Month: November 2015

The Uses of Poetry in Victorian Science

Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Criticism and Debates, edited by Jonathan Herapath and Emma Mason, has just been published. The book is a collection of primary sources and critical essays on the key issues surrounding the writing and reception of poetry in nineteenth-century Britain, and I was fortunate enough to be asked to write the essay on science. One of the questions that I try to address in the essay, and in my research in general at the moment, is how poetry contributed to the rhetoric and the presentation of science in Victorian Britain. Victorian science writers frequently used quotations of and allusions to poetry to reinforce and enliven their presentation of scientific theories, or their broader arguments about the value of science as a mode of knowledge. As I wrote in my previous post, this is a strategy they share with popular science writers in the twenty-first century. Verse, however, was particularly effective as a rhetorical support for science in the Victorian period, because, although it was losing commercial ground and market share to the novel and to the periodical press, poetry in nineteenth-century culture retained its status as the height of artistic expression, and as the articulation of enduring emotional and spiritual truths.

Victorian science writers found various uses for the cultural authority of poetry as a form. To give one example: on 5 September 1867 the physicist and populariser of science John Tyndall gave a ‘lecture to the working men of Dundee’ titled ‘Matter and Force’. At the close of his explication of the molecular processes that constitute the transformation of liquid water into ice, Tyndall commented that, ‘to use the language of an American poet, “the atoms march in tune,” moving to the music of law, which thus renders the commonest substance in nature a miracle of beauty.’ The quotation is from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 1846 poem ‘Monadnoc’: ‘For the world was built in order, / And the atoms march in tune’. There are several ways of interpreting Tyndall’s deployment of this particular poet’s language. It might be argued that he uses Emerson’s poem as mere eloquence, an expressive form of words that functions straightforwardly as an ornamentation or embellishment of the argument of his prose. Alternatively, the quotation might perhaps be interpreted as an item of supporting evidence for that argument, encapsulating and demonstrating Tyndall’s suggestion that scientific knowledge (and scientific terminology such as ‘atoms’) also has aesthetic significance, making the ‘music’ of natural law and the ‘beauty’ of natural processes more readily appreciable.

A third possible interpretation is suggested by the next paragraph of Tyndall’s argument, in which he asserts, immediately after this quotation, that ‘it is the function of science, not as some think to divest this universe of its wonder and its mystery, but, as in the case here before us, to point out the wonder and the mystery of common things.’ In the light of this statement, it’s possible that the value of Emerson’s poetry for Tyndall is not just stylistic and aesthetic, but epistemological and even (in a way that he deliberately leaves vague and undefined) theological or spiritual. Tyndall was famously antagonistic towards theologians’ efforts to restrict the remit of science, and famously robust in his championing of scientific materialism and naturalistic explanation. Here, though, circumspectly yet firmly, he introduces a mysterious and arguably mystical element into his scientific argument. The ‘law’ to which his atoms conform is not wholly distinct from the providential ‘order’ that Emerson’s poem identifies in the world’s construction and operation.

Why would Tyndall (who, as Bernard Lightman has argued, was Victorian Britain’s most vocal proponent of scientific naturalism) use poetry in this way, as a kind of mystical, rhetorical safety net? Perhaps because, despite the growing prominence and intellectual authority of scientific thinking in the nineteenth century, there remained a widespread sense of anxiety or suspicion towards exclusively scientific models of explanation such as Tyndall’s. Gillian Beer, in an essay on Tyndall and Gerard Manley Hopkins which is republished in Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Criticism and Debates, writes that Tyndall saw a ‘recognition of a disjunction between natural processes and human patterns of expectation and design’ as ‘one of the characterizing gains of science.’ In many ways this disjunction was indeed a gain, but it was also a problem that needed to be managed and smoothed over, especially when addressing audiences who were not scientific specialists. In his lecture to the working men of Dundee, Tyndall uses Emerson’s poetry to reassure: scientific explanation is naturalistic and quantitative, but it is not reductive or mechanistic; it preserves space for wonder and mystery. The proof of this is that science can be communicated in, and made to sound like, poetry. Richard Dawkins, interestingly, does something similar in his popular science writing: poetic quotations are often found in his work in close proximity to celebrations of the ‘wonder’ of science. Poetry performed (and still performs) an active part in science communication: as a demonstration of the science writer’s cultural capital; as a means of conveying the aesthetic possibilities of scientific knowledge; and, perhaps most importantly and consistently, as a form of reassurance.

