Month: September 2017

Thomas Hardy’s Fourth Dimension

As I mentioned in my previous post, I’m currently researching the final chapter of Poetical Matter, my book on nineteenth-century poetry and the physical sciences. One of the aims of this blog is to test out ideas and to reflect on the process of research, and so I’m going to be honest and admit that, already, my work on this chapter isn’t going as planned. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is forcing me to rethink my approach to the chapter, so in this post I’m going to focus on the difficulties I’ve experienced so far and the questions they’ve raised, rather than on any solutions I’ve reached or any arguments I’ve developed (mainly because I haven’t yet).

The issue is this: my final chapter is on Thomas Hardy’s poetry, and was supposed to be titled ‘Hardy’s Numbers’. Counting is a common device in Hardy’s poems, and I had an intuitive hunch that his habit of counting was connected in some way to his observations and interpretations of the material world. But my hunch was wrong. After a more attentive reading of Hardy’s poems, I’ve realised that when he uses numbers in his verse, he typically uses them to represent the passage of time, either with reference to clocks (as Jeffrey Blevins has pointed out, Hardy’s poems are full of minutes, hours, and ticking timepieces), or with reference to the passing of years and decades (memory and ageing are, of course, recurring preoccupations of Hardy’s poetry). There are some poems in which numbers are cited in the observation of material things (for example, ‘A Wet August’), but not many.

This realisation is linked to another feature of Hardy’s writing, one which he shares with several of the poets I’m writing about in Poetical Matter. I’d assumed that nineteenth-century poets (and poets writing in the nineteenth-century tradition, like Hardy) were obsessed with the detailed (and therefore arguably sort-of-scientific) description of particular material things in the natural world (a rock, a tree, a flower, a cloud, a stream etc). And they are. But they also, often, write about matter in a more speculative or theoretical way, putting forward arguments about (and not observations of) matter in general (rather than specific material things). There are several Hardy poems that discuss matter in this way, and I’m now thinking that this is what my Hardy chapter is going to need to focus on. To give you an example, here is ‘A Dream Question’, from Hardy’s 1909 volume Time’s Laughingstocks. The poem is one of Hardy’s several dialogues with (or disapproving interrogations of) the God that he isn’t sure exists.

I asked the Lord: 'Sire, is this true
Which hosts of theologians hold,
That when we creatures censure you
For shaping griefs and ails untold
(Deeming them punishments undue)
You rage, as Moses wrote of old?

'When we exclaim: "Beneficent
He is not, for he orders pain,
Or, if so, not omnipotent:
To a mere child the thing is plain!"
Those who profess to represent
You, cry out: "Impious and profane!"'

He: 'Save me from my friends, who deem
That I care what my creatures say!
Mouth as you list: sneer, rail, blaspheme,
O manikin, the livelong day,
Not one grief-groan or pleasure-gleam
Will you increase or take away.

'Why things are thus, whoso derides,
May well remain my secret still....
A fourth dimension, say the guides,
To matter is conceivable.
Think some such mystery resides
Within the ethic of my will.'

This isn’t one of Hardy’s better-known poems, but I’m a fan. It’s funny in a typically Hardyesque way: I particularly like its use of ‘derides’ instead of the expected ‘decides’ in the final stanza, as the hoped-for explanation is replaced with an insult. For my purpose, though, the most interesting part of the final stanza, and of the whole poem, is the analogy between God’s ‘will’ and the constitution of matter. At the moment, I have three broad questions about this poem, which I’m going to need to answer if it’s to form part of the chapter’s argument

First, the source-hunting question. When and where did Hardy read or hear about the fourth dimension? This question is complicated by the fact that the poem is undated. In Robert Schweik’s essay on science, philosophy, and religion in Hardy’s work, ‘A Dream Question’ is cited as evidence of Hardy’s interest in Einstein’s theories of relativity, and their elaboration of a four-dimensional model of space-time. This argument would be very helpful to me, as it would allow me to connect the material number of this poem (matter’s fourth dimension) to the temporal numbers of Hardy’s other poems. But there’s a snag: as far I’m aware, Hardy didn’t read anything about Einstein until the first big wave of popularisation of his theories in Britain, which took place in 1919-20. This poem, published in 1909, is at least 10 years too early to register Einstein’s influence. More generally, the language of time as the fourth dimension wasn’t fully developed until 1907-8, by the Lithuanian mathematician Hermann Minkowski (although H. G. Wells speculates about time as the fourth dimension in The Time Machine [1895]). It seems unlikely (although it’s possible, I suppose) that Hardy would have read Minkowski’s specialist account of four-dimensional space-time.

