The Experimental Imagination
Literary Knowledge and Science in the British Enlightenment
Tita Chico




I argue in this book that literariness enables writing about science as well as thinking about science, its practitioners and objects, its pedagogy and politics. Modest and immodest witnesses, observed particulars and things, the processes of learning science and governing—these subjects, objects, and institutions tell the story of British modernity with its fitful possibilities and limitations. The quality of literariness that inheres to natural philosophy as a practice, theme, and metaphor authorizes writers to imagine new definitions of evidence and new modes of authority. The figuration at the heart of literariness contains a simultaneous gesture to referent and sign that produces a way of knowing to reconcile the material and the imaginative. Science operates as such a productive and provocative metaphor in the British Enlightenment because it introduces the occasion to foreground this doubleness. Natural philosophy as a principle looks to the natural world for answers and information, and literary knowledge sees insight and wisdom beyond the material.

In this final chapter, I contend that the literary becomes an epistemological project through its relationship with natural philosophy. The development of scientific concepts and processes reciprocally provides a hidden structure for the epistemological claims of eighteenth-century aesthetics. Poetic texts that fully exploit the figurative potential of the scientific mode do so to propose the epistemological superiority of literary knowledge. This is the experimental imagination.

Within the Enlightenment context, how do natural philosophers view poetry? As we have seen throughout this book, individuals whom we would now call scientists wrote self-consciously literary texts. Robert Boyle penned his romance, and Henry Baker, poetry, reminding us that this was not a world divided into disciplinary silos. Natural philosophy, Thomas Sprat argues, is good for verse: “The Wit that is founded on the Arts of mens hands is masculine and durable.”1 For Sprat, “masculine and durable” literary art emerges from a close observation of the things the experimental method unearths.

Abraham Cowley’s prefatory ode to The History of the Royal Society accepts Sprat’s invitation and discusses the aesthetics of such poetry.2 In line with the masculinization of the experimental project, Cowley’s poem converts the gender of philosophy, renouncing the feminine Sophia: “Philosophy, I say, and call it, He,/For whatsoe’re the Painters Fancy be,/It a Male Virtu seems to me.”3 The poem tells a story of intellectual liberation, moving from the imprisonment of scholastic thinking to the freedom of natural philosophy. Scholastic epistemology clouds and even perverts true thinking, claims that Cowley’s language amplifies through its metaphors: “the sports of wanton Wit,” “the Desserts of Poetry,” and the “pleasant Labyrinths of ever-fresh Discourse” all fail to provide substantive nutrition.4 Sporting, sweets, labyrinths—these are the aesthetic allures that trap men into unenlightened ways of thinking.

For Cowley, art is a mimetic form requiring the substance of the material world. Representation must come out of a careful and sustained engagement with the findings of experimental philosophy. Such attention produces clarity of vision and accuracy of perception, qualities that lead to good art. Sweeping aside the Flemish pictorial arts, especially the portraiture that profoundly influenced English painting in the early seventeenth century, Cowley promotes an aesthetic that requires the artist to have an experimental-like eye.5 True art—valuable art—is possible only if the artist behaves as a natural philosopher:

No, he before his sight must place

The Natural and Living Face;

The real Object must command

Each Judgment of his Eye, and Motion of his Hand.6

Cowley’s conjunction of the artist’s optics and graphia shares fundamental qualities with Hooke’s “sincere Hand and a faithful Eye” metaphor for the modest witness that produces microscopy.7

Cowley’s theory of mimesis favors the object over the poet’s “Ideas” and “Images” “In his own Fancy, or his Memory,” emphasizing scrupulous ocular examination and faithful rendering rather than the imaginative potential of literariness.8 Yet those “real Object[s]” have already been determined and discovered by natural philosophers; it is up to the poet to follow the experimentalists’ lead, as difficult as this may be. Cowley proclaims that The History of the Royal Society “has all the Beauties Nature can impart/And all the comely Dress without the paint of Art.”9 Ironically, within this poem, natural philosophy takes precedence in revealing beautiful things and doing so without any aestheticization. There is no “paint of Art” in experimental philosophy’s beautiful things. Cowley’s renunciation sets up an aesthetic hierarchy, raising natural philosophy above poetry. The charge inherent in Cowley’s and Sprat’s imaginings concerns more than mere admiration for natural philosophy. They forge an aesthetic model that utilizes the protocols and exigencies of natural philosophy thematically and formally.

A lesson of Cowley’s Ode is that poetry devoted to natural philosophy opens up space for debates about aesthetics. Poets regularly use the theme and metaphor of natural philosophy to make the case for aesthetics as a form of knowledge, expressing an early distinction between (albeit with considerable overlap and tension) what we now consider the sciences and the arts. Science in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century poetry often occasions a self-consciously framed rivalry between the two forms of knowledge, a sort of recalibration of the sister-arts antipathy. Aesthetics, of course, as a term was not coined until 1735, but the ideas cohered decades earlier. For the earl of Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson, the interrelated notions of the disinterested observer and the internal sense are pivotal. Aesthetic disinterestedness imagines a stable, unbiased observer with an enlightened and exclusive ability for sensory perception. Aesthetic theory shares qualities with the modest witness at the core of experimental practice, though the end result is the production of aesthetic, rather than scientific, knowledge.

This chapter studies aesthetic mediations of natural philosophy. These poems use an expressly aesthetic mode to imagine beyond the limits of experimental knowledge—to see beyond its confines, to take up where science leaves off, even though eighteenth-century aesthetics takes shape through unacknowledged appropriation of scientific structures and processes. With this reciprocity obscured, natural philosophy may well disclose sights unseen, but poetry does more. Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock heeds the imaginative possibilities introduced by the experimental method, drawing on but also explicitly moving beyond the technological limitations of practice to inculcate a new vision of the material world of things and the individual who has access to it. Queen Caroline’s Hermitage, dedicated to accomplishments of theologians and natural philosophers, honors these British worthies with landscape, architecture, and statuary, a monument that in turn generates a poetry contest held by the Gentleman’s Magazine and appeals for even more poetry. James Thomson’s Georgic poem, The Seasons, inaugurates aesthetic disinterestedness characterized by insight and exclusivity, not terribly dissimilar from natural philosophy’s modest witness, though Thomson’s subject position results in an unexpected celebration of difference.

Each of my poetic examples aestheticizes science, that is, represents science as a literary object. But these are not merely aestheticizations. They are aesthetic mediations. What is the difference? The former is the rendering of something into art. But the latter, the aesthetic mediation, produces a self-conscious discourse about art as art. I use the term mediation to insist on the epistemological claims that the process of aestheticizing may produce. The association with processes of legal resolutions suggests that mediation displays the relationship between potentially adversarial domains.10 Mediation is “everything that intervenes, enables, supplements, or is simply in between.”11 Aesthetics as an act of mediation does not merely suggest an instrumental transformation of natural philosophy but also the framework—the tool, the medium—through which an understanding of art emerges. In these poems, science becomes literature: aesthetic mediations of natural philosophy draw on but also challenge the intellectual processes of science, reimagine subjectivity, and mount a case for the superiority of the literary.

First, a discussion of eighteenth-century aesthetics.


In 1735, a young philosopher, Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten, conceived the term aesthetics. According to Baumgarten, aesthetics first meant a “science of how things are to be known by means of the senses”; later it included the “logic of the lower cognitive faculty, the philosophy of the graces and the muses, lower gnoseology, the art of thinking beautifully, the art of the analogue of reason”; and finally it combined the two earlier definitions: “Aesthetics (the theory of the liberal arts, lower gnoseology, the art of beautiful thinking, the art of the analogue of reason) is the science of sensitive cognition.”12 Baumgarten’s definitions situate the discourses of arts and beauty in relation to theories of sensory perception, opening the way to considering experimental philosophy and art. His definitions also codify a strand of thinking that had been emerging with particular resonance in Britain in the 1710s and 1720s in the writings of Anthony Ashley Cooper, third earl of Shaftesbury, and Francis Hutcheson.

For Shaftsbury, a disinterested observer is at the heart of the aesthetic experience, a subject position that necessitates acts of self-effacement not too dissimilar from natural philosophy’s modest witness. While there is critical debate about the uses of disinterestedness in eighteenth-century aesthetic theory, its emergence is generally agreed upon.13 To inculcate disinterestedness in The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody (1709), Shaftesbury presents beautiful objects scaled from the grand to the small. The first is a prospect of the open sea. Theocles explains to his interlocutor Philocles, “Imagine . . . if being taken with the beauty of the ocean, which you see yonder at a distance, it should come into your head to seek how to command it and, like some mighty admiral, ride master of the seas.”14 To react to the distant, beautiful ocean with one’s own fantasy of control and mastery, Theocles argues, would “be a little absurd.”15 The next example, “nearer home,” is a beautiful tract of land.16 If one “should, for the enjoyment of the prospect, require the property or possession of the land,” this would be a “covetous fancy . . . as absurd altogether as that other ambitious one.”17 A third example defines possession as consumption: if one sees beautiful trees and subsequently desires to eat their fruit, “the fancy of this kind . . . would be as sordidly luxurious and as absurd, in my opinion, as either of the former.”18 In each case, Shaftesbury presents the pleasures of seeing a beautiful object to insist that the proper mode of aesthetic appreciation is not to imagine oneself in a possessive relation to it. Instead, aesthetic responses require that the spectator stave off the self and imagine only a form of enjoyment in which the observer has no investment and no stake in the object. A truly aesthetic process imagines a firm border between subject and object, a division that simultaneously ensures the integrity and truthfulness of aesthetic objects, as well as those who appreciate them. For Shaftesbury, as for Hutcheson after him, the aesthetic is moral, eschewing the “luxurious” and the “absurd.” The experience of beauty, for Shaftesbury, is possible only in the absence of possession and use, for those reflect mere self-interested desire.

Francis Hutcheson’s 1725 preface to An Inquiry into the Original of our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue praises Shaftesbury and specifically evokes his standard of disinterestedness.19 Hutcheson refutes the egoistic models promoted by Thomas Hobbes and Bernard Mandeville, in which an aesthetic experience is characterized by the perceiver’s self-interested pleasure.20 The pleasure one feels from a beautiful object, Hutcheson argues, is a result of sensory perception that does not have a constitutive effect on the object itself. Even if it is, in Mandeville’s sense, self-pleasure, Hutcheson labors to distinguish the observer’s integrity and self-effacement.21 The beautiful object is a separate and distinct entity, impervious to any modification from the processes of observation. Since the beautiful does not exist in relation to the observer, at least theoretically, the pleasure it instills is universal. Hutcheson explains: “The Ideas of Beauty and Harmony, like other sensible Ideas, are necessarily pleasant to us, as well as immediately so; neither can any Resolution of our own, nor any Prospect of Advantage or Disadvantage, vary the Beauty or Deformity of an Object.”22 Hutcheson’s claim accords with the natural philosophical overt insistence that the object under view exists separate from the modest witness who views it. In both instances, the object is not a product of the imagination, whether that act of imagination concerns an individual’s desire to do something with the object (as in the case of Shaftesbury or Hutcheson) or to create that object (as in the case of experimental philosophers). The same model of knowing defines both aesthetic theory and experimental philosophy.

