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  • The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in Seventeenth-Century England by Claire Preston
  • Kathryn Walls
Preston, Claire, The Poetics of Scientific Investigation in Seventeenth-Century England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2015; hardback; pp. 320; 25 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. £60.00; ISBN 9780198704805.

As soon as science had become, for some, an all-consuming passion, scientists became the butt of satire. Partly for this reason, it is often assumed that poetic and scientific instincts are as distinct from each other as emotion is from reason. Claire Preston's monograph pulls the rug out from beneath this seductive but simplistic assumption. Invaluable for its knowledge (both of history and of all manner of primary texts), for its insight, and for its compelling textual analyses, it serves to show that C. P. Snow's notion of 'two [End Page 245] cultures' is inappropriate to the seventeenth-century phase of the so-called 'scientific revolution' in England.

I say 'in England', but the dust-jacket reproduces a detail from the depiction of a piece of turf by the great early sixteenth-century German artist Albrecht Dürer. Although it looks like a botanical illustration, it was (as far as we know) innocent of any overtly scientific purpose. But it is difficult to collapse the distinction between poetry (or art) and science without somehow admitting it in the first place. Preston avoids this trap. Her strategy is to investigate the 'poetics' of a range of texts, focusing on forms rather than themes. She acknowledges the standard prejudicial binaries only implicitly, by choosing works that by one route or another have a bearing upon what we think of as science.

She begins by debunking the standard accounts, derived from Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society, according to which Bacon and his followers rejected metaphor. As she observes, metaphor was essential not only to the communication of scientific results, but also to the thought processes of the scientist (raising, it seems to me, the exceedingly important question as to whether these two functions could ever be independent). Preston goes on to observe that experiments proceed as narratives, while the dialogue between scientists that gave meaning to their work was incipiently dramatic. The subject of the first chapter is Thomas Browne's Garden of Cyrus, a fascinating work that in its near-collapsing of natural and cultural realms (in both of which the 'quincunx' principle is displayed), epitomizes the period as Preston views it. Preston focuses not on Browne's content, however (she evidently expects her readers to be familiar with every work she discusses), but on his propensity for linguistic innovation, a propensity dictated by 'the philological and rhetorical difficulties arising from expanding knowledge and specification' (p. 46), difficulties that could otherwise be addressed only by the display of things in themselves. She follows in her second chapter with a study of Robert Boyle, focusing not so much on his equal productivity in the distinct (or supposedly distinct) fields of moral reflection and scientific investigation as on the 'established literary formats' (p. 81) and 'fictional self-consciousness' (p. 84) that characterize all his writing. Chapter 3 begins with the supposed spatial requirements of empirical work. Preston observes how the laboratory, even for one as wealthy and as well-connected as Boyle, tended to double as domestic space, and how the private and (quasi-theatrical) public functions of that space collided. She identifies what she calls the 'closet poem' as a generic product of this ambiguous context. But Preston is impressively alert to the precedents that determine literary forms — even where the subjects at stake seem to be novel. Preston moves from the image of the scientist home alone to the question of scientific collegiality. She points out it was only at Wadham College under John Wilkins that such collegiality was to be embodied (more or less literally) in her period. The reader is led inevitably [End Page 246] into the subject of Chapter 4, scientific correspondence and its specialized style whose supposed informality was governed by unstated rules designed to preserve harmony where disagreements could be of the essence.

Preston turns, finally, to what she calls the 'Scientific Georgic' — tracts on...


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