The Two Deserts

An interesting choice for Poem of the Week in the Grauniad today is this, Two Deserts, by Coventry Patmore.

Not greatly moved with awe am I
To learn that we may spy
Five thousand firmaments beyond our own.
The best that’s known
Of the heavenly bodies does them credit small.
View’d close, the Moon’s fair ball
Is of ill objects worst,
A corpse in Night’s highway, naked, fire-scarr’d, accurst;
And now they tell
That the Sun is plainly seen to boil and burst
Too horribly for hell.
So, judging from these two,
As we must do,
The Universe, outside our living Earth,
Was all conceiv’d in the Creator’s mirth,
Forecasting at the time Man’s spirit deep,
To make dirt cheap.
Put by the Telescope!
Better without it man may see,
Stretch’d awful in the hush’d midnight,
The ghost of his eternity.
Give me the nobler glass that swells to the eye
The things which near us lie,
Till Science rapturously hails,
In the minutest water-drop,
A torment of innumerable tails.
These at the least do live.
But rather give
A mind not much to pry
Beyond our royal-fair estate
Betwixt these deserts blank of small and great.
Wonder and beauty our own courtiers are,
Pressing to catch our gaze,
And out of obvious ways
Ne’er wandering far.

I think this is quite an interesting composition because of its fluid structure and variable metre, although I think the language is a bit contrived in places. Or is it just dated? However, as a scientist, I can’t really agree with the sentiments it expresses (which are also found in abundance elsewhere in 19th Century poetry, such in Walt Whitman’s When I heard the learn’d astronomer).

As the accompanying piece in the Guardian puts it,

Patmore hymns imaginative perception of local realities at the expense of scientific discovery: the reverse position is today’s default.

I’m not sure that last statement is true, for most people, but in any case I’d argue that the more we discover through scientific means the more there is to inspire artists, as long as they have their imaginative eyes open…

Although you probably associate Patmore’s point view with poets of the romantic tradition, such as Wordsworth (whose poetry I admire enormously), I think it’s a misguided assertion that science ignores “the imaginative eye”.  I don’t think it does. Science is full of imagination, it’s just of a form different from that found in the arts. Science and the arts offer complementary ways of imagining. They’re neither incompatible with each other nor is one superior to the other.

And, as I’ve mentioned before there’s more to life than the tedious arts-versus-science rants beloved of certain academics. I can’t think of a clearer expression of the supreme importance of simply living than this, from a poem by William Wordsworth I posted just a few days ago:

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up these barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.


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