Hutcheson’s argument hinges on an understanding of aesthetic response as sensory perception. Beauty is a secondary quality, just as Locke would classify sound and color: “There is nothing like our ideas, existing in the bodies themselves.”23 The possibility of an internal sense organ that perceives without reflection emerged in the seventeenth century, and Hutcheson uses Lockean empiricism to elaborate Shaftesbury’s internal sense.24 Beautiful things produce pleasure not from “any Knowledge of Principles, Proportions, Causes, or of the Usefulness of the Object,” even “the most accurate Knowledge.” They instead “strike us at first with the Idea of Beauty.”25

However, if the perception of beauty is sensory, then it is accomplished through an internal sense that functions slightly differently from the five external senses. There is no guarantee that an individual will be able to perceive the beautiful and its pleasures. Even if the disinterested spectator is separate from the object and does not imagine himself into that object, aesthetic perception still necessitates action.26 The perception of the aesthetic requires discrimination. Just as some people have better external sensory perception than others, so too do others have superior perception through their internal sense, though there is no promise of the remediation available through scientific instrumentation. Hutcheson finds this distinction first in ordinary sensory perception, for an individual “of a good Taste” may feel “Pleasure of Beauty or Harmony” from an external sense. As he moves to define the internal sense of aesthetic perception, the possibility narrows. Hutcheson creates the notion of internal sense by eliminating what the aesthetic is not: it is neither cognition nor volition, so it is therefore sensory.27 The aesthetic concerns “higher, and more delightful Perceptions,” and this is implicitly an experiential realm available to those who can access this sense, namely, the disinterested spectator who has the “Power of receiving such Impressions.”28 Hutcheson’s aesthetics “offers a model of ‘knowing’ without knowledge”;29 it is “abstract, without being cerebral.”30 Later in the century, as Peter de Bolla has demonstrated, aesthetic experience came to be understood through, alternately, a regime of the eye or that of the picture, a distinction that points to the contrast between seeing the ideal viewer as either untrained or schooled.31

Aesthetics is simultaneously an intellectual category and a mediation of beauty, but its dependence on sensory perception requires that the ideal observer be imagined as well. Disinterestedness removes sensory perception from the vagaries of the subject’s desires by renouncing any claim to possession. The aesthetic response is one that admires but does not desire; it positions the observer at a distance from the object under consideration, a process that simultaneously ensures and reflects the observer’s integrity and detachment. The disinterested spectator endeavors to be active insofar as this internal sense must be recognized, acknowledged, and cultivated as a source of legitimate information. But as a form of sensory perception, the internal sense joins the other senses—the external senses of Hutcheson’s analysis—as a conduit to receive knowledge, in its ideal form, without the disruptive effects of cognition.

To circle back to Sprat’s and Cowley’s visions, natural philosophy ensures superior aesthetic perception of the natural world because the observer will apprehend “the real Object.”32 Sprat and Cowley do not pause to consider aesthetics as sensory perception, only the production of aesthetic objects that, from their perspective, inevitably give viewers pleasure. One hundred years later, Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant focus the aesthetic on mental imagines, as Frances Ferguson has shown.33 Yet the seventeenth-century insistence on “the real Object” and the commensurate subject able to perceive according to this dictum reveals a profound, if unexpected, alliance between the modest witness of natural philosophy and the disinterested spectator of aesthetics. This affinity, moreover, illuminates the twinned conceptual work of discrimination and repudiation inherent to both forms of knowledge.

The internal sensory perception of aesthetics may supply individuals a way to recognize beauty, but this is a restricted possibility. In Jacques Rancière’s “distribution of the sensible,” the aesthetic is always political, for each medium enacts a “delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the invisible, of speech and noise.”34 As we have seen in Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, early eighteenth-century aesthetics actively delimits; it can be understood as an act of classification, but it also needs to be understood as policing what art is and is not, as well as who may or may not apprehend it. Rancière reminds us, “Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time.”35 Within the specific context of early eighteenth-century Britain, those who are able to tell the difference, moreover, are endowed with the virtue of aesthetic disinterestedness and refined sociability. To perceive the aesthetic meant to fashion oneself a member of a particular community, a move that by necessity needed to be obscured. As we shall see, the possibilities of the aesthetic in poems grappling with scientific tropes and figures foretell a reconfiguration of subject, object, and process.


Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is indisputably concerned with aesthetics, and articulates this concern by representing myriad forms of beauty—Belinda’s, the beau monde’s, the poem’s. The mock epic charts the cosmetic construction of the main character in the famous dressing table scene, details the richness of various luxury objects available to the urban elite of London, and self-consciously reflects on the beauty of its own poetic form, the heroic couplet.

Yet among the many items lost to the “Lunar Sphere” in the final canto are objects associated with experimental philosophy: “Cages for Gnats, and Chains to Yoak a Flea;/Dry’d Butterflies, and Tomes of Casuistry.”36 These are the possessions of a virtuoso. They appear alongside various affects of the beau monde, such as beaux’s wits “in Snuff-boxes and Tweezer-Cases,” “broken Vows,” “The Courtier’s Promises,” “The Smiles of Harlots, and the Tears of Heirs” (5.116, 117, 119, 120). Belinda’s lock too rises up into the Lunar Sphere by the poem’s end. The collection of items Pope groups together suggests a relation among them that hinges on a shared quality of ephemerality. Experimental philosophy shows up in The Rape of the Lock as evidence that it had infiltrated modern, fashionable life and served as yet another fashionable accoutrement of the urban beau monde.37

Pope’s evocation of experimental philosophy in The Rape of the Lock accomplishes far more than a thematic indictment of the frivolity of both science and society, however. Epistemologically, experimental philosophy equips Pope with the tools to model imagining sights unseen. As I discuss in Chapter 1, accurate observation of previously unknown worlds is a mainstay of experimental philosophy, and descriptions of these findings use language that often focuses on wonder and aesthetic refinement. The instrument maker and lecturer Benjamin Martin, for instance, is in awe of the “World of Miniature,” “the curious Forms, the particular Structure of Parts, and the rich Colours that adorn most of the invisible Tribes of Animals!”38 Pope’s own language draws on such figurative models; the otherworldly entities in The Rape of the Lock are arguably possible to imagine because of the optical instruments and practices integral to experimental philosophy, especially microscopy.39 The sylphs, sylphids, fays, fairies, genies, elves, and demons added to the five-canto version are likewise members of such “invisible Tribes of Animals,” notable for their curious forms, particular structures, and rich colors: they are “Transparent Forms, too fine for mortal Sight,” with “fluid bodies half dissolv’d in Light” and “Dipt in the richest Tincture of the Skies” (2.61, 2.62, 2.64). They even have “silken wings” and a “thin Essence” (2.130, 2.132), properties visible only through a microscope’s magnifying lens.

What inaugurates the poem’s rapid and cluttered miniaturization? The provocatively banal phrase, “trivial Things” (1.2). The poem’s preoccupation with things refers in part to contemporary consumer culture. The Rape of the Lock is a mock-epic chock-full of things from consumer culture.40 The Twickenham Pope editor wryly observes that “the epic is thing-less beside Pope’s poem with its close-packed material objects”; Helen Deutsch suggests that Pope’s is a miniaturized epic, a “curiosity cabinet” of a poem; and Jonathan Lamb reads Belinda and her world not merely as objects but as surfaces like still lives, stripped of their inherited meanings.41 These are the now describable objects that began to populate the novelistic tradition with Defoe.42 In the poem’s first description of Belinda, we visually enter her chamber along with the sun’s beams, but Belinda is only metonymically evoked as a pair of eyes blinking awake. The poem provides much more detailed focus on accessories of a fashionable woman, such as a bell to call for the maid, a slipper, a silver watch, and a “downy Pillow” (1.19).

But Pope’s things also allude to experimental philosophy’s things. As we have seen, the term things is an important keyword for experimental philosophers; it connotes the observed particular that is simultaneously empirical and literary. While Swift’s attention to things in Gulliver’s Travels serves an explicitly political critique of instrumental reason, Pope’s elaboration challenges the notion of aesthetic and scientific disinterest by exposing the instability of material objects. In The Rape of the Lock, the repeated reference to “unnumber’d” objects—all of those things that include the “unnumber’d Spirits” who fly around Belinda, the “Unnumber’d Treasures” of Belinda’s toilette, and the “Unnumber’d Throngs” swarming the Cave of Spleen (1.41, 3.129, and 4.47)—reveals that things are uneasy composites of material and theory that only seem to be solely observed particulars. Within a self-consciously aesthetic production, Pope meditates on observation and things. Literary knowledge in The Rape of the Lock introduces a more expansive mode of observation than is possible in experimental philosophy and, as a result, exposes things as existing over a temporal plane. Those “quick poetic eyes” at the poem’s conclusion unveil a form of ocular apprehension that can perceive the transformation of a thing over time. The Rape of the Lock trains us to see the history of a thing within its formal embodiment; any single thing is the accumulation of its material existence, even if that materiality is no longer necessarily visible to an untrained eye. This is how literary knowledge provides a fuller and more accurate view of the world.

The Cave of Spleen vividly enacts the doubled nature of Pope’s things as at once embodying an object’s present and past. With an excursion to this ephemeral and peculiar world, Pope’s poem displays the plasticity and historicity of matter and, as a consequence, trains readers in the protocols of accurate observation. Following the hard edges of the scissors that conclude canto 3, the Cave of Spleen takes us far away from the social spaces of Hampton Court: “A constant Vapour o’er the Palace flies;/Strange Phantoms rising as the Mists arise” (4.39–40). Pope’s Cave of Spleen is a netherworld characterized by mists similar to the “Airy Substance” of the sylphs themselves (3.152), and the term vapour even appears twice more (4.18, 4.59). When Umbriel arrives, “Unnumber’d Throngs on ev’ry side are seen/Of Bodies chang’d to various Forms by Spleen” (4.47–48). Here, bodies have transformed into hybrids, new forms of embodiment that maintain elements and features of their original shape. The poem’s language leisurely underscores their seeming discordance:

Here living Teapots stand, one Arm held out,

One bent; the Handle this, and that the Spout;

A Pipkin there like Homer’s Tripod walks;

Here sighs a Jar, and there a Goose-pye talks;

Men prove with Child, as pow’rful Fancy works,

And Maids turn’d Bottels, call aloud for Corks. (4.49–54)

To imagine the various bodies in the Cave of Spleen, Pope alludes to Dryden’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Anne Finch’s “Ode to Spleen.” With the Gnome’s descent, he also parodies the epic hero’s journey to the underworld. Confining our understanding of the various bodies in the Cave of Spleen only to these influences, though, blinds us to the ways in which these figures invoke—and transform—experimental philosophy’s language of things. In the Cave of Spleen, present participles animate inert objects, suggesting a vividly organic place where the objects and people of ordinary life actively acquire new forms and new meanings. With its lifelike things and thing-like lives, the Cave of Spleen contains sights that are beyond normal apprehension, giving free play to a basic premise of experimental philosophy: the natural world has innumerable wonders, if one only knows where and how to look. This is the lesson of attentiveness that Robert Boyle teaches in A Proemial Essay.43 But it is more than that: one must also recognize that matter contains traces of its own history. Pope teaches us that things do not solely exist in space; they also exist in time.

The bodies in the Cave of Spleen could be read as merely transformed in a hodgepodge manner. Yet Pope eliminates this possibility by linking these bodies to the spleen as an affliction, a type of melancholia. The ailments represented in these fanciful bodies are common to splenetics (4.47–54, note), and Pope included his own gloss of the talking goose-pye to draw the connection, claiming that it “alludes to a real fact, a Lady of distinction imagin’d herself in this condition” (4.52, note). For most eighteenth-century contemporaries, both men and women can suffer from the spleen, but Pope restricts the condition to women, save for the single line about pregnant men (4.59–62, note). The gendering of the spleen accords with how these bodies refer to something beyond their own physical selves and how they function as interpretive clues. The spleen is a physical condition that is also a sign of something else, in this case a psychological disorder. Given the proto-psychoanalytic discourse of the spleen, Freud’s famous Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria is instructive. Freud reads “Dora’s” symptoms, which included “dyspnoea, tussis nervosa, aphonia, and possibly migraines, together with depression, hysterical unsociability and a taedium vitae,” as signifying “the representation—the realization—of a phantasy with a sexual content, that is to say, it signifies a sexual situation.” Each symptom has behind it “a number of secrets” to be detected by the analyst. Symptoms are particular forms imbued with theoretical significance; in Freud’s case, that theoretical significance concerns his theory of female sexuality.44

These physical symptoms are things—the observed particular filtered through a theoretical apparatus, although those observations seem to represent specific objects empirically. Splenetic symptoms appear to be physical entities in their own right, while they also stand in metonymically for something else. Pope literalizes the metaphor, as does Swift, but he also twists the literalized metaphor into another figure. In the Cave of Spleen, Pope extends the logic of the thing to the extreme by turning bodies into symptoms altogether: the living teapots, the pregnant men, the women as bottles calling for their corks have all become only the symptom of the disease that the symptom represents. They are reduced to interpretive clues—paradoxically, to bodies of theory. These bodies are embodied metaphors, but they are also metaphors for something else altogether.

