Keats in Space

The Romantics fused poetry and science. Is there any hope for a revival?

Creative frenzy is one of those subjects that makes for perennially joyful reading, no matter what field or object it takes as its center. Our idea of the single-minded pursuit—feverish, purposeful, overwhelming—is a distinctly Romantic one, and it springs from the poets of the era: Byron, Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, Shelley. —Molly Young discusses The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes.

The Age of Wonder. Illustration by Paul Killebrew /><br /> <div style=Original illustration by Paul Killebrew

Creative frenzy is one of those subjects that makes for perennially joyful reading, no matter what field or object it takes as its center. Our idea of the single-minded pursuit—feverish, purposeful, overwhelming—is a distinctly Romantic one, and it springs from the poets of the era: Byron, Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, Shelley. In his new book, The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes studies the archetype from a different angle or, rather, offers up a new cast of models from whom the Romantic figure might have emerged. These are the scientists of the era, the astronomers, explorers, chemists, and botanists who launched hot air balloons, built 40-foot reflector telescopes, taught themselves Mandingo, and experimented with nitrous oxide. Holmes is less interested in direct lines of influence and affiliation—from, say, Coleridge to Darwin—than he is in redefining the Romantic personality type to include these new explorers, and to explain that it wasn’t necessarily the scientists following the lead of the artists in compiling the Romantic type but something, perhaps, like the opposite.

Romanticism as a cultural force, Holmes points out, is generally regarded as "hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity." Yet both pursuits followed the same imaginative principles and notions of wonder that fueled their advancements, and it is Holmes’s contention that a Romantic science exists in the same sense as a Romantic poetry, and both flourished during what he calls the Age of Wonder.

The period begins with Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti in 1768 and stretches into the 1830s, during which time science retooled its commitments toward educating the general public—“popular science” was until then unheard of—rather than reserving its practice for the Latin-proficient educated elite. The stars of Homes’s era are Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks, Humphry Davy, Mungo Park, and William and Caroline Herschel, and their narratives constitute his evidence for a Romantic science. It’s worth mentioning that Holmes’s working conception of Romanticism is vaporous and broad, and his use of the term less taxonomic than it is evocative. This, however, is not a bad thing. If not quite crystal-cut, his definition makes more intuitive sense than a strict delineation might.

Poems from the Age of Wonder

John Keats:
On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

Percy Bysshe Shelley:
from Epipsychidion

Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude

Percy Bysshe Shelley:
Mont Blanc: Lines Written in the Vale of Chamouni

Samuel Taylor Coleridge:
Fragment 6: The Moon, how definite its orb!

Lord Byron:

William Wordsworth:
The Tables Turned

Erasmus Darwin:
Economy of Vegetation: Canto I

Sir Joseph Banks provides the founding myth of the Romantic explorer, and he proves as engaging a character as Byron or Trelawny. A botanist and diplomat by trade, Banks sailed to Tahiti in 1768 with Cook and kept careful logs of his trip. The diaries include lists of vocabulary, recipes for roasted dog, and an account of a young Tahitian woman having her buttocks tattooed. Most striking in Banks’s journals is the intensity of his curiosity and its mingling with affection and concern for the objects of study. The tenor of the young botanist’s study is not disinterested; it is yearning, and he cuts an appealing figure. It is no surprise that William Cowper cast Banks as an intrepid bee in his poem The Task.

William Herschel was the second figure to fit the new mold. An astronomer of “acute unconventional intelligence” with a “quick, boyish enthusiasm, that betrayed intense and almost unnerving passion,” Herschel was an accomplished professional musician (in his spare time composed an oratorio based on Paradise Lost). He was once thrown from his horse only to somersault and land upright still holding a book in his hand. He considered the episode a perfect demonstration of Newton’s law of circular motion. The age of Romantic science was full of such endearing figures: men and women who devised spectacular plans, ignored common sense, nursed frivolous whims, and devoted themselves with unhealthy enthusiasm to their work.

If the scientists of the era seem so far to bear none but a temperamental relation to the poets, consider a few facts. For one thing, the arts and sciences were more closely intermingled in the 18th century than they are today. A popular astronomy book contained illustrative poetry from Milton and Dryden; Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) recorded one of Herschel’s discoveries in his 1791 poem The Botanic Garden and produced the best-selling long English poem of the decade. Herschel himself acknowledged that “Seeing is in some respects an art, which must be learnt.” A young Samuel Coleridge was taken out into the fields nightly by his father to be shown the sky, and cosmological imagery figures richly in his early poetry.

