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  • Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism by Dahlia Porter
  • Joel Gabriel Kempff
Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism. By DAHLIA PORTER. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018. Pp. vii, 293. Cloth, $99.99.

Dahlia Porter's Science, Form, and the Problem of Induction in British Romanticism is not only a study of Romantic compositional and publication practices but also the recognition of a formal and epistemological problem underpinning them: that is, how to make sense of an overabundance of information. Porter links a contemporary feeling of information hypersaturation, largely on account of the internet, to a similar Romantic-era feeling of information overload resulting chiefly from the proliferation of histories and periodicals; the flow of specimens, [End Page 219] accounts, and observations into museums and universities from across the globe; and the emergence of literary reviews and bibliographies. Adapting a remark by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (in a letter to John Thelwall of October 1797), Porter observes that Romanticism's diverse sources of information combined into "an immense and continually augmented heap of little things" (p. 20). Yet Porter's study is not about the accumulation itself but about attempts to manage it, specifically, in literature and with recourse to induction, a method for consolidating particulars of knowledge into general, holistic principles.

Porter's first chapter offers a history of induction, tracing how it gained prominence in seventeenth-century empirical philosophy with Francis Bacon and, over the course of the eighteenth century, migrated into diverse areas of study but was also problematized by David Hume, who questioned the processes by which local observations became larger truths. Emphasizing historical continuity over divisions of period or discipline, Porter's subsequent chapters focus on the moment circa 1800 when the inductive method became a basis for the creation of literary "composite orders"—works in which, "like oil and water, the constituent parts maintain a material separation rather than coalescing into a unified form" (p. 6). Porter is equally attentive to Romantic writers' concurrent anxieties about induction, especially about the potential lack of overall unity or coherence in the works thus composed.

The book is structured along axes of both conceptual thinking and compositional method, the latter as manifest chiefly in printed layout and format. Part 1 deals with the annotated poem as it grew out of the philosophical or didactic poem. In Chapter 2, Porter reads Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden (1791) and especially its first part, The Loves of the Plants (1789), as expressing a "commitment to a poetics methodologically parallel to, but functionally distinct from, the inductive method of experimental science" (p. 75). The decision to "demarcate fact from fancy, ratiocination from rhetorical flourish" on each page, Porter argues, "both materialized compositional process and exposed its gaps and fissures" (p. 106). Extending this "case studies" approach (p. 16), Chapter 3 examines how Robert Southey's long poems likewise employ prose annotations to charge the whole with a sense of informational capaciousness, and how in particular they replicate the tension in contemporaneous history writing between the inductive method of antiquarianism and "the comprehensive and synthesizing project of eighteenth-century conjectural history" (p. 115). Porter notes how, unlike Darwin, who ultimately wanted to solve the problem of disjunction between poetic and scientific discourses, "Southey actively cultivated the comic and satiric potential of disunity and disjunction, especially later in his career" (p. 141). A brief "Interlude" then surveys a multitude of verse-prose composites, including by Charlotte Smith, Sir Walter Scott, John Thelwall, and Percy Bysshe Shelley.

Part 2 turns to the educational prose fictions of Maria Edgeworth and Charlotte Smith and the essays of Coleridge. In Chapter 4, Porter shows that John [End Page 220] Locke's argument for the mind as a tabula rasa led Edgeworth and Smith to believe that "what children read—and most importantly the text's form and structure—would order or disorder the mind, with far-reaching, life-defining consequences" (p. 172). Not only lesson books but also children's fictions thus came to be rooted in and inviting of inductive method, including by their uses of the printed page. The presentation of poetry, in particular, became oriented...


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