silent humiliation, “mortification” has a particularly Romantic shade. The term had been used in Shakespeare’s plays, and by Swift in his “Drapier’s Letters,” but it appears considerably more frequently in the prose fiction of the early nineteenth century. Walter Scott’s Rob Roy (1817) features its narrator, Frank Obaldistone, claiming that he is “Not mortified, certainly not mortified”; Amelia Opie’s short story “Mrs Arlington: Or All is Not Gold that Glitters” (1818) describes one character as “humbled, offended, mortified, and self-condemned”; and other works by Maria Edgeworth, Charlotte Smith, and Clara Reeve all feature mortification as a key term for describing the emotional plights of society heroines.  But “mortification” seems to be an especially potent term for Austen. In Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, published together in 1817, the term appears at least 8 times, and Austen typically modifies it to increase its severity: Catherine Morland experiences “deep mortification” and “severe mortification” at a ball with Henry Tilney, while Anne Elliot, shocked by Captain Wentworth’s sudden appearance, “fully submitted, in silent, deep mortification” to his comment that her person is altered beyond recognition. As with Elizabeth and Darcy, both Anne and Catherine must experience mortification, and especially public mortification, as a key stage in their trajectory to marital bliss.

Where did Romantic-era mortification come from? Austen’s repeated uses of the term are fascinating, since “mortification” occurs much more often in non-literary Romantic fields.  Rather, the term could refer to a religious practice of personal deprivation in the interest of spiritual self-improvement: as Ezekiel Hopkins wrote in 1807, “THE GREAT DUTY OF MORTIFICATION” required personal penance, since “without mortification, no [after]life is to be expected.” And, as A Daily Exercise and Devotions, for the Young Ladies and Gentlemen (1816) suggested, “The constant exercise of mortification is another fruit of penance” and the young lady or gentleman in question might “draw” “vast fruit” from the spiritual exercises of personal deprivation, or even the “voluntary toleration of bodily pain or discomfort” (as the OED would have it).

More intriguing, though, was Romantic mortification’s medical sense, as the word for the necrosis of bodily tissue — that is, as gangrene. The vast majority of references to mortification during the early nineteenth century appeared indeed in this pathological sense. “Mortification” is a central heading in John Hunter’s seminal work on battlefield surgery, A Treatise on the Blood, Inflammation, and Gunshot Wounds (1794), and the term appears with great regularity in medical textbooks in the early 1800s. One particularly clear definition appears in Sir Robert Carswell’s Pathological Anatomy: Illustrations of the Elementary Forms of Disease (1838):

The term mortification is generally employed in this country to express the state which has been induced in a part of the body by the complete and permanent extinction of its vital properties. On the Continent, however, the term gangrene is employed to signify the same state, whilst in England it is more commonly used to denote the incipient stage of mortification … The extinction of the powers of life, the complete cessation of the circulation, and an entire want of sensibility, characterize the second or last stage of mortification, which is called sphacelus

But what could the horrifying condition of gangrenous mortification have to do with Mr Darcy’s embarrassment? One place to look for an answer is in the medical notes of John Keats, literature’s best representative of Romantic medicine. In his Anatomical and Physiological Note Book (published 1934), Keats discusses the connections between aneurism and mortification, and — in a cautionary tale for graduate students — mentions how “Those who have been addicted to Study from Keeping up a continued determination of Blood to the Brain have often the Vessels of that part ossified,” making the scholarly brain “subject to mortification” even among “the Young.” As Keats noted elsewhere, mortification could also take place among those who “lead a life of Intemperance.” Thus, since one of the main ambitions of Pride and Prejudice is to temper the unrestrained outbursts of the romantic leads, it makes a strange sort of sense that their intemperance of character — their respective pride and prejudice — leads to mortifying social punishment.

Although he does not use the term “mortification” in his poetry (to my knowledge!), Keats, who himself experienced “occasional ridicule, & some mortification” as a result of his “Pride and conceit […] amongst mere Medical students” (in the words of his friend Henry Stephens), is perhaps the touchstone for Romantic embarrassment. As Christopher Ricks’s 1974 book, Keats and Embarrassment, discusses, “a particular strength of Keats is the implication that the youthful, the luxuriant, the immature, can be, not just excusable errors, but vantagepoints” (12). Austen, too, uses moments of mortification to give insight and perspective, and the embarrassment her characters feel is not the result of “excusable error,” but of betrayal by their biology (their desires, or, more often, their desires thwarted by their foolish relatives). Thus, it seems no coincidence that Mary Ann O’Farrell’s discussion of “Austen’s Blush” (1994), another important work on Romantic embarrassment, touches on the biological underpinnings of socially coded desire. The blush, which Austen associates explicitly with mortification (Catherine, for instance, displays a “blush of mortification”), is for O’Farrell a marker of the body’s involuntary expression beyond the socially regulated codes of signals: “Austen necessarily invokes that about the body which is most inimical to manners, what makes manners most vulnerable to disruption” (127).  Thus, in my view, the affect of shameful mortification in Austen’s novels arises from the tension between the socially appropriate suppression of desire (analogous with religious mortification), and desire’s rebellious expression in the outer tissue of the organism (similar to medical mortification).

Austen’s union of the two external mortifications in producing her characters’ affect of humiliation established a convention that extended later into the century, and an interesting point of comparison is Anne Brontë’s novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), which uses mortification as a key plot-point. Helen Huntingdon mortifies her would-be suitor, Mr Hargrave: “I cut short his appeal, and repulsed him so determinately […] that he withdrew, astonished, mortified, and discomforted, and, a few days later, I heard he had departed for London.” Helen’s power to mortify figuratively seems also to result (indirectly) in the death of her abusive husband, Arthur Huntingdon, whose alcoholism has led to actual mortification. In his last days, Arthur experiences “freedom from pain” and “deadness to all sensation where the suffering was most acute”; Helen writes, “My worst fears are realized — mortification has commenced.” In contrast to the extremely painful affect of mortification experienced by Austen’s characters, Arthur Huntingdon’s mortification passes from the first stage, gangrene, into the painless, fatal stage of sphacelus. His death releases Helen from her personal mortification at his hands, and leaves her free to marry Gilbert Markham. As in Austen’s novels, mortification is a developmental stage through which characters must pass to reach their marital goals; but unlike Austen’s mortification, Brontë literalizes the experience into its medical form, offering a much grislier model of character shaping.

But even marriage could not keep the advances of mortification entirely at bay. Elizabeth’s vigilance in “shield[ing]” Darcy from her humiliating relatives culminates in her permitting him to speak only to “those of her family with whom he might converse without mortification.” Et in Austen ego — even at the satisfying end of an Austen novel, then, is the encroachment of gangrenous necrosis.


