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Dahlia Porter, Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism. Reviewed by Jeanne Britton.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019 - 20:02

Dahlia Porter, Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018). 314 pp., 13 b&w illus. (Hdbk., $99.00; ISBN 97811084189420).

Jeanne Britton
University of South Carolina

Dahlia Porter’s illuminating and expansive study argues that visual elements of Romantic era pages reflect and shape the challenge of inductive reasoning. Porter’s book identifies some of Romanticism’s less pristine forms—its generic composites and verse-prose combinations—as foundational to the long-sought reconciliation between assembled details and comprehensive generalities, between empirical data and scientific truths.  The “problem of induction” is its inevitable failure to assimilate large collections of data into singular, coherent wholes. This study focuses on manifestations of this failure in the cacophonous, varied, and, in modern editions, frequently simplified pages of Romantic-era poetry. It charts new territory in uniting book history with the study of literary form, Romantic theories of cognition, the history of science, children’s literature, and pedagogical theory.

The book’s first chapter explains the seventeenth-century roots of the inductive method before discussing its formal and visible failures in the composites of poetry and prose, in which generic juxtaposition and dissonant page design signal the irresolvable tension between the accumulation of detail and the conceptual resolution that is induction’s aim. The book’s structure places equal emphasis on the roles of induction in composing and receiving texts. The first part’s two chapters focus on “making texts,” the appearance of the inductive method’s patterns in annotated verse (or “baggy blank verse poems” [7]). The second part’s two chapters shift to “making minds,” exploring the cognitive, pedagogical, and conceptual effects of composite genres that mingle poetic quotations in narrative and critical prose.

In Chapter Two, the tensions in Erasmus Darwin’s once-popular works raise questions about compositional method and page layout that guide following chapters. Central to Porter’s discussion of Darwin is not only the juxtaposition of verse and prose but also the distinct semantic registers of poetic and scientific language. Where Darwin’s scientific poetry manifests problems in scientific induction, Robert Southey’s antiquarian, historical verse reveals tensions in these disciplines’ underwriting assumptions—that accumulating data will lead to a coherent, assimilating narrative. Chapter Three demonstrates that poetic footnotes reveal Southey’s compositional process of accumulating—without coalescing—his inspirational, historical material. The book’s first “landing place” then expands the study’s range and addresses historical trends in printing and compositional practice; authors of annotated poems including Byron, Scott, and Shelley (plus the note-free verse of Keats) are here given brief but rewarding attention.

The book’s second part addresses the cognitive effects of composite texts and the pedagogical function of the verse extract. The fourth chapter examines relationships between verse and prose in pedagogical texts by the Edgeworths, Charlotte Smith, and Anna Laetitia Barbauld, focusing on varied uses of poetic extracts: the desultory modes of attention associated with the miscellany and the methodical minds Edgeworth and Smith sought to cultivate with verse embedded in narrative prose. Chapter Five reassesses long-standing issues in Coleridge scholarship—his “borrowings,” his synthetic thought—by looking to the printed details of his prose and exploring the opposition between his own use of quotations and his disparagement of prose extracts.  Here, the use of quotation cuts to the central tensions in the process of induction, but in a way that attempts to resolve its challenges: for Coleridge, Porter argues, the literary extract becomes an aphorism rather than evidence, as “a sententia that signifies beyond itself through the power of accumulated meaning” (245).

The second and final landing place gives a broader picture of printing practices in the very early nineteenth century. Porter identifies one of the era’s most enduring composites—Frankenstein’s creature—as “triply destined for misery. His mind is a miscellany, his philosophical origin an irresolvable ‘problem,’ his body the bastardization of empiricism” (259). Victor Frankenstein’s identification with “Tintern Abbey” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” indicates Shelley’s critique of their authors’ politics in 1816, by which time the radical mixtures of Lyrical Ballads have been “supplanted by the taxonomic structure of Poems in Two Volumes (1815) and the dull morality of The Excursion (1814).”

Throughout this meticulous and engaging study, Porter reminds us that these contributions—the generic dissonance between “the oil of verse and the water of prose” (7) and details that might be found in the margins of the printed page—are of course central to Romanticism’s traditional founding moment in the generic composite and prosy verse of Lyrical Ballads.  While many of the book’s strongest clams arise from its finest details, especially Porter’s succinct connections between page layout and broader cultural concepts, such as the shifting significance of quotations and the status of the excerpt, its overall argument is significant, convincing, and—given today’s continuous accumulation of data that resists coherence—quite timely.