Science, Poetry and Romanticism

I listened to a very interesting programme on BBC Radio 3 on Sunday evening, part of which was a documentary about science and poetry presented by Gregory Tate. Given that both these subjects feature heavily on this blog I couldn’t resist a quick post about it.

The feature explored why so many scientists have been inspired to write poetry, and the nature of the relationship between their artistic work and their science.

Among the famous scientists included in the programme was chemist and inventor Humphry Davy who, inspired by his friendship with the poets Wordsworth and Coleridge, wrote poems throughout his life. Others to do likewise were: physician Eramus Darwin; mathematician William Rowan Hamilton; astronomer William Herschel (who was also a noted musician and composer); J. Robert Oppenheimer; and Erwin Schrödinger.

Doing a quick google about after the programme I came across this example by Hamilton, which I searched for because he is the scientist from the list above with whose mathematical work I am most familiar because of its huge influence on physics, and because he seems to have been a very colourful character as well as a superb mathematician. Interestingly, he too was a very close friend of Wordsworth, to whom he often sent poems with requests for comments and feedback. In the subsequent correspondence, Wordsworth was usually not very complimentary even to the extent of telling Hamilton to stick to his day job (or words to that effect). What I didn’t know was that Hamilton regarded himself as a poet first and a mathematician second. That just goes to show you shouldn’t necessarily trust a man’s judgement when he applies it to himself.

Here’s an example of Hamilton’s verse – a poem written to honour Joseph Fourier:

Hamilton-for Fourier

If that’s one of his better poems, then I think Wordsworth may have had a point!

The serious thing that struck me about this programme though was how many scientists of the 19th Century, Hamilton included, saw their scientific interrogation of Nature as a manifestation of the human condition just as the romantic poets saw their artistic contemplation. It is often argued that romanticism is responsible for the rise of antiscience. I’m not really qualified to comment on that but I don’t see any conflict at all between science and romanticism. I certainly don’t see Wordsworth’s poetry as antiscientific. I just find it inspirational:

I HAVE seen
A curious child, who dwelt upon a tract
Of inland ground, applying to his ear
The convolutions of a smooth-lipped shell;
To which, in silence hushed, his very soul
Listened intensely; and his countenance soon
Brightened with joy; for from within were heard
Murmurings, whereby the monitor expressed
Mysterious union with its native sea.
Even such a shell the universe itself
Is to the ear of Faith; and there are times,
I doubt not, when to you it doth impart
Authentic tidings of invisible things;
Of ebb and flow, and ever-during power;
And central peace, subsisting at the heart
Of endless agitation.

15 Responses to “Science, Poetry and Romanticism”

  1. Interesting thoughts. I’m sure many scientists mundane and famous enjoy poetry and music, for those two have something to say about the world unspoken by science.
    They are creative arts and to be good you must be gifted. We do not know what the gift of composition is for it defies training.
    You can train a concert pianist but not a Beethoven or a Wordsworth.

    • telescoper Says:

      yes, you can train people to be competent in science or music or visual arts or poetry, but some people have that extraordinary creative spark within, and some don’t. I don’t think that can be taught…

      • I’m sure you are right but such statements are not considered to be scientific , they border on the concept of a gift of God.

      • telescoper Says:

        I don’t think so – more to do with the balance between nature and nurture..

      • Science– A random and very rare sprinkling of some change in the DNA to very few humans. Brought about by the Blind Watchmaker inadvertantly.
        Poetry– A gift of God.

      • Oliver Sacks tells the story of a man who had no musical talent at all until he was struck by lightning while using a public telephone.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Was that in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat? I don’t recall it, but it’s the sort of thing that would appear there and it’s a long time since I read it.

        Of course plenty of people are struck by lightning and don’t gain musical talent. I don’t recommend it as a career move.

      • There is a vaguely similar urban legend regarding a modern beat combo.

        This reminds me of one of the all-time great responses to discovering a spouse’s extramarital affair. When John Phillips discovered that his wife, Michelle, was having an affair with the other man in the group, Denny Doherty, he exclaimed “You can do whatever else you want, Mich, but please don’t fuck my tenor!”

  2. Everyone interested in the subject of this post and its comments should read a nice book on the topic.

    • telescoper Says:

      I also had a suggestion via Twitter to read that book. I remember it being well received when it came out, but I never actually bought it.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip, I remember discussing that book with you here very soon after Peter started his blog. It’s a fine read.

      • Indeed; I have now read it. I had bought it once on a trip to Manchester, which always includes a visit to Blackwell’s. Since I usually buy many books there, some of them aren’t read until months later. In particular, thick ones tend to have to wait until the next summer holiday, being too unwieldy to read comfortably on the train.

        Having recently purchased an eBook reader (a tolino (not a Kindle) which reads ePub, PDF and .TXT files which I can obtain at many places), at least some books without colour illustrations will be bought in this format in the future. As much as I like conventional books, I am running out of room at home. An eBook can be read even on a cramped train, taken almost anywhere, read at night, has built-in dictionaries (both mono- and bilingual), etc. Much more comfortable than a conventional book. And when my eyes worsen, I can just increase the font size rather than resorting to glasses.

        Yes, I like having the walls lined, and will probably always buy CDs for this reason, at least as long as it is possible to buy physical media, even if at some point I copy all of them to a hard disk. On the other hand, I’ve read many more books from libraries than I have bought, so I don’t have them all anyway.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Of course I hope readers of this blog will rush out and buy my forthcoming book “On the Transformative Nature of Fourier Analysis”…

  4. I’d love to get one. May I ask for the one with your signature ))

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