literature and science

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.


Observing Keats

I’m still thinking about John Keats and medicine. I’ve recently written a couple of articles – one on Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’ and one on Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’ – which consider how professional medicine might have provided nineteenth-century writers with a model for effective literary practice (in the description of characters, for instance, or in the communication of humane knowledge). But I think (or I hope) that, in the case of Keats, there’s still more to say, specifically about how his time as a medical student and dresser in London in 1815-17 trained him in a diagnostic method, and in a particular approach to working with patients, that also informed his poetry.

British medicine in the early nineteenth century was engaged in an ambitious (if uneven) process of professionalisation, exemplified in the 1815 Apothecaries’ Act, which for the first time mandated a (roughly) standardised curriculum of instruction and examination for trainee apothecaries. Keats was one of the first students to enrol at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals after the passing of the act, and, as John Barnard has shown, in 1815-16 he attended the eminent surgeon Astley Cooper’s lectures on anatomy and on surgery. Cooper was an important contributor to the professionalisation of medicine, and especially to the development of a scientific approach to diagnosis and surgical treatment, which rejected systematic theorising and relied instead on empirical data and on detailed anatomical knowledge.

Descriptions of this approach are everywhere in notes taken by students who attended Cooper’s lectures at the same time as Keats (notes that are now held in the archives of King’s College London and of the Royal College of Surgeons). One student, Joshua Waddington, recorded Cooper as saying that the ‘principles’ of surgery ‘are founded upon observation of diseased living, and the examination of diseased dead Animals, and on experiments made on the living’. Another, George Ray, noted down the same maxim: surgical principles ‘are derived from three sources. 1st from the observation of the symptoms of Disease during life. 2ndly from the examination of the appearance of the body after Death. 3rd by experiments on living animals.’ For Cooper, it seems, observation, examination, and experimentation formed a kind of scientific trivium that underpinned surgical practice, and that viewed the living and the dead as the data of medical science.


St Thomas’s hospital, where Keats attended Astley Cooper’s lectures.

How might this approach have informed Keats’s poetry? To give one example: in ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’ (1819), Keats uses the Greek myth of the war between the Titans and the Olympians as the narrative framework around which he constructs his definitions of poetry and of the poet. Moneta, the goddess of memory, gifts the poem’s speaker with ‘A power […] of enormous ken / To see as a God sees’ (1:303-4), which enables him to witness the sufferings of the defeated Titans Saturn and Thea:

                     A long awful time
I looked upon them: still they were the same;
The frozen God still bending to the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet;
Moneta silent. Without stay or prop,
But my own weak mortality, I bore
The load of this eternal quietude,
The unchanging gloom, and the three fixèd shapes
Ponderous upon my senses a whole moon. (1:384-92)

The critical consensus about these lines (most recently set out by Brittany Pladek) is that they describe an instance of imaginative identification with suffering, of sympathy or (to use an anachronistic word, not coined until the early twentieth century) empathy. The most important words here, in this interpretation, are ‘I bore / the load’. But what load is the speaker bearing? I’m not convinced that he is sympathetically experiencing the Titans’ grief and humiliation. Instead, the feeling he describes appears to be a kind of boredom, or a detached (and therefore, perhaps, professional) indifference. The difficulty that faces him in these lines is not that of surviving the superhuman pain of the Titans, but that of maintaining his disciplined, monotonous observation throughout the ‘long awful time’ of their stillness (it’s a difficulty that’s articulated in the sound of Keats’s blank verse, and specifically in the acoustic repetition of ‘ponderous upon my senses’). In his efforts to understand the Titans, the speaker first and foremost looks at them rather than feeling for them, an approach that agrees with Astley Cooper’s insistence on the centrality of observation and examination to diagnosis.

This is not scientific objectivity, which Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison define as ‘knowledge that bears no trace of the knower’; the speaker’s observation of Saturn and Thea is filtered through his ‘own weak mortality’. But it is knowledge in which the subjectivity of the observer is distanced from those he observes: he characterises the Titans not as living and suffering persons but as visual ‘shapes’. Rather than describing a process of imaginative identification, these lines suggest that, in poetry as in scientific medicine, fellow feeling perhaps needs to be subordinated to observational accuracy. And, to put forward the kind of speculative hypothesis of which Cooper disapproved, I also think that the speaker’s observation of the Titans indicates that there is a place in poetry for ‘experiments made on the living’. ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ may be interpreted as an experiment that tests what happens when a poet tries to observe, diagnose, and describe suffering magnified to eternal, immortal proportions.