Pope plays with such transformations throughout The Rape of the Lock, often using metonymic logic. Peers and dukes are “Garters, Stars and Coronets” (1.85), and beaux are “Wigs” and “Sword-knots” (1.101). However, the poem does not go to the same lengths as in the Cave of Spleen to insist that these material transformations are literal; peers, dukes, and beaus are not transformed into their accoutrements. The metonyms reduce their subjects, of course, to critique the beau monde’s emphasis on appearance, and Pope’s metonymic and satiric usage obscures the referent to make the satiric point. The difference with the Cave of Spleen is important to remember: there, Pope attenuates such figurative transformations by representing them as literal. The insight the poem grants is an illustration of the process that observation assumes but also attempts to erase. As readers, we are instructed in the transformation of observed particulars that seem to be only and exclusively particular substances, even though they are not. The bodies in the Cave of Spleen not only contain traces of their previous forms, but they also function as signs of a disorder well beyond bodily impairment. Popean things have histories. Popean things also function, paradoxically, as embodiments of abstractions.

Reading the splenetic forms of the Cave of Spleen clarifies The Rape of the Lock’s other great scene of transformation, Belinda’s toilette. The dressing table scene is a moment at which Belinda’s physical appearance emerges through the sylphs’ magical cosmetic powers, metonymically represented by objects that appear to mutate mystically. “Th’inferior Priestess,” Belinda’s maid, Betty, “begins the sacred Rites of Pride,” and the materials of the toilette are thrust into motion, active in their peculiar agency:

Unnumber’d Treasures ope at once, and here

The various Off ’rings of the World appear;

From each she nicely culls with curious Toil,

And decks the Goddess with the glitt’ring Spoil.

This Casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks,

And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.

The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,

Transform’d to Combs, the speckled and the white. (2.127–136)

I have argued elsewhere that this scene writes out the physical figure of Belinda, displacing her through an ekphrastic rendering of her cosmetics. The effect of this strategy is to evoke and erase the female subject to promote one aesthetic ideology (ekphrasis) over another (cosmetics).45 Concurrent with this earlier argument about aesthetics is my focus on Pope’s things as a form of literary knowledge. While the objects on Belinda’s dressing table are not refigured into symptoms of a nervous disorder as the splenetic forms in the Cave of Spleen are, they certainly are signs of the commercial networks that undergird the early eighteenth-century mercantilist economy and furnish London consumers access to such “glitt’ring Spoil.” As Laura Brown has astutely argued, Belinda’s beauty, whether “created or awakened is attributed to the products of trade and defined through a catalogue of commodities for female consumption”; as such, “female adornment becomes the main cultural emblem of commodity fetishism.”46

Brown’s reading continues to be so persuasive because the things that fashion Belinda carry with them the traces of their own transformations. These objects strike one as resoundingly inert bodies—they are gems, perfume, and combs, after all—and in this way, they are unlike the mixture of lifelike things and thing-like beings that organically populate the Cave of Spleen. But the items from Belinda’s dressing table are explicitly animated and evoke—in some ways, even revert to—the forms that they had before they were converted into commodities and traded in the global marketplace. The dressing table presents things that, given the symptomatic renderings to come in the Cave of Spleen, are infused with animation because they continue to embody their original forms. The text insists, in particular, that the combs adorning Belinda’s hair overtly refer to the tortoise shell and elephant tusk that they originally were. The things on Belinda’s dressing table are Popean things because they gesture to two forms at once and thereby demonstrate the lingering presence of a substance’s original form even when it undergoes the transformative effects of commodification. What results is a mode of observation that demands the reader see both things at once—an object’s past and its present. Pope’s vision of aesthetic observation contrasts with scientific observation because his allows for a temporally expansive view that sees an object’s history within its current material presence.

Pope repeats his theory of things and observation in miniature in the final canto when an enraged Belinda draws her “deadly Bodkin” (5.88). It is hardly deadly, much less a weapon—the bodkin here is a hairpin, after all—but the irony proliferates nonetheless. Pope presents a parenthetical genealogy to chart the bodkin’s material and symbolic degradation from a sign of a paternal ancestor’s political power to an ornamental buckle to a child’s whistle to its current form, a lady’s adornment:

(The same, his ancient Personage to deck,

Her great great Grandsire wore about his Neck

In three Seal-Rings; which after, melted down,

Form’d a vast Buckle for his Widow’s Gown:

Her infant Grandame’s Whistle next it grew,

The Bells she gingled, and the Whistle blew;

Then in a Bodkin grac’d her Mother’s Hairs,

Which long she wore, and now Belinda wears.) (5.89–96)

By canto 5, the reader is accustomed to viewing objects as existing on a temporal plane. Here the message indicates the allure of adornment. But the satire also emerges in the sentence’s punctuation and its effects. Pope delivers this history of the bodkin within parentheses, which serve the purpose of deferring—and belittling—Belinda’s angry speech. Just as her bodkin was once an embodiment of political power and now is merely a cosmetic accessory, so too is Belinda’s ability to threaten devoid of power and reduced to parody. Her rage is genuine; her capacity to act meaningfully on that rage is eviscerated.

Belinda’s hair is the object that most profoundly changes form in The Rape of the Lock. This transformation is, after all, the narrative premise of the poem. In the spirit of the various mutations enacted elsewhere, the poem explicitly indicates that hair can take on any number of forms. A hair might be a slight substance, but its effects are incommensurately grand. The power of hair includes effects on hearts “held in slender Chains,” birds snared in “hairy Sprindges,” fish caught by “Slight Lines of Hair, and “Man’s Imperial Race” lured by “Fair Tresses” (2.23–27). As the poet concludes, “Beauty draws us with a single Hair” (2. 28). We are told that Belinda’s locks will have a similar effect, though on a much grander scale—“the Destruction of Mankind” (2.19). Her hair follows a specific trajectory of transformation through the course of the poem: it morphs from hair to a pair of matching curls to a single snipped curl to the tail of a star to a poem, “This Lock” (5.149). The toilette scene interestingly refrains from describing how Belinda’s hair changes form initially, except to indicate that the sylphs work busily, and so our introduction to the curls comes in canto 2. Belinda, we learn, “Nourish’d two Locks, which graceful hung behind/In equal Curls, and well conspir’d to deck/With shining Ringlets the smooth Iv’ry Neck” (2.20–22). Clarissa later lectures Belinda that “Curl’d or uncurl’d” “Locks will turn to grey” (5.26), but the idea that Belinda’s hair is subject to art—that its substance is molded into an aesthetic form—is clear from the beginning of the poem. The verbs nourish’d and conspir’d associate the process of molding hair into an aesthetic form with a savvy, knowing subject, one who views beauty as a means of acquiring social power.

Although hair can grow back, the poet’s language (“thy ravish’d Hair!” [4.10]) and Belinda’s lament (“any Hairs but these” [4.176]) together indicate that hers is what Joseph Roach calls “social hair,” a performance “with all its magic and its risks.”47 In this case, Belinda’s curls are stunningly beautiful, profoundly fragile, and metonymies for her chastity. When Ariel warns that a dire event will take place, whether “some frail China Jar receive a Flaw,/Or stain her Honour, or her new Brocade” (2.106–107), the poem famously forces an equivalence among the snipped curl, cracked china, stained fabric, and sexual experience, a similarity that also reinforces a commensurate loss of value. The parodic tension of the poem, of course, depends on these confusions, just as the rape refuses to be settled as literal or figurative.48

In the face of Belinda’s blinding fury, the poet insists that the apotheosis of Belinda’s hair is visible, if only to the figures of the “Muse” and the poet. Pope famously writes, “But trust the Muse—she saw it upward rise,/Tho’ mark’d by none but quick Poetic eyes” (5.123–124). Do the “quick Poetic eyes” of The Rape of the Lock evoke experimental philosophy’s modest witness? Or the aesthetic disinterestedness imagined by Shaftesbury and Hutcheson? No one in the poem’s beau monde has the qualities to be a perceptive observer. Almost by poem’s end, the curl is visible and comprehensible only to the knowing viewer, who is credentialed to discern the aesthetics and epistemology of things. In the first instance, this can only be those “quick Poetic eyes,” but in the second, it is the reader of the poem. The model of ocular apprehension imagined in The Rape of the Lock is at once exclusive and expansive. Readers of the poem, equipped with the insights of literary knowledge, may figuratively see the conversion of Belinda’s hair into an astrological figure.

Once Belinda has risked all with her “social hair,” and lost, the poet explicitly enters the poem to insist that she is amply compensated by the curl’s apotheosis and the publication of “This Lock” (5.149). After the final transformation of the curl into a poem, The Rape of the Lock, Pope assures Belinda, will bring her much more fame—and much more lasting fame—than a lock on her head ever could. Repeating Clarissa’s earlier warning about the transience of physical beauty, Pope promises Belinda that even after “your self shall die,” “This Lock, the Muse shall consecrate to Fame,/And mid’st the Stars inscribe Belinda’s Name!” (5.149–150). Because of the Baron, Belinda is left with the “Sister-Lock,” which she says “now sits uncouth, alone,” for curls—like couplets—come in pairs (4.171). Imagined as an ultimately compensatory move, the poet takes the fact of the snipped curl and produces couplets in its ironic honor.

Pope’s transformation of a piece of hair into so many other things is perhaps the most ambitious and banal of the poem’s effects, a coincidence of figuration that uneasily elevates and trivializes its subject. That Belinda’s hair changes form several times is clearly a central conceit of the poem, but my previous analysis has demonstrated that these transformations cannot be interpreted in isolation. Taken together, the sylphs, the Cave of Spleen, the bodkin, and the dressing table instead anchor the poem’s preoccupation with the epistemology of things, of which the transformation of a curl into couplets is the most significant example. These moments require a mode of representation that emphasizes an observed particular’s theoretical significance and gives cluelike traces to its material history. The model of apprehension available through the experimental method offers some insight into this form of knowledge, but the poem presents the alternative of aesthetic observation and literary knowledge as the more appropriate mode.

Things may well change in The Rape of the Lock, but as they do, they carry within them various aesthetic hierarchies, material and theoretical indices, and ideological imperatives. The couplets that ultimately make up The Rape of the Lock need to be understood in relation to the poem’s representation of its things. If Pope’s couplets as a form work toward “refinement,” as J. Paul Hunter suggests, then the transformation of curl to couplet is a key example of that process of refinement.49 As much as the fantasy of the poem labors to eradicate Belinda’s curl from “This Lock,” replacing one with the other and leaving it at that, such a transformation is profoundly and necessarily incomplete. Even with the abstracting powers of refinement at work in the poem, disembodying Belinda and leaving only words on a page, the movement from an adorned and sexualized female body to a poem powerfully indicates that the form of the poem is inextricably linked and indebted to that body. Belinda’s curl thereby exposes the process by which a thing—as a simultaneously aesthetic, epistemological, and ideological category—is valued according to its theoretical status, though it can never be extricated from the material conditions that gave rise to it.


The apotheosis of Belinda’s lock into a star and then into The Rape of the Lock hallmarks the imaginative potential Pope identifies with poetic observational practice: the act of observing makes visible the traces of historical transformation that the material bodies of the diurnal world have undergone. The transformations I have discussed are even more remarkable because they seem to be agentless: the reader observes them virtually through the mediation of the text, but they occur within the mystified logic of the poem. Belinda’s lock carries meaning, but it does not connote agency. It is an object. It is a trophy.

