Life: Organic Form and Romanticism

Life: Organic Form and Romanticism

by Denise Gigante

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What makes something alive?  Or, more to the point, what is life? The question is as old as the ages and has not been (and may never be) resolved. Life springs from life, and liveliness motivates matter to act the way it does. Yet vitality in its very unpredictability often appears as a threat. In this intellectually stimulating work, Denise Gigante looks at


What makes something alive?  Or, more to the point, what is life? The question is as old as the ages and has not been (and may never be) resolved. Life springs from life, and liveliness motivates matter to act the way it does. Yet vitality in its very unpredictability often appears as a threat. In this intellectually stimulating work, Denise Gigante looks at how major writers of the Romantic period strove to produce living forms of art on an analogy with biological form, often finding themselves face to face with a power known as monstrous.

The poets Christopher Smart, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats were all immersed in a culture obsessed with scientific ideas about vital power and its generation, and they broke with poetic convention in imagining new forms of “life.” In Life: Organic Form and Romanticism, Gigante offers a way to read ostensibly difficult poetry and reflects on the natural-philosophical idea of organic form and the discipline of literary studies.

Editorial Reviews

The British Journal for the History of Science

"Gigante succeeds nonetheless in introducing the fruitful and highly suggestive concept of an epigenesist poetics."—John Holmes, The British Journal for the History of Science

— John Holmes

The Wordsworth Circle

"Gigante''s book is marvelously lucid and accessible, a brand of scholarship that matches rigorous textual historical analysis with a style of consistently transparent argumentation...Gigante offers intimate, tightly knit series of close readings that evidence how the legibility of life can only be grasped as a compelx process of poetic formalization."--Jacques Khalip, The Wordsworth Circle

— Jacques Khalip

Harold Bloom

"The idea of the organic has troubled critics from Coleridge through Walter Pater on to their modern scholars. Denise Gigante's Life brings extraordinary clarity and renewed force to this traditional perplexity."—Harold Bloom

Karl Kroeber

"Life develops an important subject with much persuasive force, making use of extensive and careful research. It demonstrates that concepts of 18th-century vitalistic biology are essential to understanding the forms of major Romantic poems."—Karl Kroeber, Columbia University

Michael Wood

"Moving gracefully from Smart's animals to Keats' magnetic monsters, this brilliant book asks what the Romantic poets—or anyone—might mean by the deep and easy word 'life.'"—Michael Wood, Princeton University

The British Journal for the History of Science - John Holmes

"Gigante succeeds nonetheless in introducing the fruitful and highly suggestive concept of an epigenesist poetics."—John Holmes, The British Journal for the History of Science

The Wordsworth Circle - Jacques Khalip

"Gigante's book is marvelously lucid and accessible, a brand of scholarship that matches rigorous textual historical analysis with a style of consistently transparent argumentation...Gigante offers intimate, tightly knit series of close readings that evidence how the legibility of life can only be grasped as a compelx process of poetic formalization."—Jacques Khalip, The Wordsworth Circle

Studies in Romanticism - Nancy Moore Goslee

"Impressively broad in its interdisciplinary research and intrepid in its call to redefine our critical paradigms, Gigante's book is also lucidly readable in its arguments. . . . This provocative, fascinating, and beautifully written study deserves our careful attention both for its subtle and powerful uses of history and its claim to transform the future of Romantic studies."—Nancy Moore Goslee, Studies in Romanticism

Library Journal
The question "What is life?" was a major obsession shared by the British romantic poets, writing from 1760 through 1830, and the scientists of that era. In this carefully researched study, Gigante (English, Stanford Univ.; Taste: A Literary History) analyzes four difficult poems from this period, linking their content and form with the biological theories of the time. Discussing Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno," she points out the similarity between his poetic organization, from small to more complex forms, and the progression found in organic life. Gigante urges readers to approach William Blake's "Jerusalem" as a whole rather than analyzing the parts separately, noting his "open organic form." Considering two later poems, she discusses the organic process carried to excess. The featured characters in Percy Bysshe Shelley's "The Witch of Atlas" and John Keats's "Lamia" are too beautiful, too dangerously attractive and are thus examples of romantic monstrosity, organic form gone too far. VERDICT For scholars with an interest in the British romantics, Gigante brings fresh interpretations to these perplexing poems.—Nancy R. Ives, SUNY at Geneseo

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Yale University Press
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New Edition
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5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)

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Life Organic Form and Romanticism


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2009 Denise Gigante
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-13685-2