If this seems a far cry from our contemporary era of antiseptic specialization, well, it is.

Providing a material link between poetry and science in the Age of Wonder is the chemist Humphry Davy. A “small, volatile, bright-eyed” man “bursting with energy and talk,” Davy wrote verse when he wasn’t measuring the cubic capacity of his own lungs or investigating the strange pleasures of nitrous oxide, to which he introduced both Robert Southey and Coleridge. Davy likened scientific lecturing to poetry in his own mind; both were opportunities to devise narratives with potential to hold an audience captive. Coleridge became a great admirer of Davy and a subsequent defender of science, noting that “being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, [science] was poetical.” Davy usually conducted his experiments independently, outside of institutions that might question his peculiar methods. Throughout his career he continued to produce verse—some published and some private—including one sketch that described the dead Lord Byron riding a comet around the universe.

The literary current ran both ways: Byron wrote Davy into the first canto of “Don Juan”; Shelley planted Davy’s ideas in 1812’s “Queen Mab” and, eight years later, in “Prometheus Unbound”; Keats’s “Lamia” is full of chemical imagery, and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” echoes Banks’s voyage to Tahiti in its depiction of an irrecoverable and hallowed distant place. Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” (1816), written after a night poring over translations by the scholar George Chapman, is a particularly keen example of entangled scientific and poetic sensibilities. Although the poem does not name William Herschel, it heralds the astronomer’s discovery of Uranus as the embodiment of wonder, exploration, and epiphany (“Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken”). The sonnet compares a reader’s moment of transcendence with that of a scientist; both are “watchers” whose metaphysical transformation hinges on a visual experience.

The consensus on either side was that both science and poetry had not only an intellectual magnificence but a spiritual, emotional, and philosophical magnificence as well. It was the shared habit of Romantic scientists and poets both to put as much stock in the process of discovery as in discovery itself, and it is this particular fever that is Holmes’s fascination.

The fever itself was short-lived. Davy, Banks, and Herschel were all dead by 1830, and their passing clearly signaled the end of an era. Thomas Carlyle announced the end of Romanticism in his 1829 tract Signs of the Times, and Charles Babbage nailed the coffin shut with 1830’s Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. Thus began the era of Victorian Science, with its increased specialization and institutionalizing of what had once been a messy and boundless study. The mood of the field was no longer one of rapidity and ambition; intellectual pursuits were permanently fractured. There was no one left to define brilliance, as Coleridge did, as a form of cultivated wonder.

In this respect, Holmes’s book is an odd thing to behold. It is equal parts passionate history and head-shaking elegy—a recovery of a golden era and a subsequent burial of it. Gaining access to a bygone world of cosmic thinkers is startling and revelatory for the average reader; necessarily, then, the account of their decline feels like an unbearable loss.

If the book closes with an elegy, it contains, at least, the promise of regeneration. What Holmes has given us with this account of the Romantic scientists is, curiously enough, a thrilling new way to interpret the poets of the era. To bring new light to such a widely read group—and from the angle least expected, that of rigorous scientific study—is Holmes’s considerable gift.

Originally Published: August 12th, 2009

Molly Young's writing has appeared in n+1 and the New York Observer.

  1. August 12, 2009

    Science poem from Emily Dickinson


  2. August 13, 2009

    I wouldn't say all specialization today is antiseptic. There are modern scientists who write good poetry because some of them are in bands and go to poetry slams. Some are in math rock bands and some write their own music software. The motto of WordPress is "Code is poetry."

  3. August 13, 2009
     Ron Silliman

    "Theme poems" basically suggest not learning from science, period. That said, lots of poets today make extensive use of the sciences: Rae Armantrout, Barrett Watten, myself, etc.

  4. August 13, 2009
     Eric D. Helms

    It might prove down the road most damaging, but why not take Davy's practice of measuring the cubic capacity of his lungs (filled with nitrous) a bit further and dabble in verse all the while--should there be separation?
    O.K. Kindle --eh

  5. August 13, 2009
     Jason Mitchell

    Ronald Johnson, Beam 4, comes to mind:

  6. August 14, 2009
     photo red

    I have never found this kind of academic illogic particularly useful. In short, your logic runs: everyone knows A does not equal B, which is true, but I'm saying A equals B. The Romantics did NOT, as your subheader says, fuse poetry and science. The landscape Coleridge evokes comes from a much deeper Romantic tradition of belief in the power of wildness and ruins.

