The Application of Natural History to Poetry

by Sharon Ruston

The title of this essay is taken from a book by John Aikin, the brother of poet and children’s author, Anna Barbauld (nèe Aikin), himself a writer and a medical doctor [1]. In An Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry, published in 1777, Aikin bemoans the condition of ‘Modern poetry’, which, he writes, is ‘insipid’ and repetitive: ‘While the votary of science is continually gratified with new objects opening to his view, the lover of poetry is wearied and disgusted with a perpetual repetition of the same images, clad in almost the same language’ (pp. 1–2). Poetry, Aikin believes, can learn a lot from "science", by which he means specifically the close, detailed study of nature that concerns the natural historian. Aikin’s Essay is a call for the poetry of the Romantics, such as Wordsworth, and a turn away from the Augustan poetry of Pope and Dryden. Aikin asks poets to return again to nature itself, rather than to imitate others’ representations. His political and religious beliefs, as a dissenter and a radical who would favour the French revolution, also compel him to see the natural world as a Romantic. In a newly egalitarian spirit, these writers recognised the similarities rather than differences between humans and animals, and used these to argue broadly for political and religious equality [2].

Aikin believed that his study was the first to argue for the importance of a good knowledge of natural history for poetry, but it has certainly not been the last; these ideas have been heard again in more recent debates concerning the relationship between the sciences and the arts. Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, for example, similarly criticises writers for inaccuracies in the science that features in their work [3]. This essay contributes to a growing body of work showing that the science of natural history has had a greater influence on Romantic poetry than has hitherto been recognised, including recent books by Ashton Nichols, Jenny Uglow, and Noah Heringman [4]. In this essay I shall consider Aikin’s arguments and their currency among a particularly Unitarian coterie in the late eighteenth century. I discuss the work of Barbauld in particular, to see how her poetry can be seen as a model of Aikin’s new scientific poetics.

Aikin’s own life reveals that in the late eighteenth century there was not the strict division between literature and science that we take for granted today. He was educated at the dissenting academy at Warrington, where his father was the Classics tutor, and where Joseph Priestley also taught, before training to become a surgeon. Attempts to establish a medical practice in Yarmouth failed after his authorship of two pamphlets supporting the dissenters cause was exposed in 1790 [5]. After a stroke in 1796 he gave up his medical career and concentrated on writing and editing [6]. As with his sister, Aikin’s religious beliefs were connected with his understanding of the importance of scientific knowledge. Unitarians, denied so many political rights in this period, were often to be found at the forefront of the new sciences, which were still not taught to any great degree at Oxford or Cambridge Universities, and were tainted by their association with trade. He became one of Joseph Johnson’s circle in London, where he lived for most of his life in Hackney and Stoke Newington, areas inhabited by dissenters. Johnson was a radical, dissenter publisher, who counted among his friends and authors, William Godwin, Mary Wollstonecraft, Barbauld, Erasmus Darwin and William Blake. This circle also included other lesser known medical men, such as Thomas Percival, Thomas Christie, and James Currie, whose work similarly crosses any perceived divide between natural history, medicine and poetry. As an example, the Johnson circle provided reviews for his journal, the Analytical Review [7]. The remit of the journal was to be comprehensive: ‘it being one part of our design to establish a repository for genuine information in every department of Literature and Science’, promising to publish ‘chemical and medical discoveries’ alongside discussions of fictional works [8]. Reviewers shared radical political beliefs, often unorthodox religions and an interest in science, if not professional training in medicine.

