The Age of Wonder, by Richard Holmes

Vital sparks in art and science

Peter Forbes
Monday 15 June 2020 15:54

The phrase "Romantic Chemistry" did not always mean the sexual spark between two people. At the birth of English Romanticism, chemistry and other sciences, notably astronomy and the physics of electricity, were exciting components of the new mood. For so long assumed to be polar opposites, Romanticism and Science are justly reunited in Richard Holmes's new book.

The defining trait of Romanticism for Holmes is expansiveness. Joseph Banks and Mungo Park explore Africa and Polynesia, losing their Eurocentric blinkers, and in Park's case his life; William Herschel sees the universe as an evolving structure; Humphry Davy sees chemistry and electricity as vital forces, as opposed to the predictable billiard-ball mathematics of Newtonian atomism. Literary figures such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey were at first thrilled by these revelations of natural forces and felt that they harmonised with their own yearnings for a poetry of power beyond the polite civilities of Alexander Pope.

Holmes's account of Herschel is a revelation. He emerges as the Darwin of cosmology, being the first to suggest that the stars and galaxies had a lifespan like organic creatures. The modern version of the universe begins with Herschel. And the story of how this self-taught German astronomer and his sister became great figures in Regency England is affecting.

If there is Romantic Chemistry, there must be a Romantic Chemist. That person was Sir Humphry Davy, one of the stars of the book, along with Herschel and the impresario of it all: the explorer, botanist, and all-round panjandrum of science, Sir Joseph Banks. The famous epigraph to the third edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads (1802) – "If the time should ever come when what is now called science, thus familiarised to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood" – reflected Davy's influence on the two poets. Coleridge was closest to Davy and was thrilled by his discovery of "the identity of electricity and chemical attraction". Coleridge sought the Grand Unified Theory of the poetic imagination "as a single unifying force within all creative acts".

In their early days, Coleridge and Davy were yin and yang: Davy the great scientist and amateur poet, Coleridge the poet who, under Davy's influence, wished to "attack chemistry, like a shark". It is hard to credit now, but thanks to Davy's charismatic lectures at the Royal Institution and his discovery of the power of electricity to liberate new chemical elements, chemistry was briefly fashionable in the early 19th century.

Did the fault line between science and romanticism run through the Davy/Coleridge friendship or was it more personal? Davy went from success to success and became a social lion; in contrast, Coleridge's life was fraught in the extreme. Davy invited him to lecture on poetry at the Royal Institution in 1808, but Coleridge could hardly perform through opium addiction and other ailments. Davy then said: "He has suffered greatly from excessive sensibility, the disease of genius. His mind is a wilderness, in which the cedar and the oak, which might aspire to the skies, are stunted in their growth by underwood, thorns, briars, and parasitical plants". The last letter we have from Coleridge to Davy (in 1809) finds him reaffirming, rather desperately, his love for the man, but tetchily dismissing the idea that great scientists are the equal of great artists.

Holmes sheds new light on one episode in the science/art wars: the picture frames. Davy was a great traveller in Europe. But a visit to Paris in 1813 led to him being mocked as a philistine for being able to see no more than "the splendid picture frames" in the presence of so many masterpieces. But Holmes points out that Britain and Napoleonic France were then at war; Davy was fiercely criticised at home for going and his attitude at the Louvre was one of: "don't give the French any encouragement".

Davy was a cultured man, one of the few whose company the older Byron could bear. Yet in Don Juan he did ironise Davy's great practical discovery, the miner safety lamp: "Sir Humphrey Davy's lantern, by which coals/ Are safely mined for in the mode he mentions,/ Timbuctoo travels, voyages to the Poles,/ Are ways to benefit men as true,/ Perhaps, as shooting them at Waterloo". But then Don Juan treats everything in this manner.

The parting-of-the-ways between science and poetry Holmes charts to a single evening: a drunken dinner party in December 1817 held by the painter Benjamin Haydon with Wordsworth, Keats and Charles Lamb. In their cups, the poets and artists began to abuse science, Keats declaring that Newton had "destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to a prism". From this point, the elect souls of art were at one with the universe while the scientists "murder to dissect". The consequence of this failure of the imagination have been disastrous for our culture. I suspect the falling out was not bound to happen: there were some unfortunate contingencies.

Electricity, discovered in its storable, useable form by Galvani in twitching frogs' legs in 1799, was the wonder of the age, and in Davy's hands led to the discovery of new elements. But those frogs' legs also led to experiments with dead bodies and the morbid suggestion that galvanism could bring them back to life. Even Davy flirted with the idea that electricity itself was the pulse of life, but this was not science but fantasy. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein spawned a fictional Gothic cul-de-sac in which ever since science has tortured nature for base ends.

Romanticism is a subjectivism, so there can be nothing definitive about Holmes's choices of the key figures in Romantic Science. Early in the book, he strays into implying that sensation and celebrity and are in themselves Romantic. So we have Branson-esque ballooning stunts, a celebrity cult, and a note of prurience that seams through the book. But its heart – the linked stories of Banks, Herschel and Davy – is thrilling: a portrait of bold adventure among the stars, across the oceans, deep into matter, poetry and the human psyche. That call to arms in the epigraph to the Lyrical Ballads has still to be answered, but Holmes's book will do valuable service in the cause. And it admits Sir Humphry Davy to the Romantic pantheon alongside Byron, Shelley, Keats, Wordsworth and Coleridge: not just a Romantic chemist but a great Romantic tout court.

Peter Forbes's latest book is 'The Gecko's Foot' (Fourth Estate)

What is romanticism?

Born of a revolt against the cold reason of the Enlightenment and polite conventions of neo-Classical art, Romanticism swept through late 18th-century Europe as a cult of strong feeling, rule-breaking creativity, extreme states of mind, and sublime sensation in nature and culture. Britain bred archetypal Romantics such as Blake, Turner and Coleridge. The movement both admired and feared science, as a heroic voyage into the mysteries of nature and a soulless quest to analyse and control.

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