Science and the Sublime
In this big two-hearted river of a book, the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention pulsate on every page. Richard Holmes, the pre-eminent biographer of the Romantic generation and the author of intensely intimate lives of Shelley and Coleridge, now turns his attention to what Coleridge called the “second scientific revolution,” when British scientists circa 1800 made electrifying discoveries to rival those of Newton and Galileo. In Holmes’s view, “wonder”-driven figures like the astronomer William Herschel, the chemist Humphry Davy and the explorer Joseph Banks brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work” and “produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.”
A major theme of Holmes’s intricately plotted “relay race of scientific stories” is the double-edged promise of science, the sublime “beauty and terror” of his subtitle. Both played a role in the great balloon craze that swept across Europe after 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster over the rooftops of Versailles, held aloft by nothing more substantial than “a cloud in a paper bag.” “What’s the use of a balloon?” someone asked Benjamin Franklin, who witnessed the launching from the window of his carriage. “What’s the use of a newborn baby?” he replied. The Gothic novelist Horace Walpole was less enthusiastic, fearing that balloons would be “converted into new engines of destruction to the human race — as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science.”
The British, more advanced in astronomy, could afford to scoff at lowly French ballooning. William Herschel, a self-taught German immigrant with “the courage, the wonder and the imagination of a refugee,” supported himself and his hard-working assistant, his sister Caroline, by teaching music in Bath. The two spent endless hours at the enormous telescopes that Herschel constructed, rubbing raw onions to warm their hands and scanning the night sky for unfamiliar stars as musicians might “sight-read” a score. The reward for such perseverance was spectacular: Herschel discovered the first new planet to be identified in more than a thousand years.
Holmes describes how the myth of this “Eureka moment,” so central to the Romantic notion of scientific discovery, doesn’t quite match the prolonged discussion concerning the precise nature of the tail-less “comet” that Herschel had discerned. It was Keats, in a famous sonnet, who compared the sudden sense of expanded horizons he felt in reading Chapman’s Elizabethan translation of Homer to Herschel’s presumed elation at the sight of Uranus: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” Holmes notes the “brilliantly evocative” choice of the verb “swims,” as though the planet is “some unknown, luminous creature being born out of a mysterious ocean of stars.” As a medical student conversant with scientific discourse, Keats may also have known that telescopes can give the impression of objects viewed “through a rippling water surface.”
Though Romanticism, as Holmes says, is often presumed to be “hostile to science,” the Romantic poets seem to have been positively giddy — sometimes literally so — with scientific enthusiasm. Coleridge claimed he wasn’t much affected by Herschel’s discoveries, since as a child he had been “habituated to the Vast” by fairy tales. It was the second great Romantic field of science that lighted a fire in Coleridge’s mind. “I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark,” Coleridge announced, and invited the celebrated scientist Humphry Davy, who also wrote poetry, to set up a laboratory in the Lake District.
Coleridge wrote that he attended Davy’s famous lectures on the mysteries of electricity and other chemical processes “to enlarge my stock of metaphors.” But he was also, predictably, drawn to Davy’s notorious experiments with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. “The objects around me,” Davy reported after inhaling deeply, “became dazzling, and my hearing more acute.” Coleridge, an opium addict who coined the word “psychosomatic,” compared the pleasurable effects of inhalation to the sensation of “returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room.” Davy passed out frequently while under the influence, but strangely, as Holmes notes, failed to pursue possible applications in anesthesia.
In assessing the quality of mind that poets and scientists of the Romantic generation had in common, Holmes stresses moral hope for human betterment. Coleridge was convinced that science was imbued with “the passion of Hope,” and was thus “poetical.” Holmes finds in Davy’s rapid and systematic invention of a safety lamp for English miners, one that would not ignite methane, a perfect example of such Romantic hope enacted. Byron celebrated “Davy’s lantern, by which coals / Are safely mined for,” but his Venetian mistress wondered whether Davy, who was visiting, might “give me something to dye my eyebrows black.”
Yet it is in his vivid and visceral accounts of the Romantic explorers Joseph Banks and Mungo Park, whose voyages were both exterior and interior, that Holmes is best able to unite scientific and poetic “wonder.” Wordsworth had imagined Newton “voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” When Banks accompanied Captain Cook to Tahiti and witnessed exotic practices like surfing and tattooing and various erotic rites, he returned to England a changed man; as president of the Royal Society, he steadily encouraged others, like Park, to venture into the unknown.
“His heart,” Holmes writes of Park, “was a terra incognita quite as mysterious as the interior of Africa.” At one low point in his African travels in search of Timbuktu, alone and naked and 500 miles from the nearest European settlement, Park noticed a piece of moss “not larger than the top of one of my fingers” pushing up through the hard dirt. “At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification irresistibly caught my eye,” he wrote, sounding a great deal like the Ancient Mariner. “I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves and capsula, without admiration.”
For Holmes, the “age of wonder” draws to a close with Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle in 1831, partly inspired by those earlier Romantic voyages. “With any luck,” Holmes writes wistfully, “we have not yet quite outgrown it.” Still, it’s hard to read his luminous and horizon-expanding “Age of Wonder” without feeling some sense of diminution in our own imaginatively circumscribed times. “To us, their less tried successors, they appear magnified,” as Joseph Conrad, one of Park’s admirers, wrote in “Lord Jim,” “pushing out into the unknown in obedience to an inward voice, to an impulse beating in the blood, to a dream of the future. They were wonderful; and it must be owned they were ready for the wonderful.”