While during Aikin’s lifetime there was not the strict division between the ‘two cultures’ of literature and science, in the terms C. P. Snow used in 1959, Aikin clearly felt that there was still much that could be gained by a closer relationship between the two [9]. Much of his writing and his sister’s poetry attempt, I think, to unify the two. Aikin’s 1777 Essay is dedicated to Thomas Pennant, one of the most famous natural historians of the time, and Aikin declares in its preface that the idea for the essay solely came from his knowledge of Pennant’s work. Other notable literary productions produced by Aikin included his own collection of Poems (1791), the co-authored (with Barbauld) Evenings at Home, or, The Juvenile Budget Opened(1792–6), Letters from a Father to his Son on Various Topics Relative to Literature and the Conduct of Life (1793), and Letters to a Young Lady on a Course of English Poetry (1804) [10]. These publications, often written for children or young adults, bear witness to Aikin’s belief that natural history could be used to teach morally instructive lessons to the young. Unsurprisingly given his own interests, his own sons were to distinguish themselves in the natural sciences (Arthur Aikin), medicine (Charles Rochemont Aikin, whom Anna Barbauld adopted in 1777), and architecture (Edmund Aikin). After the dedication, the Essay advertises a number of books that we can assume were chosen because they were suitable to the subject of discussion; these include the fifth edition of Barbauld’s Poems, the second edition of Aikin and Barbauld’s collaborative workMiscellaneous Pieces in Prose, and Aikin’s selected edition of Pliny’sNatural History, among other works published by Johnson [11].

According to Aikin, poetry was in a bad state: ‘It comes to us, worn down, enfeebled, and fettered’ (Essay, p. 3). His criticisms of course are of what we would now call Augustan poetry; he decries the ‘artificial’, ‘confined’, and ‘uniform’ manner of contemporary elegies and odes, asking instead for greater attention to be given to ‘the grand and beautiful objects which nature every where profusely throws around us’ (pp. 3, 4). Quoting Joseph Warton’s edition of Virgil, Aikin argues that poets need to look again into the face of nature [12]. For too long they have simply copied images from other poets, without looking at the natural world themselves. It is specifically in the description of nature that Aikin finds this ‘servile imitation’ more than in any other aspect of poetry, and it has resulted in a condition where ‘descriptive poetry has degenerated into a kind of phraseology, consisting of combinations of words which have so long been coupled together, that, like the hero and his epithet in Homer, they are become inseparable companions’ (Essay, p. 5). The poet James Thomson is an important exception for both Warton and Aikin [13]. Aikin would later publish The Calendar of Nature: Or, Youth’s Delightful Companion (1784), also written for young people, dedicated to his sister, which interspersed natural history with poetry by James Thomson and other authors[14]. In 1808 Aikin wrote a life of Thomson and an ‘essay on the plan and character of the poem’, both of which were attached to an edition of The Seasons published by Johnson in Philadelphia [15].

The ‘want of variety and novelty’ in contemporary poet’s descriptions of nature was not, according to Aikin, the only problem:

It is no less common to find their descriptions faint, obscure, and ill characterized; the properties of things mistaken, and incongruous parts employed in the composition of the same picture. This is owing to a too cursory and general survey of objects, without exploring their minuter relations; and is only to be rectified by accurate and attentive observation, conducted on somewhat of a scientific plan. (Essay, pp. 9, 10)

Natural historians, such as Pennant, could also see the benefit to be gained from an understanding of the natural world. Pennant argued that ‘descriptive poetry is still more indebted to natural knowledge than either painting or sculpture’ and, speaking of the poet: ‘nor is the knowledge of animals and vegetables less requisite, while his creative pen adds life and motion to every object’ [16]. Similarly, Aikin believes that the poet who does not pay such attention to the natural objects being described ‘must ever fail in giving his pictures the congruity and animation of real life’ (Essay, p. 11). For Pennant, as for Aikin, Thomson is ‘the naturalist’s poet’ (British Zoology, I, 224).

A friend of Aikin’s from the Warrington Academy, and another of Johnson’s authors, Thomas Percival, also wrote extensively about the importance of natural knowledge to poetry, revealing, I think, the fact that this was a preoccupation of their particular circle. Percival was also a Unitarian, had similarly trained as a physician, but was based for most of his life in Manchester, becoming President of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. He felt that the lack of scientific understanding that he witnessed in contemporary poets was due to their having moved from the rural to urban lifestyles. His 1784 book Moral and Literary Dissertationscontained a section on ‘the alliance of natural history, and philosophy, with poetry’ [17]. He argues there that