The reference to ‘matter’ suggests that Hardy’s source for this analogy is more likely to have been one or more of the Victorian theories that defined the fourth dimension in spatial rather than temporal terms (there’s a useful introduction to Victorian theories of the fourth dimension in Rosemary Jann’s introduction to Edwin A. Abbott’s Flatland [1884]). My next task is to delve into letters, notebooks, and biographies in order to find out where Hardy might have read about the fourth dimension: from literary writers like Wells, Abbott, or Oscar Wilde (in ‘The Canterville Ghost’); from mathematicians such as Charles Howard Hinton (who wrote ‘What is the Fourth Dimension?’ in 1880), or from physicists like Balfour Stewart and Peter Guthrie Tait, who speculate about the fourth dimension in their entertainingly weird book The Unseen Universe (1875).

four-dimensional space

A four-dimensional shape (source – BRANCH: Britain, Representation and Nineteenth-Century History)

The second question is going to be trickier to answer: what is the significance of Hardy’s analogy between the fourth dimension and the will of God? What is its effect on possible interpretations of the poem? To some extent, the fourth dimension appears to be a convenient metaphor for a recurring theme in Hardy’s poetry: the impossibility of understanding the meaning or purpose of the universe (if, of course, there is one). But it’s a central tenet of literature-and-science research that scientific metaphors, even when used in seemingly offhand ways, are not inert. Instead, they act as catalysts for new interpretative possibilities, transforming both the vehicle of the metaphor (the scientific concept) and its tenor. So what is Hardy doing with the fourth dimension here?

In a way, his reference to ‘matter’ is unusual. As Deanna Kreisel explains in her comprehensive introduction to Victorian theories of ‘hyperspace’, debates about the fourth dimension in the nineteenth century tended to be mathematical in orientation; they typically discussed the fourth dimension in terms of abstract space and geometrical figures. Hardy’s identification of the fourth dimension as a property of matter suggests something more, well, material, more tangible and physical. It possibly aligns him with the smaller number of Victorian writers (e.g. Stewart and Tait) who presented the fourth dimension as an empirically unknowable aspect of matter. For these writers, spiritual and moral properties were inherent in matter (or at least in some forms of matter), but unlike the three spatial dimensions these properties could not be apprehended via the senses. The fourth dimension, therefore, was a bridge that connected physical science, religion, and spiritualism. If Hardy has this sort of argument in mind in ‘A Dream Question’, then the fourth dimension is not just a rhetorical metaphor. Instead, there is a direct correspondence between this mysterious aspect of matter and the ‘ethic’ of God’s ‘will’; the two might even be the same thing. This doesn’t sound like a very Hardyesque argument to me, so it’s also possible that, in his usual grimly humorous way, Hardy is satirising that theory, or pointing out the futility of all such speculations.

The third question is about the form of the poem. One of the reasons I wanted to call this chapter ‘Hardy’s Numbers’ was that this title would give me the opportunity for a clever pun, linking Hardy’s counting of material objects with the ‘numbers’ of poetic metre (and specifically with the often complex and variable metres of Hardy’s verse). I guess I’ll have to give up on that pun now: the chapter’s going to need a new title. Besides, the metre of this poem isn’t particularly complex. It’s written in a kind of extended long-measure stanza – lines of iambic tetrameter rhyming ababab – and the rhythms of most of its lines stick fairly closely to the metre. I suppose there is a kind of formal irony going on throughout the poem, as an intellectually subversive claim is expressed in a relatively conventional form, but that feels like a fairly obvious (and not hugely interesting) point. I’ve a lot of work still to do, I think, on the relation between Hardy’s ideas about matter and the forms of his verse.

To close, I’d like to apologise for the rambling and meandering style of this post. My only excuse is that I’m still in the early stages of this research, so, if any Hardy specialists read this, I can only apologise if I’ve missed something blindingly obvious or said anything embarrassingly facile. If you’ve had the patience to read this to the end, I’d welcome your thoughts on it.


Nineteenth-Century Poetry and the Physical Sciences

I’ve tried a few times to get into the habit of regular blogging, but my success so far has been, well, limited. This post is the start of another concerted effort. And this time it’ll be different. I’m working on three projects at the moment. I’ve written an article and an entry for the Dictionary of National Biography on the Victorian poet, novelist, and social worker May Kendall, both of which will (hopefully) be published soon. I’m editing a volume of the poetry and prose of another Victorian, Arthur Hugh Clough, for Oxford University Press’s 21st-Century Oxford Authors series. And I’m writing a book titled Poetical Matter, which studies the exchange of methods, language, and concepts between poetry and the physical sciences in nineteenth-century Britain. I’ll be blogging about all three projects as I work on them, because hopefully the posts will be of interest to some people, and also because I want to see if blogging can form part of the process of research, if it can be a means of testing and developing ideas before I have to take the permanently daunting step of writing them down as part of a book or article. If other researchers use blogging as part of their process, I’d be very interested to hear how it works for you.

