THE on Worm Work

By Sharon Ruston
Times Higher Education

schwartz_worm coverBeginning with its enjoyable introduction, Worm Work promises to be entertaining. Its topic is one of the lowliest forms of life, the worm, and Janelle Schwartz aims to bring these creatures to our attention as they wriggle into view in the literature of the Romantic period.

The book is predicated on some very persuasive arguments: the worm is the human's opposite in its size and horridness and, as it is the species most unlike humans, attention to it therefore throws into sharp relief the ways in which humans view themselves. In the 18th century, worms were seen as the lowest in the chain of being: indeed, there was some controversy over whether they should even be considered animals rather than plants. As this argument suggests, worms have an interesting role to play in questions of taxonomy, the ruling passion of natural historians of the period. When the naturalist Abraham Trembley discovered that when polyps were cut in two, each of the severed parts continued to live, worms became, in Schwartz's words, "a taxonomic terror". Worms were also, via the common symbol of their feeding on corpses, a reminder of death. They were, furthermore, recognised as having a crucial role in life itself. As Charles Darwin noted, worms "prepare the ground" for life to generate. The Romantic period, as we now call it, was a time "when worm studies enjoyed a particular emphasis and exponential growth", Schwartz says.

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