Berkery on Courant (2020)

Courant, Elsa. Poésie et cosmologie dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle: nouvelle mythologie de la nuit à l’ère du positivisme. Droz, 2020, pp. 808, ISBN 978-2-600-06026-4

In Poésie et cosmologie dans la seconde moitié du XIXe siècle: nouvelle mythologie de la nuit à l’ère du positivisme, Elsa Courant examines the dialogue between poetry and cosmology in the latter half of the nineteenth century, a critical turning point for both disciplines and a significant moment in the history of the night. During this period, the poetic genre is forced to contend with the rise of the novel, while at the same time cosmology is grappling with the effects of positivism’s growing import. Post-revolutionary France sees a renewed appreciation for the night that will subsequently give rise to a nocturnal “golden age” during the nineteenth century. The Romantic movement in particular sought to reassert night’s value, through a vogue for moonlit scenes, celestial poems, or depictions of a sublime sky offering a moment of confrontation between the individual and the immensity of divine creation. Already a source of poetic inspiration, the cosmos gains new relevance during this period thanks to the Romantic fascination with the night sky. Beyond the scope of literature, the nineteenth century is also characterized by intense scientific discovery and exploration (not only terrestrial, but also celestial). These changes transform perspectives on the cosmos and elicit a feeling of disenchantment among many. 

Against this backdrop of scientific upheaval and clichéd Romantic nights, Courant examines the poetry of the nineteenth-century night alongside questions of mythology, religion, and scientific, intellectual, and literary history, as well as the formation of a cultural imaginary of the cosmos. Adopting an interdisciplinary methodology, Courant’s work covers a rich and varied corpus, ranging from canonical authors (Hugo, Lamartine, Prudhomme, Mallarmé) to many lesser-known or forgotten writers; it facilitates new readings of well-known literary references in addition to the discovery of many unfamiliar ones. Courant also offers a detailed and comprehensive panorama of cosmological writing and the transmission of ideas in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The work is divided into four parts, each of which analyzes the relationship between cosmology and the poetic imagination from a different angle. The first section seeks to provide a contextual and methodological introduction to cosmological poetry between 1840 and 1900 and explores the implications for cosmology at a time when the fields of modern science and literature are beginning to diverge and when great advances are being made in astronomy. The second section then adopts a theological and metaphysical focus that proves particularly enlightening in view of the profound spiritual crisis shaping this period, as well as cosmology’s inherent association with the origin and structure of the universe. Structured around two central questions, this section interrogates: “en quoi la science de l’univers sert-elle de prétexte à une ressaisie des enjeux spirituels qui traversent la poésie du XIXe siècle, depuis le “mal-du-siècle” jusqu’à la décadence?” and whether “une poésie au diapason des nouvelles connaissances astronomiques ne constitue-t-elle pas un modèle paradigmatique de la mission hiératique du genre, revendiquée par Hugo et bien d’autres: celle de chanter de nouveaux mondes dans un langage nouveau?” (130). Detailed attention is given to the period’s nostalgia for a more traditional concept of the cosmos, the search for alternatives to conventional religion, and encounters with the infinite night sky that are depicted as either a challenge to, or confirmation of, a divine creator. 

Courant then turns to nocturnal mythology in the third section, a tradition that holds a special place in the Romantic conception of the night. In addition to established biblical and classical sources, Courant explores the confrontation with other conceptions of the universe, referencing Hindu mythology in particular. The final part of the book is devoted to the emergence of new poetic forms that seek inspiration in the cosmos and the new cosmological discoveries of the time, either finding liberation from traditional poetic forms or instead providing a satirical counterpoint to all discourse that seeks to portray the beauty and coherence of the cosmos. In this last section, Courant demonstrates the creativity in those texts that profess to mimic the enigmatic beauty of the cosmos, their formal characteristics and tropes, as well as the ways in which their authors engage with the fundamental cosmological questions of the time, as “porteur[s] d’une voix qui répond en écho à l’harmonie, aux beautés, ou au sens caché du cosmos” (742).

Courant’s work is an important reference for literary and scientific historians alike, as well as scholars of religion, mythology, and night studies. Situated at a critical moment in literary, scientific, and nocturnal history, the work provides a comprehensive and erudite analysis of an ambitious corpus that takes into account a wide range of perspectives. Eschewing a straightforward representation of the night sky in poetry, Courant chooses instead to respond to much more complex questions, namely, how poetic depictions of the cosmos have evolved alongside scientific and technological advances and the ways in which science and the poetic imagination interrelate. “Contre la prétention scientifique de résoudre l’énigme du fonctionnement de l’univers en traduisant ses secrets dans l’idiome des mathématiques, combien de poètes ont plaidé pour la nécessité, sinon la supériorité du haut langage pour exprimer la nature profonde du cosmos?” (741) While it is true that poets and scientists have long sought to provide an answer to the universe’s mysteries, Courant painstakingly reproduces the spirit of the second half of the nineteenth century, demonstrating how this ethos is, in turn, transmitted through its poetry of the cosmos. A genre under threat during this period, poetry finds in the cosmos a means of engaging with the great questions of the time. Above all, the cosmos offers a fertile lens through which to express the mysteries and profound complexity of the universe, thus safeguarding the prestige of the poetic genre. 

Charlotte Berkery
University College Dublin