My main focus in my posts will be on Poetical Matter, a project which I’ll be finishing in 2017-18, and for which I currently hold a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship. The purpose of the book is to explore the connections between poetic and scientific writing about material things in the nineteenth century (its focus is exclusively on the things of nature – atoms, rocks, stars, planets – rather than manufactured objects). Its argument is that poetry and the physical sciences (primarily physics and chemistry, but the book also looks at geology and astronomy) were both considered to be simultaneously empiricist and speculative in orientation: they both used the observation and manipulation of material things as the basis of inductive theorisations of natural phenomena. This shared methodology meant that poets could incorporate the most up-to-date developments in scientific theory into their verse, and that science writers could (and did) write and quote poetry in support of their scientific arguments. But it also prompted a dilemma that was felt by poets and by science writers: they were attracted, to some extent, by the explanatory power of philosophical materialism, but they were also troubled by its reductive stance and by the threat that it seemed to pose to morality and religion. The effort to reconcile a methodological focus on matter with religious, metaphysical, or ethical beliefs was a concern shared by most poets and science writers.

I’m trying in this book to give a wide view of intellectual trends in nineteenth-century Britain, and so it looks at poems and scientific texts written across the century, from the 1790s to the 1910s. In an effort to make this broad chronological sweep more manageable, and my argument more focused, the book’s chapters present a series of case studies, starting with Wordsworth and ending with Hardy. In between, it will also consider the poetry of Tennyson and Mathilde Blind, poems about science that were published in the Victorian periodical press, and the scientific writing of (among others) Humphry Davy, William Whewell, Mary Somerville, John Tyndall, James Clerk Maxwell, and Oliver Lodge.

V0005942 John Tyndall. Colour lithograph by A. Cecioni, 1872.

Vanity Fair‘s 1872 caricature of physicist, poetry fan, and enthusiastic amateur poet John Tyndall (source:

Each of Poetical Matter‘s chapters focuses on a particular word or phrase that was used in overlapping but distinct ways by nineteenth-century poets and science writers: for example, ‘form’, ‘sound’, and ‘rhythm’. This particular focus on language may seem counterintuitive in a book about matter, but it makes sense, I think, because poets and science writers were both preoccupied with the question of whether and how it was possible to record in words the experience of directly interacting with matter, whether through visual observation, touch, or experimental manipulation. One of the book’s conclusions, I think, is going to be that poets and science writers alike emphasised the strangeness of matter: it was in an important sense the foundation of their work, and of subjective experience in general, but it was also extremely difficult to explain or define in any straightforward way. To demonstrate this strangeness, poets and science writers discussed several different kinds of ‘poetical matter’:

  1. Tangible material things, such as rocks and rivers, which were observed in detail but which were also used as the inductive foundation of more-or-less speculative scientific and metaphysical theories.
  2. Forms of matter that were not directly accessible to the senses, and that therefore had to be theorised and described in abstract and imaginative terms. The atom, which throughout most of the long nineteenth century was understood as the basic constituent of matter, is the best example of this.
  3. Forms of matter that were entirely hypothetical. For example, nineteenth-century physicists were almost unanimous in positing the existence of a material ether that pervaded space and that acted as the medium through which light, heat, electricity, magnetism (and, for some, gravity) moved. Because these forms of energy were understood as waves, vibrations, or undulations, the ether model imagined space as both material and rhythmic, and this scientific construction of a rhythmic universe had an important influence on some nineteenth-century poets.
  4. Material phenomena that appeared to be, and were often still understood as, immaterial. Sound, and particularly the human voice, is a good example of this. Science writers frequently used poetry to illustrate the argument that sound was transmitted as wave motions in the particles of the air and of other kinds of matter; poets tried to reconcile this materialist explanation of sound with the notion that the voice, and particularly the poetic voice, was a spiritual signifier of personal identity.

I think that gives a reasonable indication of what Poetical Matter is about. I’m currently writing the book’s final chapter, ‘Hardy’s Numbers’, on Thomas Hardy’s listing, counting, and detailed observation of material things in his poetry. These habits demonstrate Hardy’s adherence to a nineteenth-century tradition of minute observation and descriptive cataloguing in the study of nature. But Hardy’s insistent use of numbers also conveys a concern, shaped by his interest in twentieth-century scientific developments such as Einstein’s theories of relativity, that objective measurement of the material universe may be impossible. I’ll be blogging about Hardy’s poetry as I work on this chapter over the next couple of months.