When Science & Poetry Were Friends

Science Musuem, London/Bridgeman Art Library
The first balloon crossing of the English Channel, January 7, 1785; detail from an oil painting by E.W. Cocks, circa 1840

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning). Looking at nature, Blake saw a vision of wildness:

Tyger, tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Byron saw a vision of darkness:

The bright sun was extinguish’d, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air….

During the same period there were great Romantic poets in other countries, Goethe and Schiller in Germany and Pushkin in Russia, but Richard Holmes writes only about the local scene in England.

Holmes is well known as a biographer. He has published biographies of Coleridge and Shelley and other literary 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.

The scientists and the poets belonged to a single culture and were in many cases personal friends. Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin and progenitor of many of Charles’s ideas, published his speculations about evolution in a book-length poem, The Botanic Garden, in 1791. Humphry Davy wrote poetry all his life and published much of it. Davy was a close friend of Coleridge, Shelley a close friend of Lawrence. The boundless prodigality of nature inspired scientists and poets with the same feelings of wonder. The Age of Wonder is popular history at its best, racy, readable, and well documented. The subtitle, “How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science,” accurately describes what happened.

Holmes presents the drama in ten scenes, each dominated by one or two of the leading characters. The first scene belongs to Joseph Banks, who sailed with Captain James Cook on the…

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