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.”

Christopher Benfey is the Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. His books include “A Summer of Hummingbirds” and an edition of Lafcadio Hearn’s “American Writings” for the Library of America.


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‘The Age of Wonder’


The Age of Wonder is a relay-race of scientific stories, and they link together to explore a larger historical narrative. This is my account of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the 18th century, and produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science. [See Sources for the recent work of Golinski; Cunningham and Jardine; Fulford, Kitson, and Lee; Ruston et al. since 1990, who all use the term “Romantic Science” ]

Romanticism as a cultural force is generally regarded as intensely hostile to science, its ideal of subjectivity eternally opposed to that of scientific objectivity. But I do not believe this was always the case, or that the terms are so mutually exclusive. The notion of wonder seems to be something that once united them, and can still do so. In effect there is Romantic science in the same sense there is Romantic poetry, and often for the same enduring reasons.

The first scientific revolution of the 17th century is familiarly associated with the names of Newton, Hooke, Locke and Descartes, and the almost simultaneous foundations of the Royal Society in London, and the Acadèmie des Sciences in Paris. It existence has long been accepted, and the biographies of its leading figures are well known.

But this second revolution was something different. The first person who referred to a “second scientific revolution” was probably the poet Coleridge in his Philosophical Lectures of 1819 [See also The Friend, 1819; RH Coleridge DR p482; pp490-2] It was inspired primarily by a sudden series of break-throughs in the fields of astronomy and chemistry. It was a movement that grew out of 18th century Enlightenment rationalism, but largely transformed it, by bringing a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work . It was driven by a common ideal of intense, even reckless, personal commitment to discovery.

It was also a movement of transition. It flourished for a relative brief time, perhaps two generations, but produced long-lasting consequences – raising hopes and questions – that are still with us today. Romantic Science can be dated roughly, and certainly symbolically, between two celebrated voyages of exploration. These were Captain Cook’s first round the world expedition aboard the Endeavour, begun in 1768; and Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos islands aboard the Beagle begun in 1831. This was the time I have called the Age of Wonder, and with any luck we have not yet quite outgrown it.

The idea of the exploratory voyage, often lonely and perilous, is in one form or another a central and defining metaphor of Romantic science. That is how William Wordsworth brilliantly transformed the great Enlightenment image of Sir Isaac Newton into a Romantic one. As a university student in the 1780’s Wordsworth had often contemplated the full-size marble statue of Newton, with his severely close-cropped hair, that still dominates the stone-flagged entrance hall to the chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge. As Wordsworth originally put it, he could see a few yards off from his bedroom window, over the brick wall of St John’s College

“The Antechapel, where the Statue stood
Of Newton, with his Prism and silent Face.”

Sometime after 1805, Wordsworth animated this static figure, so monumentally fixed in his assured religious setting. Newton became a haunted and restless Romantic traveller amidst the stars:

“And from my pillow, looking forth by light
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
The Antechapel where the Statue stood
Of Newton, with his prism and his silent face,
The marble index of a Mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.”
[The Prelude, 1850, Book 3, lines 58-64]

Around such a vision Romantic science created, or crystallised, several other crucial conceptions – or misconceptions – which are still with us. First, the dazzling idea of the solitary scientific “genius”, thirsting and reckless for knowledge, for its own sake and perhaps at any cost. This neo-Faustian idea, celebrated by many of the imaginative writers of the period including Goethe and Mary Shelley, is certainly one of the great, ambiguous creations of Romantic science which we have all inherited.

Closely connected with this is the idea of the Eureka moment, the intuitive inspired instant of invention or discovery, for which no amount of preparation or preliminary analysis can really prepare. Originally the cry of the Greek philosopher Archimedes, this became the “fire from heaven” of Romanticism, the other true mark of scientific genius, which also allied it very closely to poetic inspiration and creativity. Romantic science would seek to identify such moments of singular, almost mystical vision in its own history. One of its first and most influential examples, was to become the story of the solitary brooding Newton in his orchard, seeing an apple fall and “suddenly” having his vision of universal gravity. This story was never told by Newton at the time, but only began to emerge in the mid 18th century, in a series of memoirs and reminiscences.

The notion of an infinite, mysterious Nature, waiting to be discovered or seduced into revealing all her secrets was widely held. Scientific instruments played an increasingly important role in this process of revelation, allowing man not merely to extend his senses passively – using the telescope, the microscope, the barometer – but to intervene actively, using the voltaic battery, the electrical generator, the scalpel or the air pump. Even the Montfgolfier balloon could be seen as an instrument of discovery, or indeed of seduction.

There was, too, a subtle the reaction against the idea of a purely mechanistic universe, the mathematical world of Newtonian physics, the hard material world of objects and impacts. These doubts, expressed especially in Germany, favoured a softer “dynamic” science of invisible powers and mysterious energies, of fluidity and transformations, of growth and organic change. This is one of the reasons that the study of electricity (and chemistry in general) became the signature science of the period; though astronomy itself, once the exemplary science of the Enlightenment, would also be changed by Romantic cosmology. [Eg Coleridge again, see RH DR p548-9]

The ideal of a pure, “disinterested” science, independent of political ideology and even religious doctrine, also began slowly to emerge. The emphasis of on secular, humanist (even atheist) body of knowledge, dedicated to the “benefit of all mankind” was particularly strong in revolutionary France. This would soon involve Romantic science in new kinds of controversy: for instance, whether it could be an instrument of the state, in the case of inventing weapons of war? Or a handmaiden of the Church, supporting the widely held view of “Natural theology”, in which science reveals evidence of a divine Creation or intelligent design?

