Devotional cosmology: poetry, thermodynamics and popular astronomy, 1839-1889

Brown, Niamh (2017) Devotional cosmology: poetry, thermodynamics and popular astronomy, 1839-1889. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The relationship between science and religion in nineteenth century Britain has been the focus of major recent interest from historians and critics, and was a source of anxiety for Victorians. This thesis uses a modified version of the ‘two-way traffic’ model used in literature and science studies, to consider a three-way exchange of ideas between science, literature and religion in the mid- and later nineteenth century. I use popular scientific treatises and religious poetry published between 1839 and 1889 to consider some of the ways in which some Victorian writers attempted to unite religious and scientific cosmologies to create an inclusive, coherent scheme in which God co-exists with scientific laws without contradiction.

I argue that poetry, and particularly epic, played an important part in enabling some Victorians who were concerned about a potential incompatibility between science and religion, to explore and propose solutions to perceived conflicts. In addition to this intermediary role, poetry acts in its own right to exchange ideas, in the form of images, tropes and figurative devices, with both science and religion. I examine the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Clerk Maxwell in relation to their attitudes to thermodynamics. In terms of epic poetry, I focus upon Philip James Bailey’s Festus and Edward Henry Bickersteth’s Yesterday, Today and Forever. I also consider the popular scientific treatise and use literary analytical methods, such as close reading, to trace instances of poetic and religious allusion, and I note affinities between epic poetry and popular scientific treatises. I make case studies of The Unseen Universe by Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait, and the very public debate between William Whewell and David Brewster on the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

Nearly all of the poems and treatises on which I focus in this thesis have been understudied, especially in the field of literature and science. I aim to reposition these texts as important routes for further study in this field. In order to investigate patterns of exchange between science, religion and poetry, I focus in my thesis upon three chief cosmological questions: the future of the universe in light of Victorian understandings of the laws of thermodynamics; the presence, or not, of a divide between the spiritual and earthly realms; and the existence or otherwise of extraterrestrial life. The project considers each of these questions as they are dealt with in poetry and in scientific treatises, and examines how answers to each question are developed, with each genre contributing to the development of ideas in the other.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: English literature, Victorian literature, Victorian poetry, science and poetry, science and religion, poetry and religion.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PN Literature (General)
P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Jenkins, Professor Alice and Creasy, Dr. Matthew
Date of Award: 2017
Depositing User: Dr Niamh Brown
Unique ID: glathesis:2017-8230
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 16 Jun 2017 13:28
Last Modified: 07 Jul 2017 09:04

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