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Updated Up To 18/01/2017
Volume 7, Number 1 (January 2009) : 3--17
Anna Seward’s "Terrestrial Year"
Women, Poetry, and Science in Eighteenth-Century England
Teresa Barnard
Rubric A: Literature and Science


The essay discusses the way in which the eighteenth-century writer Anna Seward created an interface between literature and science by challenging the theories of a renowned astronomer through her poetry. No matter what their level of interest, women in the eighteenth century had little recourse to an education in science. Seward’s education was literary, and she paid little attention to the sciences until she attended a lecture in Lichfield given by the astronomer, Robert Evans Lloyd. He illustrated his talk with an orrery. Joseph Wright’s painting, The Philosopher giving that lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun (1766), demonstrates the prevalent fascination with astronomy. After the lecture, Seward wrote a poem on the same subject, “The Terrestrial Year, passing through the signs of the Zodiac,” but not before she had interrogated Lloyd on his presentation of the juxtaposition of Earth and the constellations, publicly questioning his theories. Although her knowledge of astronomy was founded on references to the zodiac in the poems of Milton and Thomson, she engaged with further scientific research and was able to prove that Lloyd’s system was flawed. Her findings inspired her to write her poem which, despite its origins, has more reference to classical literature than to science. An interesting part of the poem, however, is the introductory ‘Proem’ which gives the scientific rationale for the work, tracing Seward’s challenge and her educational progress. Her proem leads us into the poem and leaves us in no doubt that Seward’s exploration of the complexities of the solar system finds new poetic ground through her quest for scientific knowledge.

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