In the ruder ages of the world, the modes of life were particularly favourable to the observation of nature. Rural scenery was continually before the eyes; and the culture of land, or the care of sheep and cattle, constituted the occupation of the greatest personages. This furnished a rich supply of original materials, which must for ever be withheld from those, who immure themselves in cities, and contemplate only the operations of art. Writers, therefore, of this class, are humbly satisfied to be mere copyists of others; and adopt, without reserve, the figures, allusions, and representation of their poetical predecessors. (p. 225)

Romantic poetry has been particularly important for eco-critics who have seen in these poets a new connection to nature and physical place, such as the Lake District of Dorothy and William Wordsworth. Joined to this, and implied in Percival’s criticism, is a recognition that different poetry will be written by those who work on the land. The immensely detailed and accurate portrayal of nature witnessed in the poetry of Robert Burns and, later, John Clare, was held to be the result of their having lived on the land themselves. It is my contention here that Percival, as with Aikin, Barbauld, and others of the Warrington and Johnson circles feel particularly that a good knowledge of nature is important for poetry, and that this is a result of their political and religious affiliations.

Writing to her brother, Anna Barbauld agrees that the subject of hisEssay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry has not been written about before. She writes:

I hope your Essay will bring down our poets from the garrets, to wander about the fields and hunt squirrels. I am clearly of your opinion, that the only chance we have of novelty is by a more accurate observation of the works of Nature, though I think I should not have confined the track quite so much as you have done to the animal creation, because sooner exhausted than the vegetable; and some of the lines you have quoted from Thomson show, with how much advantage the latter may be made the rich subject of description. [18]

That she is clearly of this opinion is clear from her own poetry. Barbauld’s criticism here, that the vegetable world can offer as much material to the poet as the animal one, had also been made by Pennant, as quoted earlier (British Zoology, I, xi) [19]. She also thinks that her brother should have shown where a line is to be drawn between the poet and natural historian, since there are instances where the poet is not able to use the knowledge of the scientist. She feels that the poet has to wait until such a time when the natural knowledge has become ‘so generally spread as to authorise the poetical describer to use it without shocking the ear by the introduction of names and properties not sufficiently familiar’ and mentions descriptions she has read of some West Indian flowers and plants, which though scientifically accurate, were ‘unpleasing merely because their names were uncouth, and forms not known generally enough to be put into verse’ (p. 81). But, the poet also needs to use terms that have some novelty about them, so needs to be able to recognise the ‘nice period’ in which terms are both sufficiently familiar and not familiar for them to be used to best advantage (p. 81). She finishes on the subject with what may be a criticism of poets or of their readers: ‘It is not, I own, much to the credit of poets, but it is true, that we do not seem disposed to take their word for any thing, and never willingly receive informationfrom them’ (p. 81).

Anna Barbauld had, like her brother, also benefited from her father’s teaching post at Warrington Academy. Even before the publication of his Essay her poetry responded to the need he perceived. Her first collection of poems, published in 1773, presents the Warrington circle as a sociable group, pursuing a liberal agenda, interested in the rights of individuals and in political equality. In "The Invitation", one of the poems in the 1773 collection, Barbauld portrays the Academy as a place that encourages a ‘proud disdain of interest’s sordid bribe’ where, in the true Enlightenment sense, the ‘gentlest arts and purest manners’ meet [20]. Unafraid of making a political statement, she refers to the ‘bigot rage’ against religious non-conformists that has retarded the advancement of science:

Here nature opens all her secret springs,
And heav’n-born science plumes her eagle wings:
Too long has bigot rage, with malice swell’d,
Crush’d her strong pinions, and her flight withheld. (ll. 97–100)

Barbauld’s poems had circulated in manuscript among the supportive coterie of friends at Warrington before her brother persuaded her to publish them. They were received with great acclaim, going into a fifth edition by 1777.

