Five Questions: Rosalind Powell on Perception and Analogy

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Rosalind Powell is a senior lecturer in eighteenth-century English literature at the University of Bristol. She has research interests in literature and science, religious poetry, botany and classification, psalms and biblical paraphrase, and didactic literature. Her second book, Perception and Analogy: Poetry, Science, and Religion in the Eighteenth Century, which we discuss below, was published by Manchester University Press in November 2021.

1) How did you come to realise you wanted to write a book on perception and analogy?

The project on analogy began as an offshoot from my doctoral work on Christopher Smart, during which I spent a happy term exploring religious analogies in the alphabetical lists in Smart’s Jubilate Agno and Joseph Butler’s Analogy of Religion. Smart’s spectrum of colours – running from white and silver through to ‘pale’ and posited as an alternative to Isaac Newton – signalled that colour and optics could be sites of interest for thinking more about the relationship between religion and science. Coming back to analogy and optics in 2014 for a short-term fellowship at the Clark Library, I began to think about analogy more broadly in terms of its positive, often practical applications within optics and beyond. I also began to engage the discipline of literature and science more generally through my own reading and through the British Society for Literature and Science. So, as well as looking for examples of the resistant modes of creative comparison that gesture towards the spiritual foundations of material phenomena – such as the common trope of gravity as the operation of God’s love and habitual connections between light and knowledge – I also began to track how analogies occur in literary and scientific texts as a productive tool for modelling new ideas about new and unseen phenomena. From this, I began to build up a catalogue of comparisons from a range of sources, including poems, natural philosophy textbooks, and theological works.

2) To what extent do you see poetry and natural philosophy as cohering and cooperating in framing perception?

Perception is everywhere in eighteenth-century topographical poems! These are interactive texts, where the reader is frequently asked to look at landscapes and skyscapes and to focus on particular phenomena. Narrators present scenes at daytime, at nightfall, and even in foggy conditions, all of which affect the perceptual experience. Poets like Elizabeth Carter, Anna Letitia Barbauld, and David Mallet also use imaginative flight to incorporate the solar system into the perceptual field. The same kind of active perception can be found in natural philosophy, in part because of the prevalence of John Locke’s theory of knowledge that brings sensory experience to the forefront. And in popular representations of Newtonianism, acute perception becomes a shorthand for the kind of knowledgeable perception that permitted Newton to establish laws of optics and motion and to communicate those laws to others.

Steven Shapin’s concept of ‘virtual witnessing’ to describe writing that conjures up an experimental scene so that reading itself becomes a validating act of witnessing is attractive to literary historians of science because it provides a bridge between the descriptions of experimental observations in natural philosophical texts and the techniques used to prompt active imaginative engagement in creative and didactic texts. I have adapted Shapin’s virtual witnessing to a concept of ‘seeing scientifically’, which frames topographical poems and the educational dialogues common in this period as training readers’ ability to interpret the material nature of things and to recognise the laws and forces that govern them, both through observation and through tactile engagements with models such as orreries and globes.

I’m also interested in how perception itself is understood and represented across different genres. This interest developed out of a realisation that analogies connecting knowledge to light (the subject of the book’s second chapter) are complicated by attention to individuals’ own sensory experience.  The second half of the book looks at the attempts of natural philosophers, anatomists, and ophthalmologists to model perception through attention to the functions of the sensory organs and the nervous system. Strikingly, poets are also interested in processes of perception: Richard Blackmore, Henry Brooke and others draw on up-to-date natural philosophy and philosophy to describe how the senses and nerves work and to think about the interactions of different senses. Richard Jago even interrupts his topographical descriptions in Edge-Hill (1767) with a sentimentalised story about cataract surgery and recovered sight. These developments also register a shift in the kinds of analogical thinking and tropes of light and knowledge, which are replaced in the works of Edward Young, Thomas Blacklock, and William Blake with models of the restrictive senses and body.

3) Your work recovers the important role of religious thinking in shaping the science of perception. What are the major benefits in restoring this connection to the picture?

