Hieroglyphics of nature: Swedenborg, ecology and romantic aesthetics

by Zuber, Devin, Ph.D., CITY UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK, 2010, 353 pages; 3412989


This project examines the role that the Scandinavian scientist-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) played in shaping Romantic nature aesthetics. Although studies have noted Swedenborg’s importance for individual Romantic figures, there has yet to be a sustained attention to the ways Swedenborg contributed to early 19th century conceptualizations of nature. “Hieroglyphics of Nature” builds on the recent historical frameworks and interpretative methodologies established by ecocriticism that situate the emergence of a modern sense of the environment within Romantic aesthetics. I argue that Swedenborg’s particular concepts of “correspondence” and “influx” reinforced a Romantic tendency to translate nature and wilderness into a hermeneutical network of signs, a network that adumbrates later ecosystemic models of holism. The title is paraphrased from Emerson’s observation that Swedenborg saw nature as a “grammar of hieroglyphics.”

The first chapter surveys scholarship that has addressed the problem of Swedenborg’s influence on the 19th century, noting the lack of attention to specifically environmental concerns within this body of work, on the one hand, and the critical neglect towards Swedenborg within ecocriticism on the other. Chapters two and three expand on an ecocritically-based reading of Swedenborg’s life and work, and argue for repositioning aspects of Swedenborg’s corpus within a certain trajectory of English-language poetics. Emerson famously calls for the literary critic in Representative Men who would be able to “draw the line of relation that subsists between Shakspeare and Swedenborg”—a seemingly strange statement that starts making sense when Swedenborg’s readings in English poetry, especially Milton’s Paradise Lost, are seen as formative agents for Swedenborg’s own projects. Chapters four and five then turn to William Blake and Ralph Waldo Emerson, unpacking the precise ways Swedenborg’s influence on their respective poetics can be read as carrying environmental import.

“Hieroglyphics of Nature” thus demonstrates how the evolution of 19th century nature aesthetics (and its related properties of conservation and preservation) are inextricable from the wider problem of religion’s place within transatlantic Romantic cultures. The study shows how the Romantic imagination negotiated differing spheres of religion and natural philosophy, and the specific conceptualizations of form that moved between aesthetics, poetics, and science throughout the period.

AdviserJoan Richardson
Source TypeDissertation
SubjectsComparative literature; Icelandic & Scandinavian literature; Environmental studies
Publication Number3412989

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