One poem from this collection, written to Barbauld’s friend and Priestley’s wife, Amanda, responded directly to Thomas Pennant’s call, in British Zoology, for a poet to take up the pen and draw from nature. In "To Mrs P—, With Some Drawings of Birds and Insects", Barbauld made use of Pennant’s descriptions of birds. In the poem, she likens the arts of painting and poetry, ‘kindred arts’ in Greek mythology, but she also notes their differences (l. 6). Poetry is ‘less allied to sense’ (though it ‘steals upon the ear’) than painting, but also has in comparison a ‘deeper art’, which:

Can pierce the close recesses of the heart;
By well set syllables, and potent sound,
Can rouse, can chill the breast, can sooth, can wound;
To life adds motion, and to beauty soul,
And breathes a spirit through the finish’d whole. (ll. 7, 12–16)

Poetry is typified here by its ability to bring to life, or animate, the objects of the natural world. In this, Barbauld follows Pennant, who also thought that the poet’s pen ‘adds life and motion to every object’ (British Zoology, I, xi). Barbauld is asking what poetry is for, what is its purpose? She finds that in fact art and poetry accompany and indeed rather than competing: ‘Each perfects each, in friendly union join’d / This gives Amanda’s form, and that her mind’ (ll. 17–18). The verb ‘gives’ is used here in the sense of ‘presents’, or even ‘represents’; painting can represent Amanda’s appearance, her ‘form’, but poetry can communicate her way of thinking.

Barbauld tells us that she does not intend to attempt to convey either the form or mind of Amanda; instead, her ‘artless hand requires’ the ‘humbler theme’ of birds and insects (l. 19). This poem, which as its title suggests must originally have accompanied "some Drawings of Birds and Insects", exists in a similar relation to those drawings as to Pennant’s descriptions of the same birds and insects. The poem intends to bring life to both the drawings and descriptions, but there is also an understanding that for a whole representation both the accurate, scientific knowledge (to be found in the visual representations and Pennant’s descriptions) and the poetic rendition of this is needed. Together these form a ‘finish’d whole’ (l. 16). Work has been done on Barbauld’s poem, notably by editors McCarthy and Kraft, to identify Pennant’s descriptions in Barbauld’s poetry. Her description of the eagle, for example, is clearly influenced by Pennant’s in volume one of British Zoology, from the usual places that it inhabits to its peculiarly acute senses of sight and smell [21]. She makes a revision to the 1792 edition of Poems in which this poem appeared to accord with Pennant’s account of the origin of pheasants [22]. The influence of Thomson’sThe Seasons is also apparent, such as in the phrase ‘beetling cliffs’ of line thirty-four, which appeared in Spring [23].

Accuracy is more important in poetry to Aikin than ‘ingenious figures and pleasing allusions’ because, for him, ‘nothing can be really beautiful which has not truth for its basis’ (Essay, pp. 24, 25). This truth can also be of a moral nature; animals are ‘peculiarly adapted to the purposes of poetry’ because they ‘suggest amusing and instructive lessons’ for humankind (Essay, p. 34). Observations, such as that ‘nothing can exceed the parental tenderness’ of birds for their young, which Aikin makes in his 1784 Calendar of the Year, for example, can be found in the chapter using the example of a hen to show the ‘Tenderness of Mothers’ in Percival’s 1776 A Father’s Instructions [24]. There are numerous examples of this kind in Aikin and Barbauld’s Evenings at Home. Indeed, on many occasions, Barbauld’s poems appear in Aikin’s and Percival’s work, again revealing the coterie nature of this circle of writers [25]. The birds and insects in Barbauld’s poem to Amanda Priestley provide a variety of characters, from the ‘cruel eye’ of the eagle to the ‘stern warrior’, the beetle (ll. 39, 115). In one respect, though, both birds and insects are held to differ from ‘the child of sorrow, wretchedman’ (l. 97). ‘He’ learns in ‘misfortune’s school’ that ‘Pleasure’s the portion of th’ inferior kind; / But glory, virtue, Heaven for man design’d’ (ll. 101–102). The poem very clearly situates itself within the close circle of the dissenters and Barbauld finally chooses friendship over the fame of the painter or the poet.