    Mock on, Voltaire.

  7. August 15, 2009
     Paul Fisher

    Thank you for your insights into the "creative frenzy" of this period.
    Check out my poem, "Acrostic: String Theory," in the upcoming fall issue of Umbrella Journal.

  8. August 15, 2009
     C. John Graham

    The fusion of not only art
    and science, but religion
    as well, has been
    knocking around the
    popular media for a
    while, e.g. calling the
    elusive Higgs boson the
    "God particle." I work at
    a particle accelerator
    facility and find that
    physics and math often
    inform my poems.
    Arthur Sze's book The
    Redshifting Web also
    comes to mind.

  9. August 15, 2009
     Ravinder Kumar

    well! expression within boundries, so called meters loses its beuty,,sometime let the fellings fly in abdundent sky with no limits , feel the mostuire of air, soothnig your whole being, let it fly by the end of tht point when past, present and future discuss thier plans to meet,,,feeling is supeme ,,,,let it flow into ur being to make u lightest element of the universe,,,,,,,,,

  10. August 15, 2009
     Felipe Barreda

    I remember growing up I watched and
    read with fascination Carl Sagan's
    Cosmos and although it was a very
    interesting fact based book and
    television series I was attracted to a
    literary aspect of Sagan's work which
    made it more of a literary work rather
    than a scientific work. I often wished
    Carl Sagan wrote the science books for
    my school because the math and
    science books my friends and I were
    forced to read were often dry and
    without any passion. Another point I
    would like to make is the
    science/literature connections seemed
    to have survived towards the end of the
    19th century with the flowering of
    science fiction literature of Vernes and
    HG Wells.

  11. August 15, 2009
     Lori George Alexander

    I found the book review very interesting and of course the book in question fascinating. I intend to explore it further. The premise Richard Holmes explores in his book, The Age of Wonder, is well worth looking into if one loves poetry and science which I do.

  12. August 16, 2009

    The article is so silly, so little researched, I am embarrassed for its author. Poetry and Science have always been sisters. From Frost to Valery to Poe to Goethe to Newton to Dante to Abelard to Lucretius to the pre-Socratic philosophers who saw themselves working in the so-called Orphic tradition. This is silly stuff. Poetry and the sciences have always and will always feed off each other. As they should.


  13. August 16, 2009
     ambience chaser

    Above comment misses the point. The point of Holmes' book (and the article) isn't that poets responded to science but that science responded to poets.

  14. August 16, 2009

    Perhaps I should have explained at more length. The world's first scientists (proto-scientists actually) were the pre-Soctratic thinkers whose search for first (elemental) principles was inspired by the poet, Orpheus. As such their search was mythopoeic. Goethe was both scientist and poet. The exchange between the two disciplines was a two way street for him. He certainly inspired the science of psychology. When a member of the Cophenhagen group of quantum physicist looked to describe certain quantum actions he borrowed from a Baudelaire poem. Thus the physics theory of correspondences. Then there is the influence of the Roman poet, Lucretius, on Medieval thinkers looking to figure out the workings of nature. To make a slight stretch here, Newton was inspired by alchemy. When he wrote his alchemical tracts he wrote in the hermetic style after the Medieval Hermes Trismegistus. As would Carl Jung late in life. (A decidedly poetic style.) A few examples given at random.


  15. August 17, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald


    A penchant for spirals, I think,
    in creation.
    I see them everywhere:
    the invisible, slim chain of the DNA,
    the immense swing beyond sight
    of the Milky Way, the twist of a snail,
    a particle’s trail…
    the spider web’s delicate bend.

    But also a fondness to test, it seems,
    our determination
    to persist through closing night,
    survive another day,
    a propensity to measure how we fare
    against the cyclone’s roar
    and the curl of a wave,
    the coil of a cobra’s tail.

    So we follow the circles of our lives
    which begin so wide to become so thin,
    turn in the vortex of this spinning whim,
    rounding ever closer to the core
    and the bite at the spiral’s end.

