Beginning with its enjoyable introduction, Worm Work promises to be entertaining. Its topic is one of the lowliest forms of life, the worm, and Janelle Schwartz aims to bring these creatures to our attention as they wriggle into view in the literature of the Romantic period.
The book is predicated on some very persuasive arguments: the worm is the human's opposite in its size and horridness and, as it is the species most unlike humans, attention to it therefore throws into sharp relief the ways in which humans view themselves. In the 18th century, worms were seen as the lowest in the chain of being: indeed, there was some controversy over whether they should even be considered animals rather than plants. As this argument suggests, worms have an interesting role to play in questions of taxonomy, the ruling passion of natural historians of the period. When the naturalist Abraham Trembley discovered that when polyps were cut in two, each of the severed parts continued to live, worms became, in Schwartz's words, "a taxonomic terror". Worms were also, via the common symbol of their feeding on corpses, a reminder of death. They were, furthermore, recognised as having a crucial role in life itself. As Charles Darwin noted, worms "prepare the ground" for life to generate. The Romantic period, as we now call it, was a time "when worm studies enjoyed a particular emphasis and exponential growth", Schwartz says.
Given that worms were so important in the literature of the period, the texts selected for focused discussion here appear to have been chosen somewhat at random. The book does not proceed chronologically and it is difficult always to see the relation of these texts to each other or to the governing argument that the introduction and first chapter so brilliantly set out. Nonetheless, it is great to see Erasmus Darwin's poem, The Temple of Nature, discussed at length, and admirable that Schwartz deals with the engravings of William Blake in The Book of Thel rather than concentrating on the poetry. The sections in the conclusion on John Keats and Charles Darwin were all too brief and left me wanting more.
Non-academic readers (and perhaps some academic ones) may be put off by the book's rather theory-led approach. One trope that emerges periodically throughout is that of "diplopia". This is the name given to the visual disorder, categorised in 1811, of double vision. Schwartz applies it to a number of places where she sees "patterns of diplopia, or seeing double, that suggest organic wholeness, such as decay and (re)generation, decomposition and (re)composition, in an effort to indicate a more complex structuring of experience". I was left wondering whether this theoretical model was necessary to her case. Certainly the medical condition has no particular resonance or significance to the writers studied here, and at times it needs to be tweaked in order to do the work that Schwartz requires of it. Worm Work's theoretical language can be hard going, which is a shame when in other respects the written style is very lively, with phrases such as "blow your mind" deployed with brio.
I was impressed with Schwartz's command of the critical field. This is a good, comprehensive study of the burgeoning field of Romantic literature and science, which will be useful to those working within this area. Taken as a whole, Worm Work is interesting and thought-provoking, and I will certainly take more notice of worms from now on.
Worm Work: Recasting Romanticism
By Janelle A. Schwartz
University of Minnesota Press
296pp, £61.50 and £20.50
ISBN 9780816673209 and 73216
Published 22 September 2012