On writing about the remarkable intersection of literature and science

guest post by Theresa M. Kelley

comp2.inddWriting Clandestine Marriage was fascinating for me. It was challenging, too, but above all, working on this book sharpened my interest in how literature meets, or sidles up to, science.  Here I want to talk about two examples from the book that present literature at work in ways that tell a good deal about the permeability between forms of thought, even those that seem so evidently distinct, like literature and science.

The first of these examples comes from Chapter 3, provocatively titled “Botany’s Publics and Privates.” This chapter ends with Erasmus Darwin’s The Botanic Garden (published in 1789 and 1791, and often reprinted afterward), a poem that delivers a wily mix of public science by toggling between the Linnaean taxonomic system and persistent reflections on the private loves between and affinities among plants. It is nearly impossible, after reading this poem, not to imagine plants as living beings. Just as remarkable is the way the poem creates a cascading slide of differences and similarities that works across its taxonomic argument and within the formal separation between the poem’s verse and its long scientific notes. As Darwin nudges the reader to think, in ways that Linnaeus would have found unacceptable, about how some plants look like lambs or insects or people, the poem plays havoc with our understanding of how a scientific note and a poetic verse are supposed to be different, as the “poet” says they are when he describes this poem to his “Bookseller” in one of the dialogues that Darwin puts between cantos of the poem. In the end, poems and notes become so conjoined in their efforts to think up and pursue different, surprising relationships between kinds of plants, and between plants and everything else, that the patient (or impatient) reader hardly knows where to turn.

The consequences of this formal disturbance are at once playful and serious. During the older Darwin’s lifetime (Erasmus was the grandfather of Charles), the effort to identify species and genera as fixed scientific locations for plants and animals was quite literally global. This effort was confounded by either the European discovery of new plants or animals (for non-Europeans who had long observed these plants and animals, the word “discovery” would have seemed silly), or, and this is really in the end the more exciting point, by the possibility that an animal or especially a plant could be said to have traits that belonged to other species and other genera. How, taxonomists asked, could you designate the species of a plant if it appeared to have affinities—cross relations—that seemed at least as important as those that were said to make the plant part of another species? What is fascinating about The Botanic Garden is the way the poem and its notes stage, in the very formal differences between notes and poetic verse, the loose and, as it were, cross-platform affiliations that Linnaeus’s system was supposed to anchor in one way and no other.


Rara avis, after Katherine Charteris Grey. In James Bateman, The Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala.

My second example occurs in Chapter 4, “Botanizing Women,” which explores the manner in which women both practiced botany in the Romantic era and were themselves botanized as attractive flowers: yet another way that the slide from people to plants has consequences. In this chapter, I describe the work of a woman who married into one of the most renowned families in the history of England, the Greys of Groby. Katherine Charteris Grey was herself unknown, except that some of her caricatures of orchids as birds, flies and other creatures, including the witches from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, were reproduced in James Bateman’s Orchidaceae of Mexico and Guatemala (1838-1843). What Bateman does not reveal is that these drawings are in fact pressed flower collages that use plant materials to create highly figurative, in the sense of poetically figurative, depictions of orchids that look like non-plant creatures. What does it mean to make matter—here, plant matter—the basis for poetic figure? I ask this question because we typically understand such figures to be non-literal—yet what could be more literal than the assemblage of plant matter that Grey uses to depict orchids and other plants? And what difference does it make that a woman—and, as it turns out, not the only woman of the long Romantic era to create botanical images out of things as well as on paper—chose to do this? I have continued to think about this in terms of an ancient and problematic (for women) relation between women and matter. Here, I speculate, some women chose to take charge of that relationship instead of being made subject to it.

Theresa M. Kelley is the Marjorie and Lorin Tiefenthaler Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is the author of Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture, published by the JHU Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Botany, General Science, Literature, Writing

One response to “On writing about the remarkable intersection of literature and science

  1. Pingback: The British Society for Literature and Science Book prize winner | The British Society for Literature and Science