NGSC E-Roundtable: Romanticism & Geology

Introduction: This piece comprises the first of a series of interdisciplinary dialogues that will appear quarterly on the NGSC Blog. The initial iteration finds NGSC contributing writers Arden Hegele, Jacob Leveton, and artist in residence Nicole Geary engaging with geology as a factor in the production both of Romantic poetry and contemporary sculpture. Towards this end, they collectively looked at a range of geologically oriented literary texts (Felicia Hemans’s “The Rock of Cader Idris,” Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head,” and Percy Shelley’s “Mont Blanc”), works by the visual artists Robert Smithson and Blane de St. Croix, and literary, art-historical, and ecological criticism. Arden, Jacob, and Nicole then posed a series of questions for, and responded to, one another in a discussion that pivots upon a set of shared aesthetic problems and conceptual issues linking current critical and contemporary creative practices.


Arden: On the subject of the nonhuman voice in Nature, in “Mont Blanc,” Shelley writes that the mountain’s “voice” is “not understood / By all, but which the wise, and great, and good / Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). How do you see Shelley’s mountain’s form in relation to poetic form, or, how might you relate the challenge of geological interpretation to the interpretation of Romantic literature?

Jacob: This is a great question with which to lead off, and I think provides an effective frame to derive some important points regarding the relation between Shelley’s poetry and politics. Of course, the lines to which you’ve directed my attention drive toward some of the liberatory aspects of Shelley’s poetic project at the time. The poet addresses Mont Blanc and posits that,“Thou hast a voice, great mountain, to repeal / Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood by all, but which the wise, and great, and good / interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel” (80-83). The lines advance the point that Mont Blanc as a nonhuman geological form retains a voice to speak. That voice is comprehended by the “wise, and great, and good” who experience the mountain’s affective force at a high level of intensity (to “deeply feel”). Such a knowing-subject, indeed the Shelleyan poet, interprets the mountain’s geological form and communicates it in a way that effectively manifests itself as a field of social-critical potentiality. What I mean by this is that the poetic engagement with Mont Blanc, that itself generates the poem’s form, is geared to be mobilized in challenging and overturning social inequities. The poetic form that Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” makes available is one that takes geological interpretation as a point of departure for the purpose of social critique, and so relates to broader issues regarding interpretations of Romantic literature informed by historical-materialist theoretical investments, and the field of poetry and politics, more generally.

Nicole: Jacob, “Mont Blanc” seems to be written with a lonely and inhuman aura, one that puts nature out of the grasp of humankind. Do you agree that, as Heringman writes, it helped “mobilize the analogy between geological and political revolution” (13-14)?

Jacob: Your question is a wonderful one, as well–and, actually, while I’d agree that “Mont Blanc” is written with a profoundly inhuman aura I’m convinced it’s one that encodes a form of revelry in the nonhuman other. Ever since my first time working with that particular text, I’ve found it to offer a particularly energetic intellectual jouissance in its impellation that the reader recognize a significant interconnectivity with the natural environment. In this regard, the natural environment can be seen as deeply other and simultaneously co-constitutive of a self that is connected with all other sentient and non-sentient beings. This is why I found Heringman’s remarks so persuasive, with respect to how the “Romantic recognition of the earth’s unpredictability and difference from human interests” ultimately “permits progressive analogies to human agency” (13). One valuable concept the movement to posthumanism gives us (though one which the field of late eighteenth-century cultural production makes possible, by way of writers like Rousseau, Joseph Ritson, Erasmus Darwin, and others) is that the world in which we find ourselves is comprised of a rich myriad of human and nonhuman life and that to understand what it is to be human it is at once necessary to understand what it is to be human in relation to nonhuman life, the natural environment, and non-sentient matter. Geologically, it is the non-sentience of the mountainscape that Shelley’s poem engages with the utmost force, and its that difference between the human poet and nonhuman natural/geological phenomena that drives the poem. This is what I believe that poet is getting at when crafting the image of “The everlasting universe of things” which “Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves” (1-2). The poetic metaphor is taken from the Arve as the river that cuts through the ravine where the poet is positioned, with geological processes here comprising the primary factor of Shelley’s poetic production. Nonhuman geological and human subjectivities are differentiated, yet come together within the poem’s form as a zone of human/nonhuman environmental contact. They’re connected as Shelley’s poem draws out a vector of signification that links the Arve as an example of a formative geological agent that continually carves the mountainscape, the poet’s consciousness in writing, and the reader’s subjectivity in reading. These notions advance Heringman’s argument quite well. If geological formations like Mont Blanc make visible the way in which the earth is in a continual state of transformation–and it’s a given that species do best when they are adaptable to change and humans constitute one species position within a broader web of nonhuman life–then it follows that a commitment to progressive thought and engagement proves integral to the absorption of geology in Shelley’s poem.

Nicole: What I really fell for in “Beachy Head” was the long stretch of meandering we did through what felt like a mix of memory and storytelling. It’s as though we are briefly on the ground at this place, then suddenly no longer conforming to space and time. I find that it’s deceptive at first. Can you talk about how you find the form of this poem lends itself to the underlying story?

Arden: “Beachy Head” is such a rich poem, generically as well as geologically. Although it’s clearly working in the Romantic tradition in its description of sublime natural landscapes, it also looks back to an older genre — the loco-descriptive poem — which characterized eighteenth-century works like James Thomson’s The Seasons (1726-1730). In the loco-descriptive poem, the speaker’s point of view moves fluidly between spaces through the act of looking, and the poem describes the different landscapes in view; importantly (and in contrast with most Romantic poetry), the energy carrying the poem isn’t so much the developing emotional charge, but rather the speaker’s changing observational position within a landscape. This active eye prompting topographical transitions is much of what we get in Smith’s 1807 poem, especially in lines like these: “let us turn / To where a more attractive study courts / The wanderer of the hills” (447-49). Here, Smith signals how her speaker’s eye carries “us” between geographical sites and their relation to her memories.

But, as you suggest, Nicole, Smith’s work is compelling because the landscapes in question prompt temporary flights away from the locations that she describes — including Beachy Head itself — as the speaker contemplates their relation to her emotional state. These jumps away from the landscape into recollected emotion is what feels most Romantic about the poem. For example, Smith’s denunciation of happiness is one of the work’s most poignant moments: “Ah! who is happy? Happiness! a word / That like false fire, from marsh effluvia born” (258-59). To me, this is an intriguing moment for the poem’s physical environment, since the simile associates happiness with a paranormal feature (a will-o’-the-wisp), in contrast to the many concrete landscapes of the poem — Beachy Head itself, the stone quarry, the cottages, the cave in the rock, and so on. But the ignis fatuus also helps to reveal the poem’s ongoing mechanism for the speaker’s nostalgic leaps: here and elsewhere, the ground gives direct rise to the emotions that the speaker experiences. (As a side note, “false fire, from marsh effluvia born” also invokes the miasmatic theory of disease popular during the period, which maintained that toxic gases would arise from the ground and spread contagion – a rather chilling way of describing “happiness”).

