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Imagination and Science in Romanticism

, 344 pages

3 halftones

June 2018



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Imagination and Science in Romanticism


Richard C. Sha argues that scientific understandings of the imagination indelibly shaped literary Romanticism. Challenging the idea that the imagination found a home only on the side of the literary, as a mental vehicle for transcending the worldly materials of the sciences, Sha shows how imagination helped to operationalize both scientific and literary discovery. Essentially, the imagination forced writers to consider the difference between what was possible and impossible while thinking about how that difference could be known.

Sha examines how the imagination functioned within physics and chemistry in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound, neurology in Blake’s Vala, or The Four Zoas, physiology in Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, and obstetrics and embryology in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Sha also demonstrates how the imagination was called upon to do aesthetic and scientific work using primary examples taken from the work of scientists and philosophers Davy, Dalton, Faraday, Priestley, Kant, Mary Somerville, Oersted, Marcet, Smellie, Swedenborg, Blumenbach, Buffon, Erasmus Darwin, and Von Baer, among others.

Sha concludes that both fields benefited from thinking about how imagination could cooperate with reason—but that this partnership was impossible unless imagination’s penchant for fantasy could be contained.

Richard C. Sha is a professor of literature at American University, where he is a member of the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience. He is the author of Perverse Romanticism: Aesthetics and Sexuality in Britain, 1750–1832 and the coeditor of Romanticism and the Emotions.

"An engaging account of how creative writers and scientists during the Romantic period understood the place of the imagination in their work. Sha's book makes a real contribution to our understanding of the extent to which Romantic writers responded to new ideas that were emerging in contemporary science. The chapters on Shelley and Blake, who both sought to combine visionary poetics with science, are especially well done."

"It has taken generations to rectify the false split about art and science as radically distinct cultures. Richard Sha’s Imagination and Science in Romanticism occupies a noble place in the flow of scholarship aiming to topple the dichotomy."

"In this book, Richard C. Sha explodes once and for all the myth of a Romantic hostility to science. By recovering the science in key Romantic texts, Sha restores the inherent materialism of the imagination, then as now regarded as an indispensable pathway for understanding the object world. A major contribution to scholarship.  "

"In this ranging and learned study focused on key literary works by Blake, Coleridge, Mary Shelley, and a host of literary, philosophical,  and scientific contemporaries, Sha explores  the contested role of imagination in the arts and sciences of  Romanticism. With energy and insight, Sha gathers disparate and challenging works, illustrating their relationships across generations, disciplines, and cultures. In this work, Sha also displays his own great gift: the 'capacity to imagine what we know,' the lack of which Shelley lamented."

"Lucid and buoyant in its convictions, Richard Sha’s book is a salutary return to an often-dismissed term in Romantic studies. Sha’s knowledge and critical eye are evident as he asserts a Romantic imagination that is at once generative and regulative. This book will be a key player in any contemporary reflection on science, literature, and theories of the material. "

"In this work, Sha brilliantly reconceptualizes a classic concept of Romanticism: the imagination. Sha reveals how, by seeking to discipline the imagination, the various practices of Romantic literary and scientific authors linked the two fields in this period."

"Richard Sha’s groundbreaking volume persuasively demonstrates how imagination played a vital role in both the sciences and the literature of the Romantic age, serving as a powerful bridge between these two apparently distant fields of human knowledge. The book is a milestone for scholars of the period and promises to remain an indispensable point of reference for many years to come.  "

"Imagination and science in Romanticism are usually regarded separately. Sha brilliantly and convincingly demonstrates how closely they are, in fact, connected. It's Einstein, after all, who later said, 'Imagination is more important than knowledge.' Sha’s book is impressive not only for its forceful conceptual argument but also for the detailed empirical research and historical interpretation on which that argument is so imaginatively built."

"A compelling account of how sciences generated an epistemology of imagination sensitive to dynamic forces and imponderable matter in a period when arts and science still enjoyed an intensely symbiotic relationship. Ranging across literature and connecting British and German science, this is a book Romanticists cannot afford to ignore. "

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