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Desmond King-Hele. Erasmus Darwin and The Romantic Poets. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986. vii+294 pp. $29.95.

Students of Romanticism have always been well served by Desmond King-Hele. Quite apart from his earlier pioneering studies of Erasmus Darwin (which include a begin page 32 | back to top biography, a collection of letters, and a selection of writings), King-Hele’s Shelley: His Thought and Work is now in its third edition. The special character of King-Hele’s substantial contribution to the scholarship of the period has derived from his position beyond the academy of literature teachers (he is a Fellow of the Royal Society and a professional aerospace scientist), a situation which has afforded him some degree of detachment from the relentless institutionalization of “English” and its late “crises” of theory (I write from laggardly England). Unfortunately, it is the absence of an adequately worked out theory of critical practice and procedure that limits the usefulness of Erasmus Darwin and The Romantic Poets.

The scope of the book is extremely ambitious in attempting to cover both the names one would expect to meet (Blake, Byron, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley, and Wordsworth) and those one has probably only passed by en route to other things (Joel Barlow, Brooke Boothby, Thomas Campbell, Leigh Hunt, Eleanor Porden, Anna Seward, Mary Tighe, and others). The reading of this extensive body of primary literature in the hunt for verbal parallels must have been a considerable undertaking. And therein lies the problem. King-Hele states his critical procedure at the beginning: “ . . . I have concentrated more on apparent verbal echoes than on resemblances in ideas” (p. 1). In other words, his standard practice throughout the book is to compare passages from Darwin with passages from other writers and then to trace the verbal similarities. The results are highly variable and the author’s commentary too often lacking in development. For example, a “close” parallel might be given as a phrase drawn from Coleridge’s lecture on The Tempest: “sleep, which consists in a suspension of the voluntary . . . power” compared with one from Darwin’s Zoonomia “sleep; which consists in a suspension of all voluntary power” (p. 131). A “not-so-close” parallel would be admitted as Keats’ description of Madeline “And on her hair a glory, like a saint” compared with Darwin’s “A saint-like glory trembles round her head” from The Loves of the Plants (p. 241).

The above examples are, I think, an accurate representation of the book’s procedures although King-Hele is good humored enough to allow himself an occasional diversion from “the tedious business of tracing resemblances” (p. 132). However, it is difficult to be wholeheartedly generous with a critic who says such things as “Fire is the ruling motif of ‘The Tyger,’ so there are bound to be parallels with Canto I of The Economy of Vegetation which is all about Fire” (p. 47), or, on a more breathtaking level of generalization, “With The Loves of the Plants Darwin also succeeded in winning warm applause from the literary world for a long poem largely devoted to detailed descriptions of Nature, and particularly flowers. This success gave Wordsworth the inner confidence that he could do the same . . .” (p. 64).

So, what remains? Can we bypass King-Hele’s book pronouncing it theoretically outmoded and primitive in its literary judgments? Not just yet, I think. At the end of Erasmus Darwin and The Romantic Poets, King-Hele tells us that his book has been “an exercise in probability” (p. 274), and a footnote away is an equation for working out the probability of linguistic parallels (which he very unguardedly calls “influence”): “The overall probability of influence with n parallels, each of probability p, is {1- (1-p)”}. Thus, if p=0.2 (i.e. 20 per cent) and n=6, the overall probability is 1-0.86=0.74.” It is easy to scoff at this ready-reckoner for working out as complex a matter as intertextuality but it doesn’t quite get the rest of us off the hook of coming up with a definition of what constitutes a boundary or parameter of even the simplest type of intertextuality. It might be rewarding to examine King-Hele’s “exercise in probability” in the light of quite a different theory of literary probability such as the one presented in Douglas Lane Patey’s Probability and Literary Form: Philosophic Theory and Literary Practice in the Augustan Age (Cambridge University Press, 1984). In that book Patey says that Augustan authors “quite consciously demand of their readers certain procedures of probable inference; these procedures not only reflect contemporary thinking about the probable, but are embodied and dramatized in literary form; and the procedures of interpretation required, if these works are to be understood, are precisely the habits of thought which their authors mean explicitly to teach” (p. xii). Although Patey doesn’t discuss the issue, related to a theory of literary probability must be the question of imitation, plagiarism or just “good” old-fashioned “influence,” all of which could, strictly, be seen as devices (legitimate or otherwise) for developing consensual appeals to the reader. For example, Coleridge (or someone else) might be imitating Darwin in order to increase the probable inferences of the reader. As Derrida points out, all “origins” are traces unacknowledged and perhaps we should consider many of the Romantic writers from the perspective of Augustan literary probability theory; in any event, the metaphysics of Romantic originality have long been amenable to deconstruction. Whatever one thinks about all this, King-Hele’s own practice of counting “parallels” is too subjective to have scientific value and too theoretically backward to satisfy current critical scholarship.

