This long pursuit, p.2
This Long Pursuit, p.2Richard Holmes
Here he wrote the famous ‘Dejection: an Ode’ (1802), which we now know exists in two drafts, the first as a secret love letter to Sara Hutchinson; the second as a formal ode on the powers of Nature and the Imagination to heal personal grief and depression. Sara was the sister of Wordsworth’s wife Mary Hutchinson; no melting Muse, but a small, handsome, capable woman who strode about the fells, looked after the Wordsworth children, and copied both poets’ manuscripts. She had a determined chin, kindly eyes and thick auburn hair. Coleridge (who had married in 1795) had fallen fatally in love with her at first sight in 1799, and given her the dreamy soubriquet ‘Asra’ in his notebooks and poetry.
There she remains as a fantasy figure for the next twenty years, though she never quite went to bed with him. Instead she did secretarial work, accompanied him on walks, nursed him when ill, and tried to prevent him taking opium, which led to their eventual estrangement in 1812.
In the formal ode, Sara is simply an unnamed ‘virtuous Lady’. In the draft verse letter (not published in full until 1988) she is ‘O Sister! O Beloved! … dear Sara … My Comforter! A Heart within my Heart.’ In a memorable bird image, Coleridge also describes her voluptuously as ‘nested with the Darlings of [her] Love’, and feeling in her embracing arms
Even what the conjugal & mother Dove
That borrows genial warmth from those she warms,
Feels in her thrill’d wings, blessedly outspread! …
Here too, in pursuing him, I had an instructive experience. I discovered that Greta Hall had become a small girls’ boarding school, so I wrote to the headmistress asking permission to visit. It turned out that Coleridge’s study on the top floor was now the sixth-form dormitory. Accordingly I was granted a half-hour afternoon inspection, under Matron’s watchful eye, while the girls were safely away, out in the fields playing hockey.
After we had inspected the room, I asked Matron if I might climb out of the dormitory window onto the flat roof, where Coleridge had often sat writing. As I stood examining the magnificent view, and thinking of his secret beloved Asra, I suddenly saw at my feet two bottles of Vladivar vodka, and a box of Black Russian cigarettes carefully wrapped in cellophane against the weather.
When I climbed back in, Matron asked if I had found ‘anything biographically interesting’. As I prepared to answer – ‘A biographer is an artist upon oath’ – an angelic-looking blonde sixth-former appeared in the doorway behind Matron, and fixing me with a mute appeal, silently shook her head. ‘Yes, Matron,’ I replied gravely. ‘Clear signs of artistic inspiration.’ Still standing behind Matron, the girl mouthed a silent ‘Thank-you’ at me, spread her arms in a strange airborne gesture, and slipped away.
Of course I felt the subversive spirit of Coleridge’s Asra had been in close attendance. Yet, on reflection, not merely as the angel, but also as the kindly Matron, who possibly knew more than she was letting on. This reminded me that Asra was both angel and nurse to Coleridge. Much expanded, almost to the length of a short story (named, after one of Coleridge’s own poems, ‘An Angel Visitant’), this incident went down in the left-hand side of my notebook as a warning against both the charms and the perils of romanticising. Places of ‘inspiration’ might genuinely retain something of their force over time, and it was vital to capture this. But the biographer should also be on guard against vodka.
A different kind of alchemy transfused Coleridge’s friendship with the young chemist Humphry Davy. When they were both in their twenties, Coleridge volunteered to take part in Davy’s early experiments with the intoxicating nitrous oxide (laughing gas) at the Bristol Pneumatic Institute. Davy’s scientific account of gas euphoria turned out to have extraordinary parallels with Coleridge’s poetic account of opium hallucinations, as described in ‘Kubla Khan’.
‘I lost all connections with external things,’ recorded Davy, ‘trains of vivid visible Images rapidly passed through my mind … With the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed … “Nothing exists, but Thoughts! – the Universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!” … I was now almost completely intoxicated … I seemed to be a sublime being, newly created and superior to other mortals …’
Davy and Coleridge also corresponded about the nature of pain, and the possibilities of gas-based anaesthetics for use in surgical operations. Coleridge later went to his friend’s chemistry lectures, and enthused: ‘I attended Davy’s lectures to enlarge my stock of metaphors … Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet …’ To Davy himself he made a crucial connection: ‘Science being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was Poetical.’
This led me to look at Davy’s biography, and more generally at the relations between science and literature. For the first time I began to consider how a scientific biography might differ from a literary one. In particular, in my own field of Romantic literature, the connection between Coleridge and Davy made me wonder why the poets and writers of the Romantic period were always presented as hostile to science. Had we unknowingly imported twentieth-century ideas about the notorious split between the ‘Two Cultures’ into Romantic biography? Was there in fact such a thing as Romantic science, and a vital new form of biography to go with it? This is what I began to explore in my next book, The Age of Wonder.
