Thursday, December 07, 2006

Alex Seltzer on "Scientific Verse" up to about 1730

Alex Seltzer has sent in a guest post in response to Parker's Chapter 4, which is as follows:

In chapter 4 on "Thomson and the invention of the literal," Parker discusses the new objects of poetry: "By 1720 poetry was no longer a basically religious or even courtly manner. It was for the first time the art of everything. It was the vehicle of the fully literal, the realization of the physical and detached nature of things." [p. 137] He then cited Margaret Doody: "Nothing is so common, so bizarre, so unclean -or so grand -that it can't be appreciated and consumed by the poetic process." Doody, The Daring Muse, p. 9].

I have been delving into the "scientific verse" of poets such as Blackmore (Creation), Prior (Solomon), Baker (Universe), Collins (Nature Display'd), Brooke (Universal Beauty). To these I add Thomson's Season's which impresses me as being on a much higher plane and less concerned with the argument by design which was the common theme. My goal has been to extract "arguments by design" based strictly on biological models. The purpose is to draw a parallel between the imagery of these poets and the illustrations of the contemporary naturalist, Mark Catesby. His illustrations of new world flora and fauna have been labeled as the "graphic equivalent of poems." (David Wilson, In the Presence of Nature, 1978, p. 147).

Turning to the natural theological verse of the above poets, we find the bedrock of such poetry consists of example after example of "proofs" of the divine creator's existence as reflected in "the book of nature." More often than not, the poet points out the obvious and conveys it in bombastic terminology. To cite one of my favorite examples, here is Brooke on the architectural skills of bees (a pet topic of these poets) from his Universal Beauty:

Swift for the tasks the ready builders part,
Each band assigned to each peculiar art;
A troop of chymists scout the neighboring field,
While servile tribes the cull'd materials wield,
With tempering feet the labored cement tread,
And ductile now its waxen foliage spread.
The geometricians judge the deep design,
Direct the compass, and extend the line;
The sum their numbers provident of space,
And suit each edifice with answering grace.
Now first appears the rough proportion'd frame,
Rough in draught, but perfect in the scheme;
When lo! Each little Archimedes nigh,
Mates every angle with judicious eye;
Adjusts the center cones with skill profound
And forms the curious hexagon around.
[book 6, lines 191-206]

To repeat, was such poetry consumed, if not by a broad public, then by an influential elite? Are these just faint echoes of John Ray's Wisdom of God? or powerful amplifications that brought "the argument by design" into the mainstream? The very fact that poets were tackling a variety of new subjects suggests that the audience was broadening but that is supposition on my part.

Secondly, is it fair to regard this now as "bad poetry?" Blackmore's Creation was defended by Johnson (Lives of the Poets) but he condemned Prior's Solomon as tedious. I don't know about the others. (Swift's famous ditty about flea's hosting smaller parasites may have been directed towards Baker). I find much of this poetry (to my delight) comparable to the howlers of William McGonagal's Victorian-era "poetic gems" ("Greenland's Icy Mountains"), but he had the defense of being uneducated, whereas Collins' "Little Archimedes" screams that he had a classical education. In fact, there seems to be a conspicuous "show-off" element, each poet trying to out-do the next, much as Swift's "Flea" suggests. Was this sort of poetry exceptionally bad, or merely run-of-the-mill bad? Maybe such a discussion is irrelevant in an academic context?

I've found little on these biologically-oriented poems other than Bonamy Dobree's English Literature in the Early 18th Century. Suggestions on further reading are welcome -both on the poems and the broader context. (Perhaps other pre-1730 poems could be included?)

Sincerely, Alex Seltzer (art historian unfamiliar with poetry) Philadelphia