While many of King-Hele’s literary judgments are open to question (such as the one that “Coleridge wrote little verse after 1800, and that little is not highly regarded,” p. 119), Darwin’s works do seem to have been regarded by the Romantic writers as significant repositories of attractively presented science. Drawing on the work of James Averill and Mary Jacobus, King-Hele is able to demonstrate convincingly that case histories recorded begin page 33 | back to top in Zoonomia received much imaginative reworking by Wordsworth. Indeed, Erasmus Darwin and The Romantic Poets sent me back again to read Zoonomia, where one is certainly struck by the frequency with which Darwin makes reference to patient case histories or to the observation of social behavior, either at first hand or by report. It could be that in dealing with Wordsworth and Coleridge in particular we need the mediation of Zoonomia before teaching for our Lacan Ècrits. Darwin’s period is the wonderful world of pre-Freudian psychological explanation. The following incident is classed by Darwin as a minor “disease of volition”: “A little boy, who was tired with walking, begged of his papa to carry him. ‘Here,’ says the reverend doctor, ‘ride upon my gold-headed cane;’ and the pleased child, putting it between his legs, galloped away with delight, and complained no more of his fatigue” (Zoonomia, 1: 434-35). King-Hele is suggestive too in pointing out, with reference to “Kubla Khan,” an incident Darwin had read about in the “Lausanne Transactions” concerning a “somnambulist” who “sometimes opened his eyes for a short time to examine, where he was, or where his ink pot stood, and then shut them again, dipping his pen into the pot every now and then, and writing on, but never opening his eyes afterwards, although he wrote on from line to line regularly, and corrected some errors of the pen, or in spelling . . .” (Zoonomia, 1: 228-29).

The issues raised by feminist literary criticism over the last ten years also seem to have left King-Hele untouched, but his account of the provincially claustrophobic tutor-pupil relationship of Erasmus Darwin and the poet Anna Seward might repay further investigation. At the moment it is difficult to see who has been “writing” the other amidst mutual charges of plagiarism. One would also want to qualify the page and a bit devoted to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Mary Shelley’s preface is an elusive testament to emergent, lateral feminine writing and repays close reading: “They talked of the experiments of Dr. Darwin (I speak not of what the Doctor really did, or said that he did, but, as more to my purpose, of what was then spoken of as having been done by him) . . .” King-Hele comments that “The clumsy sentence in brackets suggests that Mary searched for an account of this experiment in Darwin’s works, but failed to find anything” (p. 260). I would imagine that most readers today would be prepared to see the parenthetical sentence as deliberately disruptive, casting the primacy of Mary Shelley’s “purpose” against the secondhand reportage of Byron and her husband.

I have tried to indicate the types of limitation readers might find on the usefulness of Erasmus Darwin and The Romantic Poets. Most of the material on Blake is derived from the work of Nelson Hilton and the present writer and, while scrupulously acknowledged, only goes tentatively beyond them. The main problems are brought about by the ambitious nature of the project, but I don’t think King-Hele has anything to worry about. We already have every reason to be grateful to him for almost singlehandedly ensuring that no one could now overlook the importance of Erasmus Darwin’s contribution to the thought and writings of the period.

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