Belinda’s lock is first objectified by the Baron: he views Belinda’s curl as another trophy to add to his “Altar of Love.” Yet the Baron is not singular in this desire; indeed, the ownership and possession of Belinda’s hair animates the poem’s conflict among the beau monde and, ultimately, its transformation into a poetic figure. The Baron cannot hold onto the aesthetic object—Belinda’s lock—because he misunderstands the social contract of aesthetic theory that Shaftesbury and Hutcheson espouse. The narrative of The Rape of the Lock insists that the Baron fails because he does not recognize that Belinda’s beauty is to be admired rather than possessed.

Aesthetic mediation helps us to apprehend the moral errors that Pope identifies in The Rape of the Lock; it also supplies an important heuristic to understand the relationship among trophies, aesthetics, and natural philosophy. This triangulation, implicit in The Rape of the Lock, appears in the context of a sculptural monument to natural philosophy that was also commemorated in poetry—a poetic mediation of an aesthetic trophy. In the early 1730s, Queen Caroline commissioned William Kent to design a monument to celebrate natural philosophy and physico-theology. The result was the Hermitage in the royal gardens at Richmond Lodge, her favorite retreat.50 Celebrated as “A Temple from vain glories free,/Whose Goddess is Philosophy,” Caroline’s Hermitage explicitly framed these accomplishments as innovations heralding “Britannia’s . . . classic age.”51 Rather than feature the “spoils of martial fields,” Caroline’s Hermitage displayed “more noble trophies.”52 And those trophies? They were busts of Isaac Newton, John Locke, William Wollaston, Samuel Clarke, and—the Hermitage’s “presiding deity”—Robert Boyle.53

Why did Caroline build a monument to religion and science, imagined as “trophies”? There are biographical hints we can gather. The queen’s interest in natural philosophy was deep: she attended lectures at the Royal Society with her husband, George Augustus, and she also facilitated scientific debates between Leibniz and Samuel Clarke about Newtonian calculus.54 She amassed a formidable library and maintained a cabinet of curiosities, which included a lodestone, an ivory tusk, and scientific instruments.55 In 1736, Voltaire praised Caroline as Émilie du Châtelet’s intellectual equal—both princesses of the Enlightenment.56

The construction of the Hermitage transformed Caroline’s interests into a built landscape and statuary for royal consumption; its name, of course, evokes solitude, even though the retreat was also available to a wider public. Caroline’s Hermitage moved natural philosophy from the laboratory, parlor, and shop into an explicitly aesthetic space. Built in 1732–1733, it resembled a hermit’s cell and sat in the park’s woodlands at the end of a long walkway, nestled into a hillside covered with bushes and fir trees.57 To some, it evoked “Calypso’s fabled cell,” a Homeric allusion to subversive female power.58 The exterior of the Hermitage was designed to appear indistinguishable from nature, an effect—as Jill H. Casid notes of imperial landscapes more generally—that obscures the process and history of its own construction.59 But commentators also viewed it as a simulacrum: the Hermitage “very much resembles Antiquity,” though it was “lately done, (within these three Years).”60 And while its natural, rustic exterior seemed “just like a shallow cave by nature made,” the interior was adorned with stalactites, suggesting the encroachment of nature and the passage of time, and arranged according to neoclassical design, with a central domed octagon about sixteen feet in diameter, flanked by two rectangular wings (one a bedroom and the other a library), and extended by an exedra with an altar.61

The arrangement of the Hermitage’s sculptures conveyed the structure’s intellectual argument. On the left were busts of Newton and Locke, on the right of Wollaston and Clarke. The center, the honorific space of the exedra’s altar, was reserved for Boyle’s bust, framed by a sunburst painted on the wall. Boyle was a fitting centerpiece: in his will, the author of The Christian Virtuoso (1690) endowed a lecture series devoted to discussing the existence of God. As the Gentleman’s Magazine recounts, the Hermitage’s design privileged Boyle’s contributions and significance: “the Bust of Mr Boyle stands higher than these, on a Pedestal, in the inmost, and, as it were, the most sacred Recess of the Place; behind his Head a large Golden Sun, darting his wide spreading Beams all about and towards the others, to whom his Aspect is directed.”62 The image of Boyle struck the viewer immediately: “Upon entering, you behold, elevated on high, a very curious busto of the Honourable, and justly celebrated, Robert Boyle, Esq; incompassed with rays of gold.”63 Whether the light emanates from Boyle or encases him, the image visualizes enlightenment.

The Hermitage presented natural philosophy as an aesthetic experience in a second, mediated fashion. The arrival of the Boyle bust (months after the others were installed) not only garnered significant attention in the press but also occasioned the first literary contest in an English journal.64 In April 1733, the Gentleman’s Magazine announced a competition for works commemorating the Hermitage, explaining that a panel of five judges would select the first- and second-prize winners and that, if the contest were popular, the periodical would hold a contest on another topic the following year. The editor invited submissions from both men and women, from England or Ireland.65 Poems that did not win a ranked place were published in a book, The Contest: Being Poetical Essays on the Queen’s Grotto.

The literary record presented by this poetry contest associates the Hermitage with natural philosophy, rather than with physico-theology, and especially foregrounds Boyle and Newton. Stephen Duck, for example, asks the muse to take him “to the sequester’d Cell,/Where Boyle and Newton, mighty Sages! dwell.”66 Another poet describes Boyle as having a “happy genius, [and] piercing mind” that together “did science clear,/Philosophy from rust refin’d.”67 A poem devoted entirely to honoring Boyle (the only of the group to have a single figure as its subject, “Ode on the Bust of the Hon. Robert Boyle, Esq; in her Majesty’s Grotto”) opens with a characteristic apostrophe: “Nature, O Boyle! tho’ hid in night,/Her laws, to Thee, were clear as light.”68 He is commended for the “coy pow’r” of his observations, which enable him to view “the secret springs of nature,” and for “his all discovering ray.”69 Poems embody Boyle’s “enlighten’d science,” which “Solves all our doubts, and ignorance disarms,” by alluding to the placement of his bust in the Hermitage’s exedra, framed by radiating sunbeams.70 According to the logic of similitude, Boyle himself is a source of light in a poem that reflects and reflects on an aesthetic monument to him. In Jane Brereton’s “On the Bustoes in the Royal Hermitage,” “Wisdom, and Piety, their Beams unite/To shine in Boyle, with strong, convictive Light.”71 The author of “On the Queen’s Grotto” makes the link between Boyle’s illuminating power and his pursuit of experimental knowledge explicit:

Boyle first arose, and, like the morning star,

Gave joyful promise of the day’s approach:

With patient search he from the plain effect

Trac’d the remoter cause; and, with success,

Into the secret springs of nature div’d.72

Although Boyle repeatedly declined to speculate about the causes of phenomena (which he called “medling”), claiming only to record the observation, the poet admires Boyle for unlocking nature’s mysteries by determining origins, or “the remoter cause.”73 In the context of occasional poetry, the particulars of Boyle’s methodology matter less than his popular reputation as a natural philosopher, devoted to the “patient search.”74

Praise for Newton uses similar metaphors to cite and commend his observational acumen. Like Boyle, Newton is represented through figures of illumination. As the “ornament and wonder of his age,” “sagacious” Newton “Sublimely, on the Wings of Knowledge, soars.”75 He is praised for casting light on the shadows of earlier generations’ mistakes—“The system never was from errors free/Till Newton rose and said, Let darkness flee”—and for bringing the mysteries of the natural world into clear focus (“The works of nature, that in embryo lay,/Dawn into life, and in a flood of day/Newton’s great genius to the world convey”76). He is also admired for improving all bodies of knowledge that he considered: “Whate’re he touch’d, howe’er abstruse his theme,/He clear’d the rubbish, and refin’d the scheme.”77 Lauded for discovering “the laws” governing “the shining orbs,” Newton is imagined to be “Enraptur’d” while studiously observing the sky as he “track[ed] the planets wand’ring way,/And orbits where excentrick comets stray.”78 Such is the magnificence of his insight that his name is presented as a synonym for the natural world itself: “Nature and Newton mean the very same.”79

The poems in the Gentleman’s Magazine’s contest collectively glorify the skills of insight and innovation that Boyle and Newton exemplify by figuring them as beacons (often literally) for the advancement of knowledge. However, while the poems imagine the figures of Boyle and Newton as objects of admiration, they do not propose that readers ought to emulate them or even attempt to replicate their experiments.

The purpose of these poems differs markedly from the educational texts widely available in the marketplace: the Hermitage poems foreground their literary transformation of natural philosophy to encourage a reader’s reflection and, in particular, a reader’s admiration. The aesthetic mediation of natural philosophy results in poetry designed to make readers ruminate. Caroline herself actively cultivated the role of reader: according to An Essay towards the character of Her late Majesty Caroline, queen-consort of Great Britain, Caroline “was frequently engaged in reading such Books as are rarely attempted but by persons of much leisure and retirement.”80 The site of the British worthies, nestled preciously within the Hermitage, was not a laboratory for followers to reproduce experiments or to make their own discoveries; this was not the virtual witnessing of experimental philosophy. It was, instead, a site for the meditative postures that the poets imagine the queen and other visitors would strike. Some represent the collection of busts as “for contemplation form’d.”81 Others claim that “solemn silence guards the place.”82 The model for contemplation is Caroline, portrayed in deep repose in the Hermitage. With the busts in her view, she “feeds on thoughts sublime, which raise the mind/Above the trifling cares of humankind”; she “loves that solitary scene/To converse with the learned dead”; and “Hither at chosen hours,/The royal Hermit takes her lonely way,/Indulging thoughts which lift the raptur’d soul/Above mortality.”83 She is, in all of these instances, an example of the reflection that one is expected to assume in the vicinity of the Hermitage.

The subjectivity imagined through the Hermitage poems refuses a desire for possession. The queen’s engagement with the substance of the work extends only to admiration, “These are the studies which a Queen admires.”84 Of course, this statement willfully ignores the royal privilege and wealth that make such a space possible. But in aesthetic terms, the appropriate response to an aesthetically mediated science is admiration, not possession. Just as the busts are “in stone profoundly grave, as, when alive, in thought,” so, too, are the queen and anyone else who visits the Hermitage drawn to contemplate its statuary.85 When she turns away from the fleeting pleasures of a fashionable life, those “splendid scenes which females most admire,” “the Solitary Queen . . . seeks her humble Cell.”86 The author of “To her Majesty, on her Grotto” likewise imagines the queen stealing away from “the splendid court’s admiring train” to spend time by herself in the Hermitage.87 Converting from direct address—the poet first wishes to “obtain the secret power/To trace thee in thy calm sequester’d hour”—the poet paints a picture of the Queen in third person.88 The reader is enjoined to witness the queen’s quiet occupancy of the Hermitage, during which she might look on “each reverend bust with earnest gaze” or “read th’ immortal labours of their mind.”89 In the former instance, the poet imagines an affective response; on viewing the busts, “dewy tears her tender conflict tell.”90 The poet likewise imagines that the queen, when reading, pauses for “An intervening glance her thought relieves/And the lov’d form her silent praise receives,” a look that arguably could be imagined to lead to the same affective response.91 As a relatively singular example, this poem positions the queen as reading, but even then she quickly turns to thinking about the material and presumably its implications. These poems do not adhere to the protocols of observation and description that Boyle, Hooke, and others promulgated, but instead imagine activating the beholder’s internal sense, perceiving science as aesthetic pleasure.