Chapter One


A poem may be quite nice and elegant and yet have no spirit.... Spirit in an aesthetic sense is the animating principle in the mind. -Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment

Romantic poets and makers of all sorts-from the philosophical to the fictional, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Victor Frankenstein-were in quest, literally, of the principle of life. Such a principle or power, whose permutations were many, promised to relieve "the burden of the mystery" by explaining "the mystery of life." We are all too familiar now with the latter phrase; the former (for which Keats had a particular fondness) derives from Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey," in which the speaker enters that "blessed mood" when "the breath of this corporeal frame, / And even the motion of our human blood" seem suspended, and we "become a living soul." What might this mean: to become a living soul? For Wordsworth, as for others, it was above all a condition of power, when "with an eye made quiet by the power / Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, /We see into the life of things." The result of aesthetic concentration is the animation of the soul, the part of us that rises from corporeal slumberto penetrate the life of things. But what, then, is life?

The question is asked a thousand times in a thousand ways by all the major British Romantic poets writing in the period from 1760 through 1830. Shelley, who died before he could finish "The Triumph of Life," left the question dangling at the end of that last major work: "'Then, what is Life?' I said ... the cripple cast /His eye upon the car which now had rolled / Onward, as if that look must be the last, /And answered ..." (ellipses in original). How the cripple responds is of no consequence. The question remains fundamentally unanswered and, for the poet seeking wisdom in mangled forms, perhaps unanswerable. "We are struck with admiration of some of its transient modifications," Shelley wrote of life in a notebook of 1819, "but it is itself the great miracle" (SPP 505). The ephemeral configurations of a power known as life could be discerned in its material forms, the result of a transcendent power named variously Lebenskraft, Bildungstrieb, vis essentialis, and vis vitae, to give a few of the linguistic constructs most popular at the time. Life was a version of power, and power was life. That was all the Romantics knew perhaps, but not all they needed to know. For unlike the other terms we are accustomed to seeing in that equation-Beauty and Truth-power is fearsome, and life, for most mortals, in need of control. To perceive beauty as a harmony of parts may be one thing, but to see living form as a harmony of power (or powers) is to risk the object's slipping out of representation, and hence out of imaginative control. As the Romantics recognized, power, even when in balance, is still power, and the slightest alteration in circumstance or environment could set that power in unpredictable motion.

European writers across the intellectual and historical field that fell somewhere between God and cellular biology could find no escape from the conundrum of life conceived as power: the unifying principle of organic form. Just as beauty was conceived as "multëity in Unity" (Coleridge's phrase), life became defined in similar terms as "unity in multëity" (CCW 11.1.369; TL 510).What the exchangeability of these definitions of life and beauty suggests is that once life was viewed vitalistically as power, science and aesthetics confronted the same formal problems. This, in a nutshell, is the rationale for treating literary works of the Romantic period, particularly some of the more seemingly formless ones, within the wider context of organicism as an interdisciplinary field responding to the problem of life. Despite decades of historical challenge to the rubric of Romanticism as a shared intellectual project, the writers discussed here were all committed to defining and representing the incalculable, uncontrollable-often capricious, always ebullient-power of vitality.

Although Romantic life science, obsessed with the idea of life as power, has been considered a dubious episode in the history of science, it made possible the analogy between aesthetic and biological form upon which we still rely. In the early nineteenth century scientists still did not know that mammals develop from a zygote, or fertilized egg, nor that this particle was capable of generating the entire organism through the processes of division and differentiation. Generation and reproduction, or the production of creatures and parts of creatures, marked a threshold in natural science that neither chemistry nor the mechanistic physiology of the previous century could cross. The unique properties of living form became the subject of much debate, and, as M. H. Abrams has recounted, they consisted of unity, vegetation (or growth), assimilation, internal design (or self-generation), and the interdependence of parts. Such properties are also sometimes conceived as a triad (assimilation, reproduction, autonomy) or as a binary (generation and reproduction). However grouped, they tend to imply agency and autonomy. Yet, even for Coleridge, on whom subsequent ideas of organic form have been based, living or organic form was never equivalent to undifferentiated unity. Instead, the unpredictable vitality of living form, its very liveliness-protean, procreative, for some terrifying-served as a model for "genuine" art.

