27 May, 2013Issue 22.3LiteraturePhilosophyScienceVisual Arts

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Naming the Rose

Harriet Rix

Names of the RoseTheresa Kelley
Clandestine Marriage: Botany and Romantic Culture
The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012
400 pages
ISBN 978-1421405179


What’s in a name? The Romantics were not at all convinced that the rose called by any other name would smell as sweet. These 19th-century men and women who tried to defy the rigidity of artifice and the supporting structures of form in their personal and artistic lives were nonetheless concerned with the precision of botanical nomenclature, just as modern botanists are. Hippocrates and Aristotle had noted that some plants resembled others very closely, but it took a botanist of Linnaeus’s calibre to engrave the idea of artificial systematics into the botanical world. His chisel was the binomial naming system, and his mallet the classification of plants by their reproductive parts. The fact that his xylography remains respected today, in spite of the tedium of phylogenetic studies and the decline of Latin as a lingua franca, shows that the Romantic Movement helped to carve the image into high relief.

This was partly due to the ambivalent attitude of the Romantics towards classification. They saw the system as imposing unnatural constraints on the great wealth of the plant world, reducing its mystique and the richness of the language associated with it. The cultural richness and the arborescent obscurity of common plant names was catalogued to a glabrous smoothness, the obscure folklore of a distant land illuminated by systematic drawings through a microscope, and the infinite possibilities of nature pinned down in herbarium specimens. On the other hand, they explored the aesthetic possibilities of Linnaeus’s Systema Naturae with vigour. Robert Thornton’s Temple of Flora (1798), for example, contains fantastic plates in which “Each scenery is appropriated to the subject. Thus in the night-blowing CEREUS [Selenicereus grandiflorus] you have the moon playing on the dimpled water, and the turret-clock points XII”. Likewise, Erasmus Darwin exploited the anthropomorphic possibilities of the new system in The Botanic Garden (1791), his figurative romp through the schmaltzy world of plant classification. Shelley took this a step further, using the personification of plants as an artistic springboard which enabled him to consider the Romantic notion of mutual attachment between plant and gardener, and to examine the extent to which plants could live and feel.

In Clandestine Marriage, Theresa Kelley explores the presence of botany throughout the Romantic age, in chapters on women, commoners, colonials and philosophers, and well-chosen colour illustrations, and in a couple of “interludes”. She enlists each of these in her struggle to argue “that botany is the cultural imaginary of romantic nature and, as such, is at issue there wherever nature matters, including nature as matter.” The reader who makes it through a book’s-worth of prose written in this vein may find many points of interest. The introduction to the excellent Gentleman’s Magazine, for example, a hugely illuminating snapshot of botanical mores in the 18th century, is enormously valuable. Sadly, however, Kelley batters her hypothesis with the obstinate flapping of a fish left stranded on the riverbank. She drops the names of most of the intellectual heavyweights of the last three centuries onto it from the platform of her torrid prose, and thereby reduces even the most unobjectionable parts to Garum.

One problem is that the reader is left to struggle without any coherent structure through each of these discursive and ultimately unsatisfying chapters. In her discussion of the effects of Indian botany on the British, she states “on both sides of my argument, I am attentive to efforts to recover subaltern, or as Chakrabarti puts it ‘subalterned informants'”, but this argument is never actually stated. Yes, she points out that the huge gains in botanical knowledge made by Europeans such as Roxburgh in India was allied to, and partly responsible for, a flowering of Indian artists, but this is insufficiently developed to account for “a telling microcosm of the dynamics and instabilities that mark romanticism’s engagements with this ‘other’.”

In the same way, Kelley focuses on the increased participation of women in botanical pursuits during the late 18th century “to work out the edge of difference that marks how a few women—among them an experimental botanist, several writers, amateur artists and a poet—sidestepped the iconographic tradition that rendered women as passive flowers in need of care (or abuse)”. The flow of her argument is always obscure, however, and to declare the 1790s “antibotanical” seems utterly unfounded. She uses the Rev. Richard Polwhele’s 1798 work The Unsex’d Females, an attack on intellectual women such as Mary Wollstonecraft and a reflection on botany, to claim that women who practised botany at anything but the most uncerebral level were shunned by society. However, Kelley gives undue weight to Polwhele, who was always a minor figure and mocked by the majority of his contemporaries. Likewise, to focus on Frances Beaufort Edgeworth—an accomplished, though conventional, amateur who produced an album of wild flower paintings—while omitting all mention of women such as Madeleine Françoise Basseporte seems perverse. Basseporte rose from humble origins to become Louis XV’s Royal Painter and the most prestigious botanical illustrator in France, subverting the idea that women could only be amateur painters.

Nor, in an extensive discussion of Goethe and Hegel’s views on botany and Romanticism, does she touch upon the pivot around which botanical art swung in the Romantic age. The task of a botanical draughtsman became far more exacting than that of an artist of an old-fashioned florilegium: “the former”, said Goethe, “may feel the same inspiration… but is always at a disadvantage. The one had only to satisfy the lover of superficial beauty; the other has to give truth—and through truth, beauty.” Instead, she starts with Goethe’s condemnation of Hegel’s account of plant development: “To wish to destroy the eternal reality of nature through a poor sophistic game [schlechten sophistischen Spass] seems to me unworthy of a rational man.” A discussion about the antagonism between the two on the question of “vegetable nature” and whether nature is animate or mechanical, passes through Schlegel, Fichte, Schelling, Kant, Oken, Blake, Sachs, Holland, Herder, Miller, Meyer, Lucas, Koselleck, and Hölderlin, and ends with Adorno’s rabbits, “who regaling themselves on the grass were shut down by the hunter, and on realising that they were still alive, made off in haste.”

This is a beautifully produced book, but such a scrambled intellectual line, which aims at subtlety while generally achieving only a patronising didacticism, makes ploughing through a sticky job. For example:

In sum, I read Adorno’s rabbits as figures for the resilience of plant nature in the way of change and chance, not because plants can move the way rabbits do or think as humans or as the spirit thinks (distinctions Hegel would no doubt insist on) but because plants and the figured names they invite convey life forms that exist, as best they can, on their own, with an inner directedness that is not necessarily well aligned to a universal purpose or spirit of nature.

All praise must go to Theresa Kelley for attempting to write this book, and for using botany as a microcosm in which to explore the relationship between Romantics and nature. It is a thousand pities that the execution of it is so lamentable.

Harriet Rix is reading for an MBiochem at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.