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Eric G. Wilson’s The Spiritual History of Ice: Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination is inspired by an ambitious goal: to provide a “spiritual history” of ice, especially as it was developed in British and American (and occasionally German) Romantic literature, but also as those two literary movements found their roots in classical and early modern reflections on ice. The result is a book in which readings of Aristotle sit side by side with discussions of James Cook’s journey to the Antarctic Circle; Humphrey Davy’s researches into chemistry are linked to Swedenborg’s reflections on crystallization; and the Zoroastrian figures of Ahrimanes and Ormuzd are positioned as interpretative keys to P. B. Shelley’s reflections on ice and glaciers in “Mont Blanc.” Wilson usefully focuses this very long, complicated, and multi-layered history by dividing the book into three sections, each devoted to a different aspect of ice (crystals, glaciers, and the poles). Nevertheless the historical expansiveness of Spiritual History will probably appeal most to readers comfortable with the extensive “history of ideas” approach to Romanticism favored by authors such as A. O. Lovejoy, W. H. Auden, and Marjorie Hope Nicholson, rather than readers more committed to the intensive analyses of New Historical literary criticism (a point that Wilson acknowledges at the outset).
Yet if Spiritual History is a history of ideas, it is a particular and peculiar variant of that mode, as the book’s title suggest. Wilson contends that his book has a threefold aim, seeking to provide “a spiritual history of Western representations of frozen shapes from ancient times to the early nineteenth century; an anatomy of these representations of ice; and an apology for a Romantic mode of seeing that ecologically inflects the spiritual history and anatomy of ice” (3). While the latter two goals seem (relatively) straightforward, it is unfortunate that Wilson does not devote much discussion to what, precisely, a “spiritual history” might be, since this is by no means a self-evident term. In a long footnote to the first chapter, Wilson provides a list of the kinds of historical approach that do not characterize what he is doing, contending that his book is “not a ‘new historical’ or ‘cultural’ study of representations of ice,” nor is it “a natural history of crystals, glaciers, or the poles” (227 note 8). Instead, he contends, it is a “scientific, psychological, and occult complement” to recent cultural studies work on ice and Romanticism, as represented by Robert G. David’s The Arctic in British Imagination, 1818-1914 (2000) and Francis Spufford’s I May be Some Time: Ice and the English Imagination (1997). The Introduction hints that a spiritual history is equivalent to an “esoteric” reading of ice, which, rather than seeing frozen water as either malignant or simply neutral, “sees icescapes as revelations of an abysmal origin, marriages of opposites, mergings of microcosm and macrocosm” (3). A spiritual history of ice is thus one that does not simply treat past descriptions of ice as culturally- or ideologically-motivated representations, but rather shares with past authors the belief that ice really does enable spiritual revelations.
As a result of this methodology, many, if not most, of the key sources of influence that Wilson discusses—for example, Jacob Boehme, Albertus Magnus, Paracelsus, Emanuel Swedenborg, Zoroaster—are names more commonly associated with religion and magic than with science. In this sense, the book’s subtitle—“Romanticism, Science, and the Imagination”—is perhaps a bit deceptive, for while The Spiritual History of Ice is unarguably about Romanticism and the imagination, but it is not really about science, at least as that term is generally understood. Romantic era scientists such as Humphrey Davy and Erasmus Darwin, and Romantic era scientific explorers such as James Cook, do make brief appearances in The Spiritual History of Ice, but Wilson is far more interested in authors who understand crystals, glaciers, and the polar ice caps as sources of revelation about the interconnectedness of the visible and invisible worlds. Such a focus often leads Wilson to interesting readings that highlight the persistence of alchemical and magical interests in Romantic era authors. Moreover, as Wilson rightly points out, for Romantic authors such as P. B. Shelley, science was “not a refutation of magic but a body of information that he could transform into a new craft,” and Wilson seeks to outline a “sublime” form of science that he engaged in his earlier books Emerson’s Sublime Science (1999) and Romantic Turbulence: Chaos, Ecology, and American Space (2000). While this is a laudable and important goal, it is not entirely clear in what ways more familiar senses of the term “science” relate to its “sublime,” or magical, variant, and Wilson seems relatively uninterested in such discussion. As a result, readers expecting to encounter significant discussions of Romantic era science (in the more traditional sense of that term) will be disappointed.
