If you are an admirer of plants, as the British poet William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was, you may identify with the moments of conviction that he describes in his famous poem, “Lines Written In Early Spring,” written in 1798:
Through primrose-tufts, in that sweet bower,
The periwinkle trailed its wreathes;
And ‘tis my faith that every flower
Enjoys the air it breathes.
The budding twigs spread out their fan,
To catch the breezy air;
And I must think, do all I can,
That there was pleasure there.
In this poem, Wordsworth recalls the beauty of springtime greenery; in the present moment of the poem he asserts that flowers must have the capacity for enjoyment and pleasure. Literary critics who write about Wordsworth, and who are responsible for maintaining his legacy and that of other poets of the same era, such as John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Blake, have generally been embarrassed that their literary and intellectual idols should have had a tendency to suggest, as Wordsworth does, and as many of them did, that plants are sensitive, feeling, even pleasure-taking beings.
The critic M.M. Mahood, for example, in her book The Poet as Botanist (2009), writes of John Clare:
There is a response, ‘here I am,’ that arises from Clare’s associative form of perception. Flowers ‘sing and talk of their delights’, telling the poet ‘of what they felt and I did feel / In springs that never will return.’ The reader, mildly embarrassed, may dismiss such passages as the legacy, shared with other Romantic poets, of eighteenth-century notions of plant sentience.
Why must these notions of plant sentience embarrass us? Do we take full leave of our senses if we are open to the possibility, as Romantic poets were, to the possibility that plants feel? It was my pleasure to discuss this “legacy of embarrassment” recently with plant scientists from the Gosling Research Institute for Plant Preservation and with the Department of Plant Agriculture at the University of Guelph.
We can begin to understand what is at stake, culturally and socially, in recognizing a plant as an active, experiencing being by looking at British writing from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This was a time when poetry was a more mainstream vehicle for popular sentiment, and was a record of how thinkers of the day were grappling with the philosophical implications of what we were learning from/about plants, which seemed to exist at the edge of what we counted as conscious life.
The poetry of the German polymath Wolfgang von Goethe (“The Metamorphosis of Plants,” 1790) and of the statesman and physician Erasmus Darwin (Charles’ grandfather, who wrote “The Loves of the Plants” in 1791 and “Zoonomia” in 1794) are examples of science in the poetic record. Here is a bit of Goethe in translation:
Closely observe how the plant, by little and little progressing,
Step by step guided on, changeth to blossom and fruit!
First from the seed it unravels itself, as soon as the silent
Fruit-bearing womb of the earth kindly allows Its escape,
And to the charms of the light, the holy, the ever-in-motion,
Trusteth the delicate leaves, feebly beginning to shoot.
And a taste of Darwin:
BOTANIC MUSE! who in this latter age
Led by your airy hand the Swedish sage,
Bad his keen eye your secret haunts explore
On dewy dell, high wood, and winding shore;
Say on each leaf how tiny Graces dwell;
How laugh the Pleasures in a blossom’s bell;
How insect Loves arise on cobweb wings,
Aim their light shafts, and point their little stings.
Goethe’s poem condensed in verse his investigations into the possibility that larger principles of life, reproduction and development could be observed in the growth of a plant. Darwin’s titillating Loves of the Plants was a poetic retelling of the Linnean classification system that grouped plants according to their reproductive structures, in which Darwin personified the plants and described the various ‘marriage beds’ concealed in each flower. It was a bestseller. In Zoonomia, Darwin speculated:
[V]egetable life seems to possess an organ of sense to distinguish the variations of heat, another to distinguish the varying degrees of moisture, another of light, another of touch, and probably another analogous to our sense of smell. To these must be added the indubitable evidence of their passion of love, and I think we may truly conclude, that they are furnished with a common sensorium belonging to each bud, and that they must occasionally repeat those perceptions either in their dreams or waking hours, and consequently possess ideas of so many of the properties of the external world, and of their own existence. (Zoonomia, 107)
In both Goethe and Darwin’s work, we see men grappling with the cultural and intellectual implications of the new knowledge that the burgeoning science of botany was producing. The mystery of plants’ unfolding, phototropism, and responsiveness was feeding vigorous cultural questions about the forms and natures of consciousness that might be found on earth. The personifications we see in Darwin, and in the later work of Romantic poets, are as much speculation as to what lies beyond the scope of scientific knowledge as they are flights of fancy.
Why then, be embarrassed about evidence of this speculation appearing in some of the most revered poetry in the history of the English language? Is it really because the suggestion of plant perceptions now seems such bad science? Darwin’s poem fell quickly out of favour, on the one hand thanks to the publication of a parody, The Loves of the Triangles, which attacked Darwin’s politics as much as his playfulness, and on the other due to the massive tectonic shift in poetic taste that happened only a few years later, when Wordsworth and Coleridge denounced Darwin’s rhetorical style. But I think there is more going on in later critics’ embarrassment than just the hasty association of plant personifications with Darwin’s “bad poetry”.