    Copyright 2008 - SOFTWOOD-Seventy-eight Poems, Gary B. Fitzgerald

  16. August 17, 2009

    I can't believe I almost forgot the examplar of science responding to poetry. So let's go back to the 5th C. BC. Plato is a young man. He has not yet met, some would say he has not yet been seduced by, Socrates. That brick layer proud of the fact that, but for a military expedition, he never stepped foot outisde Athens proper. The younger Plato was not only a poet for whom poetry was the main thing, he was a mighty fine lyric poet working in the Ionic mode. He really was good. Find an anthology of Greek lyric poetry and see for yourself.

    One long ago Loeb editor said of Plato that, while he himself was not a scientist, he was a creator of the sciences. Anyone who has read his dialogues has to have been struck by the poetic instinct he brought to bear on both dramatic moment and figurative (I could have said metaphorical) phrasing.

    My apologies to both reviewer and article's author. My take is still that science and poetry have always had a sibling, reciprocal, relationship.


  17. August 17, 2009

    Of course poets and science have a history. But do any contemporary scientists feel influenced by, or inspired in their work by, contemporary poets? Any with the influence over the field that Banks or Humphry or the Herschels had? I'm not saying such scientists don't exist, but so far they have yet to be pointed out in this comment thread. Plato doesn't count.

  18. August 17, 2009
     Edward Mycue

    1960 WGBH-TV M.I.T. Cambridge where I was a Lowell Graduate Fellow intern assigned to him, C.P.Snow had come to lecture on The Two Cultures (his book title, from his 1959 Rede Lecture).

    Between he and F.R.Leavis a controversy raged on the social impact and interaction of science and literature. (The rage part mostily on Leavis' side--part of his combative nature normally.)

    Here's a reference that 50 years later expresses that time and arguement:

    MFS Modern Fiction Studies
    Volume 53, Number 3, Fall 2007
    E-ISSN: 1080-658X Print ISSN: 0026-7724
    DOI: 10.1353/mfs.2007.0060
    Black, Suzanne.
    Leavis's Grandchildren? New Perspectives on Science and Modernism
    MFS Modern Fiction Studies - Volume 53, Number 3, Fall 2007, pp. 569-577

    The Johns Hopkins University Press

    Reviewing Richard Powers's new novel The Echo Maker (2006) for The Nation, William Deresiewicz expresses weary skepticism about aesthetically interesting connections between literature and science.... For Deresiewicz, the benefits of yoking science and literature are dubious and ill-defined: "From Matthew Arnold to C. P. Snow to today, there's been a vague feeling afloat that if only somehow these two modes of knowledge ould be made to talk to each other, science would be humanized (whatever that means) and art made relevant to the scientific age (as if it weren't already)" (25-26). As this comment indicates, the specter of C. P....

    Edward Mycue

  19. August 18, 2009

    "Of course poets and science have a history. But do any contemporary scientists feel influenced by, or inspired in their work by, contemporary poets? Any with the influence over the field that Banks or Humphry or the Herschels had? I'm not saying such scientists don't exist, but so far they have yet to be pointed out in this comment thread. Plato doesn't count."

    The late paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould, the only scientist I know of you has materially added to Darwin's theory of evolution through his notion of punctuated equillibrium, was mightily influenced by the poet Goethe, especially by Goethe's notions concerning biological morphology.

    Heisenberg, particularly in his so-called Youth Movement days, was inclined to walk mountains and share poetry with his confreres.

    The Canadian social scientist, Marshall McLuhan, was impacted by Ezra Pound, would visit him a few times in the D.C. suburb mental hospital. I am persuaded McLuhan's global village notion was influenced by Pound's notion of a universal language of poetry.

    Pretty much an entire generation of west coast naturalists and environmental scientists, keen observers all, were inspired by one Gary Snyder. It is worth adding that scholars pretty much agree that the Modern world's first environmental scientist was a poet, David Thoreau.

    Another social scientist, Loren Eisley, was early on influenced by Robinson Jeffers.

    Finally there is Richard Feynman. The physicist who contributed to the Manhatten Project's atomic bomb and who demonstrated before Congress the failure of the O ring on the space shuttle Challenger in '87. His metaphor for the laws of physics? The ever so slightly non-symmetrical laws of poetry.

