Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Romanticism and Philosophy
in an Historical Age

Romantic Interiority and Cultural Objects

Theresa M. Kelley, University of Texas at Austin

James Sowerby: Arum Maculatum and Geranium Pratense


  1. My remarks today consider two Romantic sites where a version of interiority is presented which seems to fall outside the usual way in which we think of Romantic subjectivity—the microscopic impulse in Romantic botanical theory and illustration and the way two Romantic poets, John Clare and Charlotte Smith, use botanic terms for poetic ends. For Clare, those ends include the preservation of a particularity that makes figuration possible; for Smith, they include the inauguration of a subjectivity that seems to be only marginally vested in the rhetoric of self-pity found in her prefaces, notes, and more than a few poems. My hypothesis is that both poets may show us that otherness and resistance are essential terms for understanding Romanticism as a poetic and historical moment.

  2. This essay is divided into three parts. The first characterizes the two poles of Romanticism for which I seek a common or interstitial ground—interiority and cultural objects. As I use the term here, interiority refers to the status accorded subjectivity or subjecthood by Romantic poets and philosophers, together with their critics. At its most problematic, Romantic interiority has been read as the guarantor of self-absorption or philosophical solipsism.[1] At its most celebrated, it has been identified with the rational and ethical claims of the Kantian sublime, in which freedom and difference from nature disclose why, in Wordsworth's words, the mind is "the haunt and main region" of his and Romanticism's song.[2] To present the other pole, Romanticism's cultural objects, I discuss one field of particulars—botanical discovery and its dissemination. Because any assessment of how this field of particulars might constitute cultural objects requires some consideration of mechanisms whereby Romanticism had or acquired a public sphere (or spheres), I also ask how it might be possible to reimagine Habermas's account of the emergence of the bourgeois public sphere around or soon after 1750 to accommodate the rather different cultural and historical domain of Romanticism.The second part of this essay is a brief survey—really a series of highlights—of botanical ideas and their dissemination in Romantic culture. The last part considers how Charlotte Smith and John Clare, in prose extracts as well as poems, use botanical information for their own ends. I employ the verb use to declare my sense that a broadly imagined intentionality directs the work of both writers as they make the cultural objects of botany into hybrid public-private property. In its parts and as a whole, this essay maps the contours of a larger inquiry and invites scholarly exchange.

    Part I

  3. Although I grant that some, perhaps many, critics would disavow the current gap—for some it is an abyss—that separates those committed to historical study from those committed to formalist, poetic inquiry, I argue that this gap exists to the detriment of a sustained and intellectually compelling account of what Romanticism is and why we profess it.[3] As critically, because this gap reiterates the Cartesian split between mind and world, it assents to a philosophical claim about reality which Romantic writers—some albeit more pessimistically than others—argued and wrote against. The Romantic counter-argument to this claim—that mind and world are in some way related—is in my view the disputed ground of Romanticism and modernity with which we still struggle. My understanding of this ground from Kant to modernity is particularly indebted to a recent and surprising convergence among contemporary philosophers who represent distinct traditions, in particular Hilary Putnam, Martha Nussbaum, and recent critics and philosophers who are either neo-Kantian or who defend Kantian principles in the name of Romanticism.[4] Putnam's new work of the last decade offers a startling reconsideration of his earlier philosophical realism, which once required a quasi-Cartesian separation of mind from world. Putnam now asserts a much stronger regard for a realism that would recognize what binds mind to world, in terms that recall Aristotelian and Kantian efforts to specify how it is possible to do so. This philosophical inquiry is, I contend, of critical interest for thinking about Romanticism and, specifically, for imagining Romantic interiority as allied, perhaps even formally allied, to a material reality that has long been regarded as its Romantic "other." According to this reading of Romanticism, against which I argue here, for good or ill (depending on your critical persuasion) Romantic poets speak for and from a cultivated interiority whose subjectivity is the form of Romanticism. I am fundamentally in agreement with this claim, although I would add this key provision: it is critical to imagine further how what is apparently "other" might be implicated in Romantic interiority. This relation may be most pressing—historically and culturally—during Romanticism precisely because writers of this period tend to acknowledge interiority and subjectivity as the arbiter of imaginative thought. Some—like Byron, Austen, and Peacock—variously bemoan this necessary and binding arbitration. Others, notably William Wordsworth, Helen Maria Williams, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, do not. Whether the objectified Romantic other is the British colonial project in India or, in the examples I discuss here, the miniature, microscopic preferences sustained by botanical discovery and representation between 1780 and 1830, the textual paths whereby it inflects Romantic writing may be helpful to consider as specific instances of a larger field of hypothesized relations.[5] I use the work of Clare and Smith, instead of better known or more canonical Romantic poets, to pursue this hypothesis for two reasons. The first is practical—both poets wrote about botany extensively and in doing so both made strategic use of botanical figures. The second is tactical—if it is possible to show, via the work of these poets, how botany is part of the material and philosophical ground of Romanticism, then we may be able to extrapolate from these and allied instances models for a Romantic binding of mind and world that holds at and for what a traditional account of Romanticism might call its extremities—writing by lesser, less well known, or uncanonical writers. The shape and direction of my present argument would in the end do away with the polarities of center and periphery, mind and world even this formulation assumes. For if, as I will argue, Romanticism is neither all mind, nor all world, then it would seem to follow that our collective investigation ought to be concerned to record how it is both.