The historical and biographical contexts of “Beachy Head” are also quite interesting with respect to the poem’s treatment of time and space, especially in a scientific context. While writing was a source of necessary income for Smith (she was the only earner for her ten children), she took pleasure and relief in scientific practices like botany, and it seems to me that her somewhat loco-descriptive survey of the landscape of Beachy Head alludes to her personal practices of dispassionate scientific observation. An early reviewer of the posthumous poem remarked that

“It appears also as if the wounded feelings of Charlotte Smith had found relief and consolation […] in the accurate observation not only of the beautiful effect produced by the endless diversity of natural objects[,] but also in a careful study of their scientific arrangement, and their more minute variations.” (Monthly Review, 1807)

In keeping with what this reviewer notices, one of the poem’s main projects seems to be to classify different types of rock — the “chalk […] sepulchre” of the cliffs (723), the “stupendous summit” of Beachy Head itself (1), the “castellated mansion” (514), the “stone quarries” (471), and even the sedimented sea-shells, fossils, and “enormous bones” beneath the sea (422). But the poem also moves beyond classification by relating natural forms to poetic lyricism: for example, Smith describes “one ancient tree, whose wreathed roots / Form’d a rude couch,” where “love-songs and scatter’d rhymes” were “sometimes found” (581-84). At the poem’s conclusion, the rock of Beachy Head itself inspires verse, as “these mournful lines, memorials of his sufferings” are “Chisel’d within” (738-39); indeed, Smith’s own lines appear to have emerged from the physical rock. Moreover, supporting its thematic transitions between spaces and even outside of time, “Beachy Head” isn’t confined to a single verse form — the two sets of inset songs (in variable quintains and sestets) break up the sedimented quality we get with the long passages of blank verse. So the meandering quality that you notice between the poem’s specific geographies and abstract memories also applies to the fluctuating relationship between the verse forms, between the various locations and historical moments the poem describes, and, perhaps most importantly, between the relationship of scientific and poetic practices, which Smith ultimately tries to reconcile.

Jacob: Arden, I was particularly struck by the wonderful resonance between your suggestion that we read Charlotte Smith’s “Beachy Head” and Nicole’s decision that we look at Blane de St. Croix’s Broken Landscape III (Fig. 1), since both works utilize geology as a means to think through the concept of national boundaries. In what ways might the ideas you find in Broken Landscape III  intersect Smith’s poem? Just as well, how might de St. Croix’s strategies as a visual artist diverge from those of Smith as a poet?

Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2012. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary
Fig. 1. Blane de St. Croix, Broken Landscape III, 2013. Wood, plywood, foam, plastic, paint, branches, dirt, and other natural materials, 80.00 x 2.50 x 7.00 ft. (24.38 x 0.76 x 2.13 m.), as viewed at the Blue Star Contemporary Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. Photograph by Nicole Geary

Arden: I’m so glad that you drew my attention to the political similarities between Charlotte Smith and Blane de St. Croix’s works. Both artworks are connected in their different ways to the question of politically-charged national borders. Smith’s perspective can certainly cast new light on de St. Croix’s contemporary art, and I see at least two ways in which the pieces can work together in productive dialogue. First, their portrayals of their respective borders share certain formal similarities, in spite of the very different natures of the artworks. Second, the works diverge in the mechanisms by which they represent the borders as liminal spaces: while de St. Croix is invested in showing how the deep strata of the Mexico-US border’s geological formation acts as a barrier between the nations, Smith finds that the France-England border’s geology reveals similarity underlying the nations’ apparently radical differences.

Both artists engage with the idea of sedimentation as a formal tool for political commentary. In “Beachy Head,” Smith regularly draws the reader’s attention to Beachy Head’s distinctive white cliffs, the tallest in Britain, whose layers of chalk point to a long-standing geological history of increasing division from the opposite coast by means of marine erosion over millennia. For Smith, the continual geological breakdown between the two nations, through this process of erosion, is a provocative metaphor for their political relationship. In its allusions to the Norman Conquest, the battle of Beachy Head of 1690 (which the English lost), and the tensions between the nations during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the “scroll voluminous” of “Beachy Head” offers a versified representation of this erosion (122). Presented in chronological order, each incident of conflict with France gives way to the next until the reader reaches sea-level and England’s triumph: “But let not modern Gallia form from hence / Presumptuous hopes” against England, the “Imperial mistress of the obedient sea” (146-47, 154). In the political ramifications of its eroding structure, “Beachy Head” has much in common with Broken Landscape III, which is also interested in the sedimentation of a politically-charged international border. For de St. Croix, however, the formalism of sediment is not figured through erosion, but rather through accretion. Discourses about the border have, over time, accumulated in layers, just as layers of rock have accreted in the border’s geological history. De St. Croix’s representation of the border as a human-scale sedimented wall explores how its underlying discourses have built up to create an insurmountable barrier in the present (unlike the real border, de St. Croix’s installation actually prevents the viewer’s ability to walk across it).

At the same time, though, the two works differ considerably in the function of their sedimentation. As Lily Gurton-Wachter argues, Smith resists the idea that France and England were “natural enemies” (a term used pejoratively to describe their strained relationship at the turn of the nineteenth century), and instead finds a common ground for them in their shared geological past. The poet contemplates whether the bottom of the sea, cast up in cliff form at Beachy Head, serves as the area of continuity between the nations: “Does Nature then / Mimic, in wanton mood, fantastic shapes / Of bivalves, and inwreathed volutes, that cling / To the dark sea-rock of the wat’ry world?” (383-86). While at one point Smith calls Romantic geology “but conjecture” (398), the general implication of the poem is that geology can help to locate a literal, deep-seated common ground between the opposed nations. De St. Croix, on the other hand, finds only political difference in the geology underlying the border. The human imposition of international boundaries on the surface of the earth is so metaphysically weighty that it actually carries downwards physically into its subterranean strata, in spite of the fact that each nation’s side is effectively the same in material and appearance.

Arden: Nicole, I’m interested in your thoughts on the materiality of landscape as a source for art. In Robert Smithson’s film about “Spiral Jetty,” the artist says that “the earth’s history seems at times like a story recorded in a book, each page of which is torn into small pieces. Many of the pages and some of the pieces of each page are missing.” How do you see geologically-inspired works of art — especially an “entropic” project like Smithson’s, or Blane de St Croix’s meticulous topography — engaging with the materiality of literary texts? And, how does your study of Romanticism help you to understand this material relationship?

Nicole: It’s especially remarkable when you come upon stacked strata in the field and see rocks lined up like books on a shelf. This metaphor instantaneously becomes ingrained within you as you run your finger down the stack, looking for the book (rock) you want to pull out. In the history of the earth, pages, sometimes whole volumes go missing. We suffer those convulsions and catastrophes, and the earth rebuilds itself from the pieces. Spiral Jetty is made from rocks, water, mud, evaporites, and time (Fig. 2).

Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT
Fig. 2. Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty, 1970. Mud, precipitated salt crystals, rocks, and water, 1,500.00 x 15.00 ft. (457.20 x 4.57 m.), Great Salt Lake, UT

But not just that, it is a place. Spiral Jetty is difficult to reach, sometimes not able to be seen due to changes in the level of the Great Salt Lake. In reading romantic-period texts, I’m reminded of the overwhelming sense of the sublime that artists felt for certain places. Certain topographies, either remote or only able to be accessed by memory (as so wonderfully illustrated in “Beachy Head”) hold a history that engages and sometimes mystifies. So, too, does the Broken Landscape series by de St. Croix as it not only shows the surface, or present tense, but it digs into the depths of what came before our tense border anxieties. Broken Landscape III looks directly at ontological constructs upon the landscape that never existed before human-made activity, but doesn’t negate the rock record.

