Confluence and Consilience: Nouveau-Disparity Between Research and the Liberal Arts as Echoed by Victorian Literature and Analysis Thereof

Literature and art fall under the discipline, jurisdiction, and care of the humanities, and in all aspects of this (appropriate) jurisdiction in the world of academia, there they find themselves duly criticized, examined, and pulled to pieces in the name of the advancement of the fields and subfields to which they owe their allegiance. This fraternization amongst themselves over the course of many centuries is a well-established and unbreakable bond, the survival of which both as practiced art and as debate fodder has long been critical to the advancement of the humanities, and of academics – this is to say, of proper academics.

A great majority of the faculty of the world’s contemporary universities and colleges take great care to educate their students as thoroughly as possible – but there are certain elements of education which are left as responsibility of the student to find for themselves: lessons to arrive at after the choice to enter further study, beyond those four years of work towards an undergraduate degree, marked typically by the entrance into a masters or doctoral program of study. Generally speaking, there is an unspoken division between the liberal arts and humanities and the “hard” sciences – engineering, medicine, and mathematics – which is rarely regarded but which finds a voice when approached as an analogy to the study of Victorian literature and academic rhetoric in particular. This division is heightened and defined almost exclusively by a critical and obvious difference: manner, employment of, and methodology of research. Here we find an analogy which relates back to the division between the sciences and humanities of Victorian times.

In examining excerpts of writings by Corinna Wagner, Matthew Arnold, and Charles Baudelaire in particular under the microscopy of collegiate analysis (as was recently necessary for the completion of reading for the first seminars of my graduate career), it is clear to see interconnection between these fields, as always – but the meaning behind this connectivity is heightened due to the particular subject matter in which one is immersed when presented with their underlying combination of ideas. With a great focus on Victorian-era literature and medicine for the materials of one course (hence the writings of Wagner), and a great focus on modernity and decadence for the other (the writings of Arnold, Baudelaire), the urgency of the need for further unification is noticeable in the context of contemporary academic disparity.

Consilience, per the use of the term in the context in which it is introduced in Corinna Wagner’s work, A Body Of Work: An Anthology Of Poetry And Medicine, implies in this case a call – (even an urgency) for consideration of unity between poetry and science. It calls for a greater understanding that a marriage of the sciences and arts is necessary for the development and evolution of both – and for an historic comprehension of the implications of the division between the sciences and the arts at the turn of the 19th century CE. Resurfacing throughout readings by the other authors mentioned are synonyms of this same word which exist to perpetuate the same meaning in the same general context – specifically, this theme is supported by the writings of both Arnold and Baudelaire heartily. Where Wagner’s work provides a contemporary analysis of the historic implications of the division between art and science, Arnold and Baudelaire give way to academic introspection by giving us the opportunity to look back from our future points – realizing that not much ever changes.

Modernity, again, per the use of the term contextually in Arnold’s work in particular, On The Modern Element in Literature, is described best by verse itself through his illustration of the broader spans of its potential application to the advancement of human thought and society:


“And everywhere there is connexion, everywhere there is illustration: no single event, no single literature, is adequately comprehended except in its relation to other events, to other literatures” … “to know how others stand; that we may know how we ourselves stand; and to know how we ourselves stand, that we may correct our mistakes and achieve our deliverance – that is our problem” (p.21: paraphrasing in second part the then-Chancellor of Cambridge).


Those in pursuit of the intellectual deliverance, a term Arnold uses to describe the academic equivalent of moral deliverance, will find it being “demanded less universally” (p.19), to examine the ‘collective life of humanity’ – relating again back to the consilience so necessary to properly do so. The connectivity between the aims of the works – though from two different time periods – is undeniable.

Arnold is so fervently committed to expressing the danger posed to the greater good of academics in his expression of the need for unity in the field of literature that, at one point, he asserts an opinion highly insightful for his time – that a lack of “profitableness” posed a challenge to the advancement of the field of literature (20). Research universities and their departments are notoriously focused on the acquisition and maintenance of funding – at times, a detriment to their students. Likewise, liberal arts universities and their departments can be notoriously bad at getting funding – also to the detriment of their students. The ever-clearer disparity between the umbrella disciplines presents a certain, and again-growing potential division between the arts and the sciences – a task of those who seek ‘intellectual deliverance’ to moderate – and a problem which is largely unspoken as neither type of University seems to acknowledge the potential existence of, or solution to its respective shortcomings.