  4. In making this claim, I do not suppose that mind or world are reducible to each other. To the contrary, my inquiry imagines a productive irreducibility that sustains Romantic subjectivity at a moment in cultural history when the signs of materiality were very much ascendant within the public sphere or spheres. My working understanding of the Romantic public sphere or spheres differs in crucial ways from Jürgen Habermas's influential model. In The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere, Habermas argued that the marketplace expansion of the reading public in the late eighteenth century was a necessary precondition for the emergence of the public sphere, as a moment when rationality and communicative action emerged as counter-forces to the absolute authority of the state (Habermas 30).

  5. According to Habermas, in private clubs and other gathering places away from the confines of court and state there emerged in late eighteenth-century Britain a new, paradoxically public-private arena. Ultimately participants in this arena learned how to imagine a state that might be responsive to private, individual and bourgeois values. Because this new set of values was influenced, Habermas suggested, by what people read—including novels written by women—literary critics have since used his model to argue that women were significant, if unofficial, players in this public sphere. Despite subsequent criticisms of the historical accuracy of this description, Habermas has continued to defend its principles of rational, communicative action, notably in his The Theory of Communicative Action and The Discourse of Modernity. Working from a strongly rationalist premise which takes the promise of the Enlightenment to be its core achievement, Habermas's model is (not surprisingly) silent about the impact of "irrational" or less than conscious impulses on and in the public sphere. Indeed, as his critics have noted, these and other seemingly aberrant manifestations of subjectivity are logically excluded from the rational, public discourse that is the keystone of his argument. Critics have objected that this model prefers high or elite cultural forms to low and popular ones—in effect barring carnivalesque agitation from below which might disturb a climate of rational exchange among equals. Others have challenged the extent to which such a sphere was in fact public and open to women or even writing by women, since women did not typically frequent coffeehouses and clubs, where politics as much or more than novels by women was likely to dominate discussion.[6] In 1974, Habermas responded to these objections, less to defend his earlier claims about the historical emergence of the public sphere than to offer a definition of what such a sphere might be, whether or not it existed as such near the end of the Enlightenment:

    By 'public sphere' we mean first of all a realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body. They then behave neither like business or professional people transacting private affairs, nor like members of a constitutional order subject to the legal constraints of a state bureaucracy. Citizens behave as a public body when they confer in an unrestricted fashion—that is, with the guarantee of freedom or assembly and association and the freedom to express and publish their opinions—about matters of general interest. In a large public body this kind of communication requires specific means for transmitting information and influencing those who receive it. . . . We speak of the political public sphere in contrast, for instance, to the literary one, when public discussion deals with objects connected to the activity of the state.[7]