Vitality was, to be sure, the mark, the distinguishing feature, of Romantic aesthetics. When William Hazlitt took up his pen as a knight of "the Round Table" in The Examiner, he insisted that a work of art must have "the internal character, the living principle in it" since without this it is merely "a smooth surface, not a warm moving mass" (HCW 4:77). Any authentic work of art must seem alive: it must contain the living principle that characterized what was called living form. A year later, in Biographia Literaria (1817), Coleridge defined the imagination as the "living Power and prime Agent of all human Perception," declaring that "could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art" (BL 1:304, 2:83). Like works of nature, aesthetic products conceived as living form could not be mechanically constructed through rule and line. Nor could they be reproduced. "The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a pre-determined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material," Coleridge wrote, "as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form on the other hand, is innate. It shapes, as it developes itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one & the same with the perfection of its outward Form. "Nature provides the model for the artistic genius, whose products are formal expressions of a power that was purposive but not necessarily intentional. "Such is the Life," Coleridge explained, "such the form" (CCW 5.1:495). By syllogistic logic it would follow: such is the power, such the form. Yet too much power, or power potentially unhinged or gone awry, lay forever on the horizon of Romantic vitalism.

As the concept of vital power sparked a preoccupation with self-generating and self-maintaining form, it quickened the category of the aesthetic, elevating natural researchers into natural philosophers attempting to account for a mysterious power buried deep within the structures of nature. Life scientists focused on the dynamics of organic form in an effort to explain how form emerged and maintained itself, despite the physical laws of an environment that worked, meanwhile, to reduce it to its constituent parts. Aesthetic theorists and practitioners alike focused on the vitality of form, which from the 1790s on had been imbued (by way of Kant's critique of aesthetic and teleological judgment) with the Aristotelian notion of purpose. Yet the problem with the merger of science and aesthetics at the turn of the nineteenth century boiled down to the following: while the sublime object always threatened to exceed formal constraints, when it slid from theory into praxis, from imagined into actual, animated power, it could also slide out of the sublime and into a distinctly Romantic version of monstrosity.

As long as life was preformed, as earlier Enlightenment science had held it to be, all aberrations from standard patterns (embryological deformities, monstrous births) could be interpreted as static manifestations of evil, material signs of God's judgment within a greater divine plan. Organic development was a stable, ongoing process of unfolding that plan, and God took responsibility for any wayward forms of life that might be considered monstrous. Yet once life came to be seen as power, monstrosity came to represent life's relentless fecundity and "the monstrous" a mode of uncontainable vitality. It is striking that most scientific works on generation from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led inevitably to meditations on monstrous generation. Because what could grow and generate living form could also change, it ran the risk of going "wrong" in the developmental process-or at least of going its own way. The problem with Romantic organicism as it is traditionally understood on the idealist model is that it leaves out the dynamics of power underwriting unexpected forms of both nature and art. This book takes up poems by Christopher Smart, William Blake, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats that seem to defeat their own formal and allegorical structures. In truth, I have had trouble convincing some readers that the first poem discussed, Smart's Jubilate Agno, is even a poem, much less a Romantic one. My purpose is to provide a methodology for reading these seemingly "formless" forms as manifestations of an epigenesist poetics, a sadly awkward phrase that will nevertheless serve us well in reading these somewhat awkward poems. Yet before undertaking such a venture, it is necessary to clarify precisely what was meant by the natural-philosophical term epigenesis.


Aristotle, who formulated the first significant theory of epigenesis, had no microscope with which to investigate living organisms. Originally, the concept stood for a gradual, internally motivated process of morphogenesis, commencing from what we might call an epicenter. The matter making up the ancient world was readily disposed to taking on life-or form or soul. (In Greek these terms were interchangeable, and the ideas were not distinct.) Unorganized but inspirited matter thus had the capacity to produce living, or organic, forms de novo. Following Aristotle, William Harvey's treatise On Animal Generation (1651) provided the first major study of generation in the modern period, and in it the scientific revolution ran up against the ancient idea of vitalism. Harvey's empirical methodology and sense of the human body as a hydraulic machine were here put in dialogue with the inexplicable: an invisible living principle. Standing at the crossroads of ancient animism and an orthodox creationism based on the Bible, this work proposed something that had never been heard before: omne viva ex ovum (all life from an egg), as the Latin epigraph to his treatise on animal generation read. Of course, what Harvey meant by egg (ovum) is unclear since this was more of a conceptual category than a distinct, anatomical particle. But by overturning the received wisdom that viviparous (producing living young) rather than oviparous reproduction was the model for all organic growth, Harvey, who paradoxically clung to the ancient concept of epigenesis, enabled a competing theory of generation that was more amenable to the Christian worldview. This was called preformationism, a doctrine according to which God, the omnipotent creator, makes the design for each species.