Wagner places a great many poets at the forefront of her anthology, whose presence in their respective medical fields were also profound and critical, many thus exemplifying the connective quality between the two fields, per the purposes of the anthology’s publication. Among those gracing the pages of the anthology’s introduction are the words of Sir Humphry Davy, a renaissance man whose publication of the 1805 essay “Parallels Between Art and Science” includes these profound lines which offer such critical, poetic support Wagner’s central ideology: “A rapidity of combination, a power of perceiving analogies, and of comparing them by facts, is the creative source of discovery” ([1805] 1840: 308). Wagner’s inclusion of these words, penned at the hands of one who was so intrinsically tied to the pursuit of both the advancement of the sciences and the arts exists as the embodiment of the character detailed by Arnold – that is, the personal character required to truly serve the advancement of not just academia, but knowledge as an institution – believed to hold the ability to remove the sword from the proverbial stone. Arnold’s implication that one who understands, communicates well with others of his age, and interprets the value of the information he is receiving will be “one of his age’s intellectual deliverers” (21) stands as powerful, prophetic, poetic ponderance for the contemporary academic.

In an ironic, cross-disciplinary crossing of stars, Charles Baudelaire includes a passage which details a well-described subject who Baudelaire finds to be in the ideal image of one who is, by Arnold’s definition, truly capable of, and who frequently contributes to, the intellectual deliverance of his age: “Sometimes he is a poet; more often he comes closer to the novelist or the moralist; he is the painter of the passing moment and of all the suggestions of the eternity that it contains. Every country, to its pleasure and glory, has possessed a few men of this stamp.” (5)


The unique, correlative quality not only of the underlying thematic warnings of these writings, but of their greater sense of hope for the condition of the intellectual human being and all he is capable of speaks not only to the steadfast and unchanging quarrels, splendors, and solidarity of the human condition, but harkens our attention to the presence of these situations in our continuing, contemporary life. Here, we are called by the correlative value of these works into service to humankind – and thus we call into question within ourselves whether we are truly capable of being that great, multidisciplinary artist, philosopher, and scientist – whether we are truly capable of contributing in any small way with our pitiful pondering to the intellectual deliverance of our age… Whether we are capable of preventing the re-rupture of research and the liberal arts. And, lastly, whether we are capable of allowing their confluence for the greater benefit of today in an attempt to allow the tenets of modernity to exist to their fullest capacity if only as historic iconography with the rapid and daily transformation of the classroom.

These readings provided insight into two distinct areas, interrelating at different historic, literary, sociological, and artistic junctures: for analytical purposes in this circumstance, specifically both the attempts to define modernity and to seek its benefits with the implied intent of the furtherance of intercommunication between the arts and humanities – and the existence of this initial division, often with the arts portrayed as the jilted lover, pining and retaliating with even more abundant, prosaic, absurdist expression than usual, unchecked, while the sciences closed themselves off into their work, holding up in a windowless laboratory, building internally upon itself, but both with no balance to their impressive and all-consuming natures due to this division.

*    *    *

It is a tale of heartbreak – of love lost whose resurgence and tentative reappearance in the challenges faced by research universities versus those with central or exclusive focus on the liberal arts too often prevent collaborative structures to be built together. There, their sandcastles fall with no balanced ratio of water to sand at the mercy of the tide: as a diplomatic and powerless observer in love with both sides, I too am at its mercy and have only the contributive efforts of my work, little as they are.

When I find the origin of thought that I may be in over my head as a native of the liberal arts in a research environment, I instead discover both the boldness and the desire to inhale the salty brine which consumes my minutes and files the alveoli of my lungs until there is no place left for air, and in so doing, find also that, all along, I have possessed the ability to breathe underwater – and that, thusly, the separation between the liberal arts and research may in fact be the new-age division between science and the humanities may in fact be fallacy, preventable through the thought, analysis, and artistic reflection – all of which captured and embodied by the writings of Wagner, Arnold, and Bauledaire.

In no longer fearing the decomposition of my person in this foreign but so loved and familiar environment, I embrace thoroughly that which is my new element and seek its entrance into my body entirety, wrapping within the fibres of my tissues and within the intricacies of my exterior anatomy – here I find both the wont and addictive need to continue, and the grace to survive what to the world may present as danger or potential academic death, but to me seems the opportunity for a new birth.

Consilience echoes waves through a sea of academics, vying for spaces in the top tiers of the ivory tower – plunging into our ears with vast recourse as the waters rise as reminder of the critical nature not only of consilience, but of confluence: and under the weight of such water, we must at the shore wait for the tide.


Published by

Caroline C. Evans Abbott

I am a rising Master of Research (M.Res) English Literature candidate at the University of Glasgow, incoming MFA Writing candidate at Sarah Lawrence College, and a recent Honors Program graduate of the B.A. Studio Art program at Albertus Magnus College (2015). From 2015 - 2016, I served as an English, Writing, and Creative Enrichment Tutor for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a Native American Reservation in Brooks, California, and from 2014 - 2015 as a Writing Associate (Tutor) in the Albertus Magnus College Writing Center. I am based in West London.

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