    Whereas in 1959 Habermas had suggested that the literary circulation of ideas supported political discussion in which the idea of a public sphere took shape, in 1974 he differentiated political discussion from the literary circulation of ideas in the expanding book market of eighteenth-century England. This differentiation answers one group of critics, but another finds it at least as problematic. By looking back from within the institutional framework of modern Western democracies, Habermas adopts a retrospective lens which probably filters out forms of political analysis and behavior that appear to fall outside this institutional framework—like novels, letters, and other forms of writing practiced by women as well as men (La Vopa 102). To specify one example: Wollstonecraft's Vindications of the Rights of Woman simultaneously presents itself as a pedagogical book on female education and manners, invokes literary precedents (often to discountenance them), and produces an argument whose premises anticipate Habermas's ideal vision of a public sphere in which all citizens might participate in rational discourse.[8] Perhaps the most telling critiques of the Habermasian model have objected to its founding presuppositions: first, that there was or ever is only one "public sphere" instead of competing spheres whereby dissent or, as Steven Goldsmith puts it, "agitation" is inextricable from the effort to define and limit the authority of the state (Goldsmith 753-96); second, that debate in and by the public sphere was disinterested in a Kantian sense—that it existed on a plane above and distinct from that of individual, psychic tensions which Habermas tends to assume must be put aside before rational debate can begin. This cordoning off of individual, psychic material is, briefly put, why the work of psychoanalytic interpretive models is so far off the charts of Habermas's philosophical brief for the role of rational, communicative action in the bourgeois public sphere. Given this array of objections and reservations, Habermas's model seems to present more problems than explanations. Yet even his sharpest critics remain attracted to it—whether or not they agree with Habermas about how, where, and how many public spheres might have emerged or begun to take shape near the end of the eighteenth century. This attraction has in part to do with the sense that—whatever the failings of this model—it recognizes, however imperfectly, what one critic calls "the emancipatory potential of an actual historical moment" (La Vopa 102). If ever there was a time for a public sphere or spheres to emerge, it was the closing decades of the eighteenth century, when the book trade diversified and expanded, in some measure because a sharp increase in literacy and various educational schemes for the middling and lower classes helped to create a more complex reading public. In ways that writers in Britain and on the Continent fully recognized only later, the onset of the Reign of Terror dramatically signalled the termination of the "emancipatory potential" that so many contemporary observers found in the first years of the Revolution—precisely because Robespierre and the Committee for Public Safety made Supreme Reason the arbiter of the Terror. So instructed, Romantic writers and their publics quickly learned to be chary of claims for enlightened reason and the public weal (Thom). Because it very nearly begins with this historical disappointment, Romanticism is marked by new, albeit competing, notions which Habermas would later name the public sphere—an arena of discourse and relation in which actors learn to vest themselves as a public entity with enough ethical clout to challenge the absolute authority of the state. The unresolved dark side of this challenge is already apparent in Rousseau's notion of the general will as the rational outcome of individual wills that move as though in concert toward a common conclusion. To Rousseau and to Habermas, the history of Romanticism and modernity must reply that this consolidation of the common will did not occur then, nor has it since.

  6. I understand this impasse in modernity as among the most compelling features of Romanticism. Indeed, as a cultural and literary moment, it is productively constructed out of and on this inherent instability, like a pleasure dome barely sustained above caves of ice and cliffs of fall. The Enlightenment ideals of rationality and equilibrium which inform Habermas's model of the public sphere are inherently out of sympathy with individual differences, with particularities that work against the desire embedded in that model for a single, argumentative but not divided, public sphere of consciousness and action. The logic of Habermas's model suggests that because these Enlightenment ideals finally imploded with the onset of Romanticism, it must also be the first of many missteps down a slippery slope toward mass consumerism and rampant, irrational subjectivity. However trenchant this critique of modern consumerism and the commodification of the reading public, it nonetheless misconstrues its Romantic ground.

  7. For if we look at that ground more closely, we find there evidence of a fractured and contested public sphere or spheres wherein particularity and difference fissure the very effort to define or construct a public sphere. This story belongs less to the Enlightenment than it does to Romanticism as that cultural and psychic moment when difference, particulars, and dissent become the troublesome baggage of representation—literary as well as political.

