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: wellcomeimages.org).

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.

‘Condensed Sensibility’: Keats, Medicine, and Sympathy

I’ve just published an essay on John Keats in a special issue of the journal Romanticism. The essay builds on the work of several critics, particularly Nicholas Roe, James Allard, and R.S. White, in arguing that Keats’s poetry was informed by his time as a medical student and dresser at Guy’s Hospital (1815-17). It tries to bring something new to the study of the connections between Romantic poetry and medicine by focusing on the concept of sympathy. Throughout his writing, Keats champions sympathetic feeling for others as one of poetry’s central concerns, but he also imposes limits on the exercise of sympathy, seeking to preserve an objectifying distance between the poet and the emotions that his poetry examines. This model of restrained sympathy was influenced, I think, by Keats’s medical training, and particularly by The Hospital Pupil’s Guide, a volume first published in London in 1816 and ‘addressed to students of the medical profession’, and which Keats is likely to have read. Even if he didn’t, he would have been introduced to a similar understanding of sympathy through his attendance at the lectures of the renowned surgeon Astley cooper, whom White identifies as the lead author of the guide.

The Hospital Pupil’s Guide insistently presents medicine as an objective and scientific practice, a stance designed to reinforce the growing professionalisation and intellectual authority of medical work and medical practitioners in the early nineteenth century. But while the guide celebrates the ‘rational exercise of the mental faculties’, it also highlights the important but ambiguous role of sympathetic feeling in professional medicine. It advises its student readers that ‘in the practice of the Profession, benevolence of disposition’ is ‘imperiously demanded.’ This argument betrays a fear that, as medicine becomes professionalised, its practitioners may act as, or be viewed as, unfeeling specialists rather than gentlemanly benefactors.

However, the guide also warns that correct professional action depends on the capacity to mediate between sympathy and professional expertise: ‘genuine sensibility, while it enters into the sufferings of others, is yet a principled feeling, and its first emotion is to relieve that suffering. In his prosecution of the line of conduct dictated by his judgment, the surgeon is deaf to the pains of his patient’. The Hospital Pupil’s Guide characterises this as a ‘condensed sensibility’, and concludes that ‘a man who has not obtained this self-control, is unfit for the practice of his profession’.

How does this model of ‘condensed sensibility’ influence Keats’s thinking about poetry? There is evidence for its importance to him throughout his letters, even when he is arguing that poets have a particular capacity for unmediated and unrestrained sympathy. In November 1817 his claim that ‘if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel’ is followed by his admission that ‘I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week—and so long this sometimes continues I begin to suspect myself and the genuiness [sic] of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy-tears’. This insusceptibility, he claims, is not ‘heartlessness but abstraction’. Like the self-control advocated in his medical training, Keats’s abstraction distances him from other people, but it also enables him to develop self-knowledge through an objectifying examination of his feelings.

John Keats

John Keats, 1819

Throughout 1819, worried about his financial prospects, Keats frequently considered the possibility of resuming his medical career. Writing in a letter about the possibility of taking a position as a surgeon on a merchant ship, he applauds the clinical stance of such work, its emphasis on the impartial analysis of, rather than the sympathetic identification with, other people: ‘To be thrown among people who care not for you, with whom you have no sympathies forces the Mind upon its own resourses [sic], and leaves it free to make its speculations of the differences of human character and to class them with the calmness of a Botanist’. The removal of sympathy has two related effects: it turns the mind away from others and towards self-knowledge, and it enables the scientific observation and classification of other people’s personalities. Although Keats decided not to re-enlist in the medical profession, his poetry makes consistent use of these objectifying strategies of internalisation and systematic observation. It also asks how these strategies might work in co-operation with the exercise of the sympathetic imagination.

Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’, for example, reveals several similarities between the methods of medicine and poetry. If the ode as a form aims for synthesis, then this particular ode aspires to a synthesis between sympathy and self-possessed impartiality. Keats presents a number of different approaches to poetic creativity over the course of the poem, and the movement between them constitutes, among other things, an effort to withdraw from or delimit sympathy. First, there is the intimate apostrophe of the opening lines:

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung

By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,

And pardon that thy secrets should be sung

Even into thine own soft-conched ear: (ll. 1-4)

This apostrophe implies communication and relationship, but it also distances the poet from other people by figuring the human soul as a generalised abstraction, which is personified in and addressed through the figure of Psyche: Keats’s deployment of apostrophe, like the model of medicine set out in his hospital training, simultaneously involves connection with others and detached observation.

There is a comparable ambiguity in the poet’s relation to Psyche in the ode’s final stanza:

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane

In some untrodden region of my mind,

Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,

Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind: (ll. 50-53)

In these lines Keats internalises his observations of Psyche, worshipping her within his subjectivity. This process encapsulates the ambivalence towards sympathy shared by Keats’s poetics and the medical profession. The affective ramifications of the poet’s thoughts, ‘new grown with pleasant pain’, might suggest that his worship is an expansive process of imaginative sympathy with the feelings of humanity, encapsulated in the figure of Psyche. As in medicine, however, this sympathy is simultaneously an objectification, a conversion of other people’s circumstances and sensations into a cognitive assessment of symptoms, and that objectification is realised through Keats’s internalisation of the Psyche myth in his mind. The ode stages a poetic method which is founded on strategies of internalisation, self-examination, and observation. As in nineteenth-century medicine, sympathy in this poem is informed by, and to some extent dependent on, a disciplined resistance to feeling.

The Victorians, Paris, and Europe

As I’ve written in previous posts, the Victorians often used Paris as a synecdoche for Europe as a whole, and specifically for a European approach to politics and culture that was the opposite of Britishness (which they often identified, narrowly and exclusively, with Englishness). But as the examples below hopefully show, even those Victorians who tried to impose a firm boundary between British and European culture also recognised how closely their national identities were shaped by understandings of and responses to Europe. It’s hard to be nostalgic for Victorian models of Englishness (primarily, of course, because of their ideological dependence on imperialism), but, living in a post-Brexit world, I think it’s sobering to consider that the Victorian stance towards Europe was, in some ways, more open and cosmopolitan than current British attitudes.

In 1851, three years after the revolution that created the Second French Republic, the president of the republic and nephew of Napoleon I, Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, dissolved the National Assembly and arrested his political opponents (a year later, after the establishment of the Second Empire, he renamed himself Napoleon III). Two Victorian poets who witnessed the coup d’état while staying in Paris in December 1851 strongly disagreed with each other in their assessments of it. Napoleon III was one of two things that Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning argued about (the other was spiritualism): ‘Robert & I’, wrote Elizabeth, ‘have had some domestic émeutes on this question.’ While Robert interpreted the coup as the repressive act of an autocratic executive, Elizabeth, emphasising the support for Bonaparte in Paris, characterised it as an expression of popular sovereignty, another manifestation of the revolutionary tradition of 1789. The speaker of her 1856 verse-novel Aurora Leigh summarised her view of the new imperial regime: ‘This Head has all the people for a heart; / This purple’s lined with the democracy.’

Barrett Browning agreed with Tennyson that the dramatic upheavals of recent Parisian history were at odds with the conventions of English political culture, but her preference (as is clear throughout her poetry) was for a European rather than an English model of literary and political identity. Writing a week after the coup, she dismissed criticisms that the action was illegal: ‘Constitutional forms & essential principles of liberty are so associated in England that they are apt to be confounded & are, in fact, constantly confounded.’ Later, it’s worth noting, Napoleon III’s suppression of the republic and resurrection of the empire were ratified through the ‘constitutional forms’ of two plebiscites, the preferred tools of Bonapartist autocracy throughout the nineteenth century (not that I’m casting any aspersions on the democratic legitimacy of plebiscites and referenda).

Barrett Browning’s confidence that Bonaparte was a champion of liberty enabled her to enjoy his coup as a kind of triumphant parade or tourist spectacle: ‘We have had magnificent advantages of situation here, & I have scarcely left the window these two days, watching the pouring in of the troops, to music, trumpets, & shouting.’ But her letters also register the usual Victorian ambivalence towards Paris. As the army systematically suppressed the limited opposition to the coup throughout the city, she was troubled by the tangible proximity of political violence: ‘one shrank from going quietly to sleep while human beings were dying in heaps, perhaps within ear-shot.’


