Contributor: Tess Somervell
Location: Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland
Description: Lakagígar is a 27km-long volcanic fissure in Iceland. The name means ‘craters of Laki’, after Mount Laki, the highest point at the centre of the fissure. Lakagígar was formed through a huge eruption in 1783-4 that had massive environmental, social, and cultural consequences for Iceland and indeed the rest of Europe, and which leaves a record in early Romantic literature.
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Contributor: Caroline Bertonèche
Location: Keats House, Hampstead
Description: In 1815, John Keats (1795-1821) was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, in London, studying to become a surgeon. To prepare for his lectures, Keats bought a series of dissection manuals, The London Dissector, and Outlines of a Course of Dissections for the Use of Students at St. Thomas’s Hospital, which was published in 1815, the year Keats arrived at the United Hospitals; in 1820 it was enlarged under the title The Dissector’s Manual. Since Keats entered Guy’s Hospital during the transition period between The London Dissector and the Outlines, it is probable that he owned both; he would certainly have owned the latter, which was recommended by his professor, Sir Astley Cooper. Cooper also recommended two other texts to his students: Fyfe’s Anatomy, and Blumenbach’s Physiology. Aside from these manuals and a case of dissecting instruments, Keats owned a couple of notebooks. One of these notebooks was this Anatomy notebook, containing his notes of Cooper’s teachings on anatomy and physiology (12 lectures in total, including chapters entitled “On the Blood”, the “Arteries”, the “Nervous system” or the “Muscles”). Keats paid, at the time, two shillings and two pence for this leather-bound, unpaginated notebook, wrote his name in the inside cover and left a few blank pages in the middle. The notebook is now part of the Keats House collection in Hampstead. It is being displayed open in a glass case at one of the most fascinating, and most famous, pages: the twenty-seventh page, where Keats drew some flowers in the left margin near a description of how to repair a dislocated jaw. This page therefore brings together Romantic poetry and science into intriguing relationship.
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Contributor: Caroline Bertonèche
Description: In 1781, when William Herschel, the British astronomer and musician who died in Hanover, Germany, in 1822 just a year after Keats’s death in Italy, discovered the new planet Uranus, Keats was not yet born. However, after his birth in 1795, it only took Keats a few years, around a decade or so, to discover the world of astronomy. In his Recollections of Keats by an Old School-Fellow, dated January 1861, his friend Charles Cowden Clarke recalls how Keats had learned about planetary movement and the architecture of the skies in boyhood. His teacher, John Rylands, used to introduce his students to the solar system by inventing games, a creative way of seeing the school playground as a place of experimentation and imagination where the boys could picture the heavens and build their own human orrery. Biographers are still unsure as to why exactly Keats was given John Bonnycastle’s work of popular science, An Introduction to Astronomy. In a Series of Letters from a Preceptor to his Pupil, originally published in 1786, and whether it was awarded to him in 1811 as a prize for one of his early essays or as a reward for his English translation of Virgil’s Aeneid – an epic project which he never quite finished. In the end, Keats only translated half of the poem, which for a young schoolboy was still a rather admirable accomplishment. From Latin poetry to Romantic astronomy, this example of Keatsian scholarship therefore makes for an interesting connection between Keats’s first translation of Virgil and George Chapman’s first translation of Homer (Keats had studied Latin but not Greek), which inspired the poet to write his now famous sonnet, ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’, published in The Examiner, on December 1st, 1816. By the end of the poem, the Romantic traveller will have paid tribute to many different European figures, both ancient and modern, including William Herschel, ‘the watcher of the skies’.
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Contributor: Sophie Laniel-Musitelli
Location: British Museum
Description: To his family’s coat of arms—a shield blazoned with three scallop shells—Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802) added the banner “E Conchis Omnia”, “everything out of shells.” When the clergyman Thomas Seward saw that motto, he wrote a satirical poem accusing Darwin of:
[…] renounc[ing] his Creator,
And form[ing] all things from senseless matter.
Great wizard he! by magic spells
Can raise all things from cockle shells (King-Hele 89).
Erasmus Darwin was indeed one of the first proponents of the gradual transformation of species. In his scientific treatises and poems, the progress of life-forms from rudimentary beings to complex species seems to take place outside divine intervention, through a natural aspiration towards greater perfection.
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Contributor: Alice Rhodes
Location: Wellcome Collection, London, UK
Description: This song sheet, titled “Mary’s Ghost or the Favorite Anatomy Song” and advertised as “being No 1 of The Ballad Singer, a Collection of Comical Comic songs,” started life as a poem, first published in Thomas Hood’s 1826 collection, Whims and Oddities. In Hood’s darkly comic ballad, and its musical setting by J. Blewitt, the eponymous ghost appears to her widowed fiancé to deliver the unfortunate news that she has been grave-robbed and that her material body is now scattered across the medical schools and laboratories of London. Together, Mary’s posthumous predicament, and the material afterlife of the poem itself, raise questions about the materiality or immateriality of body and text and about the relationship between dissection and collection which are as pertinent today as they were for late Romantic writers like Hood.
