Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600–1740 by Lucinda Cole (review)
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Imperfect Creatures: Vermin, Literature, and the Sciences of Life, 1600–1740 by Lucinda Cole Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2016. viii+240pp. US$39.95. ISBN 978-0-472-05295-0.

According to James Boswell, a group of eighteenth-century literary lights, who had gathered at Joshua Reynolds's house one evening to hear James Grainger read from his poem The Sugar-cane (1764), burst into laughter when the poet began a new stanza, "Now, Muse, let's sing of rats." Although her book does not travel so far forward in literary history, Lucinda Cole's Imperfect Creatures offers fascinating contexts for understanding the presence and importance of "vermin" in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century British literature, with implications even for our present time. Cole's focus on often undervalued species, such as rats, fleas, and frogs, sets Imperfect Creatures apart from most other texts in animal studies, which generally focus on "more perfect" mammals (including [End Page 675] horses, dogs, apes, and cats) and their similarities with humans. Instead, Cole's study complicates such identifications and delights in the differences highlighted by "imperfect" creatures, demonstrating how these species can both challenge and help explain early modern subject/object, human/animal distinctions.

Examining both well-known and lesser-known early modern literary texts and scientific theorists, this book comprises five chapters, an introduction, and an afterword. While "vermin" proves a difficult and unstable category to define, Cole variously categorizes these species as small, noxious, vile, and, perhaps most interestingly and important to her project, associated with rapid reproduction and with threats to food supplies, and thus to agricultural and sociopolitical orders. Her introduction presents especially illuminating analyses of the flea in literature and art, explaining that John Donne's poem "The Flea" succeeds in producing humour and eroticism, rather than disgust and anxiety, because the flea is singular (one flea) and not a tormenting, disease-spreading multitude. In this vein, Cole additionally explores the genre of "Flea Searcher" paintings. Although she does not link these images to eighteenth-century literary texts, many relevant works spring to mind, so that her study may provide a framework for understanding some poets' uses of fleas, especially in association with women, in this era. Focusing on vermin's relationship to climate and disease, Cole's first chapter is particularly intriguing for its examination of contemporary notions of miasmatic theory, in which air is responsible for contagion. As rats die of plague, their fleas must find new hosts, thereby spreading the disease, while decaying rodent corpses contribute to the noxious, diseased air. Cole convincingly links this idea of rats spreading plague and foul air to her reading of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, in which she shows that the play's witches evoke ideas about their ability to transform into rats and frogs as depicted in contemporary art, science, and superstition. As Cole reveals, such associations between rats, witches, and the Devil desensitized English populations to the idea of likewise exterminating Turks and Jews as another form of "plague"-producing vermin who were dangerous to the body politic. Technologies developed to decimate vermin made possible certain modern abilities to conceive and perform acts of genocide. As emphasized in chapter 2, a key motivation in discovering technologies to control vermin populations was the preservation of food supplies. The threat of famine after vermin destroyed crops haunted the early modern English imagination and received literary treatment in poems such as George Wither's Britain's Remembrancer (1628) and Abraham Cowley's "The Plagues of Egypt" (1656). Authors' biblical references commonly imbued such literary texts with physicotheology and held the sinful human populations [End Page 676] responsible for divine punishments of vermin infestations leading to plague and famine.

Chapter 3 provides a close reading of Thomas Shadwell's comedy The Virtuoso (1676) and usefully points out ways in which the play satirizes the Royal Society, both in its pursuance of Francis Bacon's idea that the nature of things is best perceived in small things, as later exemplified in Robert Hooke's work in microscopy, and in its goal of clear and concise language. Demonstrating the play's tactic of collapsing differences between a...