Paris, 1851

Cavalry on the streets of Paris, 2 December 1851

In the 1850s Napoleon III, working with his Prefect of the Seine Georges-Eugène Haussmann, launched a wholesale remodelling of central Paris, demolishing several working-class neighbourhoods and replacing them with wider and less easily barricaded boulevards. As Elisabeth Jay argues, this redesign of the city, intended both to modernise the imperial capital and to hamper any future insurrections, was a source of alienation for British writers, who were often ‘bowled over’ by ‘the French state’s powers to bring about rapid, visible change in Paris.’ The history of the city was being obliterated with dizzying enthusiasm, in a way that contrasted sharply with the slower pace of change in Victorian Britain. Dickens, however, who had started visiting Paris shortly before 1848, was impressed with the changes made by Napoleon III. In 1853 he wrote that the city was ‘wonderfully improving. Thousands of houses must have been pulled down for the construction of an immense street’ which when finished, he thought, ‘will be the finest thing in Europe. The quays are Macademized and as clean as Regent Street.’ For him, Paris in the 1850s was improving because it was starting to resemble Victorian London.

He suggests something similar in A Tale of Two Cities (1859). This novel seems to be structured around an opposition between London and the alien and volatile Paris of the 1780s and 90s, but it attends as much to the similarities as to the differences between the two. It famously ends with Sydney Carton, in the seconds before he is guillotined during the Terror, prophesying a bright future for Paris: ‘I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss.’ Carton’s peroration represents a peculiarly Victorian effort to make sense of Parisian history, to subsume the city’s bewildering cycles of violent transformation within a safely liberal narrative of cumulative progress. Yet the novel’s conclusion is at odds with its considerable imaginative investment in sustained descriptions not just of the ‘wild beasts’ of the revolutionary Parisian mob but of a London mob that is also capable of furious violence. Dickens’s interpretation of Paris hovers nervously between admiration and fear, between a sense of its disconcerting foreignness and a conviction of its worrying similarity to home. For him, as for other Victorian writers, the city is an emblem of the contradictions inherent in Britain’s relation to Europe.

Those contradictions are summed up, aptly, in Queen Victoria’s responses to the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), the collapse of Napoleon III’s regime, and the insurrection of the Paris Commune. In April 1871, as troops loyal to the recently formed Third Republic besieged the Commune, the queen wrote to her daughter Vicky, crown princess of Germany, to share her satisfaction: ‘How dreadful the state of Paris is! Surely that Sodom and Gomorrah as Papa called it deserves to be crushed.’ Months earlier, though, when it had been German forces surrounding Paris, she had been more circumspect. She warned Vicky that the feelings of the British public, which had been solidly pro-German at the start of the war, were changing in response to the scale of the French defeat and the danger posed to the capital: ‘The fact is people are so fond of Paris – so accustomed to go there that the threatened ruin of it makes them furious and unreasonable.’ For all her chauvinism, Victoria recognised that the exchange of people and ideas inescapably linked Britain to Paris, and to Europe more generally. It’s worrying, to say the least, that so many people in Britain today don’t agree with her.

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.

Poets and Readers in 1815 and 2015

Yesterday, The Conversation published a piece by the poet and Professor of Creative Writing Ian Gregson, which argues that poetry is ‘well and truly in the margins’ of contemporary culture. Poetry’s marginalisation, according to Gregson, is a relatively recent phenomenon, brought about by the ‘growing prevalence of popular music’, which stole poetry’s lyrical thunder, and most importantly by the ‘new media’ of 24-hour television, the internet, and social media. The development of these media technologies, Gregson concludes, and the modes of thinking that they encourage, have been detrimental to the ‘slow reading that poetry demands’. The ‘painstaking process’ of reading, rereading, and understanding a poem is beyond many readers, whose reading practices are shaped by the limitless availability of instant, fragmented, technologically mediated information. That’s why poetry now languishes in the margins of culture.

