John Aikin, the Scientist as Critic

Plank, Jeffrey Dennis , Department of English, University of Virginia
Cohen, Ralph, Department of English, University of Virginia

John Aikin (1747-1822) is not one of the critics studied in our time. Although a contemporary of Johnson, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, and one of the important dissenting critics at the turn of the nineteenth century, his work and though' have been ignored. The value of Aikin as a critic lies in his understanding of literature as a form of knowledge, especially that aspect of literature, which is descriptive of nature. Trained as a physician and scientist, Aikin was the first critic to analyze in detail the relation of natural history to poetry. By doing so he provides one of the key explanations for the Romantic interest in and writing of nature poetry.

Aikin' s criticism has its basis in his medical studies and in the reality basis of their value. Aikin sees the reality basis of literary study as contributing to natural history as well as to literature. His realization of new forms and experiments for poets is a result of this procedure, the application of natural history to poetry. And, this comparative procedure leads as well to the reassessment of Virgil's nature poetry and of other earlier writers, to an increase in precision of analysis as a result of seeing new forms developed by more recent writers, and to the reassessment of drama in terms that are derived from description and the consequent development of a theory of the suspension of disbelief. The application of a reality standard to personification and other rhetorical figures provides a social basis for formal features.

The organization of this study follows the unfolding of Aikin's work. His criticism begins with a theoretical hypothesis: changes in contemporary natural history ought to dictate changes in contemporary nature poetry. From this position he moves to practical problems that arise in defining, developing, and demonstrating his hypothesis. In Aikin's literary criticism, there is a necessary, continuous interplay between theory and evidence; he recognizes that procedures for validating propositions about literature are similar to those of natural history. I begin by presenting in chapter 1 some background for Aikin; I discuss his scientific training, his early medical essays and the reality basis of their value. In chapter 2 I examine his theoretical work, On the Application of Natural History to Poetry (1777), and in chapters 3 and 4 I examine some practical applications of Aikin's scientific method in four essays: "An Essay on the Plan and Character of Thomson's Seasons" (1778), "A Comparison between Thomson and Cowper as Descriptive Poets" (1783), "An Essay on the Impression of Reality Attending Dramatic Representations" (1793), "On Poetical Personifications" (1796-98, 1811). I summarize my findings in chapter 5.

The reasons for bringing Aikin forward at this time have to do with the similarity of his time to ours in posing a series of challenges to the role of literary study. We are, as the cliché reminds us, at a point of crisis in the methodology of the studying and ordering of literary texts. Aikin' s work reveals the value of scientific training and inquiry in opening new and important ways of thinking about literature. While Aikin' s view of literary inquiry is informed by his scientific training, his science does not confine his criticism. Rather, his scientific training, when applied to literature, makes possible the identification and solution of a set of problems involving the relation of literary forms to reality as well as the recognition that literature as a form of knowledge requires systematic study. It is my position that Aikin's assumptions and method are still valuable. Although he has serious limits Aikin reveals the usefulness of and justification for a reality standard, illustrating how poetry, medicine, and natural history have social aims. His work leads not only to a fuller understanding of late eighteenth-century criticism but to a more precise understanding of how literary studies can be truly humanistic and interdisciplinary. This knowledge, in turn, reveals the special place of literature in the life of man.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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