The idea of being true to nature was not merely a matter of faithfully representing the natural world. Barbauld exists within a line of thinkers from Rousseau onwards who argued for a greater naturalness in human behaviour. Importantly for Romantic poetry, Joanna Baillie and William Wordsworth, would also argue that this naturalness should pervade literary language itself. As Aikin pointed out in Letters from a Father to his Son, ‘Man, in all forms and situations, is essentially, the animal, man. His natural character will occasionally break through all the shackles of positive institutions’ (1800, II, 311). For this reason even in studies of the history of humankind ‘nature takes precedence of art’ (1800, II, 311). Barbauld also tried to imagine a more ‘natural’ human being, one ‘uncorrupted by various social malpractices’; according to William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft

She seeks, both in herself and in others, to cultivate the disposition (which she assumes exists) to respond ‘naturally’ to experience. The ‘natural’ response is the response that has not been dulled by repetition, smothered by false cleverness, tutored by mere intellectuality, or perverted by self-interest. (Barbauld, p. 21)

By using Pennant’s descriptions Barbauld clearly felt she was responding to a need felt by her contemporaries, bringing greater truth to portraits of the natural world, combining scientific knowledge with painterly images. She was indeed answering a call to radically change poetry, and her influence is felt in Wordsworth’s imitations of her verse in his early poems [26].

In many ways the arguments I have set out here seem to prefigure debates regarding the relationship between poetry and science. John Aikin, in the 1800 edition of his Letters from a Father to his Son, for example, presents but also interrogates the frequent attempts in his day to distinguish between studies that are ‘useful’ and those that are ‘entertaining’ [27]. Aikin himself refuses to use these classes to classify poetry. Poetry that unifies science and art can, in Barbauld’s words ‘bring down our poets from the garrets’ and offer the possibility of ‘novelty’, or, a new kind of poetry. These writers attempted to fuse poetic and scientific description in order to drive religious, political and cultural change. Their work demonstrates the teeming and complex debates surrounding science and poetry in the late eighteenth century and helped to persuade a new generation of poets that their poetry would benefit from scientific knowledge, and that the only way to write truthfully was to use this understanding.


[1] John Aikin, An Essay on the Application of Natural History to Poetry(Warrington: J. Johnson, 1777).

[2] See my broader discussion of Romanticism and science inShelley and Vitality (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

[3] Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1998). Dawkins does qualify some of these kinds of criticisms, however: for example, he writes that ‘D. H. Lawrence’s poem about hummingbirds is almost wholly inaccurate and therefore, superficially, unscientific. Yet, in spite of this, it is a passable shot at how a poet might take inspiration from geological time’ (p. 25).

[4] See, in particular, Ashton Nichols, ed., Romantic Natural Histories, New Riverside Editions (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004; Jenny Uglow, Nature’s Engraver: a Life of Thomas Berwick(London: Faber and Faber, 2006); Noah Heringman, Romantic Science: The Literary Forms of Natural History: Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century (New York: SUNY Press, 2003).

[5] Marilyn L. Brooks, "Aikin, John (1747–1822)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. [, accessed 30 Dec 2007].

[6] Aikin edited The Monthly Magazine between 1796 and 1806 as well as other periodicals (DNB).

[7] Mary Wollstonecraft wrote extensively for this journal, including many reviews of natural history books. See my forthcoming article, "Natural Rights and Natural History", in the "Literature and Science" special edition of Essays and Studies (2008).

[8] Prospectus of the Analytical Review, or a new literary journal, on an enlarged plan; containing scientific abstracts of important and interesting works […] (London: J. Johnson, 1788), pp. 3–4.

[9] C. P. Snow, The Two Cultures, ed. by Stefan Collini (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[10] John Aikin, Poems (London: J. Johnson, 1791); [John Aikin and Anna Letitia Barbauld], Evenings at Home; or, The Juvenile Budget Opened, 6 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1792–96), I, 98–99; John Aikin, Letters from a Father to his Son, on Various Topics Relative to Literature and the Conduct of Life, 2 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1793); John Aikin, Letters to a Young Lady on a Course of English Poetry(London: J. Johnson, 1804).

