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Cassandra Gorman, The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry
by Charlotte Newcombe

Cassandra Gorman. The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer. 2021. vii-251 pp. ISBN: 9781843845935. £75 hardback.


Literary criticism is currently experiencing a resurgence of interest in early modern Lucretian reception and the seventeenth-century’s Epicurean revival. Recent years have seen the publication of influential works of scholarship such as Gerard Passannante’s The Lucretian Renaissance: Philology and the Afterlife of Tradition (2011) and Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster (2019); Ada Palmer’s Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance (2014); the collection Lucretius and the Early Modern (2016) edited by David Norbrook, Stephen Harrison and Philip Hardie; and just last year Jessie Hock’s The Erotics of Materialism: Lucretius and Early Modern Poetics (2021). All of these, and more, feature in Cassandra Gorman’s extensive and thorough bibliography.

Yet, in The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry, Gorman’s suitably minute focus on ‘the atom’ liberates her, as it does the poets of her study, to range beyond the confines of atomic philosophy and Lucretian influence. Her central argument is that the atom, freed from the technicalities of dogmatic atomism, experienced a ‘poetic life’ (6) in which writers drew on the atom’s indivisible simplicity to explore physical and metaphysical concepts of ‘creative power and indivisibility of self, soul and God’ (20). Her claim rests on her identification of an important relationship between the atom and poetic form. Atom poems are ‘self-conscious’ of their ability to ‘build worlds, knowledge and identities’ (12), she argues, and there is an affinity between the indivisible atom and the ‘creative capacity of the poetic space’ (12). This focus on poetic form produces insightful, exciting close readings which provide some of the most compelling moments of the book.

The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry is split into four chapters, as well as an introduction and afterword. Chapters one and two explore the connections between the atom and the soul in the poetry of Henry More and Thomas Traherne. The third chapter addresses both Margaret Cavendish’s and Hester Pulter’s construction and deconstruction of the self in atomic terms. Finally, the fourth chapter considers the relationship between Adam and the atom, reading them both as first principles, touching on John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667; revised 1674) and more extensively on Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder (1679). Throughout, Gorman offers an important recuperation of a positive poetics of the atom which expertly ties together various philosophical and theological traditions. The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry undoubtedly enhances our understanding of the atom’s position in seventeenth-century intellectual culture beyond its strictly Epicurean associations.

The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry is thus an important and much-needed intervention in the field in two senses. First, Gorman’s deft interweaving of various philosophical traditions – including but not limited to Epicurean atomism, Neoplatonism and alchemy – alongside her consideration of theology provides a timely reminder that every mention of the atom in the seventeenth century need not be traced back to a dogmatic atomism. This does justice to the rich and variegated tapestry of seventeenth-century English intellectual culture and enables Gorman to recover persuasively the atom as a positive catalyst for spiritual and metaphysical speculation. Overall, the book effectively challenges the widely held assumption that the atom could only ever symbolise a controversial, atheistic atomic philosophy or chaotic flux for seventeenth-century writers.

In addition, the poets who feature in this book largely exist outside of the traditional literary canon. While the usual suspects of John Donne (and his notorious atomies) and John Milton are mentioned, they are not dwelt upon, and while this might be seen as an omission, Gorman’s focus on less frequently discussed poets is refreshing. Her recuperative efforts are most pronounced in her discussions of More’s excessive, imitative poetic style and her pushback against the critical tendency to view Traherne’s natural philosophical knowledge as antiquated and more limited than it truly was. However, they are also apparent in the book’s admirable balance between men and women writers. Lara Dodds and Michelle M. Dowd have recently noted that despite improvements, early modern women’s writing still experiences ‘continued marginalization’ in the field of literary criticism and hence is often treated as a ‘niche interest’ rather than a ‘vital part of the shared knowledge of early modern literary studies’.[1] The balance Gorman achieves between male and female poets recentralises women’s writing and its important place in the broader intellectual culture of the seventeenth century. The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry reveals Pulter, Cavendish and Hutchinson to be just as well-versed and engaged with the natural philosophical and theological debates of their day as More and Traherne.

In the introduction Gorman poses a book of two halves. The first half, the chapters on More and Traherne, focuses on the ‘significance of the “atom” singular’ (21). In the second half, Gorman instead examines ‘“atoms” plural’, arguing that Cavendish, Pulter and Hutchinson ‘all, in their various ways, wrote poetry that meditated on the liberating power of atoms to dissolve and recongregate into renewed and resurrected forms’ (21-2). Seeing as this division falls along gendered lines, a further explanation here of whether Gorman envisions this divide as incidental, or of whether she believes it is representative of a different approach to the atom from women writers, would have been useful. She does conclude chapter three on Pulter and Cavendish, for example, by speculating about the poetics of the atom’s liberating potential for ‘those who might, for various reasons, be considered outsiders within seventeenth-century intellectual society’ (173). This is highly suggestive and provides potential for future research into the connection between gender and poetic explorations of the atom, as Gorman notes in her afterword (218-9).