My purpose in addressing physico-theological texts, such as William Whiston’s rewriting of the Genesis creation narrative according to Newtonian principles and William Derham’s exploration of design in natural and astronomical landscapes, is to understand how they combine scientific perception with belief, or, to put it another way, how the doctrine of revelation expands to accommodate scientific knowledge. Historians such as Rob Iliffe and Scott Mandelbrote have already done a great deal to re-establish Newton as a natural philosopher embedded in the religious and theological cultures of his day. In addition, Courtney Weiss Smith’s account in Empiricist Devotions (2016) of tropes that traverse the spiritual and the material has influenced my account of scientific seeing through analogy. My book emphasises the role of Christianity in the wider communication and cultural reception of natural philosophy in Britain as well as the productive dialogue that exists between theology and natural philosophy in the period. I also hope to show how literary scholarship can bring this important context into view by paying attention to tropes such as analogies and models. 

Analogies that figure gravity as God’s attractive love or the spectrum as evidence of divine artistry enable writers to explain concepts in familiar ways, to maintain a sense of scale, to incorporate unseen or obscure phenomena into the new scientific schema, and to provide an acceptable theological framework for advancing new scientific theories. I think that attention to this religious dimension helps us to understand the polite reception of natural philosophy more clearly, especially as it helps to counter a straightforward narrative of “Enlightenment” progress vs. Romantic rejection.

Cautions about the limits of human knowledge are seen everywhere – exemplified in Alexander Pope’s famous statement that ‘the proper study of mankind is Man’ (Essay on Man, 2.2). In Chapter 1, this restriction is figured through the contrast between an infinite universe and the limits of the senses and the imagination; by Chapter 5, this restriction is newly understood as vested in the body’s physical design. Finally, I also show how some natural philosophical developments prompt writers throughout the century to produce new and alternative accounts of revealed knowledge, such as John Hutchinson’s Moses Principia, Smart’s Jubilate Agno (which had to be included somewhere!), and the resurrection narratives of Blake, Young, and Jago.

4) The book explores a very wide range of different forms and genres of text. What for you were the greatest revelations as you gathered material for this project? Are there particular texts that you would be keen to commend to a wider audience?

It’s easy to see why very long poems such as Henry Brooke’s Universal Beauty and Richard Blackmore’s Creation are no longer popular – the poems are too bulky to teach and tricky to excerpt and reading them can be an experience that veers from laughter to frustration. But they are fascinating, too, not least for their inclusion of anatomical descriptions and philosophical questions amidst more standard landscape descriptions. It’s this juxtaposition that I have found most absorbing.

My thinking has been influenced by Abigail Williams’s recent work on communal reading, particularly when addressing educational dialogues aimed at bringing natural philosophy to a wider audience. These include John Harris’s The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Philosophy (1759-63) and Francesco Algarotti’s Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy Explain’d for the Use of the Ladies (translated by Elizabeth Carter in 1739). As well as being more teachable (in excerpts), these dialogues entertainingly demonstrate the two-way exchange of ideas between literature and science in the period: as well as explaining concepts through familiar domestic analogies, models (my favourite is a cut-out-and-build planetarium), and experimental demonstrations that the reader can replicate at home, they also integrate quotations from Akenside, Blackmore and others.

In the course of my research, as the objective model of perception I had encountered in early reading started to be dismantled, I also began to think more about the embodied nature of perception. The critical work of Chris Mounsey (especially his 2019 monograph Sight Correction), David Turner, and others in the field of disability studies has been vital in alerting me to ways of reading variability and sense perception in the period’s literature. The work of the blind poet Thomas Blacklock is certainly worth a read and ‘The Author’s Picture’ is a favourite of mine.

5) What new projects are you currently working on?

Following on from some of the work on science and subjectivity in Perception and Analogy, I’ve been working on a new project that looks at natural philosophers and physicians who experimented upon their own bodies and explores how they describe these experiments (examples include George Cheyne, William Stark, John Floyer and, of course, Humphry Davy). I’m also writing an article on Elizabeth Tollet’s physico-theological rewritings of biblical texts and, separately, reading a lot about hemlock.