Carnegie Mellon University

Poetry and Natural History in the Joseph Johnson Network

Author: Craig Stamm

Degree: Ph.D. in Literary & Cultural Studies, Carnegie Mellon University, 2022

As perhaps the most influential English bookseller and publisher of the late eighteenth century, Joseph Johnson has been studied intensively for his circle of London radical intellectuals from William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft to Thomas Paine and others. This dissertation reconceives that familiar picture of Johnson by uncovering his wider authorial and intellectual network that extended across England. He worked with many genres-- poetry, natural history and medicine, chemistry, philosophies of history, and visual arts—and an impressively diverse range of authors, from Joseph Priestley, Thomas Percival, and Erasmus Darwin in northern England to Charlotte Smith, Henry Fuseli, and William Blake in the metropolis. This project focuses most fully on the poets Smith, Darwin, and Blake to show how differently each of them forged either a direct or indirect relationship with Johnson, which in turn had an important impact on their literary practices and professional development. With Johnson’s guiding hand, Darwin produced poetry of natural history and industrial development in The Botanic Garden (1791), a controversial account of materialist, evolutionary agency in Zoonomia (1794-6), and an epic account of how natural history and human history formed a single complex narrative in The Temple of Nature, or the Origin of Human Society (1803). Arriving late in Charlotte Smith’s poetic career, Johnson helped her meld new sciences like geology into poetry in works like Conversations Introducing Poetry and in what is now regarded as her greatest poem, Beachy Head (1807), where she confronts the incommensurate timescales of human and geological history in ways that indicate the end of a sympathetic aesthetic tradition. Most indirect were Blake’s relations to Johnson and his intellectual milieu by way of Blake’s work as illustrator and engraver, from the early Poetic Sketches (1783) to the massive epic The Four Zoas (1803). As publisher to Darwin and Smith and employer to Blake, Johnson brought these poets into a conversation that was usually not visible but rather mediated through Johnson’s complex professional network. At the same time, this project demonstrates the importance of understanding social authorship in regard to texts which have otherwise seemed removed or distanced from better-known literary circles and schools.