The Hermitage poems demand the production of more poetry. If, within this local context, the poems most vividly imagine visitors to the Hermitage or the queen herself admiring and gaining pleasure from the intellectual contributions of Boyle et al. because they can gaze at these sculptures, then these same poems also encourage others to write their own. The queen’s oft-repeated and oft-admired contemplation prompts one poet to urge others to praise her (as the vast majority of the poems related to the Hermitage do), but the call is specific: the appropriate form of praise is presented as poetry, an aesthetic mediation that not only expresses but also reproduces admiration: “String to her praise, ye bards, your sounding lyres,/In ev’ry clime repeat her honor’d name,/And spread thro’ hers your own immortal fame.”92 The fruits of quiet contemplation and the pleasure of learning extend the possibilities for new kinds of vision available. This is a vision of the imagination, sparked by figurative imagery and the aesthetic contract of admiration. That these implications are borne out by poetry suggests that aesthetic mediation registers possibilities natural philosophy cannot.


James Thomson’s The Seasons (1730, 1744, 1746) is a poem famous for its celebration of Newtonianism. Drawing out the epistemological possibilities inherent in literariness, Thomson’s poem presents a model of observation and understanding exceeding that which natural philosophy provides, but which the experimental imagination advances.

To begin, the poem’s observational practices cannot be separated from its politics. The Seasons has long been understood as a celebration of Whiggish politics. Its Georgic—and Georgian—scope imagines the ideal viewer as a property owner who both embodies and asserts principles of British nationalism that locate England at the center of a global trade network, reimagined by Thomson as a mechanism for promulgating political liberty worldwide. Indeed, as Suvir Kaul wryly notes, Thomson’s poem is “an encyclopedia of nationalist desire.”93 The poem’s partisan attitudes are well documented and well debated. A particular critical preoccupation is whether the poem coheres in an idealistic vision of Britishness, even if that unity is the ideological product of an aristocratic subject position.94 The prospect view in landscape poetry structurally replicates and mystifies the property owner’s view and, by extension, his political and economic authority. By naturalizing this perspective, landscape poetry such as Thomson’s aesthetically conveys legibility and authorization for imperial political structures.95

The Seasons legitimizes a simultaneously national and imperial ideology through its strong reading of a centralized poetic eye. The ocular potential of Thomson’s poetry caught Wordsworth’s attention, who praised Thomson for teaching “the art of seeing.”96 And what, precisely, did Thomson’s “art of seeing” produce? According to Joseph Warton, The Seasons reflects a “minute and particular enumeration of circumstances” and a “close and faithful representation of nature.”97 Seeing and the world are bound together in Thomson’s poetic vision—how one sees determines what one sees, in other words, a principle that itself cannot be extricated from the poem’s engagement with and embodiment of Newtonian philosophy. Thomson’s fascination with optics was evident from the time he published The Seasons: while teaching at Watts, an academy renowned for its embrace of Newtonian philosophy, Thomson dedicated Winter (1726) to Newton.98

Much like Caroline’s Hermitage and the corpus of poetry celebrating it, The Seasons intermingles nationalistic ambition with the principles and effects of natural philosophy. In Summer, “Happy Britannia!” gives birth to Bacon, Boyle, Locke, and Newton.99 Natural philosophy ensures modern enlightenment and, Thomson promises, a host of commensurate social benefits—the party line for advocates. “Without thee [natural philosophy] what were unenlightened man?/A savage, roaming through the woods and wilds,” with “Nothing, save rapine, indolence, and guile,/And woes on woes, a still-revolving train” (Summer, 1758–1759, 1771–1772). “Taught by thee”—natural philosophy—“Ours are the plans of policy and peace;/To live like brothers” (Summer, 1774–1776), a dream of national progress that attributes British greatness to the epistemology and ideology of science. Natural philosophy exists as an all-pervasive, if invisible, force in the world: “like the liberal breath/Of potent heaven, invisible, the sail [natural philosophy]/Swells out, and bears the inferior world along” (Summer, 1780–1781). The all-encompassing influence of natural philosophy underscores the poem’s celebratory narrative of progress and serves as evidence of its Whiggish politics.100 But natural philosophy is also “invisible,” perceivable only in its effects. And those effects are most easily apprehended through the modes of vision Thomson imagines in The Seasons.

The politics of the poem can be read as a straightforward and homogeneous Whiggish platform plank, but this downplays Thomson’s commitment to “Patriot Opposition,” which censured Walpole’s domestic and foreign policy.101 The political dissent that Thomson renders, even if provisionally, finds a stronger corollary in his critical embrace of science. If Thomson celebrates Newtonian optics, he likewise registers unease with the instrumentalization of natural philosophy. In a poem that overtly lauds social, aesthetic, and ideological divisions, instrument-aided vision challenges such boundaries. Thomson’s caution is evident in his most graphic example of the natural philosophical method, the famous instance of the “microscopic eye,” which he originally drafted for Spring but ultimately incorporated into Summer (Summer, 288). Thomson’s choice of the microscope turns to one of the two instruments most regularly associated with the foundation of the Royal Society; the other was Boyle’s air pump.102 Thomson’s evocation of microscopy does not portray an individual peering through a microscope but instead collapses the instrument with the eye. Thomson’s image harks back to Locke’s warning that microscopy blinds individuals to anything but the most minute—and the most trivial—of things, leaving such people unable to function within a commercial society. Thomson’s image also evokes Cavendish’s hybridization of scientific practice and physicality, the scientists in The Blazing World who embody their objects of study.

Why does Thomson introduce a microscopic eye? Its primary purpose is to document that “Full Nature swarms with life” (Summer, 289). Microscopy as a mode of ocularity makes visible organic material previously imperceptible. How one sees determines what one sees. This is the “art of seeing” in action. Thomson’s phrase “Full Nature swarms with life” also echoes experimental accounts of microscopy, as do the poem’s descriptions of various liquids: “Amid the floating verdure millions stray” and “Each liquid . . . /With various forms abounds” (Summer, 305, 306–308). Thomson here repeats the standard natural philosophic view that endorses optical instrumentation.103 Multitudinous entities may be discovered through the instrument’s powers of magnification, in effect transforming what seem to be smooth substances—“one transparent vacancy”—into “various forms” (Summer, 310, 308).

In Thomson’s literary imagination, microscopy, and visual perception more generally, activate other senses, potentially creating a tidal wave of sensory perception. The organic bodies under the view of the microscopic eye are knowable through the mediating technology of the microscopic glass, but that instrument does not inoculate the viewer against an unmanageable influx of perceptions. Thomson’s sharp warning addresses the figurative, epistemological, and even ontological implications of magnifying one’s view, pointing to the limits and dangers of experimental knowledge acquisition. As anticipated in the evocation of “millions stray,” the microscope cannot contain the minute wonders it reveals; close observation of them results only in their proliferation, a process that has the effect of leaving the viewer, as it turns out, “stunned with noise” (Summer, 317). Thomson’s idea of the senses being interconnected finds an interesting precedent in Newton’s Opticks, which uses simile to bind sight and sound: “May not the harmony and discord of Colours arise from the proportions of the vibrations propagated through the Fibres of the Optick Nerves into the Brain, as the harmony and discord of Sounds arise from the proportions of the Vibrations of the Air?”104 Moreover, in the microscopic description of “liquid,” Thomson includes the word taste (Summer, 308). The term may well indicate the cultural and aesthetic category, but in the context of Thomson’s amplified sensory processes, it simultaneously introduces the possibility of the sense of taste. Kevis Goodman’s insights are helpful: Thomson’s microscopic eye sees the vegetation of a global landscape through an insistent, though incomplete, erasure of “unseen people” (Summer, 311). Thomson’s microscopic eye paradoxically “reverses direction and opens out to an influx of the historical world,” leaving the observer overwhelmed and stunned.105 With this possibility of an optical instrument turning its magnification and surveillance on the observer, Summer shortly thereafter imagines a global tour to the “torrid zones” of Africa, South America, and India (Summer, 632ff.). The microscopic eye in Summer challenges what might be considered a safely confident imperial account with the reimagined power of the microscopic eye. Thomson’s vignette uses experimental philosophical protocols to illuminate the vulnerability of visual perception.

The microscopic eye of Summer shows Thomson’s interest in alternative modes of ocular perception, as well as a sustained interest in exploring their limits and implications. In Summer, Thomson contemplates the theoretical implications of these instruments, even if these effects might be well beyond the technological capability possible at the moment; scientific observation introduces only the possibility that the decaying object under view can leave the viewer similarly decayed. If microscopy promises mastery—and aspires to an imperial gaze—then it likewise contains the short-circuiting effect of its antithesis, which simultaneously opens up profound unease and anxiety as the observer is subjected to the onslaught of the spectacle.106 Scenes of microscopic discovery threaten to infect not only the observer’s senses but also the detached, genteel subjectivity advocates wished to associate with the praxis of scientific observation more generally. Magnification promises insight, yet it also implies the ontology of similitude and, by extension, infection. Bluntly stated, if the scenes under a microscope can turn back on the viewer, then that same viewer “would abhorrent turn,” “stunned with noise” (Summer, 316, 317). The logic of infection embedded in “putrid steams” and “the living cloud/Of pestilence” means that the boundary between two bodies, that of the object and that of the observer, is porous (Summer, 292–294). This entanglement evokes both the doubled form of putrefaction and the subject of experimental philosophical project more generally.107 While the replacement of vision with sound registers the fluidity of sensory perception, the threat of infection brings these connections between subjects and objects—between ways of seeing and ways of being seen—into focus.108

If summer’s rotten energy threatens to infect both landscape and observer, then one might presume that the opposite season shuts down such boundary crossings. Winter blankets the landscape and the viewer, seemingly suspending nature and its infectious decay in the process. In winter, all is dreary and grim: “joyless rains” turn fields into an “unsightly plain” with a “brown deluge” (Winter, 73, 76, 77). “Reeling clouds/Stagger with dizzy poise” (Winter, 121–122). This is a wasteland, as Vittoria Di Palma would claim, defined not by what it has but what it lacks. As a lack, a wasteland serves as a productive figure of otherness, and Thomson’s brutal and unforgiving winterscape appears to accomplish such othering.109 The snow and ice are a “wintry waste,” a “smothering ruin,” a “glittery waste,” a “solitary vast,” a “frozen main,” a “white abyss,” a “boundless frost,” or a “bleak expanse” (Winter, 419, 423, 798, 804, 805, 819, 915, 917). The snowstorm is a “whitening shower,” “dimming the day”; the fields are covered in “their winter-robe of purest white./‘Tis brightness all” (Winter, 229, 231, 233–234). Thomson’s winter thwarts visual examination with its blinding optics of “brightness all.”

Thomson introduces slight tonal differences that hint at a variegated landscape underneath, a difference that can exist only briefly when the fresh snow melts on the small creeks and streams that are not yet frozen: that is, “’Tis brightness all; save where the new snow melts/Along the mazy current” (Winter, 234–235). This one subtle sign of a boundary is an index of the landscape’s difference, but even that is too fragile to remain: it is quickly subsumed by the all-encompassing storm. By dusk, “Earth’s universal face, deep-hid and chill,/Is one wild dazzling waste, that buries wide/The works of man” (Winter, 238–240). Scrutiny and attention are the observational modes associated with landscape poetry.110 But no matter how much an observer applies to this landscape, it cannot be differentiated. It cannot be read.

Thomson is not unique in representing snow as a case limit for observational work. The idea of snow producing an impenetrable topography is also expressed in Ambrose Philips’s “A Winter-Piece” (1709), which wearily responds to a drawn-out winter in Copenhagen. The snow-covered landscape hinders ocular apprehension:

The Hills and Dales, and the delightful Woods,

The Flowry Plains, and Silver Streaming Floods,

By Snow disguis’d, in bright Confusion lye,

And with one dazzling Waste fatigue the Eye.111

If wintertime erases anything worth representing in poetry, then Philips conveys this principle (without seeming irony) within a poem whose subject is winter. Beyond this contradiction, Philips registers the difficulty a winter landscape produces for the perceiving body. The spectator’s vision is overwhelmed by the bright uniformity of the snow-covered land; the sort of thinking that emerges from such optical confusion is both unclear and distracting.112 To view a snow-covered prospect is to be induced into “fatigue,” the human eye’s skills for discrimination outmatched by the relenting similitude of a frozen horizon that looks to be “one dazzling Waste.”