    Part II

  8. From Cook's first voyage in 1768-71 with Joseph Banks, naturalist, and Sydney Parkinson, draughtsman on board, botany was intrinsic to British exploration, discovery and imperial control of the world and cultures beyond Britain. The particularity of botanical collection, preservation, and illustration was, moreover, necessary and strategic to the monumental British effort to know, codify, and possess new worlds. Once Banks returned home with Parkinson's drawings (Parkinson having died during the voyage) and became president of the Royal Society and Keeper of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew, the British industry of botanizing the world had a home base or, perhaps more accurately, a "center of calculation," where the world's diversity could be charted, sorted, and put to good (whether imagined or actual) economic use.[9] Once the Viennese artist and miniaturist Franz Bauer was installed at Kew, he drew plants and anatomies of plant parts with one eye on Linnaeus, another on his microscope, through which he saw extraordinary cell formations, and perhaps a third eye (lodged in Banks's head) on botanical topics of royal interest, like the parts of the bird of paradise, which Banks named Strelitzia, after the German title of the Princess, then Queen Charlotte, who drew at Kew, along with her daughters, under Bauer's tutelage. As collectors brought exotic plants home to Britain, where they tried to grow them, or as they exported British plants and agronomic know-how to India and Australia, botany became one arm of the East India Company, which assigned managers to botanical gardens in Calcutta and Bombay, and "supervised" (it is said) the training of native artists in the British conventions of botanical illustration in India and in China. Back in Britain, the rage for botanical information and illustration prompted and was thereafter supported by botanical books and magazines. Most were illustrated, some copiously, with engravings that were hand-colored or reproduced by several of the newly developed and developing engraving processes, including lithography and mezzotint. Robert Thornton's Temple of Flora, an elephant folio volume produced between 1799-1806, is a virtual sampler of the engraving techniques by then available for botanical illustration.[10] As the first of its kind, and still running two hundred years later, Curtis's Botanical Magazine (begun in 1787) is the botanical industry of the Romantic period in microcosm. A series of engraver artists worked for Curtis over the years. One of them, William Graves, supervised thirty people, including women and some children, who hand colored the engraved sheets (indeed, the hand-coloring "factories" supported the Botanical Magazine until 1948). Four of Curtis's daughters became skilled in this work, as did many anonymous colorists for this and other botanical works (Desmond 36-73). Some women became engravers and a few more who are listed among botanical collectors and explorers in Africa and Australia extended the geographical and botanical range of inquiry begun by the Dutch botanist and artist Maria Sybilla Merian in the late seventeenth century.[11] A very few were experimental botanists. Many more women were artists whose original drawings were never engraved and remain in archives at Kew and in London and elsewhere, such as Margaret Wood, whose 1805 hand colored drawings of British wild flowers are now archived in the library of the Linnean Society. The fact that women did botanical work probably has much to do with the large number of dissenters—many of them Quakers, some middle or working class—who were keepers of gardens, artists, nurserymen, travellers, and explorers, including James Smith, the first president of the Linnean society and Robert Brown, who inherited Smith's papers and became keeper of the botanical collections at the British Museum.[12] Brown's microscopic study of plants led him very soon—as few English botanists were then willing to be led—away from the Linnaean system toward the natural system of classification being developed during the Romantic era by French botanists. Brown discovered "cytoplasmic streaming," now termed "Brownian movement," and established the importance of morphological structure over against sexual reproductive organs in the classification of plants—the crucial issue in the shift from a Linnaean to a "natural" system of classification.[13]

    Part III

  9. Without knowledge of this scientific debate in England in the first two decades of the nineteenth century, John Clare stubbornly resisted the Latinate schematics of the Linnaean "sexual system," as it was then called. His reasons were neither political nor prudish. That is to say, he would have hardly been persuaded by the Rev. Polwhele's diatribe against botanizing women and Erasmus Darwin's poetic-scientific rendition of Linnaean categories in the sexualized personifications in the Botanic Garden (Powhele 25-26; Bewell 132-39). And, though Clare was no Jacobin, neither does he appear to have allied the Linnaean sexual system with Jacobin ventures, as Alan Bewell has noted conservative English writers often did. Rather Clare's objection to Linnaean classification, which had a much longer and stronger hold in English culture than it did on the Continent where the "natural" system had begun to evolve before the Revolution, was, like that of Robert Brown, prompted by detailed observation of morphological differences. Brown's more scientific response was to rely increasingly on microscopic evidence. Clare responded by looking closely, even minutely, at local botanical varieties to construct a mental field of differences that in the end constituted his understanding of natural history—whether birds, insects, or plants. As a poet who self-consciously hoarded local words and dialect terms because their variety corresponded in a formal sense to the variety he also found in the natural world, Clare rejected the Linnaean terms for the way they squeezed particularity out of plants to pin them onto what seemed to Clare a mental grid that left no room for species and distinctions suggested by the plants of his own district, and certainly no room for local names. In assorted prose fragments on natural history and the Linnaean system he composed between 1823 and 1825, Clare compares Linnaean claims about female flowers to what he sees in plants and trees and concludes that some trees are "hermaphroditic," and thus do not propagate exclusively by way of a female reproductive organ (Clare Natural History 101-2, 108). This account of the Linnaean system looks as though it is grafted onto Darwin's popularization, hardly surprising given Clare's utter impatience with Linnaeus' Latinate nomenclature. In the poem "A Ploughmans Skill at Classification after the Lineian Arrangement," Clare not surprisingly renders the sexual system as the engine of marital bickering: to his haranguing wife, the ploughman replies, if I'm a hog, you're a sow (Early Poems 1:211ff). The satiric point of this domestic version of Linnaean classification (very unlike Polwhele's nervous jibes at the "botanic bliss" of sex among Erasmus Darwin's plants) seems to be its verbal and classificatory poverty. I am particularly interested in how Clare as a poet uses botanical names to hollow out a site of resistance to the dominant botanical language of his place and time, a site of resistance that is fundamentally that of poetic figure. In "Reccolections after a Ramble," a longish poem he composed before or during 1820, those recollections are crowded with natural history detail about, for example, "the clod brown lark," "the pismires [that is, ant's] castle hill," bees loaded with honey "on their thigh / Yellow dust as fine as flour," and so on and on. In a stanza well into the poem, Clare describes three flowers with bird names in a way that seems to me quite a deliberate effort to create a momentary readerly confusion about what is being described. Here are the lines:

    Some went searching by the wood
    Peeping neath the weaving thorn
    Where the pouchd lip'd cuckoo bud
    From its snug retreat was torn
    Where the ragged robbin grew
    With its pipd stem streakd wi jet
    And the crow flowers golden hue
    Carless plenty easier met. (Early Poems 1:57-58)
    It is hard not to believe that, in each instance, but especially the first, a bird is not being described, inasmuch as Clare had an enormous knowledge of birds and wrote dozens of poems on birds. Once the reader figures out that she has made a category error—been tricked as it were into a catachresis—and that this cuckoo hidden beneath a thorn tree is no thorn bird but a flower, she must slow down and read for detail. The next two "bird-flower" descriptions now attract a reader in the know—that is to say, in the grip of precisely the kind of particular knowledge about the real world, Clare's world, that this poet urges.
  10. The "cuckoo" flower is, as Clare explains elsewhere, a variety of orchid—one that is "found in Spring with the blue bells." Its flowers are, he goes on to explain, "purple & freckld with paler spots inside and its leaves are spotted with jet like the arum" (see Illustration to right; Natural History 15-16).[14] Margaret Grainger, the modern editor of Clare's natural history writings, explains that Clare found many local varieties of orchid and appends a list of them. Although Clare evidently liked this flower—who wouldn't?—I suspect that he makes so much of its name because the orchid's classification was much debated in the first decades of the nineteenth century. At the end of this debate, Franz Bauer's detailed, exquisite drawings of orchid anatomy were published 1830-38, and the more exotic orchids of Mexico and Guatemala were at least as large as life in Bateman's slightly later Orchidacae of Mexico and Guatemala (1837—).[15] Clare's "ragged robin" is the flower for which Elizabeth Kent gives the Latin name galium verum in her Flora Domestica, which Clare mostly admired and also discusses in the same prose letters on natural history from which I have quoted his description of the cuckoo flower (Kent 232; Clare, Natural History 20). Two other prose remarks imply Clare's sense of the poetic return to be had from insisting on local botanical and ornithological names. In one passage he describes the "large blue flowerd cranes bill or wild geranium," which his modern editor renders as geranium pratense or "meadow cranes bill" (Clare, Natural History 22). Although it is impossible to determine which flower Clare actually saw, it is intriguing that William Curtis's influential folio edition, Flora Londinensis, includes the geranium pratense among its illustrations (see illustration to left).[16] In another natural history "letter" on birds, Clare praises Charlotte Smith's sonnet about what he calls "the fern Owl or Goat Sucker or Night jar or night hawk." Explaining that her poems convey "more from what she had seen of nature then [sic] from what she had read," he suggests that she thereby offers "new images" for poets. Clare remarks further that the fern owl and night hawk differ in key details, then lists the various names natural historians have assigned to another bird, whom he calls in succession "Hay chats straw chats nettle chats &c" (Natural History 108). Clare's catachretical fooling with flower names that sound at first like bird names and his tendency to multiply the local names that might be given to a specific flower or bird are linked I believe by a conviction that language, and especially that which arises from the particularities of natural description, is a word hoard for poetic figuration that matches, in an oddly formal way, the hoard he finds in the local setting that was inside his knowledge. His resistance to Linnaean nomenclature and classification is a resistance staged within the local histories and proliferation of names that work within English botany, just below its apparently Linnaean preoccupations. Like his early poem which begins, "No hailing curry favouring tothers / Muses gins by story" (Early Poems 1.15), Clare's botanical names and figures carve a space for Clare (and for the local and the particular) inside Romanticism, with its vaunted preference for the grand scheme, sublime idea, and the monumental.

