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.

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