What I find fascinating is that this rock record is always around us, ever complex yet at our disposal to read. There is some comfort in the idea that we can make sense of the word, quite literally, by translating it like an ancient tome. I think that through Romanticism, I’m actually able to understand more about the emotional weight I give to rocks themselves. By reading through the Scottish Enlightenment and the geological revolution, I understood that what I was going through artistically was my own new science: a way of naming and identifying my emotions without feeling them – calling them the Other.

Jacob: This year, I’ve become increasingly influenced by Rebecca Beddell’s The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1865 in terms of the way in which, as Beddell explains, the division of labor between artists and scientists is essentially a discursive construction. Namely, here, I’m interested in how reading Bedell’s art-historical analysis might relate to, or gave you a space to imagine, your own work, perhaps in a different way than you had prior. In this regard, I’m drawn especially to the preface to her book, where Bedell suggests that in the nineteenth-century: “American landscape painters and geologists then stood on common ground. We now tend to consign art and science to different epistemologies, regarding them as distinctive pursuits, with completely different methodologies, directed towards completely different ends” while in the nineteenth-century art and science proved an interconnected spectrum of pursuits “in both popular perception and practice” (xi). What I’m wondering is how you consider about your own work within this trajectory. I’m thinking mainly of your 2011 Secondary Sediment series of prints that I think so powerfully evokes the relation between personal memory and geological space, and especially the play of text and image in “IX” (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, "IX" from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist
Fig. 3. Nicole Geary, “IX” from the Secondary Sediments series, 2011. Drypoint, type, and chine collé, 8.00 x 10.00 in. (20.32 x 25.40 cm.), Courtesy of the Artist

Nicole: Jacob, this is such a great question, because I specifically thought about this, too, when I was reading Beddell’s introduction. It seems a social construct based on educational or vocational pursuits has rendered art and science separate pursuits in our recent history, but the idea of a more common acquisition of knowledge and shared respect for these fields was in vogue during the age of Manifest Destiny. A different resurgence in this kind of thinking is afoot, with places like Science Gallery (https://dublin.sciencegallery.com/), the resurrection of LACMA Art + Technology Lab (http://lacma.org/Lab), and the CERN Artist’s Residency (http://arts.web.cern.ch/collide), to name only a few art and science collaborations.

To answer your question, my work does straddle both realms. It’s a mix of personal memoir related to the land it was experienced in. I find that the economic aspects of landscape cannot be separated from their role as passive backdrop to this “American dream” sedative. To deal with one part of the land or the space I live in requires me to seriously investigate all parts – it’s an element of knowing the land that I think a poem like “Beachy Head” deals with in a wonderful way.

The idea that we should mine the earth for its riches, or fight wars for those resources, the same principles that as a youth I could feel patriotic about, are now the ideas that I question in my work. What is worth exploiting (property, resources, and lives) and at what cost for the betterment of humankind? Who can really own land? In “A Place on the Glacial Till,” Thomas Fairchild Sherman writes a personal, historical, and geological history. A story of the animals and plants of his native Oberlin, Ohio, he writes of a place that is clearly familiar and dear to him when he says that: “Our homes are but tents on the landscape of time, and we but visitors to a world whose age exceeds our own 100 million times. We own only what the spirit creates.”

At what cost does the land stop becoming land?  I think Solnit shares a fine example of this in her essay (see “Elements of a New Landscape,” 57). The work “El Cerrito Solo” by Lewis deSoto was initiated by a friend’s remark that it was “too bad the mountain wasn’t there anymore.” Essentially, a small hill had been sourced for it’s material until it was no longer there – a story that’s full of what I think of as the ripping out of a page from one of the volumes in the rock record of the earth. Almost painfully, the artist says, “you could be in the landscape while driving on the freeway.” This reminds me of living in South Dakota and driving on pink-hued roads, colored this way because of the quarrying of local Sioux quartzite, the words of this story echoing in my thoughts. How many “little mountains” disappeared from the landscape to make these roads? At the intersection of art and geology, I read of a similar story that took place in Belize of the unfortunate destruction of a 2,000+ year-old Mayan temple, locally named Noh Mul, or Big Hill. A local contractor was quarrying the site for its limestone to create roadfill, but now embedded archaeological artifacts are totally lost and broken cultural relics have become part of the landscape.  Ultimately, the “otherness” of Nature is no longer a separate entity conceptually at bay but is a real, interactive part of our lives. I believe art can help us transform the way we think about landscape and its effect on us.

(Link: http://hyperallergic.com/71065/ancient-mayan-temple-destroyed-in-belize/)

(Link: http://edition.channel5belize.com/archives/85391)

I think the time is right to invest in people. One of the biggest problems that I see with contemporary Western culture (as this is what I can speak to), is a lack of focus on local histories and real science, and an art world that seems fixated on the cult of celebrity, or too quickly moves on from one fad to another. I think the reason I became a printmaker was that somewhere at the core of my being, I enjoy the slow work and old-fashioned ethos of making something from an antiquated technology. It’s possible that I set myself up to be interested in history specifically because of that, but a lot of the work I drift toward or care about is art about the sciences and questioning the role of the author, or the authoritative voice. By this I mean searching for authentic stories of people so that they not be forgotten by history due to their gender, race, or sexuality. I look for things to have meaning and depth beyond their surface. Rocks and big outcrops, with their stony gazes, seem to have a lifetime of stories to tell, even if their faces are unyielding. I have to agree with Shelley on this point, where he ascribes a voice to Mont Blanc–in the lines to which Arden first drew our attention. What I read in this passage is the work of the artist and the geologist. To make the voice of the mountain known, through study and familiarity, through knowledge and wisdom, and to transmit that feeling through the power of metaphor, and of unity with the landscape. Who can say which job belongs to whom?


Works Consulted:


Felicia Hemans, “The Rock of Cader Idris” (1822)

Percy Shelley, “Mont Blanc” (1817)

Charlotte Smith, “Beachy Head” (1807)


Blane de St Croix, “Broken Landscape III” (2013)

Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty” (1970)


Bedell, Rebecca. The Anatomy of Nature: Geology and American Landscape Painting, 1825-1875. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.

Gurton-Wachter, Lily. “’An Enemy, I suppose, that Nature has made’: Charlotte Smith and the natural enemy.” European Romantic Review 20, 2 (2009): 197-205.

Heringman, Noah. Romantic Rocks, Aesthetic Geology. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Solnit, Rebecca. “Elements of a New Landscape.” As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2001.


Romantic Geologies and Post-Organic Forms

I’d like to begin by thanking the NGSC for welcoming me to this year’s blogging roster. It is a pleasure and privilege to write alongside these intriguing and diverse graduate scholars, and I’m looking forward to reading the material our collective will produce this year.