Jane Austen’s Experiments

On Radio 4’s In Our Time in November, John Mullan described Jane Austen as ‘one of the great experimental writers of European fiction’. I agree, and I also think that this assessment can be taken more literally than Mullan perhaps intended. In a recent essay in the journal Nineteenth-Century Literature, I argue that Austen’s Sanditon, her final novel which remained unfinished at her death, presents a new style of fictional narrative which borrows from the empirical and observational practices of nineteenth-century science. As I wrote in a previous post on Sanditon, this novel adopts a forensic and objective narrative stance, through which the narrator bestows a sceptical and impartial attention on the fragment’s various characters. In this post, I want to argue that the methods of scientific experimentation also help to inform the literary experiment that Austen conducts in Sanditon.

As Charlotte Heywood, Sanditon’s heroine, promenades along the terrace of the eponymous seaside resort, she meets Sir Edward Denham coming out of the local library. In an effort to impress her, Sir Edward boasts of his credentials as a discerning reader of novels:

‘The mere trash of the common circulating library, I hold in the highest contempt. You will never hear me advocating those puerile emanations which detail nothing but discordant principles incapable of amalgamation, or those vapid tissues of ordinary occurrences from which no useful deductions can be drawn.—In vain may we put them into a literary alembic;—we distil nothing which can add to science.—You understand me I am sure?’

‘I am not quite certain that I do’, replies Charlotte. Her hesitant response isn’t surprising, because Sir Edward’s account of his tastes is bafflingly inconsistent. Despite borrowing several novels from the circulating library, he dismisses such novels as trash, contributing nothing to ‘science’. He uses this word in its traditional sense, meaning general ‘knowledge or understanding acquired by study’, but his identification of the novel as a ‘literary alembic’, an instrument of experimentation, also points to a newer definition of science as a methodology, concerned ‘with a connected body of demonstrated truths or with observed facts systematically classified and more or less comprehended by general laws, and incorporating trustworthy methods’ of verification (Oxford English Dictionary, ‘science’, definitions 2 and 4b).

But while Sir Edward implies that the novel should be capable of reaching conclusions through experimental methods, he contradicts himself by casually dismissing the relevance of ‘ordinary occurrences’, the observable and repeatable events on which scientific knowledge depends. Sir Edward is an object of ridicule in Sanditon: here, Austen’s satire is targeted not at his use of the alembic metaphor but at his failure to grasp its significance for the novel as a form. Perhaps even more in this fragment than in Austen’s other novels, everyday occurrences, and the ‘discordant principles’ of the characters involved in them, constitute the raw materials which, distilled and analysed by the impartial narrative voice, form the basis of a kind of literary experimentation.

This method of objective experimentation is directly discussed, at times, by the novel’s characters. For instance, Mr Parker, the financial speculator who befriends the Heywood family, starts to describe to Charlotte his relationship with his business partner Lady Denham, but then pauses: ‘Those who tell their own story you know must be listened to with caution.—When you see us in contact, you will judge for yourself’. Parker’s statement is significant for two reasons: first, because it shows that the importance of evidence-based judgement and knowledge is recognised by Sanditon’s characters; and second, because it suggests that, both for the characters and the readers of fictional narratives, such knowledge must be founded on the observation not of individuals but of characters ‘in contact’ with each other.

James Chandler has argued that characterization in the novels of Austen’s contemporary Maria Edgeworth can be read as a scientific process, structured on the methodological model ‘that forms the basis of all experimental knowledge: the capacity to compare observations across a range of similar scenarios or objects, where the registered difference among isolated variables enables a causal analysis that facilitates discovery’. A similar argument can be made about Sanditon: narrative and characterization depend in this text not just on observation but on a form of active experimentation, which brings characters into contact in order to compare their differing perspectives. In Sanditon Austen aims to establish an impartiality of form: the objective stance of the novel’s narrative voice offers a kind of unbiased knowledge that is based on observation and experimental comparison. Sanditon constitutes evidence for the close connection between the developing definitions of ‘literature’ and ‘science’ in the early nineteenth century, and it suggests that scientific methods played a significant part in Austen’s understanding of the novel as a form.