  11. The relation between subjectivity and resistance is more difficult to fix in Charlotte Smith, despite or because she seems to offer an authorial persona that is by turns self-piteous and angry. I am interested in the poetic authority her poems accumulate, perhaps because this activity is half-disguised by her rhetorical appeals for sympathy and sales. Invoking Petrarch and pretending to translate his sonnets in her Elegiac Sonnets, she does not in fact translate Petrarch's sonnets so much as write her own. Some of Smith's sonnets assume the voice of another great authority of her age, Goethe's Werther. Briefly, I want to look at how she deploys entomological information in one poem, "To the Firefly of Jamaica, seen in a collection." Like the prose botanical lessons she invents in Minor Morals and Sketches of Natural History (1798), the dead insect of this poem has a moral as well as figurative function. In the narrative logic of the poem, it prompts a curious metonymic shift from the insect mounted in a collection to the escaped slave in a Jamaican forest who could now neither hide in terror from the light cast by the firefly when alive nor be guided or momentarily charmed by the insect's light. The narrative then switches again to the "Naturalist" who would be similarly unable to see this firefly among the flora and fauna he records in Jamaica. From these oblique lessons the poem then returns to the firefly, whose lost light suggests how "fugitive your fame" and, by extension, how fugitive the fame of all who trust art or sculpture to preserve their "vaunting Ostentation," in marked contrast to those who are unhonored, unknown, but cherished by friendship, by affection (Smith 204-207). The flickering presence in the poem of its other "fugitive," that escaped slave, throws the speaker's enumeration of images drawn from natural history in the opening stanzas into what seems to me a series of ironies that occur, as it were, off the specified stage of the poem's concluding stanzas about ostentation and the brevity of its fame. For the slave, as for the firefly, the naturalist-poet's leisurely display of knowledge is simply not possible. Both are hunted, captured, or likely to be captured, and both are bounty of another kind.


  12. The interpretive movement between botanical information and figures to poetic strategies which I have sketched in these remarks suggests a way of thinking about realism and subjectivity that is indebted to Hilary Putnam's recent turn from the kind of realism he espoused as a logical positivist to a realism that owes a good deal to Kant and to Aristotle. More specifically, Putnam's new realism makes its return to these philosophers because they help him reject a view of reality that would privilege either mind or world. Briefly, Aristotle's contribution to the kind of realism Putnam now seeks to understand is to argue for the "saving of appearances," not because matter and how it appears are all there is, but because we cannot talk about mind or subjectivity without acknowledging what Wittgenstein called "the whole hurly-burly of human actions, the background against which we see any action," or what Putnam refers to as the way our minds are organized to function in the world, as part of a bodily organism.[17] As Putnam observes, Aristotle's commitment to this view of phenomena is critical to his understanding of identity and its persistence through local, material changes. This view of mind and body does not claim that the body imprisons soul or mind or even that it houses them. It argues rather that though the body's matter fits its soul/mind, and does its actions, it is not the case that the functions of life can be reduced to body or matter (Putnam 54). Putnam's return to Kant begins with his recognition that even if we cannot discover the precise way in which the dualities that inhabit both mind and world allow us to make synthetic judgments, it makes sense to assume a priori that we do make such judgments in our effort to account for how we "hook" mind to world (Putnam 10). Thus whereas Richard Rorty has recently argued for a radical, putatively "postmodernism" skepticism about claims for any such relation, Putnam defends referentiality not as an absolute about which we know all there is to know, but as a posited view of the world that warrants exploration because it grants what living and acting in the world seem to require of us as thinking beings. Asking why Rorty should be "so bothered by the lack of a guarantee that our words represent things outside themselves," Putnam suggests that to be so bothered suggests a craving for absolute reference that is both senseless and deeply human, but one which we must put aside to recover our "ordinary notion of representation (and of a world of things to be represented)."[18] As I read Putnam on realism, the terms of his argument remind us that the study of Romanticism must "hook" both mind and world. To pursue one or the other is to assent apriori to a Cartesian view that would make the recovery of a material Romantic culture antithetical to the study of how Romantic literary forms reveal agency and craft. By contrast, botany and what poets did with it may together offer a trenchant instance both of how Romantic culture "hooked" botanical representations of the world and matter, and of how Romantic poets and artists turned those representations into figures. The formal subjectivity made possible by such figures shows how individual poets choose to fit their minds to their place and time. In making these claims, I argue for a formal criticism that is complementary to the cultural critique of Romanticism from without, from our critical present. I also argue for a cultural critique that attends to the interiority of Romanticism's figures and forms as poetic spaces where resistance and agitation take place.