[11] Anna Barbauld’s Poems was first published in 1773 under her maiden name, Anna Letitia Aikin, Poems (London: J. Johnson, 1773); Miscellaneous Pieces was first published as J. and A. L. Aikin,Miscellaneous Pieces in Prose (London: J. Johnson, 1773). The preface to the edition of Pliny’s Natural History, is signed ‘J. A.’ and this book is also dedicated to Pennant, Pliny, the Elder, Selecta Quædam ex C. Plinii Secundi Historia Naturaliad usum scholarum accommodata (Warringtoniæ: Johnson, 1776).

[12] Warton had similarly spoken out against the Augustan poets, and his own early poem, The Enthusiast, or the Lover of Nature (1744), is described as ‘full of love of nature and feeling, going against the prevailing taste of poetry epitomized by Pope’, Hugh Reid, ‘Warton, Joseph (bap. 1722, d. 1800)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006. [, accessed 29 Dec 2007].

[13] Aikin was presumably impressed that Thomson had given such prominence to the Newtonian science he had been taught at the University of Edinburgh and Watt’s Academy in London in his poemThe Seasons; for more information on Thomson’s scientific education, see James Sambrook, ‘Thomson, James (1700–1748)’,Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2004; online edn, May 2006. [, accessed 29 Dec 2007].

[14] John Aikin, The Calendar of Nature: or, Youth’s Delightful CompanionContaining, Details of Natural History, the Narrative Variegated with Poetical Quotations from the most Celebrated Authors. Embellished with Engravings, Representing the Four Seasons(Warrington: J. Johnson, 1784).

[15] James Thomson, The Seasons (Philadelphia: J. Johnson, 1808).

[16] Thomas Pennant, British Zoology, 4 vols. (London: Benjamin White, 1768–70), I, xi. Nichols also quotes this passage in Romantic Natural Histories, p. 7.

[17] Thomas Percival, Moral and literary dissertations, on the following subjects; 1. On truth and faithfulness. [...] 6. On the alliance of natural history, and philosophy, with poetry (Warrington: J. Johnson, 1784).

[18] Barbauld’s letter to Aikin dated 1777, quoted in Nichols,Romantic Natural Histories, p. 81.

[19] The passage that Barbauld is presumably disagreeing with in her brother’s Essay is: ‘The vegetable creation, delightful as it is to the senses, and extensive in utility, yields comparatively few materials to the poet, whose art is principally defective in representing those qualities in which it chiefly excels; colour, scent, and taste’ (p. 33).

[20] Anna Letitia Barbauld, ‘The Invitation’, in Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. by William McCarthy and Elizabeth Kraft (Ontario, Broadview Press, 2002), ll. 128, 110. All of Barbauld’s poetry is quoted from this edition.

[21] British Zoology, I, 121–23; Barbauld, Selected Poetry, p. 46, n. 1, 2.

[22] British Zoology, I, 212; Barbauld, Selected Poetry, p. 46, n. 3.

[23] Cf. ‘the Hawk / High, in the beetling cliff, his aerie builds’, James Thomson, ‘Spring’, The Seasons (London: T. Chapman, 1795), ll. 450–51.

[24] Aikin, Calendar, p. 35; Thomas Percival, A Father’s Instructions to his Children: Consisting of Tales, Fables, and Reflections; Designed to Promote the Love of Virtue, a Taste for Knowledge, and an Early Acquaintance with the Works of Nature (London: J. Johnson, 1776), p. 34.

[25] To pick just one example, Barbauld’s poem ‘A Mouse’s Petition’ is included in Percival’s A Father’s Instructions to his Children, pp. 127–30.

[26] McCarthy and Kraft, Barbauld, Selected Poetry, p. 11.

[27] John Aikin, Letters from a Father to his Sonon Various Topics Relative to Literature and the Conduct of Life, 2 vols. (London: J. Johnson, 1800), II, 255.

Biographical Details

Sharon Ruston is Chair in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the University of Salford. She is author of Shelley and Vitality(2005) and Romanticism: An Introduction (2007), editor of Literature and Science: Essays and Studies (2008), and co-editor of Teaching Romanticism (2010).