This is unfortunate, for some of Wilson’s central points might well shed light on more “normal” Romantic science. So, for example, Wilson’s emphasis on the extent to which early modern and Romantic era authors understood ice through categories of life and vitality (5-6) might be profitably related to John Hunter’s use of ice to demonstrate the vital capacities of living tissues, and Wilson’s stress on the relationship between ecological connectedness and ice might very well shed light on Erasmus Darwin’s desire to relocate parts of the polar ice cap off the coast of South America in order to change the global climate. However, because such examples do not employ ice as a means for mystical gnosis, they simply fall outside the ambit of this book.
The Spiritual History of Ice is divided into three sections, each devoted to a different aspect of ice. Each section is itself structured in a threefold way, beginning with a theoretical discussion of the form of ice under discussion, and then illustrating that discussion with extended readings of two different Romantic era authors. Thus, the section on “Crystals” begins with an explanation of the way in which early modern authors “scryed” crystals in order to intuit fundamental processes of natural self-organization; this is followed by readings that highlight the persistence of this understanding of crystals in Ralph Waldon Emerson’s “The Snow Storm” and Nature and in Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. The second section explores the ways in which glaciers served some early modern writers as sources of “white,” or “cosmological” magic, revealing “interminable laws of metamorphosis that admit ‘no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end’” (127). In the remainder of the section, this interpretation of glaciers serves as the basis for readings of P. B. Shelley’s “Mont Blanc” (as well as a brief reading of Prometheus Unbound) and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (and a briefer reading of Byron’s Manfred). The final section begins with a discussion of classical and early modern theories of the nature of the earth’s polar caps, arguing that authors such as Nicholas of Lynn and Thomas Burnett understood them as sites for the “consummation of all things: their annihilation and their completion” (190). This leads into readings of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, which Wilson argues also instantiate understandings of the Antarctic pole as sites of universal “consummation.”
There is a certain homogenizing tendency in Wilson’s readings—as he acknowledges, crystal scrying, glacier climbing, and polar exploration all “suggest the same conclusion” (85), namely, the dissolution of the ego in favor of recognition of natural processes of self-organization, metamorphosis and “consummation of all things”—but the structure of the book nevertheless results in original and intriguing interpretations of several well-known texts. In Wilson’s reading of the Ancient Mariner, for example, the Mariner’s slaying of the albatross near the Antarctic Circle is not an arbitrary or inexplicable act, but is instead motivated by the bird’s function as “synecdoche for the desolate ice, as microcosm of chaos” (171). Wilson argues that while this initial act of violence represents the Mariner’s attempt to destroy the Pole’s power to reveal the insignificance of human desires, the Mariner’s relationship to the revelatory powers of the Pole alter as he floats back toward the north, eventually leading him to accept “that the ice is not an opaque stuff to be subdued but a window to the polarities by which beings oscillate” (176). Not every step of his interpretation of the Rime is fully convincing—it is not clear, for example, why the Mariner must become a “tortured prophet” of the “polar gnosis” (190; my emphasis) since in the case of other texts that Wilson considers, such revelations led characters to a more pacific relationship to these spiritual insights—and much of the background material on the poles that Wilson assembles appears in John Livingston Lowes’s The Road to Xanadu (1930). Nevertheless, Wilson’s reading of the Ancient Mariner brings fresh and intriguing insights to this most well-discussed of poems.
At various points in the text, Wilson also discusses the question of form; that is, the question of why Romantic era authors sought to cast their reflections on ice in poems or fictional prose. In Nature, Wilson writes, Emerson sought to create “linguistic crystals” which, by attributing contradictory qualities to the same grammatical subjects, would mirror the “polarities of the convoluted cosmos Emerson inhabits” (36-7). In similar fashion, Wilson contends, Shelley sought to mirror within his poem “Mt. Blanc” the infinite regress that glaciers themselves suggested (126). These discussions of form are intriguing and provocative, but given the historical breadth of The Spiritual History of Ice, it is surprising that Wilson does not devote more space to this topic. Why, for example, did early modern enthusiasts of ice cast their reflections in the form of treatises, while Romantic era authors tended to favor either poems or prose fiction? Was this a function of the rise of “normal” science, which successfully territorialized systematic discussions of ice? And what difference do these various literary forms make to the gnosis of ice, if any?
Despite these possible shortcomings, The Spiritual History of Ice is an invigorating book, and one that is clearly very committed to the wisdom of the authors it engages. It will probably prove most attractive to those interested in the persistence of magical thought in the Romantic era, as well as to readers interested in the ways in which such thought can be integrated into (or perhaps even provides the basis for) some modes of ecocriticism. While the broad historical sweep of Wilson’s account will not appeal to all readers, it nevertheless enables a number of intriguing and compelling readings of canonical Romantic era poems and prose in both the European and American contexts.