    1 For recent and important versions of this critique, see Morrison, "Unspeakable Things Unspoken" 12 and Kinzie, The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose 25-26.  '

    2 Among recent discussions of Romanticism and the sublime, see Kelley, Wordsworth's Revisionary Aesthetics 30-33, 44-45; Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation 55-96. For recent philosophical assessments of the Kantian relation between freedom and the sublime, see Lyotard, Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime 159-90; Henrich, Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World 77-99; Guyer, Kant and the Experience of Freedom 229-75; and Crowther, The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art 41-77.  '

    3 Recent illustrations and accounts of this gap occur in the "Forum" exchange printed in the March 1997 issue of PMLA 257-86, Martin's account in "Teaching Literature, Changing Cultures" 16-22, and Simpson's critique of subjectivity in the person of the academic "postmodern."  '

    4 See, for example, recent essays by Putnam, one co-authored with Nussbaum, in Putnam, Words and Life and Christine Korsgaard, Creating the Kingdom of Ends 3-42, 160-87 and "Taking the Law into Our Own Hands: Kant on the Right to Revolution," in Reath, ed. Reclaiming the History of Ethics 297-328.  '

    5 Pascoe identified this aesthetic impulse in "Female Botanists and the Poetry of Charlotte Smith," in Hafner and Wilson, ed., Revisioning Romanticism: British Women Writers 193-209.   '

    6 For a summary of these and other critical objections to Habermas's model, see La Vopa's review essay of its English translation, "Conceiving a Public: Ideas and Society in Eighteenth-Century Europe" 98-114.  '

    7 Habermas, "The Public Sphere," New German Critique 3 (1974): 49; quoted by Geoff Eley, "Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures: Placing Habermas in the Nineteenth Century," in Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere 289.  '

    8 See Baker's astute comments on Habermas and Wollstonecraft, "Defining the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France," in Calhoun, ed., Habermas and the Public Sphere 181-211.  '

    9 For an important account of Banks's position in scientific, particularly botanical, discovery and collection, see Miller, "Joseph Banks, Empire, and 'Centers of Calculation' in late Hanoverian London" (21-37); Mackay, "Agents of Empire: The Banksian Collectors and Evaluation of New Lands" (38-57); Bewell, "'On the Banks of the South Sea': Botany and Sexual Controversy in the Late Eighteenth Century" (173-93) and other essays collected in Miller and Reill, ed., Visions of Empire.  '

    10 For a detailed overview of these Romantic developments in botanical illustration, see Blunt and Stearn, The Art of Botanical Illustration 211-72.  '

    11 See Ann Shteir's analysis of women in botany from the late eighteenth century through the Romantic era, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science 53-145.  '

    12 For a brief overview of these and other Romantic careers in botany, see Desmond, Dictionary of British and Irish Botnaists and Horticulturalists.  '

    13 Brown, "On the Natural Order of Plants, called PROTEACEAE," Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 10: 15-226; Morton, History of Botanical Science 373-76.  '

    14 Margaret Grainger identifies this arum as "Arum Maculatum" or "lords-and-ladies"—one common name Clare chose not to use, for reasons that are easy to infer. Numerous species of arum—both exotic and domestic—were frequently discussed and depicted in British botanical magazines in the early decades of the nineteenth century.  '

    15 Bauer, Illustrations of Orchidaceous Plants, 2 Parts Folio (London, 1830-38). Bateman, The Orchidacae of Mexico and Guatemala. (London, 1837-43).  '

    16 Curtis, Flora Londiensis 2: plate 265.  '

    17 See James Conant's introductory essay for Putnam's Words and Life for a discussion of Putnam in light of Wittgenstein's remark (lxii).  '

    18 Words and Life 299-300; Putnam refers specifically to Rorty, "Putnam on Truth" 416.  '

    Works Cited

    Baker, Keith. "Defining the Public Sphere in Eighteenth-Century France: Variations on a Theme by Habermas." Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1992. 181-217.

    Bateman, James. The Orchidacae of Mexico and Guatemala. London, 1837-43.

    Bauer, Franz. Illustrations of Orchidaceous Plants . . . with notes and prefatory remarks by John Lindley. London: J. Ridgway and Sons, 1830-1838.

    Bewell, Alan. "'On the Banks of the South Sea': Botany and Sexual Controversy in the Late Eighteenth Century." Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature. Ed. David Miller and Peter Reill. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 173-93.

    Blunt, Wilfrid and William T. Stearn, Ed. The Art of Botanical Illustration. London: Collins, 1950.

    Brown, Robert. "On the Natural Order of Plants, called PROTEACEA." Vol. 10 of Transactions of the Linnean Society of London. Linnean Society, 1791-1875. 15-226.