The blog posts we’ve seen already have been so compelling, both intellectually and personally, that I would like to continue the conversation by engaging with the fundamental questions previous posts have posed. “Fundamental” seems to be a key word for us, as we think about how the foundations of our scholarly temperaments act as cornerstones for our intellectual flights. As Nicole and Deven’s posts illustrate, we can describe this layered relation of the personal to the scholarly by drawing on material metaphors of sedimentation, accretion, and metamorphosis.

Deven and Nicole’s descriptions of their scholarly uses of archaeology and geology—as accretive fields that can inform their work with the material aspects of literary texts—come at a fortuitous time, for me at least. I have been thinking about how aspects of literary form can be captured through scientific metaphors, and their posts have sparked my interest in thinking about how geology and Romantic poetic form intersect.

Geology is a fascinating area within the Romantic sciences, partly due to the period’s uncertainty about whether “rocks and stones and trees” formed an organic continuum. This problem of unclear organicity dated back at least to Buffon’s 1749 proposal that mountains were formed when “all the shell-fish were raised from the bottom of the sea, and transported over the earth.” During the height of British Romanticism, the problem of distinguishing between organic and inorganic forms was compounded by the discoveries of giant fossils of extinct lizards between sedimented layers of rock. In 1809, the natural scientist Georges Cuvier, who had already examined the fossil of a giant sloth and coined the term mastodon, classified these reptilian fossils as the Mosasaurus and the Ptero-Dactyle, leading the charge for the study of dinosaurs, which was to reach a high point in the discovery of the iguanodon in the 1820s. As a geologist as well as an early paleontologist, Cuvier was faced with the challenge of defining sedimented organic forms as both crucial to, and distinguished from, non-living terrestrial matter.

This instability of Romantic geology shook the foundations of the period’s poetry. Though we might usually think of huge and ancient organic forms first emerging “to rise and on the surface die” in Tennyson’s 1830 poem “The Kraken” (l. 15), Romantic literature abounds with buried dinosaurs and geological eruptions. Keats’s Endymion witnesses skeletons “Of beast, behemoth, and leviathan [and] Of nameless monster” on the ocean floor (III, 134-36), while in Cain, Byron challenges the usual Biblical chronology by referring to the “Mighty Pre-Adamites who walk’d the earth / Of which ours is the wreck” (II.ii, 359-60). Likewise, in Prometheus Unbound, Shelley describes at length the “monstrous works and uncouth skeletons” and “anatomies of unknown winged things” that lie buried in the deep (IV. 299, 303). Moreover, geology could help describe the poetic process: we see this best in Byron’s celebrated metaphorical account of his own creative tendencies, with his passions building up internally and finally erupting volcanically into verse. (Meanwhile, in Don Juan, he jokingly writes, “I hate to hunt down a tired metaphor: / So let the often used volcano go. / Poor thing! How frequently, by me and others, / It hath been stirred up till its smoke quite smothers” [XIII.36]). At the same time, though he doesn’t acknowledge it, Romantic geology poses a problem for Coleridge’s definition of literary organic form, which considers the growth of the text from its inception to its adult shape—not its later stages of death, decay, and post-organic potential re-use.

Today, Romantic geology, with its imagery of defunct and sedimented layers of organicity, has profound implications for how we think about poetic form—particularly the forms of Romantic poetry. Geology is a key metaphor for many Romantic critics: David Simpson, for instance, writes that “a great deal of Wordsworth’s poetry is best approached as if it were a core sample of an especially contorted geological substrate. One works with a rough prediction of how the layers ought to relate one to another, but there are continual local deviations and surprises.” Moreover, in recent New Formalist arguments, the sedimentation of dead organic matter can be a crucial motif for thinking abstractly about the life-cycle of a literary form or genre. Recently, I read a very compelling essay, Group Phi’s “Doing Genre” (in New Formalisms and Literary Theory, eds. Theile and Tredennick, 2013), which takes geology, plasticity, and recycling as its governing metaphors. In this text, Group Phi proposes that “genre” is a “sedimented and metamorphic historical category that is received by readers,” and that “form” is the “the reader’s activity of adopting/adapting that category for further use”—more simply, that a genre is like a sedimentary rock, with accretions of its use built up over time, while form is like the wind, shaping the rock and depositing new layers of use upon it. Further developing this intriguing metaphor of geological sedimentation, Group Phi then discusses at length how genres can be “recycled” and “repurposed”—to my mind, invoking a layer of crude oil, the result of decayed organic matter, that is buried within the sedimented structure, drawn out, made plastic, “refocused, repurposed” and reshaped, and then recycled for future use. This is no doubt a metaphor of literary form characteristic of our own time, reflecting our concerns about the ethics of geotechnical excavation, and particularly the problem of violently appropriating formerly organic structures, now metamorphosed into inorganic matter (oil). Group Phi’s invocation of recycling, mid-way through the essay, is perhaps one way of “greening” their potentially problematic metaphor of the generic sedimentation of post-organic (literary) forms.

But the Romantics themselves may have something to say about these contemporary geological forms, and here I’m thinking of Shelley in particular. In Alastor, or the Spirit of Solitude, Shelley writes about the hero’s journey as he pursues “Nature’s most secret steps” to where the “bitumen lakes / On black bare pointed islets ever beat / With sluggish surge” (85-86). What Shelley means by “bitumen lakes” has long posed a problem for critics, who have variously identified them with the Dead Sea, with the lake of fire in Paradise Lost, or with molten lava-flows in general; the most obvious precedent for Shelley’s 1815 use of the term is Southey’s reference to the “bitumen-lake” in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). To me, the image of bitumen lakes in Alastor points within Romanticism to the era’s own problem of uncertain organicity (compounding the animal imagery of decayed dinosaurs, “bitumen” introduces a layer of vegetable matter in its etymological relationship to “pitch”). Yet for today’s readers, Alastor‘s bitumen lakes gain much in the translation: “bitumen” is the correct scientific term to describe the heavy crude oil now being excavated—in part, through hydrofracking—from the vast tar/oil sands of Alberta. Anticipating one of the great environmental controversies of our time, Shelley’s prescient use of the geological term can perhaps cast light on the deep Romantic substrates of current forms of representation of the tar/oil sands project.

In short, building on Group Phi’s model, we might look more closely at how the geological realities that underlie our contemporary metaphors of form and representation are built upon a deeper layer of Romantic uses. The mixed organicism of geological sediment has rich potential for talking about poetic language. Recalling Shelley’s account of continually dying metaphors in A Defence of Poetry, Ralph Waldo Emerson writes that “language is fossil poetry”; we too might look to the strata of literature’s organic forms in our own search for deeper meanings within Romanticism.


Touring The (Launched) 18th-Century Common

As a Romanticist, I am always tickled when I read or listen to a news story that mentions the era that I study. I had an NPR “driveway” moment this fall during which I sat in my parked car and listened to the story about 18th-century scholar Natalie Phillips’ (MSU) research on Jane Austen, reading, and distraction. Phillips’ research uses modern neuroscientific tools to study the brain’s response to different ways of reading–close reading and casual reading–and also studies 18th-century conceptions of neuroscience and theories of cognitive attention. The blogged version of the story received a flurry of comments and other popular news outlets, including Salon.com and dailymail.co.uk, covered Phillips’ study as well.

