M. M. Mahood’s The Poet as Botanist ends with two indexes: the first, an index of persons; the second, a more surprising index of plants. The inclusion of the double index sheds light on the unique nature of Mahood’s study. In an important sense, the book is about poets and the ways in which their lives and writings were vitally shaped by their engagement with the plant world. In an equally important sense, the book is a paean to plants themselves in all their beauty and splendor. And this is as it should be. An Emeritus Professor of English literature, Mahood went on to pursue her lifelong interest in plant life by completing an Open University degree course in biology. Every page of her work communicates her deep knowledge of both the literary and botanical fields. Meticulous readings of poems are interwoven with equally meticulous descriptions of the plants they invoke. Indeed the qualities found in the writers she studies – the sense of limitless wonder, joy, and empathy in relation to the plant world, all of which are bound with a careful attention to detail and structure – are the qualities most evident in Mahood’s work. One can well imagine Mahood’s ideal reader leafing through the index of plants to find a favorite flower or fern and then delighting in tracing its representation to the literary sphere. The joy – both intellectual and emotional – produced by the concourse of the natural and the cultural is the chief impulse that animates this study.
The historical focus of The Poet as Botanist is on the Golden Age of botany, a period that opens with the rise of Linnaean taxonomy and the subsequent popularization of plant studies in the eighteenth century and closes with the gradual eclipse of amateur botany by the more forbidding and abstract science of molecular biology in the years following the First World War. At the heart of the book are chapters on Erasmus Darwin, George Crabbe, John Clare, John Ruskin, and D. H. Lawrence, all writers who grew up in this age of botanical fervor and who can also be considered botanists in their own right. This last distinction is crucial. Mahood sets aside writers often thought of as lyricists of the floral scene, such as Coleridge, Hardy, and Hopkins, in order to shed light on the intimate kinship between scientific and poetic ways of seeing nature in those thinkers who moved freely between disciplines we too often regard as mutually exclusive. To this end, Mahood structures her chapters as biographia botanica (3). The payoff of Mahood’s methodological gambit is the new picture of each writer that comes into focus. In each instance, we learn how the writer’s deep knowledge of the plant world informed his poetic vision as well as the ways his particular poetic sensibility shaped the direction and form of his scientific work. And, perhaps most crucially, we discover how these intellectual concerns folded into even the most private aspects of these writers’ lives.
John Clare, the self-described “bard of wild flowers” provides a good illustration of the advantage of this biographical method. The son of a farm laborer, Clare draws from his local Northamptonshire dialect as well as from the works of renowned natural historians and blends the villager’s associative, common-sense way of looking at plants from his youth with the precision of the botanist. The mixture of the exact and the evocative captures the aesthetic delight and intellectual joy that characterizes Clare’s encounter with the natural world. The result is a cornucopia of plants in his verse. Mahood counts over 370 plant names (112). Two years before his total mental collapse in 1837, flowers almost entirely disappear from his verse as though signaling an end to his happiness. Flowers return in abundance during the relative peace of his asylum years. Though there is a sense of alienation and homesickness in his later floral imagery, the flowers provide Clare with a consolation for his losses as well as a sense of liberation from his condition. George Crabbe, the poet of the Suffolk coastal landscape, is also able to use his recollection of the area’s unique flora to keep alive in memory a happier time in his life, in his case the period before his wife’s fall into dementia. The personal and botanical are most intimately entwined in the work of John Ruskin. Mahood opens her chapter on Ruskin with an account of his identification of and with the Soldanella or alpine snowbell. Experienced as the first flower to break through the alpine snow in the spring, the Soldanella comes to represent Ruskin’s self-affirmation and, as a subject of detailed sketches and intense observation, provides him a refuge from his over-protective parents and his estranged wife. For Mahood, Ruskin’s contemplation of the alpine-snowbell is emblematic of the ways in which personal feelings and biographical experience course through his study of plants. Indeed, it nicely suggests the interplay between the personal sphere and the floral scene present in each poet in Mahood’s study.
To the modern reader it is easy to lose sight of just how well-versed these writers were in the botanical sciences. To Mahood’s credit, each writer’s experience in botany is kept fully in view. We are reminded that Erasmus Darwin is the author of a major work on physiology. More surprisingly, we learn that he anticipates elements of photosynthesis in The Economy of Vegetation and effectively becomes the “first champion” of biodiversity in Phytologia (63,80). Crabbe devises his own system of botanical classification and might have been a pioneer ecologist, Mahood muses, had he pushed his own original observations on the clover to their logical conclusion (91). Even a writer such as Ruskin, who would become so hostile to mainstream (Darwinian) science, grounded his opposition in his empirical experience. By chronicling their botanical achievements, Mahood restores to visibility an aspect of these writers’ works that is often hidden away in our world of compartmentalized knowledge.
The opening and closing chapters frame Mahood’s study of the five central poets by looking at the “relationship between biological thought and poetic process” and “the story of our perception of the green kingdom” from the early modern period to the present day (3). Moving from Renaissance herbalists to Victorian systematic botanists, the first chapter traces the cultural history of the primrose and culminates in a crucial comparison between Wordsworth and Charles Darwin. Cast as the greatest poet and the greatest scientist of the nineteenth century respectively, these figures typify for Mahood two distinctive approaches to the world of plants. Alive to the general features of the landscape, Wordsworth is less drawn to plants in their particularity than to their subjective role within the scene. The primrose might embody qualities such as independence or serve as an occasion for a shared or remembered experience. Whatever its function, the primrose is not perceived in its specificity as a plant. By contrast, Darwin experiences the plant world with a profound sense of its otherness. He counterbalances his awareness of the plant’s radical alterity with a feeling of “empathic identification” that produces a sense of persistent wonder and joy at the way in which the plant world functions (38-9). Darwin’s way of experiencing nature is not unique. “Biophilia,” “deep ecology,” “a feeling for the organism,” “a reverence for life”: these are among the terms used in disciplines ranging from biology to theology to describe this experience. However different the five poet-botanists are from each other, they have in common Darwin’s biophilic perception of nature, from Clare’s “secret sympathy” with plant life to Lawrence’s “sense of communion” with other life forms (118, 211).
The final chapter brings Mahood’s study into the contemporary world. Mahood sees the twentieth century, particularly the first half of the century, as an unhappy time for nature poetry. The fall of botany as an amateur pastime, the rise of modernism with its urban aesthetics, the advent of 1960’s feminism with its challenge to the traditional association between women and flowers, and, more generally, the violence of the century, all have conspired against the genre. Theodore Roethke, Michael Longley, and Ted Hughes, subjects of close readings that demonstrate the best qualities in Mahood’s work, are exceptions to the rule. Mahood’s book ends on a cautiously optimistic note. It foresees, or at least hopes for, the “revitalization of poetry about the natural world by ecology” (252). While their numbers are still few, “poet-botanists of the past have been succeeded by poet-ecologists” (253). A close reading of one such poet-ecologist, Les Murray, provides the coda to Mahood’s ambitious and sensitive study.
Bernhard Kuhn is Associate Professor of English at Union College and is the author of Autobiography and Natural Science in the Age of Romanticism: Rousseau, Goethe, Thoreau (Ashgate, 2009) and varied articles on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century literature and culture.