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.
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’:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.