In the first chapter, which explores Cambridge Platonist Henry More’s early philosophical poetry printed in the 1640s, Gorman convincingly argues that for More the atom becomes an emblem for the soul as an indivisible essence of being, and therefore also an emblem of God. She reveals that More’s combination of Neoplatonic emanationist theory and atomism rests on a paradoxical blurring of the material and spiritual, the physical and metaphysical. More’s philosophy insists on a universe infused with the divine. Hence, he insists that through continual self-reflection on our own indivisible essences, or ‘“Atom-lives”’ (39), we gain knowledge of the otherwise unfathomable essence of God. As this summary suggests, More’s philosophy is dense and replete with paradoxical turns of thought. Nonetheless, the chapter’s explanation of these ideas is admirably clear. Throughout The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry Gorman’s lucid prose presents complex philosophical and theological ideas in an understandable and digestible way, and this particularly comes to the fore in this chapter.

This first chapter will also be of particular interest to readers of The Spenser Review owing to More’s adaptation of the Spenserian stanza for his philosophical poetry, as well as his equally Spenserian propensity for neologism. Although relatively brief, Gorman’s analysis of More’s stanzas forms the core of the argument she makes concerning how he saw poetry specifically as the appropriate vehicle for his Platonic philosophy. The twofold instinct of the Spenserian stanza towards both closure and near endless continuity emerges as More’s stanzas are seen to be able to behave like and ‘create a plenum parallel to his Neoplatonic cosmos wherein all things connect and project meaning’ (67).

Chapter two focuses on the poetry of Thomas Traherne, who, like More, drew a fundamental connection between the indivisibility of atoms and souls. Gorman argues that Traherne’s prioritisation of ‘act and activity in his theology’ (90) connects to his descriptions of atomic movement which in turn mirrors the active, contemplative nature of the soul in searching into all things and yet remaining unchanged. Gorman’s close readings of Traherne’s poetry reveal poetic forms that strain, contract, dilate, and burst, and thus both enact and facilitate an understanding of the atom, soul, and divinity. These compelling, perceptive, and sometimes surprising close readings make this chapter a highlight of the book.

Chapter three explores the atom poems of Margaret Cavendish and Hester Pulter through the dual processes of generation and corruption. For Pulter, Gorman argues, the indivisibility of the atom ensures the continuance of her being and her eventual rebirth, protecting against the inevitability of bodily dissolution. The ineffability of this process inspires faith and trust in God as it is through dissolution and rebirth that Pulter believes she will be liberated in the promised immortality of the next world. Cavendish’s atomic world-making in Poems and Fancies (1653) is thus seen to be comparatively unspiritual. Gorman identifies instead Cavendish’s concept of fancy as an empowering and generative force for constructing an enduring authorial identity. She identifies fancy as a mental faculty which operates in the mood of possibility and hence is the appropriate mode of thought for natural philosophical enquiry and for poetry. Particularly compelling is Gorman’s account of Cavendish’s ‘anxiety over the accuracy of form and communication in preserving plural observations’ (162) which emerges from her atomic theory in which particles need to be correctly positioned to create enduring forms. By tying this to Cavendish’s rewriting and reorganising of poems across Poems and Fancies’ three editions (1653, 1664, and 1668), Gorman portrays Cavendish as a writer concerned with the success of her natural philosophical project, her poetic collection, and hence her literary career.

In the fourth chapter Gorman explores the connections between biblical Adam and the atom. They are ‘both first principles’ (175), but Adam, pre-Fall, was also seen as the ideal natural philosopher, imbued with an innate ability to peer into the exact nature of things without the need for artificial tools. In exploring this connection, Gorman starts with John Milton’s Paradise Lost before moving on more fully to Lucy Hutchinson’s Order and Disorder. Gorman builds on previous scholarship which has identified resonances between Hutchinson’s manuscript translation of Lucretius’ De rerum natura, likely written during the 1650s, and her later biblical epic. While these echoes are often cited at moments of disorder and flux, Gorman argues that in Order and Disorder Hutchinson also uses atomic and chemical terms in a more positive light. She convincingly demonstrates that ‘Hutchinson’s atomic understanding of matter deepens the poet’s – and the reader’s sense of empathy with the loss of prelapsarian bliss’ which ‘leads to the promise of future resurrection’ (186). Order and Disorder as a biblical epic written in heroic couplets and divided into cantos is inherently different in form from the shorter, lyric poetry of Traherne, Pulter and Cavendish and from More’s stanzaic verse. As such, the connection between the indivisible, minute atom and poetic form is perhaps more obvious and intuitive for a reader to grasp in these chapters. In this final chapter, Gorman’s consideration of form is more implicit and of necessity different in approach. Nonetheless, by close reading Hutchinson’s scriptural references, and corpuscular and chemical vocabulary, Gorman dextrously identifies the creation poem as a form where ‘atoms of matter and of text form a clasp between mortal, embodied experiences and the divine’ (212).

Overall, Gorman successfully recovers an alternative, positive poetics of the atom, effectively broadening and deepening our understanding of the early modern atom and the literary and cultural reflections it engendered. The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry is a thoroughly enjoyable and essential read for all interested in the atom’s role in seventeenth-century thought.


Charlotte Newcombe

University of York

This work is supported by the White Rose College of the Arts & Humanities, AHRC funded DTP, grant reference AH/R012733/1.

[1] Lara Dodds and Michelle M. Dowd, ‘Happy Accidents: Critical Belatedness, Feminist Formalism, and Early Modern Women’s Writing’, Criticism 62.2 (2020), 176.


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Cite as:

Charlotte Newcombe, "Cassandra Gorman, The Atom in Seventeenth-Century Poetry," Spenser Review (Fall 2022). Accessed February 28th, 2024.
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