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Faculty of Languages & Literature

English Literature – Prof. Dr. Florian Klaeger

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Scientific Poetry and Poetics in Germany and Britain, from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment

This project explores the ways in which scientific poetry was theorised immediately before, during, and after the ‘scientific revolution’, seeking a better understanding of the specific nature of knowledge that scientific poetry was expected to communicate and produce. For early modern prose, the ‘poetics of science’ have been extensively explored in recent years, but the specificity of verse – central to Renaissance, Augustan, and Enlightenment poetics – remains under-examined.

The parallel development, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, of modern science and literary criticism, entailed frequent cross-references between the two domains. Early modern writers deemed poetry the natural medium for representing natural knowledge, and at the same time, methods and insights from the new science reflected on the practice and perceived order of literature. The negotiation between the two domains was conducted, on the one hand, in poetological discourse, such as dedicated works on rhetoric and poetics, as well as in prefaces, dedications, and commentaries to individual works of poetry as well as anthologies. On the other hand, natural philosophers – usually with sound humanist training – self-consciously used or referenced poetry as an aid for the dissemination of knowledge, or indeed to argue for a fundamental epistemological difference between the two domains.

To understand better the specific nature of knowledge that scientific poetry was expected to communicate and produce in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, attention must be paid to how it was theorised. Given that seventeenth- and eighteenth-century critics set great store by the appropriateness of literary forms for specific subjects, insight from work on prose writings (concerning concepts such as perspective, evidence and probability, and the epistemology of fiction) can fruitfully be compared to the poetics of scientific poetry. This can correct an observer’s bias by which research of the twentieth and twenty-first century has privileged precursors of the novel over poetry, a form arguably more or at least equally popular for much of the period in question. Scientific poetry promises to be more fruitfully studied than prose fiction with respect to key concerns of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century aesthetics and poetics, such as the imitation of classical models; the affordances of metre and rhyme; and the sublime.

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