According to the age-old theory of epigenesis, by contrast, the male animal of each species implants the soul (essence, vital principle, form) into embryonic matter provided by the female. Then, "as soon as it has been formed," Aristotle noted, "a thing makes itself grow" by incorporating new, unformed material into its substance and shaping it to its own ends. Harvey adhered to more rigorous modern standards of evidence, but he too believed that an unspecified "vital principle" was the teleological cause by which an animal makes itself out of nonliving matter. Timothy Lenoir helpfully explains such teleological causality as "cause and effect ... so mutually interdependent that it is impossible to think of one without the other, so that instead of a linear series it is much more appropriate to think of a sort of circular series, A->B->C->A," in which the first cause is also the last. Harvey contrasted this theory of generation per epigenesin to the alternate model of generation per metamorphosin, whereby "forms are created as if by the impression of a seal, or, as if they were adjusted in a mould"; as he put it, "An animal which is created by epigenesis attracts, prepares, elaborates, and makes use of the material, all at the same time; the processes of formation and growth are simultaneous." The distinctive biological processes of generation and vegetation, through which organic matter takes on and maintains a specific form, thus relied on powers that were only suspected to be present and whose autonomy was potentially in conflict with an all-powerful Christian God.

Not surprisingly, when the idea of self-shaping substance came face to face with the Christian view of creation as a divine fiat, a counter-theory of generation emerged. Based on Harvey's work, this theory, known as preformationism or evolution (from the Latin evolutio, "to unfold"), held that God had premade all forms of life at the time of the Creation, and these forms simply awaited their proper time and place in the universe to begin the process of embryonic unfolding. Harvey had described how a chick takes shape gradually inside an egg, but when his Italian contemporary Marcello Malpighi repeated his experiments with a better microscope than Harvey's, he announced that what his English peer had failed to see during the first three days of incubation-already formed parts of the chick-had been present all along. Malpighi claimed to have observed these embryonic parts prior to the appearance of the famous punctum sanguinum (point of blood), traditionally thought to initiate the heartbeat and other vital processes. He did not explicitly say that these parts were preformed, or that they had somehow preexisted since the biblical Creation, but his work provided the basis for ovist preformation theory: a blueprint model of generation in which God produced the design for each species.

Such a scenario included no room for unexpected change or invention. Regardless of whether what preexisted in the egg was design or an actual miniature of the animal, advocates of preformation considered generation a mechanical realization, by way of nutrition, of already articulated parts. One can see how this theory lent itself readily to both the mechanistic physiology and the taxonomic approach to nature common within the European scientific community. Naturalists sought to identify and classify given structures, determining how these worked as parts in the natural world, how they related to one another and to the larger machine of the universe. Bit by bit, they were able to accumulate natural knowledge and piece it together, though any view of nature achieved through this means was necessarily flawed-or rent, since the seams between discrete epistemological units were not continuous. Still, the model was self-contained, and the natural researcher did not have to account for matter with the capacity to rise up suddenly from its predetermined place in the whole and take on original, possibly unexpected, forms. The emphasis was on analysis, not synthesis, of the creaturely world.

When in 1671 the Italian scientist Francesco Redi demonstrated that living creatures which had seemed to appear out of the blue in putrid matter were the result of eggs laid by flies, he finally laid to rest the ancient faith in spontaneous generation. Preformation theory ascribed all productive power to a transcendent maker, and natural historians and philosophers who supported this theory worked to wipe out all remaining vital sparks and spirits from the legitimate sphere of Enlightenment science. Throughout the eighteenth century these lingered metaphorically, but they had become associated with a more primitive, superstitious age. Starting in the 1740s, Marc J. Ratcliff explains, "the natural experimental laboratory-with several microscopes at its center, surrounded by a profusion of tools such as glass jars, bottles, labels, scalpels ... began to acquire its distinctive modern physiognomy, of riotous life enclosed in a designated space. The many jars containing infusions, plants, insects, worms, batrachians, eggs, and the like exhibited the swarming of nature-but under the control of scientific instruments and subjected to the naturalist's gaze." The obvious fact to which the abundance of scientific instruments paid tribute, of course, was that such control was extremely precarious.


Excerpted from Life Organic Form and Romanticism by DENISE GIGANTE Copyright © 2009 by Denise Gigante. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Denise Gigante is associate professor of English, Stanford University, author of Taste: A Literary History and editor of The Great Age of the English Essay: An Anthology, both published by Yale University Press.

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