Popular Science and (Unpopular?) Poetry

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve been thinking about poetic quotation recently. I’ve probably been thinking about it too much: quotations of poetry in prose writing often seem fairly insignificant; a kind of ornamentation to the main argument, or a demonstration of the writer’s erudition; irrelevant to the larger structure of the text, and at best effective at a local level. But the practice of poetic quotation is so widespread, both in the nineteenth century and now, that I’m convinced that, however slight any single quotation might be, the convention as a whole is significant, and worthy of study. At the moment I’m researching a book chapter on poetic quotations in nineteenth-century scientific texts; because of this work, perhaps, I also can’t help noticing snippets of poetry scattered throughout my supposedly non-work-related reading. As I wrote in September, it seems to me that some contemporary novelists use quotations of poetry (and especially of Victorian poetry) as a sort of shorthand for characterisation. Another example, closer to my research, is the near-ubiquitous deployment of poetry in contemporary popular science, in a way that appears, surprisingly, very similar to the use of poetic quotation in nineteenth-century science writing.

My most recent example of this is from Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology, by the physicist Jim Al-Khalili and the microbiologist Johnjoe McFadden. The book is an interesting and astute piece of popular science writing, characterised by a thoughtful self-consciousness about the difficulties involved in presenting abstruse scientific concepts to non-specialist readers. For example, it presents a series of effective metaphors for describing the weird and counterintuitive actions of subatomic particles, while also retaining a sceptical awareness of the explanatory limits of metaphor. The aspect of the book’s style that most interests me, though, is the authors’ decision to end its final chapter (apart from a brief epilogue) with three lines of Shakespeare’s blank verse:

The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds,

And ‘twixt the green sea and the azured vault

Set roaring war: to the dread rattling thunder…

This quotation is taken from Prospero’s speech in act 5, scene 1 of The Tempest (lines 42-44). Its main function in Life on the Edge is as the capstone to the governing metaphor of this particular chapter, which imagines organic life as a ship, precariously navigating between the chaotic, stormy “sea” of classical physics and the finely tuned, infinitesimally minute operations of quantum mechanics (which, according to Al-Khalili and McFadden, underpin the ‘coherence’ and precision of biological processes). The Tempest is a good source text for illustrating this maritime metaphor, and one of the chapter’s early sections commences with the play’s opening stage direction: “On a ship at sea: a tempestuous noise”.

In order to make the quotation from the fifth act fit more closely into the chapter’s argument and metaphorical structure, Al-Khalili and McFadden alter it, and they do so by utilising one of the most basic formal features of verse: line endings. By omitting the final clause of the preceding line – “I have bedimmed” – they obscure the fact that Prospero is describing his personal (and magical) control over the sun, the sea, and the sky. The grammar of the lines is transformed, and agency is transferred from Prospero to the natural world itself. This edited version of the quotation chimes closely with the chapter’s account of biological life as the site of a complex and precarious interaction between different orders of natural process. This similarity is only attained, though, through a significant reworking of the quotation, in which the source text appears to surrender authority over its own meaning.

At the same time, it seems that Shakespeare’s poetry still retains a kind of authority over the chapter’s scientific argument. Coming at the end of the chapter, constituting almost the last word on the book’s claims, it might be argued that these three lines of poetry are being implicitly presented by the book’s authors as the most apt or suitable summary of their account of the complex theories of quantum biology. Nineteenth-century science writers frequently use poetic quotations in this way, as an elevated and edifying means of encapsulating a scientific argument. This makes sense, I think, given the prominent cultural status of poetry in nineteenth-century Britain: even if poetry wasn’t widely read, it was consistently deferred to as the highest form of artistic expression. It’s surprising to me, though, that popular science writers are still using poetic quotations in the twenty-first century: the non-specialist readers that these writers are trying to reach are probably not familiar with the details of the science being discussed, but many of them are also probably not very familiar with, or impressed by, poetry as a form. On reflection, though, perhaps the unpopularity and obscurity of poetry in contemporary British culture increases the effectiveness of poetic quotations in popular science texts. Writers and readers may no longer defer to poetry, but poetic quotations provide a means of conveying recondite scientific concepts in language that is pithy and eloquent, while also being seen as culturally sophisticated, imaginatively rich, and intellectually challenging.