A Mythography of Water: Hydraulic Engineering and the Imagination

  • Louise Noble
Part of the Palgrave Handbooks of Literature and Science book series (PAHALISC)


‘Water,’ writes John Bate in 1634, ‘is by nature of a massie subtile substance.’1 This chapter explores water, its subjugation and control, as an object of the English imagination in the middle of the seventeenth century, a period defined in many ways by utopian agricultural expectations. I am interested in the imaginative alliance between water and hydraulic invention in its various expressions—scientific and literary—which illustrate how, with its own ecological necessity, energy and flow, water posed enormous challenges for inventors and innovators intent on harnessing and taming this vital resource, and how literature engaged with the hydraulic curiosity that prevailed. For centuries the problem of taming water has exercised creative minds. By the middle of the seventeenth century, this preoccupation had reached such an extent that hydrological management assumed unprecedented creative, political and economic stature.2 This situation was unsurprising given the prevailing ethos of agricultural improvement, which prompted the observation that “the Genius of this Age is very much bent to advance Husbandry”.3 Controlling water was critical to agrarian reform. Considered a tameable resource, with the right amount of ingenuity water could be put to work for agricultural and commercial advantage. ‘Water was the great difficulty of the early Engineer … ’ Samuel Smiles declares, ‘In the hands of the Engineer, water, instead of being a tyrant, became a servant; instead of being a destroyer, it became a useful labourer and a general civiliser.’4 Bringing water to hand required imagining a waterscape far removed from the existing environment and ecology and there were, of course, practical motivations for designing and adopting innovative technology to tame water’s natural ebbs and flows in order to make boggy land arable, dry land productive and rivers navigable.


Seventeenth Century Agrarian Reform Cultural Imagination Water Engine Paradise Lost 
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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  • Louise Noble
    • 1
  1. 1.School of ArtsUniversity of New EnglandArmidaleAustralia

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