    Clare, John. The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare. Ed. Margaret Grainger. Oxford: Clarendon P, 1983.

    ---. The Early Poems of John Clare 1804-1822. Ed. Eric Robinson, David Powell, Margaret Grainger. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    Conant, James. Introduction. Words and Life. By Hilary Putnam. Ed. James Conant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. xi-lxxvi.

    Crowther, Paul. The Kantian Sublime: From Morality to Art. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.

    Curtis, William. Flora Londinensis. London: B. White, 1777.

    Desmond, Ray. A Celebration of Flowers: Two Hundred Years of Curtis's Botanical Magazine. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens, 1987.

    ---. Dictionary of British and Irish Botanists and Horticulturalists, including Plant Collectors and Botanical Artifacts. London: Taylor and Francis, 1893.

    Eley, Geoff. "Nations, Publics, and Political Cultures: Placing Habermas in the Nineteenth Century." Habermas and the Public Sphere. Ed. Craig Calhoun. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1992. 1-48.

    Ferguson, Frances. Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation. New York: Routledge, 1992

    "Forum." PMLA 112 (1997): 257-286.

    Goldsmith, Steven. "Blake's Agitation." Rhetorical and Cultural Dissolution in Romanticism. Ed. Thomas Pfau and Rhonda Ray Kercsmar. Spec. issue of South Atlantic Quarterly 95.3 (1996): 753-96.

    Guyer, Paul. Kant and the Experience of Freedom: Essays on Aesthetics and Morality. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1993.

    Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Trans. Thomas Burger. Cambridge, MA: MIT P, 1989.

    Henrich, Dieter. Aesthetic Judgment and the Moral Image of the World: Studies in Kant. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1992.

    Kelley, Theresa. Wordsworth's Revisionary Aesthetics. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.

    Kent, Elizabeth. Flora Domestica, or the Portable Flower-Garden. London: Taylor and Hessey, 1823.

    Kinzie, Mary. The Cure of Poetry in an Age of Prose: Moral Essays on the Poet's Calling. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

    Korsgaard, Christine. Creating the Kingdom of Ends. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996.

    ---. "Taking the Law into Our Own Hands: Kant on the Right to Revolution." Reclaiming the History of Ethics: Essays for John Rawls. Ed. Andrews Reath, Barbara Herman, and Christine Korsgaard. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997. 297-328.

    La Vopa, Anthony J. "Conceiving a Public: Ideas and Society in Eighteenth-Century Europe." Journal of Modern History 64 (1992): 79-116.

    Lyotard, Jean-François. Lessons in the Analytic of the Sublime: Kant's Critique of Judgment, sections 23-29. Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg. Stanford: Stanford UP, 1994.

    Mackay, David. "Agents of Empire: The Banksian Collectors and Evaluation of New Lands." Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature. Ed. David Miller and Peter Reill. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 38-57.

    Martin, Biddy. "Teaching Literature, Changing Cultures." PMLA 112 (January 1997): 7-25.

    Miller, David. "Joseph Banks, Empire, and 'Centers of Calculation' in late Hanoverian London." Visions of Empire: Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature. Ed. David Miller and Peter Reill. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1996. 21-37.

    Morrison, Toni. "Unspeakable Things Unspoken: The Afro-American Presence in American Literature." Michigan Quarterly Review 28.1 (1989): 1-34.

    Morton, A. G. History of Botanical Science: An Account of the Development of Botany from Ancient Times to the Present Day. London: Academic P, 1981.

    Pascoe, Judith. "Female Botanists and the Poetry of Charlotte Smith." Re-visioning Romanticism: British Women Writers. Ed. Joel Hafner and Carol S. Wilson. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1994.

    Polwhele, Richard. The Unsex'd Females: A Poem 1798. Ed. Gina Luria. New York: Garland, 1974.

    Putnam, Hilary. Words and Life. Ed. James Conant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994.

    Putnam, Hilary and Martha Nussbaum. "Changing Aristotle's Mind." Words and Life by Hilary Putnam. Ed. James Conant. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1994. 22-61.

    Rorty, Richard. "Putnam on Truth." Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 52 (June 1992): 415-19.

    Shtier, Ann. Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora's Daughters and Botany in England, 1760-1860. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1996.

    Smith, Charlotte. The Poems of Charlotte Smith. Ed. Stuart Curran. Women Writers in English Series. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

    Thom, Martin. Republics, Nations and Tribes. London: Verso, 1995.

About this Page

Published @ RC

August 1999