The 18th-Century Common, “a public humanities website for enthusiasts of 18th-century studies,” is on to popular culture’s budding interests in 18th-century culture and, in particular, where science and the Humanities rub elbows. In fact, one of its first calls for contributions seeks responses to Phillips’ research or related pieces on cognitive science and the Humanities. This relatively new website will offer similar kinds of stories written by scholars about 18th-century topics that are geared toward a curious public, non-academic audience–much like NPR’s listeners. My first blog post about The 18th-century Common introduces the project; I wrote it after I presented on a NASSR panel with one of the website’s co-editors, Andrew Burkett (Union College). My second post provides a sneak peek at the blog’s features while it was still under construction this fall. This post will take you on a tour of the launched site and explain updates and improvements that you’ll find there that were not covered in my previous posts.

Three Feeds of Content in the Common
Historically, a “common” is private property that is open for various kinds of public use; it brings people together and is based on the idea of open access to a shared space. In this spirit, The 18th-Century Common aims to deliver scholarly research on 18th-century culture to a wide array of interested readers beyond the Academy, from students to pleasure readers. It accomplishes this by publishing three kinds of feeds on a single website. The first two (Collections and Blog) provide non-peer-reviewed essays, or digests of peer-reviewed published essays, for a broad public readership. In these, scholars write about their research while gleefully setting aside discipline specific jargon, dense theory, and allusions that would be abstruse to someone who has not done graduate coursework in the field. (If you find a “body without organs,” it will refer to a skeleton.) The third feed, called the Gazette, runs “shorts” that link to 18th-century content on the web and also calls for scholars to supply new content. New content can be cross-posted under multiple feeds if applicable. The Common also has a Forum page where users can leave feedback and a hearty Resources page that lists links to 18th-century DH projects, historical sources, online texts, bibliographies, blogs, and online periodicals. Here’s a little more about each of the three main feeds.

— Collections —
Collections are like issues or topics under which essays on a similar subject are grouped. For example, The Age of Wonder is The 18th-Century Common’s first collection of 7 essays (though it can grow to include more) written by scholars and students that respond in various ways to Richard Holmes’ popular book The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009). This collection contains Jessica Richard’s round-up of online resources referring to Sir William Herschel, in celebration of his November 15th birthday; Morna O’Neill’s essay on the visual and images of genius in Holmes’ book, Margaret Ewalt’s essay on pre-Romantic-era ideas of “wonder”; Grant McAllister’s essay on the figure of the German mad scientist; Richard’s essay on Mungo Park’s 1794 voyage to explore the Niger River as participating in the need to define Africa as a subject of wonder in scientific terms and within the context of the slave trade; Rebecca Kurzweil’s essay on Romantic-era poets’ esteem for scientific studies and the fusion of aesthetics and science in the poetic form of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mont Blanc; and Trista Johnson’s essay on Caroline Herschel’s contributions to astronomy.

A call for contributions to the website’s second collection, “Cognitive Science and the Humanities in 18th-Century Studies,” can be found in the Gazette section.

— Blog —
The Blog is a feed for short, non-peer-reviewed essays written by scholars on various 18th-century topics that do not necessarily form a cohesive collection. To me, this looks like a feed to which one could contribute a short essay based on research on the 18th century inspired by travel, teaching, politics, or a morsel or digest of a larger project. The blog feed is already populated with diverse entries, including “The University of Woodford Square and the Age of Obama” by Roncevert Almond; “‘African’ in Early Haiti, or How to Fight Stereotypes” by Lesley Curtis; “Taxes Are Evil” by Heather Welland; and “Fear and Love in a Revolutionary War” by Jake Ruddiman.

— The Gazette —
While the blog contains original short essays, the Gazette is a playful series of long updates, a bit like an embellished Twitter feed, that features content gathered from around the Web related to 18th-century studies as well as explanations and commentary on the content. It also features news and editors’ announcements, such as a call for contributions for a new collection. For example, Jessica Richard posted a Gazette short called “Daniel Defoe around the Web” in which she compiles websites with brief annotations for the Defoe-curious, such as Steven H. Gregg’s Defoe blog. The Gazette also announces an exhibition in New York City called “Radiohole:  Inflatable Frankenstein!” and relates it to other recent Shelley exhibits in Manhattan, including the NYPL’s “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet.” In addition, this newsfeed calls for contributions to new collections, such as Cognitive Science and 18th-century Studies. The Gazette feed can be found on the right-side menu on the homepage.

New under the Hood: Technical Updates
Since my last blog post early this fall, there have been many significant technical updates to the website made by Damian Blankenship (Wake Forest) and his team. First, the homepage received a great makeover: a new nature-inspired background image (to invoke the idea of a “common”) and an improved layout that I think makes the different components of this website easier to locate.

Compared to the previous GUI, the remodel looks less like a website still in development and more like a new but up-and-running multi-faceted e-pub, which is its actual status. Also, the front page is no longer static — recent posts from collections and blogs are displayed at the bottom of the front page, and posts from the “Gazette” are listed on the right side.

Also of note, the site transitioned from .com to .org to more clearly communicate the non-commercial nature of the project. Conscious of the popular audience that the site hopes to reach, Blankenship is also modifying the site for improved use on tablets and smart phones as well as social media integration with a WordPress plug-in called Jetpack. Mobile users will be able to access all of the content on the website from a simplified menu and new posts will be automatically published on Facebook, and, in the near future, on the @18Common Twitter feed, as well.

Who Oversees The 18th-Century Common?
The 18th-Century Common has two advisory boards: an internal and an external board. The internal board is comprised of co-editors Burkett and Richard, as well as members who participated in the 2010-11 NEH-funded faculty seminar at Wake Forest, “Science and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century,” that led to the building of the website and who worked closely with the site’s co-editors. All WFU professors, the internal board includes Margaret Ewalt (Assoc. Professor, Spanish), Grant McAllister (Assoc. Professor and Chair, German and Russian), Morna O’Neill (Assist. Professor, Art History), John Ruddiman (Assist. Professor, History), Heather Welland (Assist. Professor, History), and Byron Wells (Professor of French, Chair of Romance Languages).

External board members include a star-studded line-up of distinguished professors from a variety of institutions who work in eighteenth-century studies and Romanticism studies and who are also heavily invested in Digital Humanities work. They include Devoney Looser (Missouri), Jack Lynch (Rutgers), Laura Mandell (Texas A&M), Benjamin Pauley (Eastern Connecticut State), and Linda Troost (Washington & Jefferson).

Contact, Follow, Contribute, Discuss
You can follow or tweet The 18th-Century Common on Twitter (@18Common) as well as follow on Facebook. Calls for contributions can be found here. Each entry in 18Common has a comment thread for readers to respond to posts and to each other.

