When Poets and Chemists Fused

The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes

Books History Literature Philosophy Science

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:

“Oh Tom! Such a gas has Davy discovered, this gaseous oxide. Oh Tom! I have had some. It made me laugh and tingle in every toe and finger tip. Davy has actually invented a new pleasure, for which language has no name. Oh Tom! I am going for more this evening! It makes one strong and happy! So gloriously happy!”

Coleridge also took the gas (as well as experimenting with Davy in the use of cannabis), which gave him, he wrote, “more unhinged pleasure than I had ever before experienced”. It caused him to create the new word “psychosomatic”. He and Southey had earlier talked of founding a utopian “pantisocracy” on the banks of the Susquehanna River in what is now upstate New York. Now he decided that science was the real utopia which they must all build together, and he urged Davy to come to the Lake District, and build a new poetical-chemical institute there.

Instead, Davy was summoned to London by the great organising panjandrum of British science, Sir Joseph Banks, about whom Holmes has much to say. He transformed Davy from a provincial performer into a metropolitan star, whose lectures, attended by duchesses and leading politicians, created some of London’s first traffic jams.

Nevertheless, the Lake District played a notable part: in 1805 we find Davy climbing Helvellyn in the company of Robert Southey, William Wordsworth and Sir Walter Scott. On the summit, they talked of Coleridge, then absorbing Kantean philosophy in Germany. The District produced some brilliant empirics, and I wish Holmes had devoted more space to it and them. He mentions John Dalton, author of the New System of Chemical Philosophy (1808), who laid the foundations of the modern oil and petrochemical industries, but thinks he came from Manchester. It is true he lectured at Manchester New College for 30 years, and was buried there. But he was born in Eaglesfield, near Wordsworth’s home town, Cockermouth, and much of his observational work was carried out on the Cumberland hills. He always took with him a big thermometer and a theodolite, sometimes even heavier equipment, carried on a donkey. In July 1812, on the top of Skiddaw, he met two more local, self-taught scientists, Wilson Sutton and Jonathan Otley. Sutton was so impressed by the speed with which Dalton climbed that he said: “John, I wonder what thy legs are made of.” Of course, Wordsworth had astounding legs for climbing too, as a famous passage in Thomas De Quincey makes clear. It is odd that Holmes does not mention Sutton and Otley, especially the latter, for Otley, self-taught like Dalton, was a superb geologist, who first worked out the complex rock structure of the Lake District. He produced the first accurate map (1819) and the pioneering Concise Description of the English Lakes and Adjacent Mountains (1824), both invaluable to Wordsworth’s later book on the subject.

Otley and Dalton did pioneering work on the Lake District’s weather and cloud formations, and inspired the research of Luke Howard, whose The Climate of London (1818-19) was read by Constable and led him to paint his marvellous studies of cloud formations.

It may seem churlish to criticise Holmes, who covers so much fertile ground, for not venturing further. But it is a weakness of his book that he has too little to say about the visual arts. Not only Constable but, still more, Turner, took a scientific attitude, in the light of the new knowledge, to the presentation of skies and landscape. Turner believed that he and his scientific contemporaries were involved in the same task: to explain the earth, by laws and equations and experiments, on the one hand, and by visual presentation on the other, to those who lived on it.

The artists were greatly helped, in bringing their work to the masses, by scientific-technical innovations, especially by the invention of lithography, the acquatint and the mezzotint. One artist who benefited enormously from these new processes was John Martin, who is not mentioned by Holmes, but whose illustrations to popular books were vital in bringing the antediluvian world of monsters to the public, and encouraging the study of fossils and geology. Martin’s work is dealt with in a new book by Ralph O’Connor, The Earth on Show: Fossils and the Poetics of Popular Science, 1802-1856, which should be read as a supplement to Holmes’s more general survey. Fossils and geology were so ubiquitous by the 1830s that Charles Dickens found it profitable to satirise them in The Pickwick Papers.

Indeed, though the artists and poets were fascinated by science, they were just as keen on profiting by the new technology, and made great efforts to learn about it. In 1819, Southey accompanied Thomas Telford, perhaps the greatest engineer Britain has ever produced, on a tour of the work he was doing to transform Scotland by building roads, canals, locks, bridges and ports. Southey may not have been among the greatest of poets but he was a superb writer of prose, and his book on his experiences with Telford should have found a place in Holmes’s book, as a perfect illustration of the interplay of arts and science during that great age of imagination.

However, one can’t have everything, and Holmes certainly has a good eye for the entertaining incident. Davy met Byron in 1813, and the two men got on well; later Byron put Davy into Don Juan, and Davy and his rich wife Jane called on the poet in Ravenna (not Venice, as Holmes says). Byron explained to his mistress, Teresa Guiccioli, the nature of Davy’s genius as a chemist. “What can he do?” asked she. “Almost anything,” Byron replied. “Oh, then, mio caro, do pray beg him to give me something to dye my eyebrows black – I have tried a thousand things and the colours all come off & besides they don’t grow – can’t he invent something to make them grow?”

Holmes does not discuss the end of the close communion between the poetic and scientific imagination, though I think this too can be dated precisely, if only symbolically. It occurs at Lowther Castle in the Lake District in 1827 when Davy and Wordsworth met for the last time. The poet complained in a letter that it was no longer a meeting of kindred spirits. “His scientific pursuits had hurried his mind into a cause where I could not follow him, and had diverted it in proportion, from objects with which I was best acquainted.”

This was the beginning of the bifurcation into the two cultures. It is true that Coleridge tried to keep them together. Holmes describes in detail how he attended the meeting of the new British Association for the Advancement of Sciences, held at Cambridge in 1833, spent three days there, and slept at Trinity, on a bed “as near as I can describe it to a couple of sacks of potatoes tied together… Truly, I lay down at night a man, and arose in the morning a bruise.” Nevertheless, he took a full part in the debates, was in sparkling form, made a new friend in the young Michael Faraday, and was present at the session when William Whewell coined the term “scientist”, on the analogy of “artist”, to replace the old (more accurate) “natural philosopher”. But a year later Coleridge was dead, and has never been replaced as a human bridge over the abyss between science and the arts. More’s the pity, and that is why I find Holmes’s suggestive book so poignant.