With these went the new notion of a popular science, a people’s science. The scientific revolution of the late 17th century had promulgated an essentially private, elitist, specialist form of knowledge. Its lingua franca was Latin, and its common currency mathematics. Its audience were a small (if international) circle of scholars and savants. Romantic science, on the other hand, had a new commitment to explain, to educate, to communicate to a general public.

This became the first great age of the public scientific lecture, the laboratory demonstration, and the introductory textbook, often written by women. It was the age when science began to be taught to children, and the “experimental method” became the basis of a new, secular philosophy of life, in which the infinite wonders of creation (whether divine or not) were increasingly valued for their own sake. It was a science that, for the first time, generated sustained public debates, such as the great Regency controversy over “Vitalism”: whether there was such a thing as a life force or principle, or whether men and women (or animals) had souls.

Finally, it was the age which broke the elite monopoly of the Royal Society, and saw the foundation of scores of new scientific institutions, mechanics institutes and “philosophical” societies, most notably the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street in 1799, the Geological Society in 1807, the Astronomical Society in 1820, and the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1831.

Much of this transition from Enlightenment to Romantic science is expressed in the iconic paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby. Closely attached to the Lunar Society, and the friend of Erasmus Darwin and Joseph Priestley, Wright became a dramatic painter of experimental and laboratory scenes, which reinterpreted late 18th century Enlightenment science as a series of mysterious, romantic moments of revelation and vision. The calm glowing light of reason is surrounded by the intense, psychological chiaroscuro associated with George de la Tour. This is most evident in his famous series of scientific demonstration scenes, painted at the hight of his career: “The Orrery” (1766, Derby City Museum and book cover), “The Air Pump” (1767, National Gallery, London), and “The Alchemist” (1768, Derby City Museum).


Was all this such a good thing? There is a counter view that sees Romantic science as a disastrous betrayal of the benign Enlightenment view of Nature, modest, respectful and pious. It replaced it with a fatal commitment to a blind, positivist view of human progress driven by personal ambition, technology and material greed. We have certainly inherited this dillema in the Western world. Romantic science was originally the product of a revolutionary age. The wave of political optimism that carried first the American Declaration of Independence, and then the French Revolution, also inspired Romantic science with a progressive secular idealism, carrying strong radical and republican overtones. But under the patriotic demands and pressures of the Napoleonic Wars its free spirit was curbed, tamed and professionalized. An open, radical science became institutionalized, conservative and doctrinaire.

In the process the international scientific co-operation of 18th century Europe was changed into intense national rivalries. This was especially so between public “men of science” in Britain and France. Co-operative science became competitive. The secular ideals of Enlightenment science, with its notions of disinterestedness and universal human benevolence, became corrupted by Imperial ambitions. Considerations of commercial, religious missionary and national interest fatally compromised pure science. Exploration became colonization.

Worse still, the open imaginative spirit of the Enlightenment, celebrated by poets and writers, was increasingly displaced by an inhuman science, analytical, industrial, invasive, which damaged and exploited both Nature and the human soul. It could not be trusted because, in John Keats’s words, it would “unweave the rainbow”. It drove a profound split between the artistic and scientific response to the world.

Finally, the figure of the inspired, unworldly scientific genius shut away in his lonely laboratory or observatory, following his dreams like Isaac Newton, was changed into a more ambiguous symbol. He was now seen as someone intoxicated by worldly power, or driven by mad ambition, like Dr Victor Frankenstein. The Romantic scientist was a danger to society, not a benefactor.


The Age of Wonder asks which version of Romantic science in Britain is really true; or more true. Yet in the end it remains a narrative, a piece of biographical story telling. It aims to capture the inner life of science, its impact on the heart as well as on the mind. In the broadest sense it aims to present scientific passion, so much of which is summed up in that childlike, but infinitely complex word, wonder. Plato had argued that the notion of “wonder” was central to all philosophical thought: “In Wonder all Philosophy began: in Wonder it ends….But the first Wonder is the Offspring of Ignorance; the last is the Parent of Adoration.”

Wonder, in other words, goes through various stages, evolving both with age and with knowledge, but retaining an irreducible fire and spontaneity. This seems to be the implication of Wordsworth famous lyric of 1802, which was inspired not by Newton’s prism, but by Nature’s:

“My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky;
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!….”

[Plato’s wonder as interpreted by Coleridge in Aids to Reflection, 1825 “Spiritual Aphorism 9″p236 see RH DR p540]

This book is centered on two scientific lives, those of the astronomer William Herschel and the chemist Humphry Davy. Their discoveries dominate the period, yet they offer two almost diametrically opposed versions of the Romantic “scientist”, a term not coined until 1833, after they were both dead. It also gives an account of their assistants and protégées, who eventually became much more than that, and handed on the flame into the very different world of professional Victorian science. But it draws in many others lives (see Appendix “Cast List”), and it is interrupted by different moments of scientific endeavour and high adventure so characteristic of the Romantic spirit: ballooning, exploring, soul-hunting. These were all part of the great journey.

It is also held together by as a kind of chorus figure, a scientific Virgil, to whom (it must be admitted) I have become greatly attached. It is no coincidence that he began his career a young and naïve scientific traveller and secret journal-keeper. However he ended it as the longest-serving, most experienced and most domineering President of the Royal Society : the botanist, diplomat and eminence grise Sir Joseph Banks. As a young man Banks sailed with Captain Cook round the world, setting out in 1768 on that perilous three-year voyage into the unknown. This voyage may count as one of the earliest distinctive exploits of Romantic science, not least because it involved a long stay in a beautiful but ambiguous version of Paradise – Otaheite, or the South Pacific island of Tahiti.

Excerpted by arrangement with Random House from “The Age of Wonder” by Richard Holmes.


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