‘When Science & Poetry Were Friends’

Total Posts:  7463
Joined  20-02-2006
13 August 2009 12:57

The title of this topic and many of the comments here are derived from a book review by Freeman Dyson in the summer issue, August 13, 2009, of The New York Review of Books.

The book is called, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes.  The article is illustrated by a painting of ‘The first (manned) balloon crossing of the English Channel, January 7, 1785.’  Prior to reading this article it hadn’t occured to me that George Washington might have crossed the Delaware in a balloon.

Further, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams might have gone to the theater in New York to see a play based on Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’.  Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were 14-year-olds at the time and I suppose they might have gone to see it.

In 1817 Mary Shelley, wife of the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, was 19 when she wrote her novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus.  Six years later she went to see the play based on her novel and loved it.  “Lo and behold!  I found myself famous! . . . Mr. Cooke played the monster’s part extremely well . . . all he does was well imagined and executed . . . it appears to excite a breathless excitement in the audience . . . in the early performances all the ladies fainted and hubbub ensued!”

When Mary wrote her novel, her husband was “frequently visiting the physician William Lawrence, both as a patient and a close friend.  Lawrence wrote a popular book, Lectures on the Natural History of Man, a scientific account of human anatomy and physiology, based on recent discoveries by surgeons in dissecting rooms.  Lawrence fiercely attacked the doctrine of vitalism that was then fashionable.  According to the vitalists, there exists a Life Force that animates living creatures and makes them fundamentally different from dead matter.  Lawrence was a materialist, and believed in no such force.  Holmes (the author of the book being reviewed here) discusses the question whether Mary’s idea for her novel arose from the intellectual battle between vitalists and materialists, or from the actual attempts of the notorious charlatans Aldini in England and Ritter in Germany to revive dead animals with electric currents.  Aldini had on one occasion publicly attempted to revive the corpse of a human murderer.

“The novel portrays Frankenstein creating his monster silently by candlelight, using the delicate dissecting tools of a surgeon, and portrays the monster as an articulate philosopher lamenting his loneliness in poignantly poetic language.  Six years later, the novel was turned into a play, Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein, which was a big success in London, Bristol, Paris, and New York.  The play turned Mary Shelley’s drama upside-down.  It became a combination of horror story with black comedy, and that is the way it has remained ever since, on the stage and in the movies.  In the play, the monster is created by zapping dead flesh with sparks from a huge electrical machine, and the creature emerges as a dumb and misshapen caricature of a human, the epitome of brutal malevolence.”

In a poem titled, ‘The Tables Turned,’ Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) wrote:

‘Sweet is the lore that Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: -
We murder to dissect.’

“Holmes is well known as a biographer.  He has published biographies of Coleridge and Shelley (Percy) and other literay heroes.  But this book is primarily concerned with scientists rather than with poets.  The central figures in the story are the botanist Joseph Banks, the chemists Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday, the astronomers William Herschel and his sister Caroline and son John, the medical doctors Erasmus Darwin and William Lawrence, and the explorers James Cook and Mungo Park.  The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets.  The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems.  Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.”

“In the Island of Otaheite (Tahiti) where Love is the Chief Occupation, the favourite, nay almost the Sole Luxury of the Inhabitants, both the bodies and souls of the women are modeld in the utmost perfection for that soft science.” -  Joseph Banks, botanist.

Banks “sailed with Captain Jamaes Cook on the ship Endeavor.  This was Cook’s first voyage around the world.  One of the purposes of the expedition was to observe the transit of Venus across the disc of the sun on June 3, 1769, from the island of Tahiti in the South Pacific.  The tracking of the transit from the Southern Hemisphere, in combination with similar observations made from Europe, would give astronomers more accurate knowledge of the distance of the earth from the sun.  Banks was officially chief botanist of the expedition, but he quickly became more interested in the human inhabitants of the island than in the plants.  The ship stayed for three months at Tahiti, and he spent most of the time, including the nights, ashore.  During the nights he was not observing plants.”

These days we have our own scientist/poets.  Your favorites?

[ Edited: 15 August 2009 14:50 by unsmoked]