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Dometa Wiegand Brothers - The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy: On All Sides Infinity. Review by Kurtis Hessel

Wednesday, September 2, 2015 - 04:59

Dometa Wiegand Brothers. The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy:  On All Sides Infinity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). 216 pp. (Hdbk. and ebook, $90.00; cloth ISBN 9781137474339, ebook ISBN 9781137474346).

Kurtis Hessel
University of Colorado Boulder

The chiaroscuro framing of Joseph Wright of Derby’s A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery (ca. 1766), blending darkness and scientific revelation, captures the split nature of eighteenth-century astronomical fascination. The man of science guides an enthralled audience across a model of the solar system. From a lamp representing the sun in the orrery’s center, light spills through its cage of iron orbits onto the surrounding faces. Beyond the audience, once this light exceeds human attentiveness, it exhausts itself in shadows. So has our scrutiny long bound us to our universe, and it to us. This science of brilliance and obscurity at once inspires the empiricist to turn to his notebook, and the child to gape in wonder. As the nineteenth century progressed, that wonder proliferated publicly. Londoners in the spring of 1817 had their choice of two giant orreries to view, “The Eidouranion” and “The Grand Transparent Orrery,” whose operators promised to “charm the eye, elevate the mind, and connect the natural with the moral sense”[1] through their lectures on the “sublime science of astronomy.” [2] The scale of the apparatus exploded as the public increasingly looked to the stars (and their philosophical interlocutors) for knowledge and entertainment. And yet, even in the midst of this stellar mania, the reverential awe of the heavens persisted – that improbable intimacy between human lives and seemingly implacable heavenly bodies – captured, for instance, in the glinting of Coleridge’s “silent icicles, / Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.”

Dometa Wiegand Brothers’s The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy explores astronomy’s capacity during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to cross such orders of scale, linking interstellar, terrestrial, and personal discovery in the minds of scientists and poets alike. It seeks to elucidate the influence of astronomy on English culture, staking as its largest claim that the demystifying scrutiny astronomers brought to bear upon the heavens filtered even into poetic practice, that astronomy offered “a way of viewing the […] world” (5). In particular Brothers links this sort of scrutiny to the Romantic trope of internalization, arguing that the science trained its enthusiasts to ponder both outwardly and inwardly: “a mental journey outward is undertaken until ultimately the imagination can go no further and the narrator returns back to his corporeal frame of reference” (5). The night sky also inspires a characteristic “double fascination” in that it beguiles its devotees to empiricist demystification while also maintaining a wondrous inscrutability. Throughout Brothers assiduously reminds the reader that astronomy always unfolded in service of a maritime expansionist and colonialist context – that the “pure science” always served a practical interest, whether motivated by prize money offered by the British government to find a reliable means of determining longitude or by the navigational interest of the East India Trading Company.

The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy highlights figures and events familiar to historians of science (though perhaps less well-known to scholars of literary Romanticism) in order to narrate astronomy’s shifting reputation, charting the development from its early days of wonder at the enlightenment’s inception to the nineteenth century, when it finds its own penetrating scrutiny rebounding upon itself. The book traces a parallel development in changing conceptions of space and time, noting how astronomy laid waste to a timeless or eternal universe of fixed stars only to usher into being a universe of change, evolution, vast dimension and unthinkable longevity. Key events like the Transit of Venus (1761 and 1769) – an international scientific collaboration to record the second planet’s passage across the sun’s diameter from multiple terrestrial locations in order to gauge the distance between the earth and the sun – and the discovery of the planet Uranus (1781) serve as major milestones.

The first chapter opens on Edmund Halley’s and Isaac Newton’s establishment of an imperative in astronomy to lay bare the celestial motions in a systematic manner; it posits that their enlightenment legacy culminated in the international scientific community’s efforts to record the transit of Venus, an event depicted as having a variegated significance for astronomy, navigation, and empire. The second chapter considers astronomy’s influence on Anna Barbauld, arguing that her adoption of the “Greater Romantic Lyric” mirrors the outward-inward motion of astronomical investigation. The third chapter shows the influence of William Herschel’s theories about space and time on Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s thought as manifested in his poems “Coeli Enarrant” and “Limbo.” Brothers shows how Coleridge, drawing upon Herschel, conceives time spatially, not as a fixed sequence but as a field of possibilities, and likewise considers the universe as constantly in flux. The fourth chapter discusses John Herschel’s voyages and Mary Somerville’s popularization of calculus as nineteenth-century examples of public scientific proliferation. The book’s second half considers poets who reflect the astronomers’ scrutiny back on the science, whether this takes the form of Keats’s recognition of the destructive potential of knowledge (chapter five) or Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s rejection of stable systems of cosmology as reflected in Renaissance linear perspective (chapter six). In these readings, Keats’s “Lamia” becomes an astronomical allegory highlighting the volatility of scientific scrutiny, while Rossetti’s art and poetry seek to join and superimpose multiple cosmologies.

The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy offers to literary scholars a helpful primer for enlightenment astronomy mediated through poetic readings. Its scientific history, broadly conceived as it is, showcases major events and developments, suiting it particularly to the interests of literary critics. The book does seem, at times, to assign too much priority to astronomy for establishing in British science and culture an explanatory and systematizing logic. In fact, many other scientific and philosophical perspectives contributed to just such an imperative throughout the eighteenth century and before. As such, the “ways of seeing” here described may be more overdetermined than the book seems to allow, though this could be a rhetorical side-effect of this kind of monograph: focused as it is on one particular strain of knowledge it inevitably accumulates more priority to that focusing discipline than is historically due. This book shines in its literary close readings, which inventively attend to the host of significations words carry and throw light on astronomical references invisible to the uninitiated. Particularly compelling, the reading of Keats’s “Lamia” as embodying in its titular figure a lunar eclipse offers a fresh way of thinking about a figure and a poem whose science-minded interpretations have tended to focus on the life sciences. Furthermore, Brothers’s commitment to looking at the revision histories of poems, their emendations and excisions, dovetails with her narrative about astronomy’s own conceptual development towards a perpetually evolving universe. In a sense, she executes her poetic readings as localized cosmogonies – poems become small universes, evolving like Herschel’s nebulae. Overall, The Romantic Imagination and Astronomy offers innovative readings and a productive view of the emergence of astronomical ideas in Romantic period poetry.


[1] Advertisement, Morning Post and Gazetteer (London), March 29, 1817.

[2] Advertisement, Morning Post and Gazetteer (London), February 24, 1817.