The Poet of Chemistry


On April 6, 1804, Coleridge boarded the Speedwell and sailed into exile. A grim apprehension gripped him and most of his friends. “Suppose,” writes Richard Holmes, in the tantalizing postscript which ends the first volume of his biography, “Coleridge had indeed died, as he and his friends clearly expected he would, aged thirty-one, somewhere in the Mediterranean in 1804?…Suppose his life had never actually had a part two? How would his reputation now stand?…Had Coleridge died young; had he always remained as that youthful, archetypal figure on the ship sailing south, we might be tempted to think of him, paradoxically, as already greater than the man he eventually became.” But Coleridge was to live another thirty-two years; his giant, complex future still lay before him.

A similar thought is expressed by David Knight at the beginning of his biography of Humphry Davy:

Davy died in 1829 when he was fifty; had he died ten years earlier we would have got from contemporaries a very different, and much more favourable, view of him.

Humphry Davy and Coleridge, in their youth, were very close friends; indeed, when Coleridge set sail in 1804 it was Davy’s farewell letter that Coleridge prized above all:

In whatever part of the World you are, you will often live with me, not as a fleeting idea, but as a recollection possessed of creative energy, as an Imagination winged with fire inspiriting and rejoicing. You must not live much longer without giving to all men the proof of power, which those who know you feel in admiration. Perhaps at a distance from the applauding and censuring murmurs of the world, you will be best able to execute those great works which are justly expected from you; you are to be the historian of the Philosophy of feeling.—Do not in any way dissipate your noble nature. Do not give up your birth-right.

Humphry Davy was all of twenty-five when he wrote this, and already recognized as one of the greatest scientists of his day. The youthful Davy recognized, it is clear, some of his friend’s frailties as he admonished him not to “dissipate your noble nature.” But such a dissipation, many of his contemporaries must have thought, was precisely what, in later life, Davy was guilty of himself. It is on this grim note that David Knight opens his fascinating, immensely sympathetic biography. “It is sobering,” Knight writes, “to contemplate the transition from the delightful young man in Penzance and then Clifton, where he be-friended Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth, to the grumpy and isolated exile in his last years, admired but friendless, frustrated when not sozzled with opium.”

It happened that I was thinking of Humphry Davy when I saw a notice of this biography, and immediately sent for it. I had been in a nostalgic mood myself, recalling my own boyhood—my twelve-year-old self most romantically and deeply in love—more deeply, perhaps, than ever again—with sodium and potassium and chlorine and bromine; in…

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