Final Thoughts
I like this new project a lot and I admire the scholars that are behind it for their work, energy, and desire to make this a public scholarly endeavor — because of its expanded audience, there is a lot of room for it to grow in terms of technology, contributions, and conversations. I think that this website has the potential to create a vibrant interactive community of scholars and public intellectuals who are giddy about the same topics and who contribute meaningfully to the content and discussions about it. Since it’s the holidays, I offer a father/daughter, or non-scholar/scholar example. I’m studying 18th-century mirrors and optics for part of my dissertation on late-Romantic-era literature and media. My father, on the other hand, is not keen on old books or even fiction, but has a degree in engineering, has fun solving physics equations, and geeks out on technology and electronics. We may seem like intellectual opposites, but we meet at Herschel. I gifted him an e-copy of The Age of Wonder (Holmes) for Christmas for his Nook, with a link to The 18th-Century Common in my note.

[Author’s note: this blog was originally posted on HASTAC as part of a three-blog series. I repost it here because I think it will be of interest to our Romanticist graduate student community.]

Coming Soon: The 18th-Century Common

In mid-August, I had the great fortune of attending NASSR 2012 in Neuchâtel, Switzerland and presenting on a Romanticism and New Media panel with Andrew Burkett, Assistant Professor at Union College. Following our panel, I wrote a fairly brief blog post that introduced a DH project for which Burkett is co-creator and co-editor, with Jessica Richard (Associate Professor of English, Wake Forest University): The 18th Century Common: A Public Humanities Website for Enthusiasts of 18th-Century Studies.

For blog two of this three-post series on The 18th-Century Common (a series that I am writing for HASTAC), I am happy to provide some details about this project that its co-editors have shared with me before the website launch on October 1. This is the trailer, if you will. (The third blog will be a tour of the website after its launch.) Here we go!

The Mission of The 18th-Century Common:

According to co-editors Burkett and Richard, the mission of The 18th-Century Common website is to “provide a medium for eighteenth-century scholars to communicate with an eager public non-academic readership,” and Richard Holmes’ The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (Knopf, 2009) provides the perfect vehicle for a project like this. More specifically, the success of Holmes’ award-winning popular science book inspired the co-editors, along with student and faculty collaborators at Union and Wake Forest, to create a website that would continue to captivate and cultivate a broad audience of readers interested in 18th-century studies—like those that are so drawn to Holmes’ bestseller—and explore new possibilities for digital public humanities scholarship that reaches beyond the Academy.

In The Age of Wonder, Holmes tells the stories of several 18th-century scientists and explorers and their landmark discoveries, including Sir William and Caroline Herschel’s discoveries of comets and the planet Uranus as well as the creation of the forty-foot telescope, James Cook and Joseph Banks’ epic nautical expeditions, and Humphry Davy’s contributions to chemistry and the invention of a “safety lamp” for miners. Holmes’ compelling and accessible prose, coupled with glossy color image spreads, were so popular with non-academic readers that the book could be purchased at Costco for $11.

A Short History of the Project:

Since Fall 2009, Richard has convened an interdisciplinary faculty seminar at Wake Forest on the subject of “Science and the Arts in the Eighteenth Century.” In 2010-11, the faculty seminar used Holmes’ book as a case study for investigating possible platforms on which popular and scholarly discourses on science studies can meet and, furthermore, what could be gained from such a discussion. The faculty seminar received a Ventures seed grant from the Humanities Institute at WFU—a grant funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities—in order to explore these questions. The study resulted in The 18th-Century Common website, which is set to launch this fall.

What’s in the Common?

While the website is still “incunabulum” and being polished and augmented before its launch, the demo site reveals the skeleton of a robust and exciting project. The homepage and “about” page deliver requisite introductions to the project and a place to subscribe to a list for updates as well as share and follow the website on Twitter, Google+, and Facebook—crucial social networking platforms that reach through and beyond the Academy to a wider audience. There is also a “Forums” page that will serve as a suggestion box and collect website feedback and content ideas once the site is officially up and running.

At this very early stage, it appears that the primary content pages will be the “Explore” page and the blog. The “Explore” section contains a collection of short essays from authors ranging from undergraduates to associate professors in a series entitled “The Age of Wonder: Science and the Arts in the Long-18th Century.” For example, Trista Johnson, an undergraduate at Union College, authored an essay in this collection that calls for a reconsideration of Holmes’ treatment of Caroline Herschel as merely an aide to her brother’s astronomical endeavors. She reveals a fascinating gap in Holmes’ research on the correspondence between Caroline and physicist Mary Somerville, even linking to Mary’s letter in Google Books, and suggests that more needs to be published on Caroline’s work not as a collaborator with her brother but as an astronomer working on her own. The blog section features pieces written only by professors, at present, who share intriguing short essays, such as Jake Ruddiman’s piece on soldiers’ amicable and amorous relationships with civilians during the Revolutionary War.

Call for Contributions:

While the project aims to increase the amount of popular science writing for a public readership that is hungry for this material, it also offers publishing opportunities to the scholarly community that will provide the material. With the launch of this website, scholars of eighteenth-century literature and culture that usually publish their research in books and journals addressed to other researchers within their discipline and in neighboring fields will have a new free, public digital venue for sharing their work with an enthusiastic public audience that is potentially larger than their academic audience. Furthermore, sections like the “Explore” page will offer opportunities for students to learn how to research and publish short essays on interdisciplinary topics that are in vogue with both scholars and the general public.

Specifically, in order to create a site of “public humanities scholarship” that communicates the results of research to an audience not limited to the Academy, The 18th-Century Common will seek a variety of contributions that include:

  • responses by scholars and students that contextualize and enrich Holmes’ work;
  • short articles, media, and other content aimed at a wide audience of readers; and
  • content solicited from academic contributors written specifically for a lay audience, including descriptions of recently published scholarly work in 18th-century studies, interesting holdings in library archives and museum collections, and critical controversies or research problems in the field.

For more information on the call-for-papers or if you have questions or comments about this project, please contact the editors. To subscribe to the website and receive updates on its launch, enter your information here. I’m looking forward to the launch and to the scholarly and pedagogical opportunities that this website will offer for outreach beyond the Academy.


Are you participating in a DH project that is under construction or published and underway with similar aims? I think it will be important to consider the relationship between The 18th-Century Common and other literary DH literary and related projects that share the goal of public humanities scholarship. How can these projects learn from one another to achieve the best possible results? Furthermore, what does “success” for a project like this mean or look like?


Author’s note: This blog post was originally written for and published on the HASTAC website on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012. Find the identical original post here.

Vital Viscera

Though I have temporarily shifted my research from early nineteenth-century depictions of the body to contemporary zombie studies, I’m finding my previous research and the ideas of Romantic-era physicians to be astoundingly enlightening for this project in terms of the vitalism controversy: does materialism or vitalism—“the theory that life is generated and sustained through some form of non-mechanical force or power specific to and located in living bodies”—dominate the motions of the body? (Packham 1).[i] One of the things I find interesting about this controversy, however, is that both still locates the source of life and animation within the body itself (rather than an outside force, such as a higher power or cosmic force, or sometimes even a physician). I’m just beginning my research on vitalism, but, in my mind, the difference between materialism and vitalism seems to be this “unknown” factor. A mechanism can be explained, but the words used to describe the core principle of vitalism—force, spark, power—speak to its vague and elusive nature in such a way that reveals the physican’s awe for the body while materialists seem to claim more authority, even over the individual whose body is in question. The concept of vitalism also disrupts the mind/body dichotomy, as Catherine Packham points out in her excellent study of Eighteenth-Century Vitalism. “‘Life’ itself began to look rather different:” she says, “no longer a physical entity passively carrying out the orders of reason, but a fluid, constant, dynamic, changeable and ultimately elusive force, existing and communicating throughout a vitally animated body” (19). My goal in this post is to describe and discuss the infatuation with interiority of the body shared with some of the prominent vitalists and their interest in movement within even a body that does not appear to be moving.