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.

Thinking about Thinking: Teaching Literature and Science

On Saturday 8 November the British Society for Literature and Science (BSLS) ran a symposium on ‘Teaching Literature and Science’. Hosted by the University of Westminster’s Centre for the Study of Science and Imagination, the event brought together humanities academics, scientists and engineers, and undergraduate students to discuss the pleasures, difficulties, and value of learning about the historical and contemporary links between science and literature. The symposium revealed how interested students in higher education (and pupils in secondary schools) are in literature and science, and it showcased some of the diverse and innovative approaches that tutors and lecturers are using to share the latest thinking in the field with their students. The scope and ambition of literature-and-science teaching was manifested on ‘the wall’, where participants posted module syllabi, reading lists, and accounts of their experiences of teaching the subject.

2014 BSLS teaching symposium

‘The wall’ at the BSLS symposium on teaching literature and science.

The first question asked at the symposium was also the biggest: ‘why teach literature and science?’ For me, perhaps the most persuasive and thought-provoking answer to this question was that teaching literature and science helps students to develop a ‘critical appreciation’ (the phrase was Charlotte Sleigh’s) of science. English Literature as a subject trains its students to read literary texts in ways that combine admiration with critique, a sensitivity to the linguistic and aesthetic richness of literature with a sceptical awareness of the strategies writers use to manipulate language for rhetorical or political ends. A similar approach is needed today in relation science. In a culture in which scientific models of understanding, and the technological applications of science, are powerful determinants of how people live and think, it is vital that humanities graduates (and science graduates too) can grasp the intellectual complexity and the social value of science, while also being able to question and analyse the political dimensions of scientific research, and the various ways in which science can be represented, marketed, and misrepresented. The interdisciplinary teaching of literature and science can equip students with just this double-edged skill of ‘critical appreciation’.

Several participants at the event (among them Josie Gill) also suggested that literature-and-science courses may sharpen students’ critical appreciation of English as a subject, helping them to think in new ways about what the term ‘literature’ means. English Literature students working on literature and science at university have often not studied science for several years, and the shock of being reintroduced to different models of enquiry can strengthen their self-awareness about what is involved in studying literature. To give one example: as John Holmes pointed out at the symposium, English Literature students can sometimes assume that literary analysis is straightforwardly a matter of personal opinion. In my courses on literature and science at the University of Surrey, I find that students often begin with the view that there is a clear distinction between the empirical and objective methods of science and the aesthetic subjectivism and moral relativism of literary writing and reading. Studying the scientific method, though, helps to remind students that their own work (and their opinions on literature) also need to be based on evidence, in their case the evidence provided by the language, form, and contexts of the texts they read.

I also find that many students on my courses feel that, during their school education, they were forced to choose between the humanities and the sciences, and so they are now unsure about whether and how they can discuss scientific questions. As Michael Whitworth observes in his blog about the BSLS symposium, studying literature and science can help students to place their own experiences in a broader historical context. By examining discussions of literature, science, and education by figures such as C. P. Snow and F. R. Leavis from the twentieth century, Thomas Henry Huxley and Matthew Arnold from the nineteenth century, and Margaret Cavendish from the seventeenth century, students can historicise current educational practices and contemporary debates about the respective places of the sciences and the humanities in education and society.

It was salutary to hear the views of several undergraduate students at the symposium. One of them, Jonathan Craig, summarised what was for me the key conclusion of the day. A science student, Jonathan took the literature-and-science course run by Janine Rogers at Mount Allison University in Canada, and he told us that Janine described the aim of the course as ‘thinking about thinking’. Studying literature and science encourages students to rethink how they think about their subject and other subjects. And the field asks the same of teachers, pushing them to experiment and innovate in their teaching practice as they investigate, with their students, the various and interlinked meanings of the terms ‘literature’ and ‘science’.