Although the French Revolution, with its blood and thunder, and its vainglorious Napoleonic sequel, captured the world's imagination, a far more important revolution was taking place in Britain. This was in four parts. First came the Industrial Revolution, which reached its peak in the 1780s when Britain became the first country in the world to attain self-sustaining economic growth. Second came the romantic revolution in poetry, which can be precisely dated to 1797, when Wordsworth and Coleridge put together, in Nether Stowey, their Lyrical Ballads, published the following year in Bristol. Third came a new scientific revolution - not the first, for that took place in the Age of Newton, but the second. This can be dated to October 1798, when the young Cornish empiric Humphry Davy became Superintendent of the Pneumatic Medical Institution in Bristol, the first treatment centre to practise what we would call chemotherapy. Both the literary and scientific revolutions were intensified by their personal interconnections, and we might call this a fourth revolution: the meeting of poetry and natural philosophy.
This last is the central theme of Richard Holmes's long, rich and excellent book. I first came across this fusion when I was writing my Birth of the Modern: 1815-1830, and I am glad Holmes, the author of the best biographies of Shelley and Coleridge, has taken up the theme and orchestrated it. He deals not merely with the Bristol events, but the work of the German immigrant William Herschel in building telescopes and discovering the planet Uranus; with the subject of vitalism and electricity, which produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; with the work of Mungo Park in exploring Africa; with the experience of ballooning, and many other topics. There is hardly a paragraph of this 500-page book which does not contain something fascinating, and new, to most readers.
Bristol was the centre, for there the publisher of the Lyrical Ballads, Joseph Cottle, had his business and helped to finance the Pneumatic Institute, whose moving spirit was Dr Thomas Beddoes. Bristol was also where the handsome Fricker sisters lived, one of whom married the poet Robert Southey, who bullied his friend Coleridge into marrying another. Both Coleridge and Southey were inspired by Davy's experiments with gasses when he took over the Institute. Davy was a poet - he wrote verse, often of high quality, virtually all his life - and he used gasses, especially nitrous oxide, to produce imaginative spasms and hallucinations, though his prime purpose was the conquest of TB, then a universal scourge, especially among the young. He also used nitrous oxide as an anaesthetic, to permit more adventurous surgery. His day-by-day accounts of experiments, and the reactions of patients, are fascinating, and Holmes makes extensive use of them. But Southey left his own account of "laughing gas". He wrote to his brother: