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Pale Light: Natural Difficulties and Poetic Epistemology in the Enlightenment


Pale Light: Natural Difficulties and Poetic Epistemology in the Enlightenment explores the relationship between natural history and poetry, considered as rival sciences during the Enlightenment, and it explores the environmental ground out of which eighteenth-century aesthetics arose. Focusing on poetic treatments of the strangely ubiquitous phenomenon known as the ignis fatuus or will-o-the-wisp, I describe the development of a distinct poetic epistemology that valued a way of knowing paradoxically attentive to the permanence and power of the unknown. Tracing the numerous treatments of the ignis fatuus as a phenomenon that marked the limits of scientific confidence, I show how eighteenth-century poets constructed a distinct epistemology within the context of the New Science and the problems inherent in its protocols, such as the limits and distortions of the senses and the provisional nature of knowledge derived through inductive accumulation. Natural history in the British Enlightenment is characterized at once by an interest in these problems and by a waning attention to the ways in which objects like the ignis fatuus fracture the foundations of knowledge. In this context, the widespread poetic appropriation of difficult natural historical cases illustrates that eighteenth-century poetry not only attends to these fissures but also comes to lodge and develop in the niches they provide. I contend that a central experience of the Enlightenment was not knowing but rather not-knowing and that, by making palpable the limits and dilemmas of knowledge, poets cultivated an active form of negative epistemology.

My use of the ignis fatuus as a representative case highlights the predicament posed by the very use of cases as building blocks of general knowledge. I draw attention to the critical issues raised by the case study’s inductive procedures both as they relate to epistemological anxieties in the long eighteenth century and as they bear on my own methodological practices. These methodological reflections reveal how literary history’s adoption of the case study – and, with it, the ability to make connections between any particular literary artifact and larger formal categories or cultural processes – carries with it a specific set of epistemological problems as part of its Enlightenment inheritance.

My first chapter explores the central role of the faculty that Francis Bacon labels the “suspension of judgment,” – an ability to remain in a state of attentive uncertainty –within the New Science. In a detailed reading of natural historical treatments of the ignis fatuus across two centuries, ranging from essays in the Philosophical Transactions to lessons in pedagogical chapbooks, I show how the suspension of judgment, once a central methodological tenet of the New Science, became in practice an unspoken and often neglected epistemological state.

Chapter Two examines the ways that Abraham Cowley, John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and John Milton employ verse as a form of guidance and correction within the destabilized epistemological landscape of the late seventeenth century. Each poet deploys the ignis fatuus, counter-intuitively, not simply as a figure for the threat of vulgar superstition but as a sign of more unexpected dangers: learned authority (in Cowley), rational thought (in Rochester), and the very possibility and value of stable knowledge itself (in Milton).

In Chapter Three, I read James Thomson and Oliver Goldsmith, two poets not usually associated with epistemological disruption, in close proximity to the presence and power of not-knowing expressed in works such as William Collins’s “Ode to Fear” and “Ode on the Popular Superstitions of the Highlands.” Doing so brings into focus each poet’s use of verse not only as a space for exploring the problems surrounding how and what one knows but also a means by which such problems might be transformed into a practice of mobile attention. I argue that this mobile attention, which provides both the freedom and security found in the suspension of judgment, comes to characterize an increasingly distinct poetic epistemology.

Chapter Four focuses on the ways in which Anna Letitia Barbauld’s and Erasmus Darwin’s poetry unexpectedly complicates their own stated pedagogical intentions. I read their verse in relation to didactic texts for children and popular audiences in which treatments of the ignis fatuus are used to expunge rather than to induce states of suspended judgment, and I argue that while Darwin’s and Barbauld’s poems share many features of these popular didactic texts they also, often unexpectedly, revel in the experience of not-knowing.

In Chapter Five, I turn to a group of poets who actively embraced forms of epistemological disruption by seizing upon the figure of the ignis fatuus. Here I trace the use of the figure from Robert Burns’s humorous letters and poetry to John Keats’s disorienting Endymion, and from Keats’s remarks on the nature of poetry to John Clare’s poetry and prose. The late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century adoption of the phenomenon, often as a figure for poetry itself, and the increasingly explicit engagement with its epistemological stakes helps us to see Romantic poetry not as a radical departure from earlier orientations toward knowledge but as a means of preserving the epistemological self-consciousness that was once vital to the British Enlightenment. My epilogue uses Leigh Hunt’s essay “Fictions and Matters of Fact” (1825) as a final lens for viewing changing notions of poetry’s place in the wake of the Enlightenment.

The Appendix catalogues visual representation of the ignis fatuus in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and includes paintings, etchings, satirical prints, and book illustrations.

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