The Poetry of Scientists

On shelf after shelf of carefully catalogued notebooks and sheets of paper, the archives of the Royal Institution in London store the voluminous manuscript writings of nineteenth-century scientific pioneers such as Humphry Davy and John Tyndall. Among these manuscripts are a surprising number of poems, painstakingly drafted, revised, copied out, and reworked. I’ve been working in the Royal Institution’s archives recently, researching both for my second academic monograph and for a documentary, ‘The Poetry of Science’, which will be broadcast as part of BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature on Sunday 2 November. I’ve been trying to figure out why nineteenth-century scientists (Davy, Tyndall, William Whewell, John Herschel, James Clerk Maxwell) were so interested in writing poetry. The copious crossings-out and emendations in the Royal Institution manuscripts indicate that Davy and Tyndall took care and time over their poems, editing and polishing them; poetry wasn’t simply a recreation. But why exactly did poetry exert such a pull on these scientific researchers? The writing of verse, I think, allowed them to carry on their scientific investigations by other means, providing them with a form of expression in which they could document their empirical study of nature and also speculate on its broader philosophical significance.

There were some surprising methodological similarities between poetry and science in the nineteenth century. Both, for instance, grounded their claims to knowledge in the precise observation and accurate description of natural phenomena. Both practices also depended on the study of relationships and analogies, on the experimental comparison and combination of seemingly unlike things. Daniel Brown, in The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, Science, and Nonsense, argues that the formal elements of verse, specifically ‘the unruly play of the pun, the tense relation of analogy, and the variegated repetition of rhyme’, offered Victorian scientists ‘a model of lively knowledge’ (p. 261) that paralleled the experimental stance of their scientific work.

Humphry_davy

Humphry Davy (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Earlier in the nineteenth century, Humphry Davy wrote poems that, throughout his career, incorporated the analogies in nature suggested to him by his innovative experiments in chemistry. In an 1800 notebook, Davy, aged around 22 and at the start of his scientific career, drafted a poem titled ‘The Life of the Spinosist’. He returned to this poem years later, revising and publishing it in 1808 as ‘Written after Recovery from a Dangerous Illness’. And he published another version of the poem, titled ‘Life’, in 1823, just six years before his death. The poem stayed with Davy throughout his career, and in it he tries to condense some of the key concepts of his chemistry into the vocabulary and structured form of Romantic verse. These are the opening stanzas of the 1808 version, ‘Written after Recovery from a Dangerous Illness’:

Lo! o’er the earth the kindling spirits pour

The flames of life that bounteous Nature gives;

The limpid dew becomes the rosy flower,

The insensate dust awakes, and moves, and lives.

 

All speaks of change: the renovated forms

Of long-forgotten things arise again;

The light of suns, the breath of angry storms,

The everlasting motions of the main.

 

These are but engines of the Eternal will,

The One Intelligence, whose potent sway

Has ever acted, and is acting still,

Whilst stars, and worlds, and systems all obey;

 

Without whose power, the whole of mortal things

Were dull, inert, an unharmonious band,

Silent as are the harp’s untuned strings

Without the touches of the poet’s hand.

‘Form’ and ‘change’ were crucial terms for Davy, both in his poetry and in his science. His researches in chemistry suggested to him that matter was inescapably subject to reaction and transformation, and in this poem such mutability is identified, by analogy, as an informing principle of life itself. The poem also, though, suggests an underlying permanence in nature: in his poetry more than in his chemistry, Davy was willing to argue that, despite the mutability of natural processes, the permanence of nature was guaranteed by the existence of perpetually recurring ‘forms’.

This argument is supported in the poem by another, very different, analogy: the self-consciously Romantic association of poetic creativity with the ‘Eternal will’. Davy uses his poem to extend his science, to speculate about the origins and causes of the natural processes he studied in his scientific experiments. The search for origins was, of course, a key concern of nineteenth-century science. However, in its most famous manifestation—On the Origin of Species (1859)—Charles Darwin was careful to stick to empirical evidence and to avoid metaphysical speculation: ‘the laws governing inheritance’, Darwin wrote, ‘are quite unknown’ (ch. 1). The philosophical scope of Romantic and post-Romantic poetry was broader than that of the nineteenth-century empirical scientific method, and so scientists took the writing of verse as an opportunity to speculate more boldly about the ultimate origins of life and nature. In his blank-verse poem ‘A Morning on Alp Lusgen’ (1892), the Victorian physicist John Tyndall, a keen mountaineer, addresses the Alpine landscape that he loved:

Unplanted groves! whose pristine seeds, they say,

Were sown amid the flames of nascent stars—

How came ye thence and hither? Whence the craft

Which shook these gentian atoms into form,

And dyed the flower with azure deeper far

Than that of heaven itself on days serene?

What built these marigolds? What clothed these knolls

With fiery whortle leaves? What gave the heath

Its purple bloom—the Alpine rose its glow?

Shew us the power which fills each tuft of grass

With sentient swarms?—the art transcending thought,

Which paints against the canvas of the eye

These crests sublime and pure, and then transmutes

The picture into worship? Science dumb—

Oh babbling Gnostic! cease to beat the air.

We yearn, and grope, and guess, but cannot know.

There is no certain recourse to a Christian God or an intelligent ‘will’ in ‘A Morning on Alp Lusgen’. The poem pursues its search for origins from the perspective of scientific naturalism, tracing the movement of material atoms from stars to the ‘Alpine rose’. Yet this atomic model is not, for Tyndall, reductive or mechanistic: in typical Romantic fashion, Tyndall’s poem celebrates the beauty of flowers and forests and the sublimity of mountains. It also evokes the sublimity of the scientific theory of the stellar origin of matter, while at the same time acknowledging the limits of scientific knowledge.

For scientific researchers in the nineteenth century, verse represented an alternative means of expression that could both support and interrogate scientific arguments. When I started my research for ‘The Poetry of Science’, I assumed that this could not be the case today; the disciplinary boundaries between science and poetry in the twenty-first century were surely too firmly entrenched. But the work of contemporary poets such as Ruth Padel and Mario Petrucci, who has a PhD in laser-optic materials, showed me that the concerns and practices of poetry and science are still closely linked. Like the scientist-poets of the nineteenth century, these writers use their verse to test out hypotheses about the origins of life, and to examine the philosophical implications of scientific theories.

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