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Rethinking the Arts and Sciences: Institutional Movement and the Formation of Romantic Discourse


Rethinking the Arts and Sciences recovers a crucial and yet neglected history of Romantic involvement with the urban institutional infrastructures of their time. The project draws on research in urban Romanticism and Romantic sociability to intervene in the entrenched view that British Romanticism was a largely rural, individual endeavor, opposed to scientific progress and its institutional projects. In fact, one of these projects, arts-and-sciences institutions such as the Surrey Institution and the Royal Institution of Great Britain, formed a crucial set of venues for Romantic lecturing and sociability. While such research has successfully refocused scholarly attention on the prominent place of Romantic-era writers and artists in the early-nineteenth-century urban imaginary, that recognition has not been adequately registered at the level of our current scholarly treatment of Romantic writing on poetics and critical theory. Through archival research at the Royal Institution, I have been able to show that these urban spaces were not simply passive settings for communicating Romantic thought, they were instead playing a fundamental role in structuring it.

I claim that British Romantic thought is so tightly enmeshed in the network of arts-and-sciences institutions that sprang up in London from 1799 to 1808, that without understanding how these institutions functioned, we cannot adequately grasp how the Romantics imagined themselves as contributing to their own intellectual milieu. From its beginnings in the fine arts lectures of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Hazlitt, I track a Romantic institutional infrastructure as it adheres to the arts-and-sciences procedural demand that lecturers first elucidate the scientific “principles” of the subject in question, and then “apply” those principles on behalf of improving the arts. After delivering his courses at the Royal and Surrey Institutions, Coleridge would go on to adopt these arts-and-sciences lecturing procedures as the fundamental structuring feature in all of his major works on poetry, criticism, and the imagination, over the next ten years. In the Biographia Literaria, for instance, I show how Coleridge’s arts-and-sciences lecturing is largely responsible for the form of his definitions of poetry and the imagination, and even for the basic division between theoretical and practical criticism. This institutional discourse would also go on to structure key works of the second generation. Some would approvingly mimic arts-and-sciences lecturing procedures, as in Percy Shelley’s assertion toward the end of the unfinished Defence of Poetry that “the first part of these remarks has related to poetry in its elements and principles,” while “the second part,” alternatively, “will have for its object an application of these principles to the present state of the cultivation of Poetry.” Others, including Mary Shelley, appear to have seen a more ominous tendency in the institutional obsession with principles and application, and I conclude by showing how her portrayal of Victor Frankenstein’s search for what he calls the “principle of life,” along with his fateful application of it to that most profound of arts, the creation of a rational being, stands as perhaps the most severe Romantic critique of this broader institutional return to principle.

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