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Contributor: Elsa Cazeneuve
Location: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
Description: This document is a hand-coloured illustration of Herschel’s Grand Forty-Feet Reflecting Telescope, engraved by J. Pass for the 1819 edition of the Encyclopedia Londinensis (or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature), and featured in the chapter related to “Optics”. At the time, Herschel’s Forty-Feet Telescope was the largest in the world and cost over 4000 pounds, paid for by King George III. Its construction began in 1786, and was completed in 1789; the telescope was erected at Herschel’s home, near Slough. It soon became a touristic attraction and a scientific curiosity: people would travel all the way from Paris to admire this new wonder and some even likened it to the Colossus of Rhodes. Later on, the telescope was marked on the 1830 Ordinance survey map of the area. Unfortunately, Herschel’s last telescope would take years to demonstrate its worth, as it had to rotate very slowly to show various aspects of the heavens. William Herschel and his sister Caroline, who worked together, found that the telescope was difficult to set up and maintain and William’s son eventually had it dismantled in 1840. Interestingly enough, the dates of construction and demise of the forty-footer cannot but recall those of the Romantic era: Herschel’s grand telescope came to serve as a symbol of the unbounded Romantic imagination.
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Contributor: Caroline Dauphin
Location: Private collection
Description: Tracing the development of life from marine animalcules to humankind, through “millions of ages”, in heroic couplets: such was the daring project of The Temple of Nature, the last poem written by Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802). This original edition by Joseph Johnson matches the author’s ambitions: the poem was published in a large in-quarto volume, lavishly illustrated by Henry Fuseli. The size of the volume made it possible for the reader to admire all the details of Fuseli’s delicate frontispiece representing Urania lifting the veil of Nature. More accessorily, it also facilitated the reading of Darwin’s lengthy scientific footnotes.
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Contributor: Harald Hendrix
Location: Centro Dantesco dei Frati Conventuali, Ravenna [showcase]
Description: On May 27, 1865, in the small provincial town of Ravenna, a spectacular event occurred that made headlines all over the world, from New York to the East Indies. The mortal remains of one of the greatest poets that had ever lived, Dante Alighieri, were discovered after having been lost over some 350 years. Coinciding with the celebrations marking the sixth centenary of his birth — in Ravenna and well beyond, particularly in Florence — this remarkable event fueled unprecedented curiosity, coercing the local authorities to publicly exhibit Dante’s bones and the simple wooden coffin that had contained them for centuries. To such purpose this crystal showcase was used. During one month, from May 27 until June 26 1865, the public was allowed to see what remained of Italy’s national poet, an experience never to be repeated again. While satisfying the audience’s urge to establish a direct connection to a man as highly venerated as Dante was, the exhibition of his bones also revealed something about the cult of the author. As a consequence, this episode of hero worship signals a paradigmatic instance in a field where popular curiosity, scientific interest and concerns on heritage conservation meet and clash.
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Contributor: Bénédicte Prot
Translation: Susan Seth
Description: In 1819, in Paris, the Breton doctor René-Théophile-Hyacinthe Laennec (1781-1826) published De l’auscultation mediate, the first edition of the treatise in which he presented the results of several years of clinical research as well as the uses of a medical instrument which he had invented: the stethoscope. Placed at the centre of clinical practice, the new tool was to contribute to the development of pathological anatomy and refine the diagnosis of cardiac and pulmonary illnesses. Henceforward the doctor disposed of a means of exploration and a form of mediation which come from a different relation to the patient and render the sick body not only readable but also audible.
There is nothing less romantic, it might seem, than this wood cylinder which, admittedly under a different form, has become the attribute by which we recognise the doctor from the first glance… Yet on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Laennec’s treatise, let us see how the stethoscope was able to become a link between medicine and literature during the Romantic period.
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Contributor: Cian Duffy
Location: Falun, Sweden (60°35.56N’ 15°36.44’E)
Description: Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, Falun Mine, in Dalarna, Sweden, was, during the eighteenth century, one of the largest copper mines in Europe and a key locale for the development of mining technology. Many British Romantic-period travellers to Sweden wrote about visits to the mine and descents into its depths, although not Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97). Swedish visitors of note included the theologian and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) and the natural philosopher Carl Linnaeus (1707-78). However, Falun is probably now best known to scholars of the Romantic period as the setting for E.T.A. Hoffmann’s (1776-1822) story ‘Die Bergwerke zu Falun’ [The Mines at Falun] (1819), which Theodore Ziolkowksi, in his pioneering study German Romanticism and Its Institutions, describes as the ‘culmination’ of ‘the obsession with mines’ in German Romantic-period cultural texts (p. 55).
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