There are two other cultural shifts that created the climate of embarrassment around suggestions of plant perceptiveness that lasted for the next two centuries. One was the change about to take place in the aesthetics of scientific writing. At the turn of the century, the practice of botany was not yet confined to the university laboratory. Botany was in fact practiced as a useful refining hobby by middle-class young women, and the era produced a number of early female botanists who wrote foundational treatises on the species they observed in their private gardens and greenhouses. This early botanical writing often presented both empirical information about and aesthetic appreciations of a given plant. That is, one might learn about the number of pistils, and character of seed of a lily on a page facing a poem about that same lily. Aesthetic appreciation and scientific rigour were neither mutually exclusive nor yet fully gendered. Men could write about botanical science in poetry and still continue to work as respected scientists.
But as Ann B. Shteir writes in her groundbreaking book, Cultivating Women, Cultivating Science: Flora’s Daughters and Botany in England 1760 to 1860, as plant specialists endeavoured to establish botany as a rigourous science in new universities, rhetorical work was done to differentiate “serious botany . . . an occupation for the serious thoughts of man,” from the “polite botany” which was “amusement for ladies.” When John Lindley delivered his inaugural lecture at the newly established London University in 1829, he rejected the Linnean system of classification for a system based on plant structure, identifying the Linnean code with “polite botany” and the “amusement of Ladies,” and insisting that his new science had the rigour and utilitarianism fitted to ‘the serious thoughts of man.’ By the mid-1800s, a new tone, a tone disinterested in feelings, either in the observer or the subject, was the unspoken standard for masculine authority in scholarly work.
The new university was also the environment in which the work of poets would be studied and written about, and the appropriate tone for literary critics took on a similar detachment. Literary idols needed to be created and upheld, and their suitability in guiding the serious thoughts of man, the degree to which they successfully fulfilled the spiritual role of “a man speaking to men,” as Wordsworth put it, was the yardstick by which the new literary critics rated their subjects. This posed an aesthetic conundrum for Victorian critics, given that feminine feeling was out, and masculine stiff upper lips were in. One way 19th-century critics, and the 20th-century critics that followed them, made sense of Romantic male poets’ insistence on the emotional interest they had in nature was to understand it as the characteristic of genius, of extreme artistic sensibility.
Hence, historians eventually dissociated Wordsworth’s insistence that he had faith in the enjoyment and pleasure of flowers from its participation in scientific speculations and newly associated it with a delicate mental and physical constitution that accounted for proneness to hysteria and flightiness in women, but that in men could, when combined with masculine intellect and ambition, result in almost otherworldly literary accomplishment. This is how in 1991, the preeminent critic Jerome McGann can point to Wordsworth’s perceptive primrose and say that “everyone knows” that this is an iconic representation of a mood (not an sober observation) that “sees into the life of things,” and we understand this mood not as the mood of the scientist, but the mood of a dreamy, perhaps even slightly mad, poet.
I believe we are now, in 2015, at a moment when Western culture might open itself, or rather, re-open itself, to an epistemology that sees plants as more than simply reactive organisms. Formal recognition of the sentience of animals, philosophically denied since Descartes, is on the increase. Recently a U.S. court allowed for the possibility of treating two chimpanzees as legal persons. In Bolivia, legislation has been passed that gives earth and all its creatures, including plants, similar rights as humans. And in the field of plant science, there are a number of researchers who are using words like “communication,” “decision-making,” and “learning” to describe how individual plants behave in relation to their immediate environment and to each other. However, such language has met with resistance from other members of the scientific community, from scientists who are embarrassed, even angered, to see their peers describing as “learning” a process they themselves understand as passive habituation.
Historians of science like Evelyn Fox Keller have written about how human social paradigms can influence scientific observation and affect discovery. She wrote that human, social gender norms affected the way biologists described fertilization – until 1981, experimenters saw an active sperm penetrating a passive, inactive egg cell, and so did not look, for the longest time, for mechanisms of activity in the egg, when now research “endows the egg with archetypal powers…[it] sends out microvillae, which grasp the spermhead and drag it to the ovum…”
I have not gone into the obvious economic convenience of denying plants a degree of personhood, indeed of denying them what some have gone so far as to call “cognition.” But I wonder, how might our cultural norms, that presume that plants know nothing, and that find the suggestion that they might “know” to be soft-minded poetic thinking, affect the advancement of plant science? How might our intellectual embarrassment slow the development of a culture that admits our human interdependence with the plant kingdom?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sonnet L’Abbé, Ph.D. is the author of two collections of poetry, A Strange Relief and Killarnoe, both published by McClelland and Stewart. She was the 2017StartsNow! Artist-in-Motion in 2013 and is the 2014 guest editor of Best Canadian Poetry. She has a keen interest in ecocritical writing and botany, and is now at work on a Sentient Mental Flower Book and Sonnet’s Shakespeare, her third and fourth collections of poems, and on a book about the plant-mind metaphors in the work of American poet Ronald Johnson. L’Abbé has reviewed fiction and poetry for the Globe and Mail, and has taught writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and at the University of British Columbia. She is the 2015 Edna Staebler Writer-In-Residence at Wilfrid Laurier University.