Romantic Science

This special RÊVE collection dedicated to Romantic science takes a closer look at the relationship between Romantic poets and scientific objects. Whether the Romantic reader or spectator is looking through the lens of Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Telescope, or gazing at “a shield blazoned with three scallop shells” (Erasmus Darwin’s Armorial Bookplate, “E Conchis Omnia”), whether he or she is flipping through the pages of John Keats’s Anatomy Notebook or Erasmus Darwin’s The Temple of Nature, listening to “Mary’s Ghost or the Favorite Anatomy Song”, mimicking the rotating movement of John Bonnycastle’s Planetarium or staring at Erasmus Darwin’s Artificial Bird, the experience is altogether revolutionary.

Through the prism of every one of these objects, the Romantic viewer is caught in a whirlwind of discoveries where each detail is living proof of how much the Romantics were eager to embrace progress no matter how fast the world was changing. Why? Because the Romantics’ fascination for science was both inherently linked to their approach to material culture as well as to their theories on the imagination. When it became obvious that the ancient cosmos was about to be entirely perturbed by the advent of a new planet – Herschel’s discovery of Uranus in 1781 –, when medical investigation and the “anatomisation of the body” were to provide writers with an excuse to explore the spectrum of every living organ, science slowly transformed into an art form and thus a powerful tool for anything remotely creative. Aside from metaphorically dismembering the different parts of a ballad or a book, the poet-scientist dissected every fragment in order to open up new pathways into enhanced forms of perception (“see[ing] through the illusionary fragmentation of the world”). In addition, science inspired the Romantics to produce a more exploratory music amplified by their sense of vision; and yet, with it, came the ghosts, the fear of darkness or ignorance forever compensated by the thrill of experimentation.

This collection tries to reproduce all the different aspects of that scientific excitement which is so specific to the Romantic spirit. Every exhibit displays some kind of enigma, mystery or equation which remains to be solved, reminding us that the most uncanny features of science such as they are embodied by Romanticism might change our perspective on that class of the frightening when it is thus presented as terribly entertaining.