200 years ago, in January 1815, William Wordsworth set out a surprisingly similar argument in the ‘Essay, Supplementary to the Preface’ that he wrote for his 1815 Poems. Wordsworth’s essay was primarily written as a riposte to the critics who had slated his (very long) 1814 poem The Excursion, particularly the influential reviewer Francis Jeffrey. The essay opens with an attack on unqualified and undiscriminating critics which, Wordsworth regrets, is ‘of too ungracious a nature to have been made without reluctance’. His reluctance, though, doesn’t stop him from then scolding the general readers who also failed to appreciate (or even to buy) The Excursion. The minds of the majority of readers, he claims, are too content to be ‘passive’, and this is a problem for writers of verse, because the concerns of the poet – ‘the profound and the exquisite in feeling, the lofty and universal in thought and imagination’ – cannot be appreciated ‘without the exertion of a co-operating power in the mind of the Reader’. Like Gregson 200 years later, Wordsworth fears that readers are no longer up to the active and painstaking task of exerting themselves in order to study and think through a challenging piece of poetry.

The reasons Wordsworth gives for readers’ failings are also not dissimilar to those mentioned by Gregson. In his 1815 essay, Wordsworth argues that the intellectual inactivity of the average reader derives from ‘that selfishness which is the child of apathy, – which, as Nations decline in productive and creative power, makes them value themselves upon a presumed refinement of judging.’ This is an early expression of an argument that would become commonplace throughout the nineteenth century: that modern, industrially developed societies (exemplified, of course, by nineteenth-century Britain) inevitably suffer a decline in poetic sensibility. In Wordsworth’s view, ‘creative power’ has been replaced in British culture by an over-readiness to make quick, lazy, and shallow judgements about the writings of those who do still try to create and innovate. In his 1800 Preface to Lyrical Ballads, he is more precise about the causes of the declining quality of British readers: ‘a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and […] to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the encreasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies.’ Both Wordsworth in 1815 and Gregson in 2015 attribute the marginalisation of innovative, challenging poetry to the increasingly rapid circulation of information that characterises modern society.

The similarity of these arguments suggests, to me, two key points. First, it seems that, since at least 1800, poets have feared that modern media and social relations, and the habits of thinking they enable and promote, are inimical to the appreciation of poetry. It’s tempting to search for some grand historical explanation for this view: perhaps the emergence and rapid commercial success of the novel as a rival form in the eighteenth century; or even the gradual shift towards a more and more literate society, in which the reading aloud of verses was inexorably replaced by the silent reading of printed texts. My hunch, though, is that specialists in earlier periods of literary history could provide plenty of pre-1800 examples of poets lamenting the marginalisation of poetry; readers ain’t ever what they used to be. Perhaps, then, poetry often seems to be marginalised because the poet is an inherently marginal figure, commenting on social life from the assumed position of an outsider. Or perhaps it could be argued that poetry, innovative and challenging poetry at least, is not just marginal but oppositional, demanding that readers think about things, or think from perspectives, that are destabilising or discomfiting, and presenting its demands in unfamiliar forms and complex language. That’s probably never going to be popular.

The second key point is that Wordsworth and Gregson agree in arguing that poetry demands the active participation of the reader; understanding a poem requires the patient exertion of the reader’s imaginative and critical powers. Gregson ends his piece with a rallying call to university teachers of English literature and of creative writing: ‘universities should be at the forefront of renewing interest in poetry. Instead the opposite is happening, because universities are responding to financial constraints by giving students more and more of what they want.’ I agree unequivocally with the first sentence: universities have a responsibility to help their students develop the critical skills needed to appreciate poetry. I’m not, however, as gloomy as Gregson about the future of poetry in academia. Although many of my students at the University of Surrey are initially wary of studying poetry, the overwhelming majority of them, in the end, find something of significance for themselves in the poems they read. As Gregson states, university teachers need to continue to stimulate students’ interest in poetry. They need to do more than this, though; they also need to act as vocal advocates for the invigorating difficulty of poetry outside universities, throughout society more widely.