Thomson’s Winter clearly participates in the literary tradition of topographical poetry that Philips represents, one that imagines the isolated individual beset by an overwhelming nature. Yet Thomson’s language suggests a second allusion, Newtonianism, evident in the verbal echoes between Winter and Thomson’s figuration of Newton’s optics. In A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (London, 1727), Thomson returns to the language of Winter when he describes Newton’s prism. Thomson implies an affinity between the blanketing of white snow and that of light:

Even Light itself, which every thing displays,

Shone undiscover’d, till his brighter Mind

Untwisted all the shining Robe of Day;

And from the whitening, undistinguish’d Blaze,

Collecting every Ray into his Kind,

To the charm’d Eye educ’d the gorgeous Train

Of Parent-Colours.113

As a “whitening, undistinguish’d Blaze,” light introduces the effect of similitude on objects. Light passes this effect of similitude off as clarity, when it more accurately is the introduction of specific physical properties to the objects under consideration. As an optical instrument, the prism makes visible the difference of light, in contrast to the trope of reflection, which, as Karen Barad suggests, “reflects the themes of mirroring and sameness.”114 Optical instruments are a technology of mediation; so too is light.

Light is a medium on which all observation depends; Newton has taken that technology and applied another to it—the prism—to reveal that light is in fact an effect of various colors, a revelation that “charm’d” the observer’s eye. Thomson’s poem evokes the opening of Newton’s famous first letter to the Royal Society dated February 6, 1672, recounting his early prismatic experiments. Setting up his room to function like a camera obscura, himself bathed in darkness, Newton placed a prism in a small beam of light coming through the shutter. His first reaction is illustrative: “It was at first a very pleasing divertissement to view the vivid and intense colours produced thereby.”115 Close observation of light through the prismatic technology produces pleasure in the observer.

Thomson’s elaborate characterization of “light” shares properties with snow in Winter; as we recall, the poet views a “winter-robe of purest white./’Tis brightness all” (Winter, 233–234). Yet the resonance is more than incidental, for it points to a deeper epistemological connection between light and snow in Thomson’s poetry. If the prism discloses the “Parent-Colours” that make up light, then light’s similitude is in fact an effect of an invisible and unperceivable (without an optical instrument) difference. For all of its illuminating properties and associations with clarity and insight, light is most powerfully understood as the absence of difference. The poem’s language emphasizes not similitude, but an absence of difference, and this is articulated most vividly through the gerund whitening and the negative prefix in undistinguish’d.

Thomson figures snow as overwhelming and as a sign of the absence of difference he associates with light. He also conveys particularly tragic consequences for specific bodies within that landscape. A swain enters the scene from the repository of Georgic convention, a poetic type vulnerable to winter’s blinding and undifferentiated snowscape. While the storm develops, the swain “his own loose-revolving fields . . . /Disastered stands,” lost and stranded (Winter, 278–279). As a swain, he is familiar with the land around him; he knows what should be where, but in the whiteness of winter, he mistakes a “dusky spot” (Winter, 290) for “His tufted cottage” (Winter, 291) and “wanders on/From hill to dale, still more and more astray—” (Winter, 283–284). The swain loses his way in a strong winter snowstorm, a dire circumstance that is directly attributable to his inability to see. Scientific observation promises to survey and render the landscape knowable; its failure here unveils the limits of ocular apprehension. The swain

sees other hills ascend,

Of unknown joyless brow; and other scenes,

Of horrid prospect, shag the trackless plain;

Nor finds the river nor the forest, hid

Beneath the formless wild. (Winter, 279–283)

The preponderance of words in their negative formulation—unknown, joyless, trackless, formless, and, later, shapeless drift (Winter, 306)—in combination with the swain’s stated failure to find either river or forest because they are hidden from view, create a scene in which a familiar landscape exists only as a trace of his mind’s eye. The menace is physical, for the swain does not know where it is safe to step. In their material absence, the swain imaginatively sees the boundaries and contours constitutive of the ground, but this vision haunts him.

The snow-covered fields and hills contain only hints of what is not there, a repeated and insistent absence that has the effect of evoking its positive presence. The threat is underscored by the poem’s refusal to imagine the snow through the trope of similitude. As a scene under erasure, the “wild dazzling waste” consumes the swain, materially transforming his body into a frozen waste. More than merely a tragic Georgic episode or an intellectual meditation on a negative epistemology, the “formless wild” of Winter is unreadable, almost unobservable. All that it allows the observer to apprehend is its “less”-ness—and this exacts a substantially greater cost than the fatigued eye that Ambrose Philips laments. The swain weakens as “night resistless closes fast” (Winter, 294) and, shortly after, he dies from exposure. The landscape seems to absorb the swain, Alastor-like, as he is transformed from a living being to a corpse bleached as white as the snow-covered fields and hills (Winter, 317–321).

The swain’s experience recalls—though with great tragedy—Anne Finch’s “A Nocturnal Reverie,” a single-sentence poem (and favorite of William Wordsworth) that dramatizes what happens when visual perception is thwarted at night. The natural world surrounding the poet shimmers in a series of gray shadows, images, and reflections that produce a more profound and true illumination than “fierce Light [that] disturbs, whilst it reveals.”116 The quality of light that allows for experimental practice, Finch suggests, introduces its own form of disruption, a contention that Thomson’s description of the prism also explores. Light does not operate neutrally: there is a commensurate loss of vision that Finch associates with its presence. As a result, Finch’s poem is interested in exploring a substitute form of observation, the imaginative observation, “When a sedate Content the Spirit feels,” that is, when one is at peace.117 At this moment, and presumably only in these circumstances of quiet and contented blindness, one cannot see but can still perceive: “silent Musings urge the Mind to seek/Something, too high for Syllables to speak.”118 That “Something” points to an object that has a material quality, even if it is indescribable and even if it is in excess of discourse.

The difference with Thomson’s swain, of course, is that his silent musing occurs in a moment of despair and trauma. To enforce the tragedy, Thomson redoubles the perceptual complications under consideration: his swain is blinded not only by the snow but also by nightfall. Therefore, in a slightly different vein, though consonant with the notion of the materialism of thinking, the poem depicts pictorially the things that the swain thinks about as though they are visually and materially in his mind. Just as the prism exposes the difference in light that the eye cannot see on its own, here the swain’s imagination perceives the differences that the snow obliterates. As a result, his imaginative vision activates and catalogs:

Then throng the busy shapes into his mind

Of covered pits, unfathomably deep,

A dire descent! beyond the power of frost;

Of faithless bogs; of precipices huge,

Smoothed up with snow; and (what is land unknown,

What water) of the still unfrozen spring,

In the loose marsh or solitary lake,

Where the fresh fountain from the bottom boils. (Winter, 297–304)

These specific topographical descriptions, accompanied by a recurring anxiety expressed adjectively (“dire,” “faithless”), may well be represented here in the swain’s imagination, but they accrue a material presence at the moment of their introduction in the poem. The words throng and shapes connote a material quality to these imaginative things, and suggest that they are, in fact, things in the experimental philosophical sense. What results is seeing that exceeds the limits of empirical observation.

Within the narrative of the observing body succumbing to the unintelligibility of the difference-less landscape, the swain’s crisis mobilizes an important observational alternative that Thomson elaborates in the rest of Winter. Those same nerves that eventually cease are, for the period he is lost, the only means through which the swain can perceive the outside world. Yet the failure of these perceptions to accord with his experience produces an alternative mode of seeing. When empirical observation produces only a scene of “less”-ness, the swain turns to its alternative, the imaginative eye. Thomson elaborates this potential in the voice of the poem’s “I,” a spectator with significantly greater privilege than the swain. The “I” of Winter luxuriates in a fantasy of retirement unavailable to the tragic, pastoral swain; this fantasy of retirement is a space of comfort exclusive to the poet and his ilk. Nor is this “I” vulnerable to the inundating reversal of the microscopic eye, whether through the threat of sound or infection. Instead, a 150-line encomium to “my retreat” (Winter, 426), modeled on Il Penseroso, imagines a train of ghosts of ancient sages beginning with Socrates, who appear one after another to allow the poet to “hold high converse with the mighty dead—/Sages of ancient time” (Winter, 431–432). Without the previous example of the swain, the pantheon of dead sages would be solely a turn to the ancient epistemology, a renunciation of the modern mode. However, these paradoxically embodied spectral and phantasmagoric entities proffer an alternative to the empirical observation of the natural world in which the poem has been engaged and been critiquing.

If detailed description of the natural world is a symbol of the modern gesture as well as the foundation on which the principles of experimental philosophy are built, then the poet’s mingling with the ancient sages registers a nostalgic, ancient turn in both form (the imagined scene) and content (inherited wisdom). The pleasures for the poet are reminiscent of the swain’s visualized imagination but with decidedly lower risks. The inequity of who has access to this subject position is striking: the nostalgic mode of seeing is available comfortably to the “I” of the poem in his privileged retirement. If, the poet muses, those “larger prospects” fail to materialize, then the imagination would supply ample material: it “would play the shapes/Of frolic fancy; and incessant form/Those rapid pictures, that assembled train/Of fleet ideas, never joined before” (Winter, 610–613). In contrast, when the swain’s visual apprehension fails, he freezes in a snowdrift.

The seemingly hopeful possibility of the poet in retirement contrasts sharply with the inevitable oblivion of the swain. The contrast between seeing and blindness activates the optical possibilities that the poem moves to imagine in Winter’s excursion to the frigid zone, presented in opposition to Summer’s journey to the torrid zone. This environment seems, at first glance, to present more examples of a menacing landscape that is impossible to detail visually. The snowy Alps and the clouds merge and mount in an increasingly overwhelming scene for an increasingly panicky spectator: “Snows swell on snows,” “icy mountains high on mountains piled,” and “Alps frown on Alps” convey an observer’s inability to distinguish visually between landscape and weather (Winter, 905, 906, 910). Snow, mountains, and clouds intermingle, generating an ever more overpowering spectacle. There is no chance for scrutiny and no hope of disambiguation. Here is a moment that encapsulates what later emerges as a characteristic scene of the sublime, deeply imbricated in the experience of an individual in the Alps.

Yet alongside such moments of the frightening failure of vision is a sign that an alternative mode of optical apprehension might be possible. The conditions of winter weather prompt Thomson to stage a counterpart to Summer’s microscope. Thomson adopts the prism to demonstrate its imaginative potential for visual apprehension. The poem explicitly views northern geography through a lens of difference that is imaginable because of the logic of the prism. Thomson announces that in the frigid zone, “All nature feels the renovating force/Of Winter—only to the thoughtless eye/In ruin seen” (Winter, 704–706). The thoughtful, rather than the thoughtless, eye is prismatic: it is trained to see difference. The prismatic eye accurately apprehends that the “icy horrors” of Russia are not an undistinguished, undifferentiated mass (Winter, 805). The frozen expanse instead accommodates living organisms, perceivable to that thoughtful, prismatic eye: “Yet there life glows;/Yet, cherished there, beneath the shining waste/The furry nations harbor” (Winter, 809–811). The example of a hibernating bear that “Hardens his heart against assailing want” (Winter, 833) represents not only an embodied resilience possible in winter, but also the demarcation of the boundary between life and death, warmth and cold, organic and inorganic. This is the difference available to Thomson’s reader.

Within the seemingly frozen wasteland of the frigid zone, Thomson provides a specific counterpart to the forsaken swain, he whose nervous system slowly succumbs to the numbing effects of the wintry cold. In the frigid zone, the “I” pauses to commemorate a ship of British explorers, iced into their frozen ship. The adventurer and his crew are not subsumed into a blanket of snow. They instead stand as aesthetic monuments, converted into statues attesting to their (former) vigor: “Each full exerted at his several task,/Froze into statues” (Winter, 933–934). The explicit aestheticization of the sailors into statuary is possible because of Thomson’s perceiving “I,” a subject position that not only apprehends difference but also does so within an explicitly aesthetic framework. The sailors are not more evidence of a horrific wasteland. Their frozen, dead bodies transform a naval failure into an aesthetic tribute to British nationalism and scientific ingenuity.

To not see in detail is the unfortunate truth that Winter teaches. The landscape challenges conventional modes of visual apprehension: the naked eye fails to perceive such an environment. The failure of vision here has uneven effects; for the vulnerable, such blindness leads to oblivion. With this alternate mode of seeing as imaginative observation, Winter presents specific epistemological and ontological payoffs. The model of prismatic vision, extended to a figurative possibility unavailable in its physical form, emerges as profoundly productive. Only with prismatic visual perception in place is what the editor, James Sambrook, identifies as “the intention of The Seasons” possible.119 For such readers, The Seasons explicitly refigures the traditional opposition between particulars and generalizations, pointing a way to reconcile them. In the wake of the swain’s imagination of materialism, the “I” of Winter is equipped to see more, and to see it figuratively as a whole, even though this is practically or, that is to say, empirically, impossible:

Hence larger prospects of the beauteous whole

Would gradual open on our opening minds;

And each diffusive harmony unite

In full perfection to the astonished eye. (Winter, 579–82)

Thomson imagines the possibility that natural philosophy cannot accommodate: the eye and the mind, working as mutual alibis, produce material insight and, to adapt a phrase from Bruce Robbins, the difficult generalization.120 The idealization of experimental philosophy’s observed particular also forecloses the experiential and intellectual value of contemplating its epistemological and ontological opposite—what Thomson optimistically calls “the beauteous whole.”

In Winter, Thomson stages an appropriation of the logic and epistemology of the prism, in large part by disentangling its potential from its practical applications. Therefore, as much emphasis as there has been on the microscopic eye that absorbs present history as a noisy imperial landscape and as much as that microscopic eye precipitates a global journey that animates the literary trope of taking that seeing body around the world to reimagine a visual alternative to empirical observation, Thomson’s Winter foregrounds a deep skepticism about the possibility of empirical observation and draws on the epistemology of the prism to compensate for those limitations. In the process, he articulates a model of imaginative vision that evokes the material and figurative simultaneously in order to perceive difference. As a counterpoint to the flight to the torrid zone in Summer, the winter journey to the frigid zone puts into action a prismatic vision, enabling the viewer to see the difference that winter regularly obscures. This visual subjectivity attentive to difference thus allows Thomson to imagine a world in which both observed particulars and difficult generalizations cohere, if only in the imaginative space of the prism-like eye.

The self-conscious rendering of art as art operates as a form of knowledge production in the eighteenth century. The notion of “aesthetic” leans on the notion of a detached observer whose sensory perceptions produce a metacritical understanding of art as a separate domain. At the core of eighteenth-century aesthetics resides a debt, easily obscured, to the epistemological structures and protocols of natural philosophy. When poets take up art through science, they produce a theory of knowledge. To render a thing, a grotto, a landscape poetically is to make claims about the world. Pope’s The Rape of the Lock challenges us to reconsider the limits and possibilities of the objects we view. A poem preoccupied with things, Pope’s mock epic uses the revelatory power of close observation to reveal the uneasy balance between material and theory that constitutes the observed particular in natural philosophy. If Hooke needs to take multiple views of a single object to produce a composite that is, in fact, presented as a singular instance, then Pope pulls out the narrative implications of this process: the poetic eye of The Rape of the Lock sees things in their present and past states at one and the same time. Things in Pope’s imagination are mutable—they have always been and always will be—and this quality of changefulness requires a mode of apprehension available only to the aesthetic observer. The lesson Pope teaches is that the material world, that is, the phenomena under the scrutiny of natural philosophers, always has a past, present, and future.

The potential for things to function as trophies—as symbols of conquest, as signs of mastery—inspires Pope’s narrative as well as the construction of Queen Caroline’s Hermitage. Considered as an experiential site, the Hermitage demands that one situate oneself within it: the movement from exterior to interior and from one British worthy to another requires that the spectator be a participant in this paean to native thinking. Imagined as a sacred place of retirement, where one—namely, the queen herself—might repose to contemplate the brilliance of Boyle, Newton, et al., the Hermitage presents natural philosophy not as a practice to be emulated but as a mode to produce an aesthetic experience. The Hermitage and the poems commemorating it do not inculcate the techniques of natural philosophy as, for example, a lecture or course at Benjamin Martin’s instrument shop would. Instead, these monuments, both architectural and textual, function as calls to produce art—and, once produced, to produce more art. The proliferation of poems, galvanized around the occasion of the Gentleman’s Magazine’s poetry contest, provide varied and variable aesthetic mediations of natural philosophy.

If some poets celebrate British intellectual innovation as the means to produce an aesthetic experience, then others imagine beyond the limits of what close observation of the world uncovers. Taking the idea of scientific instrumentation as a founding conceit, James Thomson positions the poet—the stand-in for a modest/immodest witness—as the observational eye subject to sensory perception of the world. The microscope in The Seasons proves horrific, pulling the viewer into an unfiltered mass of sensory stimulation that correlates to a disembodied yet imperial account of the globe. Thomson adapts the logic of the prism as a scientific instrument that perceives difference the naked eye cannot, applying its optics to a world far beyond one’s ordinary view. Winter, as a season and a state of (at best) stasis or (at worst) decimation, absorbs the vulnerable into its unrelenting sameness. But Thomson’s homage to Newton’s prismatic logic reveals that aesthetics allows one to perceive and acknowledge difference, a move that uncovers ideological fissures endangering some individuals and protecting others.

When science becomes literature—that is, in aesthetic mediations of natural philosophy—we see the limits of science and the truths of the literary, a revelation possible through the experimental imagination.


1. Thomas Sprat, The History of the Royal Society of London, For the Improving of Natural Knowledge, 3rd ed. (London, 1722), 415.

2. See Frank T. Boyle, Swift as Nemesis: Modernity and Its Satirist (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), 83–85.

3. Abraham Cowley, “To the Royal Society,” in The History of the Royal Society, For the Improving of Natural Knowledge, 3rd ed. (London, 1722), I.

4. Ibid., II.

5. Ellis Waterhouse, Painting in Britain, 1530–1790, 4th ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), 70–77.

6. Cowley, “To the Royal Society,” IV.

7. Robert Hooke, Micrographia: or Some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies (London, 1665), “Preface.”

8. Cowley, “To the Royal Society,” IV.

9. Ibid., IX.

10. John Guillory, “Enlightening Mediation,” in This Is Enlightenment, ed. Clifford Siskin and William Warner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 37–63, esp. 52–56.

11. Clifford Siskin and William Warner, “Introduction,” in This Is Enlightenment, 5–19.

12. Gottlieb Baumgarten, Meditations philosophicae de nonnulis ad poem pertinentibus, §§ cxv-cxvi; Metaphysica, §533; Aesthetica, §1. Quoted in Paul Guyer, Values of Beauty: Historical Essays in Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 3.

13. See Jerome Stolnitz, “On the Origins of ‘Aesthetic Disinterest,’Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 20, no. 2 (1961): 131–143; George Dickie, Art and the Aesthetic: An Institutional Analysis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974), 53–77; Elizabeth A. Bohls, “Disinterestedness and the Denial of the Particular: Locke, Adam Smith, and the Subject of Aesthetics,” in Eighteenth-Century Aesthetics and the Reconstruction of Art, ed. Paul Mattick, Jr. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 16–51; Miles Rind, “The Concept of Disinterestedness in Eighteenth-Century British Aesthetics,” Journal of the History of Philosophy 4, no. 1 (2002): 67–87; and Jane Kneller, “Disinterestedness,” in Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, gen. ed. Michael Kelly, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 2:421–426.

14. Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury, The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody in Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Philip Ayres (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), 2:318.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid., 2:318–319.

17. Ibid., 2:319.

18. Ibid.

19. Francis Hutcheson, “1725 Preface,” in An Inquiry into the Original of Our Ideas of Beauty and Virtue in Two Treatises, ed. Wolfgang Leidhold (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008), 12.

20. Carolyn Wilker Korsmeyer, “Relativism and Hutcheson’s Aesthetic Theory,” Journal of the History of Ideas 36, no. 2 (1975): 320.

21. See David Paxman, “Aesthetics as Epistemology; Or Knowledge Without Certainty,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 26, no.2 (1992–1993): 298.

22. Hutcheson, An Inquiry, 25 [I.§xiv].

23. Ibid.,, 15 [II.viii].

24. Peter Kivy, The Seventh Sense: A Study of Francis Hutcheson’s Aesthetics and Its Influence in Eighteenth-Century Britain (New York: Burt Franklin, 1976), 1–4.

25. Hutcheson, An Inquiry, 25 [I.§xiii].

26. Paxman, “Aesthetics as Epistemology,” 295.

27. Guyer, Values of Beauty, 13–14.

28. Hutcheson, An Inquiry, 24 [I.§xii].

29. Paxman, “Aesthetics as Epistemology,” 295.

30. Bohls, “Disinterestedness and Denial of the Particular,” 27.

31. Peter de Bolla, The Education of the Eye: Painting, Landscape and Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 1–71, 218–234.

32. Cowley, “To the Royal Society,” IV.

33. Frances Ferguson, Solitude and the Sublime: Romanticism and the Aesthetics of Individuation (New York: Routledge, 1992), 3–4.

34. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (New York: Continuum, 2006), 17, 13.

35. Ibid., 13.

36. Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock in The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson, vol. 2 of The Twickenham Edition of the Poems of Alexander Pope, gen. ed. John Butt. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1964), 5.122–123. Subsequent quotations from this work are cited parenthetically in the text.

37. Jayne Elizabeth Lewis takes a scientific approach to the poem, but to argue that it coincides with the emergent discourse of pneumatics, and Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace uses vitalism to read the poem. In Jayne Elizabeth Lewis, Air’s Appearance: Literary Atmosphere in British Fiction, 1660–1794 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 61–91; and Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, “The Things Things Don’t Say: The Rape of the Lock, Vitalism, and New Materialism,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation, forthcoming.

38. Benjamin Martin, A New and Compendious System of Optics (London, 1740), xii.

39. Marjorie Nicolson and G. S. Rousseau imply this point in “This Long Disease, My Life”: Alexander Pope and the Sciences (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1968), 247; and Robert W. Williams, “Pope and the ‘Microscopic Eye,’Sydney Studies in English 14 (1988–1989): 21–37.

40. See Maxine Berg, Luxury and Pleasure in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

41. Geoffrey Tillotson, “Introduction,” The Rape of the Lock and Other Poems, 118; Helen Deutsch, Resemblance and Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996), 61, 41; and Jonathan Lamb, The Things Things Say (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2011), 99.

42. Cynthia Sundberg Wall, The Prose of Things: Transformations of Description in the Eighteenth Century (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

43. Robert Boyle, A Proemial Essay (London, 1661), 2:18.

44. Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1963), 17, 39; Neil Hertz, “Dora’s Secrets, Freud’s Techniques,” in In Dora’s Case: Freud—Hysteria—Feminism, ed. Charles Bernheimer and Claire Kahane, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), 227. See also Jacqueline Rose, “Introduction II,” in Feminine Sexuality: Jacques Lacan and the Ecole Freudienne, ed. Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose, trans. Jacqueline Rose (New York: Norton and Pantheon 1985), 48.

45. Tita Chico, Designing Women: The Dressing Room in Eighteenth-Century English Literature and Culture (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2005), 107–131.