The left-hand side of my notebook became crowded with questions and speculations, many naïve. Did the Romantic men of science (‘men in white coats’) have inner emotional lives comparable in intensity to those of the poets; and if so, what kind of writings would bear witness to this? It seemed possible that scientific biography should be less about individual ‘genius’, and more about teamwork and the social impact of discovery. This might demand something closer to group biography, and a sense of the extended ‘ripple effect’ of science throughout a community. It also raised the pressing question – in the figures of the astronomer Caroline Herschel, the novelist Mary Shelley and the mathematician Mary Somerville – of why women had been excluded from science, in contrast to the way they were establishing themselves in literature.
So from a narrow initial study of Coleridge and Davy, The Age of Wonder (2009) expanded to become the biography of a whole generation, including over sixty writers and scientists, and the very moment when the word and concept of ‘scientist’ itself actually emerged in 1833.
I have subsequently come to feel that the meeting of the two great modes of human discovery – imaginative literature and science – has become one of the most urgent subjects for modern biography to study and understand. I believe this is particularly so in both Britain and America. You could say that if our world is to be saved, we must understand it both scientifically and imaginatively.
I often think of something Sylvia Plath once said: ‘If a poem is concentrated, a closed fist, then a novel is relaxed and expansive, an open hand.’ This leads me to suppose that biography is something else again: ‘a handshake’. A handshake across time, but also across cultures, across beliefs, across disciplines, across genders, and across ways of life. It is a simple act of complex friendship.
It is also a way of keeping the biographer’s notebook open on both sides of that endless mysterious question: What was this human life really like, and what does it mean to us now? In this sense, biography is not merely a mode of historical enquiry. It is an act of imaginative faith. That is what I believe. Putting my hand on my Black n’ Red notebook, that is what I swear to.
After completing my two-volume life of Coleridge, I continued to wonder about scientific discovery during the period of his lifetime, between 1772 and 1834. This was the high-water mark of British Romanticism, one of the best-known and best-loved periods in the whole of English literature. So why was so little known about the science, and the scientists, of this same era? Was the divisive influence of C.P. Snow’s 1959 lecture ‘The Two Cultures’ still at work? In 1999
Most people could quote the names of at least a dozen poets and writers of this period. Yet the only scientific name popularly known between Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin was – probably – that notorious and fictional bio-engineer Victor Frankenstein. Was science – were scientists – so entirely irrelevant to the huge imaginative achievement of Romanticism? After all, one of Coleridge’s greatest friends was the chemist Sir Humphry Davy, who eventually became President of the Royal Society. Coleridge had once promised Davy, in a memorable moment of scientific enthusiasm, that he would ‘attack Chemistry like a shark’. Later he suggested that he and Davy – together with Wordsworth – should set up a chemical laboratory together in the Lake District. Finally he wrote to Davy that most brilliant, seminal and provoking remark which had so struck me, that the passion of Hope made Science ‘Poetical’.
Nevertheless, it was still traditionally assumed that all the poets – like William Blake – hated and distrusted science; while all the scientists – like Isaac Newton – despised and disdained to talk to the poets. The antagonism, so to speak, was mutual. As Blake famously exclaimed: ‘Bacon and Newton, sheathed in Dismal Steel’.
This position was vividly illustrated by Blake’s powerful picture of Newton, drawn in 1795, a demonic figure bent grimly over his measuring compasses, reducing the entire world to geometry and mathematics. Here, it was argued, began the fatal division between Imagination and Reason, between Arts and Sciences. Indeed, two hundred years later a modern version of this figure, an enormous bronze statue of Blake’s Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi (1995), but now with explicit suggestions of Frankenstein’s monster, was solemnly placed in the courtyard of the new British Library in Euston Road, London, thus guarding Cerberus-like the entrance to one of the great centres of learning in the Western world.
So fifteen years ago I became increasingly fascinated by what we now call ‘the public understanding of science’. I began to ask, what was the real impact of science on poets and writers of the British Romantic period? Who were the scientists that influenced them, and what sort of science were they doing? I aimed to look at a period of roughly sixty years, or two generations (1770–1830). This was exactly the ‘lost period’ of British science, between Newton and Darwin, when European figures (like Cuvier, Lavoisier and Laplace) seemed to dominate the field. I found that there were two historic British voyages of exploration that framed almost exactly this time span: Captain James Cook’s first circumnavigation through the Pacific, starting out in 1768, and young Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos, starting in 1831. These became my points of departure and arrival, and set the experimental ambitions of the whole book.
