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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. He 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.

About the Author

Richard C. Sha (ROCKVILLE, MD) 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.

Reviews

"This impressive monograph will remain, I suspect, the most important resource on Romantic literature and science for many decades to come. This book changes how we view not only Romanticism but also the broader relationship between literature and science."

- Eighteenth-Century Fiction

"A fascinating read and discovery of literary and scientific interconnections."

- Review of English Studies

"For Sha, the concept of imagination is the key to unlocking relations between science and literature, since the faculty was viewed as central to scientific inquiry and literary creativity alike. Sha demonstrates that scientific thinkers, far from being antipathetic to the imagination, repeatedly indulged it and then tested its results experimentally. [I am] grateful for many penetrating insights in Sha's book."

- Studies in Romanticism

"Richard C. Sha's exemplary Imagination and Science in Romanticism centers the Romantic imagination within scientific ways of knowing. Each chapter contains intriguing and thorough discussions of science, and subtle, detailed readings of literary texts. There is a wealth of wonderfully collated material here and fine-grained contextualization; readers interested in Romanticism and science will find the individual chapters rewarding."

- Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900

Endorsements

"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."

- Alan Bewell, author of Natures in Translation: Romanticism and Colonial Natural History

"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."

- George Rousseau, author of Nervous Acts: Essays on Literature, Culture and Sensibility

"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.  "

- Noah Heringman, author of Sciences of Antiquity: Romantic Antiquarianism, Natural History, and Knowledge Work

"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."

- Marilyn Gaull, author of English Romanticism: The Human Context

"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. "

- Orrin N. C. Wang, author of Romantic Sobriety: Sensation, Revolution, Commodification, History

"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."

- Robert Mitchell, author of Experimental Life: Vitalism in Romantic Science and Literature

"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.  "

- Lilla Maria Crisafulli, coeditor of The Romantic Stage: A Many-Sided Mirror

"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."

- James Engell, coeditor of The Call of Classical Literature in the Romantic Age

"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. "

- Tilottama Rajan, author of The Supplement of Reading: Figures of Understanding in Romantic Theory and Practice

"Richard Sha's Imagination and Science in Romanticism is required reading for anyone interested in the relations between Romantic science and literature."

- Tilottama Rajan - The Wordsworth Circle
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9781421425788 : imagination-and-science-in-romanticism-sha
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Perverse Romanticism

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