Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in the Literature, Science and Medicine of the 1790s by Sharon Ruston

Creating RomanticismOriginally published in 2013 by Palgrave Macmillan, ‘Creating Romanticism: Case Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine’ is written by Sharon Ruston. Ruston is Chair in Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of Salford, UK. She has previously published ‘Shelley and Vitality’ (2005) and ‘Romanticism: An Introduction’ (2007), as well as editing ‘The Influence and Anxiety of the British Romantics: Spectres of Romanticism’ (1999) and ‘Literature and Science’ (2008).

In the 1790s, literature, science and medicine were engaged in a lively interdisciplinary dialogue that came to categorize a great deal of the era’s writings, much more so than has previously been accepted by many scholars. For a great deal of the intervening time, Romanticism has often been understood as being opposed to science, which to some degree has been influenced by a particular reading of Wordsworth’s famous Preface to Lyrical Ballads. While, perhaps, a case could be made for a technology Vs. nature opposition, as opposed to the much broader category of science, this rather naïve approach has been over-turned of late. Romanticism is now beginning to be read within a much wider cultural milieu, one deserving of the wide range of professions and interests that the romantics worked within. Ruston notes:

“Taken as a whole, this book contends that science and medicine should be recognized as playing a part in the creation of what we now, anachronistically, call ‘Romanticism’. It recognizes, as do the writers themselves, that scientific and medical writing as much as any other kind of writing is employed knowingly for political purposes.” (Ruston 2013, 2).

Take Wordsworth’s Preface as an example: In a footnote he opposes poetry to science, which in later editions he expands to say ‘Poetry and Matter of Fact, or Science’. However, while this came to frame later discussions that revolved around this opposition, Wordsworth is, in fact, talking about a particular unimaginative science, not science as a whole. The imagination was, at the time, understood to be the tool through which poets operated, and it was a type of science that attempted to denigrate the imagination to which Wordsworth referred – where literary genius was reduced to a matter of fact. Elsewhere, however, he considers poetry itself to be an experiment, and that it too, like science, was uncovering the laws of nature.

Creating Romanticism assesses a number of important figures, and their works, from the 1790s, in order to demonstrate the degree to which romantic ideals were a broadly cultural construction. Each of the four main chapters act as stand-alone studies, although they all work toward the aforementioned demonstration. Chapters 1 and 2, which deal with Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin respectively, are concerned with the political motivations of the authors, as they examine/analyse certain scientific concepts in order to further certain political objectives. Wollstonecraft, for instance, employs theories in natural history and medicine to further her political goals i.e. for woman to be seen as equals, and moreover, not downcast by natural laws, but rather by social conventions.

Wollstonecraft’s husband, William Godwin, often referred to as the father of philosophical anarchism, is examined by Ruston in regard to his translations of work concerned with animal magnetism. This debate centres around scientific authority, theatre and the imagination, and Godwin’s translation of a French commission’s report dispelling the scientific authority of those working with animal magnetism. This influenced Godwin’s other writings, and “What Godwin does is to exploit the emergent or incipient Romantic aspects of the animal magnetism debate” (Ruston 2013, 96).

In chapter 3, ‘Romantic Creation’, Ruston discusses contemporary medical debates that sought to explain ‘literary genius’ – a Romantic ideal. Shelley’s Frankenstein, the work of Erasmus Darwin, particularly Zoonomia, and the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, are all discussed in order to demonstrate that emerging scientific ideas were utilised to explain literary genius and that, moreover, literary language also entered into scientific explanation. The result is a dialogue that looks at organic creation, composition, and the possibility of both originality and monstrous births.

In regard to the history of pharmacography (drug writing) in Britain, the 1790s serves as an important cauldron of ideas that would come to have a long-lasting effect on the ways in which writers described the effects of psychoactive drugs on themselves: the awesomeness of heaven and hell. Take the term sublime, for instance, which was accorded a number of various uses in the eighteenth century, by the likes of Emmanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, and Joseph Priestly. All of whom came to have an effect of the Cornish chemist Humphry Davy who discovered the psychoactive properties of Nitrous oxide. Davy explored and developed his own version of the sublime in his poetry, and indeed saw chemistry itself as a sublime art.

In her final chapter, ‘Humphry Davy and the Sublime’, Ruston argues “that the romantic-era concept of the sublime was a product of medical and scientific thought as well as literary and aesthetic thought, and that it was appropriated by natural philosophers for their own purposes” (Ruston 2013, 132). Ruston examines ST Coleridge’s use of sublimation, which is of particular interest because of the poet’s friendship with Davy, she then proceeds to look at the sublime in the work of the aforementioned thinkers, and how they interacted with and influenced Davy’s own particular understanding. Mike Jay, in Atmosphere of Heaven, has previously noted the importance of the sublime in drug writing, and Ruston further develops this and places Davy more in the centre of Romantic writers than he has previously been given credit for.

“Romantic writers’ engagement with science and medicine is complex, sophisticated, and at times critical and challenging. Scientific and medical ideas are accepted and appropriated for political purposes, a process that reveals the poets, novelists, and essay writers were fully alive to the cultural weight of ideas. Conversely, explicitly scientific and medical texts can be seen to borrow the language, images, metaphors, and aesthetic practices we would usually associate with more literary kinds of writing.” (Ruston 2013, 175)

Creating Romanticism is a scholarly, well researched book that takes into account a host of important writers from the 1790s, and particularly through some of their lesser known works. Not only does the book neatly describe the cultural complexity of the emergent ideas in Romanticism, but it also recasts the writers themselves as less detached and more contextualised within society generally. A fascinating read that tells us much about the 1790s, and the sort of methods of interdisciplinary dialogue that were just as relevant to psychedelic literature over 150 years later.

Robert Dickins

Robert Dickins is a historian, writer and editor. He is the founder of the Psychedelic Press, co-director of the Psychedelic Museum, and is currently undertaking his PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research interests focus on the history and literature of psychedelic substances, and the role of writing in spiritual and magical traditions during the 19th century. He is also the author of the novel 'Erin', and has occasionally be known to perform a poem or two.

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