46. Laura Brown, The Ends of Empire: Women and Ideology in Early Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993), 113, 119. See also Laura Mandell, Misogynous Economies: The Business of Literature in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1999), 21–36.

47. Joseph Roach, It (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007), 127.

48. Robert Markley, “Beyond Consensus: The Rape of the Lock and the Fate of Reading Eighteenth-Century Literature,” New Orleans Review 15 (1998): 68; Christopher Norris, “Pope among the Formalists: Textual Politics and ‘The Rape of the Lock,’” in Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry, ed. Richard Machin and Christopher Norris (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 142.

49. J. Paul Hunter, “Formalism and History: Binarism and the Anglophone Couplet,” MLQ 61 (2000): 119.

50. The Hermitage was sometimes called a “grotto” by contemporaries and, along with Merlin’s Cave, eventually came under the care of the “thresher poet,” Stephen Duck. Queen Caroline later commissioned Kent to design and build “Merlin’s Cave” in the Richmond gardens.

51. [Matthew Green], The Grotto, A Poem. Written by Peter Drake, Fisherman of Brentford (London, 1733), 4.

52. “Essay I. On the Five Bustoes in the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest: Being Poetical Essays on the Queen’s Grotto (London, 1734), 2.

53. Judith Colton, “Kent’s Hermitage for Queen Caroline at Richmond,” Architectura 4, no. 2 (1974): 186. The busts were designed and carved by the Italian sculptor Giovanni Battista Guelfi, though scholars earlier believed that Michael Rysbrack was the artist. See Gordon Balderston, “Giovanni Battista Guelfi: Five Busts for Queen Caroline’s Hermitage in Richmond,” Sculpture Garden 17, no. 1 (2003): 83–88.

54. Joanna Marschner, Queen Caroline: Cultural Politics in the Early Eighteenth-Century Court (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 149–169.

55. María Luisa López-Vidriero, The Polished Cornerstone of the Temple: Queenly Libraries of the Enlightenment (London: British Library, 2005), 7–10; and Marschner, Queen Caroline, 154–163.

56. López-Vidriero, The Polished Cornerstone, 23.

57. Colton, “Kent’s Hermitage,” 182; Cinzia Maria Sicca, “Like a Shallow Cave by Nature Made: William Kent’s ‘Natural’ Architecture at Richmond,” Architectura 16, no. 1 (1986): 68; and Balderston, “Giovanni Battista Guelfi,” 83–84.

58. “Essay V. On the Royal Grotto,” The Contest, 6, l. 14.

59. Jill H. Casid, Sowing Empire: Landscape and Colonization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 105.

60. A Description of the Royal Gardens at Richmond in Surry, the Village, and Places Adjacent (London, n.d. [circa 1736?]), 21.

61. “Richmond Gardens,” London Magazine: and Monthly Chronologer 6 (1738): 38–39. The stalactites are visible in John Vardy’s engraving, “William Kent, Section of Queen Caroline’s Hermitage at Richmond,” in Some Designs of Mr. Inigo Jones and Mr. William Kent (London, 1744), pl. 33; see also Colton, “Kent’s Hermitage,” 183.

62. Gentleman’s Magazine 3 (April 1733), 208, Note.

63. Edmund Curll, The Rarities of Richmond: being Exact Descriptions of the Royal Hermitage and Merlin’s Cave with his Life and Prophecies. The Second Edition (London, 1736), 11–12.

64. F. N. L. Poynter, “Rysbrack’s Bust of Robert Boyle,” Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 24, no. 4 (1969): 475; and Judith Colton, “Merlin’s Cave and Queen Caroline: Garden Art as Political Propaganda,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 10, no. 1 (1976): 3.

65. Editor’s note, Gentleman’s Magazine 3 (April 1733): 208.

66. Stephen Duck, “On Richmond Park, and Royal Gardens,” in Poems on Several Occasions (London, 1736), 79.

67. “Essay IX. On the Bustoes in Her Majesty’s Hermitage,” in The Contest, 16.

68. “Essay II. Ode on the Bust of the Hon. Robert Boyle, Esq; in her Majesty’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 3, ll. 1–2.

69. “Essay VI. On the Queen and the Bustoes plac’d in her Grotto,” in The Contest, 8, ll. 36, 35; and “Essay VIII. To her Majesty, on her Grotto,” in The Contest, 13.

70. “Essay X. To the Queen on her Grotto,” in The Contest, 17.

71. Jane Brereton, “On the Bustoes in the Royal Hermitage,” in Poems on Several Occasions (London, 1735), 175.

72. “Essay IV. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 5, ll. 12–16.

73. Robert Boyle, New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and its Effects (1660), in vol. 1 of The Works of Robert Boyle, ed. Michael Hunter and Edward B. Davis (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999), 1:166. See also Steven Shapin, “Pump and Circumstance: Boyle’s Literary Technology,” Social Studies of Science 14 (1984): 481–520.

74. Boyle’s theology does not receive as much literary attention in the commendatory poems as his natural philosophy; one of the rare examples is when a poet directly addresses Boyle, explaining that “Seraphic Boyle, thy search in nature’s store,/Was but to learn t’admire thy maker more!” “Essay VII. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 10.

75. Ibid., 11; “Essay IX. On the Bustoes in her Majesty’s Hermitage,” in The Contest, 16; and Brereton, “On the Bustoes,” 175.

76. “Essay VII. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 11; and “Essay X. To the Queen on her Grotto,” in The Contest, 17.

77. “Essay VII. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 11.

78. “Essay IV. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 5, ll. 23; and “Essay VI. On the Queen and the Bustoes plac’d in her Grotto,” in The Contest, 8, ll. 49–50.

79. “Essay VII. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 11.

80. Alfred Clarke, An Essay towards the character of Her late Majesty Caroline, queen-consort of Great Britain (London, 1738), 19.

81. “Essay IV. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 5, l. 9.

82. “Essay III. On the Queen’s Grotto. An Ode,” in The Contest, 4, l.12.

83. “Essay VI. On the Queen and the Bustoes plac’d in her Grotto,” in The Contest, 8, ll. 33–34; “Essay IX. On the Bustoes in her Majesty’s Hermitage,” in The Contest, 15; and “Essay XI. On her Majesty and the Bustoes in the royal Grotto,” in The Contest, 19.

84. “Essay VI. On the Queen and the Bustoes plac’d in her Grotto,” in The Contest, 9, l. 55.

85. “Essay VII. On the Queen’s Grotto,” in The Contest, 9.

86. “Essay VI. On the Queen and the Bustoes plac’d in her Grotto,” in The Contest, 8, l. 29; and “Essay VI. On the Queen and the Bustoes plac’d in her Grotto,” in The Contest, 8, ll.30-31.

87. “Essay VIII. To her Majesty, on her Grotto,” in The Contest, 13.

88. Ibid.

89. Ibid.

90. Ibid.

91. Ibid.

92. “Essay VI. On the Queen and the Bustoes plac’d in her Grotto,” in The Contest, 9, ll. 56–58.

93. Suvir Kaul, Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire: English Verse in the Long Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000), 147.

94. See Ralph Cohen, The Unfolding of The Seasons (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970), 7; John Barrell, English Literature in History, 1730–1780: An Equal, Wide Survey (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1983); John Barrell and Harriet Guest, “On the Use of Contradiction: Economics and Morality in the Eighteenth-Century Long Poem,” in The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature, ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown (New York: Routledge, 1987), 121–143.

95. Tim Fulford, Landscape, Liberty, and Authority: Poetry, Criticism, and Politics from Thomson to Wordsworth (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 3; see also 1–17. John Barrell, The Idea of the Landscape and the Sense of Place, 1730–1840: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972); W. J. T. Mitchell, “Imperial Landscape,” in Landscape and Power, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002), 5–34; Karen O’Brien, “Imperial Georgic, 1660–1789,” in The Country and the City Revisited: England and the Politics of Culture 1550–1850, ed. Gerald MacLean, Donna Landry, and Joseph P. Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 160–179; Kaul, Poems of Nation, Anthems of Empire, 147–167; Kevis Goodman, Georgic Modernity and British Romanticism: Poetry and the Mediation of History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); and Casid, Sowing Empire.

96. William Wordsworth, “Essay, Supplementary to the Preface,” in The Poetical Works of William Wordsworth, ed. Edward Dowden (London: George Bell & Sons, 1893), 5:265–266. See also Sandro Jung, “Visual Interpretations, Print, and Illustrations of Thomson’s The Seasons, 1730–1797,” Eighteenth-Century Life 34, no. 2 (2010): 23–64; and “Print Culture, High-Cultural Consumption, and Thomson’s The Seasons, 1780–1797,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 44, no. 4 (2011): 495–514.

97. Joseph Warton, Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (London, 1756), 4.

98. See Herbert Drennon, “Scientific Rationalism and James Thomson’s Poetic Art,” Studies in Philology 31 (1934): 453–471; Marjorie Hope Nicolson, Newton Demands the Muse: Newton’s Opticks and the Eighteenth Century Poets (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1946); William Powell Jones, The Rhetoric of Science: A Study of Scientific Ideas and Imagery in Eighteenth-Century English Poetry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), 106–120; Patricia Fara and David Money, “Isaac Newton and Augustan Anglo-Latin Poetry,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science 35 (2004): 549–571; and Philip Connell, “Newtonian Physico-Theology and the Varieties of Whiggism in James Thomson’s The Seasons,” Huntington Library Quarterly 72, no. 1 (2009): 1–28.

99. James Thomson, The Seasons, ed. James Sambrook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), Summer, 1442, 1543–1545, 1550–1553. Subsequent references are cited parenthetically within the text.

100. See Karen O’Brien, “‘These Nations Newton Made his Own’: Poetry, Knowledge, and British Imperial Globalization,” in The Postcolonial Enlightenment: Eighteenth-Century Colonialism and Postcolonial Theory, ed. Daniel Carey and Lynn Festa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 295.

101. Glynis Ridley, “The Seasons and the Politics of Opposition,” in James Thomson: Essays for the Tercentenary, ed. Richard Terry (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2000), 93.

102. Marie Boas Hall, Robert Boyle and Seventeenth-Century Chemistry (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1956), 185. See also the Introduction to this book and Chapter 1.

103. See Henry Power, Experimental Philosophy in Three Books (London, 1664), Preface.

104. Isaac Newton, Opticks; or, a Treatise of the Reflections, Refractions, Inflections and Colours of Light, 4th ed. (London, 1730), 320.

105. Goodman, Georgic Modernity, 59. Joseph Roach anticipates Goodman’s reading in “The Artificial Eye: Augustan Theatre and the Empire of the Visible,” in The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics, ed. Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991), 136–137.

106. Goodman, Georgic Modernity, 60–62.

107. Tita Chico, “Putrefaction as Optical Technology,” Configurations: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Technology, 25, no. 2 (2017): 145–164.

108. Cristobal Silva, Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of New England Narrative, 1616–1721 (Oxford: Oxford University Press University Press, 2011), 3–10.

109. Vittoria Di Palma, Wasteland: A History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 3–4.

110. Margaret Koehler, Poetry of Attention in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), 127–28.

111. Ambrose Philips, “A Winter-Piece. An Epistle to the Earl of Dorset,” in Joseph Addison, The Tatler, ed. Donald F. Bond (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987), 1:109 (no. 12; May 7, 1709).

112. Koehler, Poetry of Attention, 137.

113. James Thomson, A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton (London, 1727), 10.

114. Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 71.

115. Letter to Royal Society, February 6, 1672, opening paragraph.

116. Anne Finch, “A Noctural Reverie,” in Miscellany Poems, on Several Occasions. Written by a Lady (London, 1713), 293.

117. Ibid.

118. Ibid.

119. James Thomson, The Seasons, ed. James Sambrook (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), 237.

120. Bruce Robbins, “Comparative Cosmopolitanisms,” in Cosmopolitics: Thinking and Feeling Beyond the Nation, ed. Pheng Cheah and Bruce Robbins (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 252.