The Swedish novelist and playwright August Strindberg memorably claimed that ‘Linnaeus was actually a poet who happened to become a naturalist’, but this enigmatic phrase remains poorly understood. The neglect of the literary models and methods that Linnaeus’s precursors employed even as they pioneered new scientific technologies and approaches, I believe, lies behind this lingering sense of mystery about how to situate Linnaeus’s output and about what to make of the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘literature’ in the slightly later, Romantic reactions to it.
My project focuses on how, in re-imagining vegetality, English scientists, poets, and scholars, working within international botanical networks and especially in correspondence with German-speaking colleagues, contributed to the formation of botany as a field. Whereas botany had long been a handmaiden to medicine, my project will seek to show that, from c. 1660-1740, the subject was excavated from this higher faculty and took on a life of its own. My hypothesis is that this process took place thanks in large part to the use of profoundly literary tools. In attending to the poetic forms and methods that pre-Romantic botanists deployed – analogies, metaphors, allusions, verse, dialogues, and humanist collecting and editorial practices – I will not only seek to explain botany’s meteoric rise but also to offer an original account of the relationship between ‘science’ and ‘literature’ at a critical juncture in the formation of the modern disciplines.