In 1785, a Mr. James Whytt wrote to accomplished Edinburgh physician William Cullen of the dissection of a Mr. James Cochman’s abdomen twelve hours after his death: “The swelling of [it] increased gradually to a very great extent after you saw him; previous to opening the abdomen, when filliped, it gave the sound of a drum; when open’d…” and goes on to describe the shape and color of various organs.[ii] Cullen himself was one of the leading vitalists at the Edinburgh Medical School, along with his associate Robert Whytt (any relation to the letter-writer, I have yet to surmise) (Packham 6). There are a few things in this brief example to note. Firstly, there is a distinction between the exterior and interior of the body, but also a correlation: swelling indicates an internal change. An action against the exterior, a “fillip,” can indicate even more about the quality and condition of that interior, but Whytt does not seem concerned about such an action disturbing it. The description that follows (which is not something to read right before lunch) compartmentalizes the body to a great extent, describing where in the body things have settled, as if they were settled in an unusual way and had found their way there themselves. Things have clearly been happening within this (leaky) body in the twelve hours since life had animated it, things that remain animated for a time beyond its larger entity.

Physician Robert Whytt describes this kind of body-agency in terms of three categories of animal motions in his 1751 text on vitalism: voluntary, involuntary, and “mixed”. These last two classifications “are performed by the several organs as it were of their own accord, without any attention of the mind, or consciousness of an exertion of its active power: such are the motions of the heart, organs of respiration, stomach, guts, &c; which have been also distinguished by the name Automatic…” (1-2).[iii] Though these ideas precede the Romantic era, they nonetheless inform the kinds of observations made by James Whytt later in his dissection.  They also speak to the claim made by Alan Richardson in his article “Romanticism and the Body,” about the prominence of the body in Romantic poetry. He suggests that Jerome McGann’s theory that Romantic poets strove to transcend the physical and political upheaval of their world through their poetry “failed to account for the diversity of available ideological positions” (2).[iv] Instead, criticism has been seeing more emphasis on the Romantic body within literature (something Aaron brought up in his post on feet at the beginning of the month). Whytt’s sentient principle, which he uses to explain the reanimation (re-sensitizing) of the body after a period of inaction or even momentary death, claims that, since these body parts do not have the ability of stimulation themselves, there must be an “active sentient PRINCIPLE animating these fibres” (Whytt 242). In other words, there must be some kind of energy or substance that sparks this movement and contributes to the overall animation of the body, particularly its involuntary and “mixed” actions. This begs the question, what are our bodies doing when we’re thinking of other things, when we’re not commanding its every move? The poet’s body, then, proves itself a mystery more expansive and active than even the poet’s mind, able to move and act almost of its own accord… even for a short time beyond death.

[i] Packham, Catherine. Eighteenth-Century Vitalism: Bodies, Culture, Politics. New York: Palgrave, 2012.

[ii] Letter from James Whytt. March 1785. Sibbald Library.

[iii] Whytt, Robert. MD. An Essay on the Vital and other Involuntary Motions of Animals. Edinburgh: Printed by Hamilton, Balfour, and Neill. 1751.

[iv] Richardson, Alan. “Romanticism and the Body.” Literature Compass 1 (2004): 1-14.

The Itinerant Scholar and a Bit of Sage Advice

Prologue: Advisor to Student


“You should apply to do research at the Huntington next summer, or at the NY Public Library.

Don’t you have family in LA, and New Rochelle? Or was it Manhattan? Both?

The Huntington is an amazing place to get work done—not just research but also writing. Everyone goes to the BL [British Library] but the Huntington also has outstanding holdings for scholars working on Romanticism.”


“Yes, I do have family near LA, but they live in Orange County. And you’re right about my relations on the east coast, too. My great aunt has a place on the island and her son, Michael, lives in New Rock City with his wife.”


“Ok, great. Draft your fellowship application materials and send them to me this weekend. Let’s start with the Huntington. If you get money, perfect, you’ll go there; if not, let’s shoot for NY since residing in OC would mean a commute. That’d be a waste of your time.”

Actual Log: Goodwill Huntington

The advisor was right. The rare books I consulted during my time as a fellow and reader at the Huntington Library’s Munger Research Center have proved invaluable to my dissertation project. However, from my first day on the Huntington’s sweeping and gorgeously curated grounds, the congenial spirit cultivated by the reader services staff impressed me most. After hearing a handful of stories about graduate students enduring long waits or general disregard at renowned research institutions, the Huntington handedly dispelled this academic urban legend.

Given my enduring interest in both Romanticism and science and the history of science and technology, I punctuated my visits to the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room with trips to the Burndy collection. The Burndy Library and Dibner History of Science Program house fascinating historical documents and artifacts that allowed me to supplement my archival research with necessary secondary readings.

When I needed to take a break from the reading room, I walked through my favorite of the Huntington’s botanical gardens. Otherwise, I strolled through the many beautifully curated exhibits on display. True to form, I was captivated by the permanent exhibit “Beautiful Science: Ideas that Changed the World” now showcased in the newly renovated Dibner Hall of the History of Science. Additionally, during the month and a half that I was in residence at the Huntington, I was also lucky enough to explore various rotating exhibitions, many of which catered to my broader interests in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. First, I visited “Born to Endless Night: Paintings, Drawings, and Prints by William Blake Selected by John Frame” and “Revisiting the Regency: England, 1811–1820.” Just before my time there ended, I took special pleasure in frequenting the exhibit “Pre-Raphaelites and Their Followers: British and American Drawings from The Huntington’s Collections,” which was curated by my friend and colleague Matthew H Fisk.

All such glorious distractions aside, I’ll leave my reader with one very sage piece of advice. Returning again to borrowed words, I would like to share with you the most valuable and counterintuitive information my advisor imparted to me before I made my first foray into the Munger Research Center.

Epilogue: “Try not to spend everyday at The Huntington performing research”


“It will be tempting to spend your allotted time (in the Ahmanson Rare Books Reading Room, from 8:30 to noon, and more, from 1-5) on nothing but transcription, research, reading. I battle the same impulse myself. But I would never write a page if I left this impulse unchecked.

Break up each day. You have a dissertation to finish. Research is of course an integral component and necessary to the completion of your project, but keep in mind that mining the archive is only part of what you do, and thus should only be part of your daily routine during your 6 weeks on fellowship. This time will give you the opportunity to forge habits that will help you to remain productive and to lead a balanced life after graduate school.

If you still work well in the morning, settle into a schedule where you write in the productive atmosphere of the Huntington during the am, and then, in the afternoons, gather your documents as ye may.”