    I could go on. But I am made to wonder about something. Do poets read science as much as scientists may read poetry?


  20. August 18, 2009

    Not exactly the Age of Wonder there, bub. More the Age of Stretching It.

  21. August 18, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    And don't forget Joseph Campbell.

  22. August 18, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Ha ha ha.

    Watch out! Don't let the irony drip on your clean shirt.

    Campbell used all the poetry written about God to prove that there ain't one!

    But one poet or another has predicted everything we've found so far. Who can say what words read privately sparked an idea?

    Blake, anyone? Alexander Pope?


  23. August 18, 2009
     Gary B. Fitzgerald

    Good poets borrow.

    Great Scientists steal.

    (Apologies to T.S.E.)

  24. August 18, 2009

    Thought-provoking. I plan to buy a copy of Holmes's book.

    Thank you.

  25. August 20, 2009
     H M

    I don't mean to be harsh, but what a blase, summary-based review of an exciting and path-breaking book. Very few original points or insights. Nonetheless, the discourse it's catalyzed is fascinating, as it delves into the poetry of the age (which other reviews have skimmed over, despite its major role in the book).

  26. August 21, 2009
     Justin Katko

    Consider the poetry of JH Prynne. Intensive use of scientific discourse in his work. Especially his Plant Time Manifold Transcripts from the early 1970s. Check it out!

  27. August 26, 2009
     Colin Ward

    Interesting thesis, Molly. For what it's worth, I can cite two throwaway lines of contemporary poetry affecting scientific endeavour. "Time is motion" and "leaves scatter slower than the wind" (which related to measuring the age of the universe) sparked interest from Oxford physics undergraduates. I'm not sure if anything came of either quest, though.

    I also remember seeing a documentary on PBS suggesting that the groundwork that eventually led to "e=mc squared" sprang from a conversation about poetry.

  28. August 29, 2009

    Ron Silliman and others rightly point out that large numbers of poets since the Romantics have drawn on science in their poems. Robinson Jeffers, before Gary Snyder, has not yet been mentioned. Galway Kinnell, Wislawa Szymborska, Forrest Gander, Brenda Hillman, Miroslav Holub, Pattiann Rogers, Sandra Alcosser, Primo Levi come also to mind. Broadly different poets, all with many scientific references in their work. I myself have a large number of published poems with references from physics, geology, entomology, chemistry, biology, ethnology--yet no one thinks of me as a writer of "science poems."

    From the other side, Robert Oppenheimer both read and wrote poems. Among living scientists, I know two Nobel physicists and two astrophysicists who are steady readers of poetry, though I can't say if their work in physics is different because of that. One Nobel chemist, Roald Hoffman, has several books of poems from FSU Press. There is nothing antiseptically specialized about the minds of great scientists--quite the opposite.

    This doesn't make the Holmes book any less worthy of interest or appreciation. It's interesting that all the discussion is being stirred here by two things: the one mention of antiseptic specialization in the piece, and the title, which the reviewer probably didn't writer herself. It's a provocative title, probably put there to goad this very discussion. I'm not sure though that there aren't richer ways to discuss the intersection of these two modes of exploration and discovery.

  29. August 30, 2009
     Mark Soifer

    read A.R.Ammon's long poem Sphere the Form of a Motion or Corson's inlet. You will find science intertwined in many of his poems. And they are wonderful.

  30. September 4, 2009
     monday love

    "I have never found this kind of academic illogic particularly useful. In short, your logic runs: everyone knows A does not equal B, which is true, but I'm saying A equals B. The Romantics did NOT, as your subheader says, fuse poetry and science."

    I'm not convinced either way, actually.

    Molly (with the book she reviews) seems anecdotal only. A poet who drops references to science in his poems is not necessarily being inspired by science, much less writing 'scientific' poetry. The blending is often dubious.

    Terreson is correct: Plato, Goethe and Poe are the giants in this respect.

    Poe's "Eureka" was not a poet dropping references in his poems--"Eureka" was a Poem that was, in fact, Science. That's rare.

    Thomas Carlyle "announcing the end of Romanticism"--??

    it is more proof of the anecdotal nature of Holmes' book if he randomly assigns 1830 as the 'end' of 'The Age of Wonder.'

    Poe published 'Eureka' in 1848.

    Great topic, though.

    Oh, and loved the poem by E. Darwin!