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  • 'Offspring of his Genius':Coleridge's Pregnant Metaphors and Metamorphic Pregnancies
  • Kiran Toor

One might make a very amusing Allegory of an embryo Soul up to Birth! –
Try! it is promising!

Coleridge, Notebooks , ii. 2373 1

In October 1726, Mary Toft of Godalming in Surrey reportedly gave birth to seventeen rabbits. Toft claimed that during her pregnancy she had been startled by a rabbit in a field and that the experience had so forcefully impressed her thoughts thereafter that it subsequently deformed the child in her womb.2 Of course,the incident was eventually revealed to be an elaborate hoax, but not before many of London's most eminent physicians were thoroughly taken in by it. In the early eighteenth century, the phenomenon of maternal impressions emerged out of therealm of folklore and into a central topic of embryological discussion, owing primarily toa high profile dispute between two membersof the Royal College of Surgeons in London, namely Daniel Turner and James Blondel. In this essay, I would like to examine this dispute and to suggest how many of the issues that ensued from the two competing theories of generation became a submerged analogy for poetic creativity, and how Samuel Taylor Coleridge in particular might be said to have appropriated and crystallized many of the key issues of eighteenth-century embryology into his theory of imagination.


Mary Toft's claim, while certainly laughable on the face of it, riveted the attention of much of London. In his detailed account of the peculiar circumstances surrounding Toft's case and the public's willingness to believe it, Dennis Todd in Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England writes: 'the infinite Crowds that pressed around Toft were comprised of a number of intelligent, educated people […] many of them in fact trained in medicine, and they believed the truth of Mary Toft's account or at least were unwilling to set aside her claim without carefully considering it first' (Todd, 2). Toft's case was not the first to incite controversy over whether a pregnant woman's emotions, cravings, or imaginings could mark or deform her foetus. In fact, the eighteenth century was heir to a wide currency of such reports. Beginning with Aristotle and then Galen, the idea presented itself throughout the Renaissance obstetrics of Marsilio Ficino, Ambroise Paré, Paracelsus, Michel de Montaigne, even René Descartes.3 The concept of maternal imprinting, or 'maternal impressions' as it was more often known, held that the maternal imaginationat the time of conception or at any moment during pregnancy, be it influenced by something the mother dreamt or saw, played a particular role in shaping the foetus. The marks caused by the imagination ranged from [End Page 257] relatively common and insignificant birthmarks to more grossly disordered morphologies and monstrous births. In his 1573 treatise, Des Monstres et Prodiges, practicing surgeon Ambroise Paré compiled one of the most extensive anthologies of such cases from history. In one report, a woman suffering from a fever was advised to hold a live frog in her hand until it died. Retiring to bed with the frog and submitting to the embraces of her husband with the frog still tightly grasped, the woman gave birth nine months later to a baby with the face of a frog.4 Similar accounts were produced of mothers being terrified by fish or lobster and thereby producing scaly children; or incidents of alarm at seeing a bear or ape causing the mother to give birth to unusually hairy offspring. One case, purportedly witnessed by Hippocrates, bore testimony to a child 'as black as a moor' delivered of white parents as the result of the mother's intent viewing of a picture of an Ethiopian that hung in her bedchamber throughout her pregnancy (Paré, 38). Countless other instances were cited in which a pregnant woman's longing for certain food was believed to leave a birthmark in the shape of that food on the skin of the child. The sheer volume of this literature was immense, and while one may hasten to relegate the strange hold of maternal impressions to the quaint gullibility of an earlier age...


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pp. 257-270
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Archived 2009
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