One of the first things I learned was that at this time there was no such word as ‘scientist’. It was only coined in 1833, at a historic meeting of the newly founded British Association for the Advancement of Science, held that year in Cambridge. Nevertheless, I came up with a main cast list of over sixty scientists and writers. Among the former were Joseph Banks, explorer, botanist and anthropologist; William and Caroline Herschel, astronomers; Jean-Pierre Blanchard and Laetitia Sage, balloonists; Mungo Park, African explorer; Humphry Davy, chemist; William Lawrence, surgeon; and several young pre-Victorian scientists, Michael Faraday, Mary Somerville and Charles Lyell, for example. Among the poets and writers were Erasmus Darwin, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Mary Shelley, Anna Barbauld and Lord Byron.
The women had an important role in the story. I felt that conventional science historians had rather ignored them. But they help us to look at the development of science in a different, and often surprising, way. For example, Anna Barbauld was Dr Joseph Priestley’s assistant during his great experiments on the nature of air in Birmingham in the 1770s. He was testing the effect of lack of oxygen on laboratory animals, like birds and mice. One evening, when she was clearing up the laboratory for the next day’s work, Anna left a long poem on a piece of paper stuck between the animals’ cages, which she entitled ‘The Mouse’s Petition to Dr Priestley, Found in the Cage where he had been Confined all Night’ (1773). It is written from the point of view of the mouse, and here is an extract:
For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate,
And tremble at th’ approaching morn
Which brings impending fate.
The cheerful light, the vital air,
Are blessings widely given;
Let nature’s commoners enjoy
The common gifts of Heaven.
The well-taught philosophic mind
To all compassion gives;
Casts round the world an equal eye,
And feels for all that lives.
Barbauld describes the laboratory animal as a ‘freeborn mouse’, so this becomes arguably the first ever animal-rights poem. One could compare it with the subsequent opening of Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’: ‘A robin redbreast in a cage, Puts all heaven in a rage …’
Taking my cue from Coleridge, the book began to explore the hope and wonder of science, but also its fearfulness and menace, a double-edged sword that we are all more than conscious of today. The constant ambiguity was finally expressed in my polarised subtitle: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science. These two terms – beauty and terror – are also central to the underlying Romantic theory of ‘the Sublime’, as developed in the famous 1757 essay by Edmund Burke, ‘A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful’. I was arguing that not only literature, but also science, could be ‘sublime’ in this technical, philosophical sense, and would lead to a new perception of ‘the Sublime’ in nature.
Above all, it was the story of Newton’s apple that haunted the Romantics with a notion of science as poetic revelation. Perhaps the earliest account of this symbolic, and possibly legendary, Newtonian ‘thought experiment’ appears in the memoir by the young William Stukeley FRS, when he took tea with the ageing Newton in 1724, and recorded their conversation:
After dinner, the weather being warm, we went into the garden, & drank tea under the shade of some apple trees, only he, & myself. Amidst other discourse, he told me, he was just in the same situation, as when formerly, the notion of gravitation came into his mind.
‘Why should that apple always descend perpendicularly to the ground,’ thought he to himself: occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in a contemplative mood. ‘Why should it not go sideways, or upwards? But constantly to the earths centre? Assuredly, the reason is, that the earth draws it. There must be a drawing power in matter, & the sum of the drawing power in the matter of the earth must be in the earths centre, not in any side of the earth. Therefore does this apple fall perpendicularly, or toward the centre. If matter thus draws matter; it must be in proportion of its quantity. Therefore the apple draws the earth, as well as the earth draws the apple.’
Thus by degrees he began to apply this property of gravitation to the motion of the Earth, and of the heavenly bodies; to consider their distances, their magnitudes, their periodical revolutions …
When Voltaire attended Newton’s state funeral at Westminster Abbey in 1727, the apple story was already current, and he retold it enthusiastically in his Letters on the English Nation in 1734: ‘Having retired in 1666 to the countryside near Cambridge, he was walking one day in his garden when he noticed the fruit falling from a tree, and slipped into a profound meditation on the concept of weight, the exact cause of which all natural philosophers had sought for so long in vain, and the mystery of which most ordinary people did not even suspect.’
A magnificent statue of Isaac Newton was put up at Trinity College, Cambridge, thirty years after his death, in 1757, at the dawn of the Romantic age. An undergraduate at St John’s, the college next-door to Trinity over the wall, could see it from his window, and was deeply impressed. William Wo
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 silent face,
The marble index of a Mind for ever
Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.
So, by the time the story of Newton and the apple reached Byron, it had already become the most famous and romantic ‘eureka moment’ in science history. This allowed Byron to give it a neat, mischievous twist in Don Juan (1821):
When Newton saw an apple fall, he found
In that slight startle from his contemplation –
’Tis said (for I’ll not answer above ground
For any sage’s creed or calculation) –
A mode of proving that the earth turn’d round
In a most natural whirl, called ‘gravitation’;
And this is the sole mortal who could grapple,
Since Adam, with a fall or with an apple.
Byron asked whether Newton’s ‘apple of knowledge’ was a Biblical or a scientific fruit. He also wondered if the fruit would be good or bad for mankind:
Man fell with apples, and with apples rose,
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