Consciousness, Literature and the Arts
Volume 18 Number 3, December 2017
The Evolving Storm of Science as Captured in English Verse
Gravitational revolutions of the earth drive the planet’s weather, its storms and seasons. Cultural revolutions of the earth’s humanity drive world history, its brilliant epochs, and its dark eras. The two are intimately entwined, and when their connections are analyzed, unique insight can be attained. The history of science explains an early cosmological view of the sun, moon, and stars as all revolving around the earth. This resulted in the earliest definitions of revolution as a word in the English language. Over time, the definition of revolution evolved to meanings beyond the scientific; meanwhile, the world of science also evolved and became a key factor in cultural change and revolution. These revolutions in science profoundly affected Europe and England from the 14th Century through the 18th Century. Religion still dominated the culture of these centuries, but rational thought was beginning to define a new existence. Philosophy was continuing to explain and assess man’s importance, but new thinkers and writers were challenging old ideas. The aristocracy was maintaining its position of power, yet the middle class and politics were being born. Throughout all of this, literature attempted to give meaning to a world in flux, and science attempted to define the world’s reality, dissecting everything from cosmology to chemistry. Key revolutions in science, which began in the fourteenth century and extended through the eighteenth century, loomed darkly over the edifices of European religion and scholarly institutions. Scientific revolution threatened constant change and constant turmoil. Like a lightning strike, Kepler, Copernicus and Galileo redefined the workings of the universe. Newton, Bacon, and Descartes renovated the once mystery-steeped realm of physical sciences. Then by the eighteenth century, England established the first national scientific traditions as royal societies (Mason 176). The eighteenth century also saw revolutions in the physical sciences that preempted massive change in industry—changes that swept the simplicity of pastoral life and the world of cottage industry like a flood.
This storm of scientific revolution impacted all walks of life, particularly in England where manufacturing was burgeoning and national power began to surpass other European countries. Much of this epoch, and its accompanying revolutionary change, is chronicled in scientific texts, in essays, in religious texts, and in literary works. Although the purely distilled form of literature—poetry—frequently turned its insightful eye on revolution, it only rarely focused specifically on the scientific revolution. Renaissance, Restoration, and early Romantic Era British poets only infrequently allude to 16th, 17th and 18th Century scientific revolutions and their social impacts. However, these sparse allusions in poetry, when they do occur, reveal some unique intuitive awareness of science. They additionally give us a new literary lens through which to view revolution and social change. And finally their sporadic nature, coming from the predominant and popular voice of English poetry, gives us hints about society’s slow acceptance of change and the long lasting impacts of the ever evolving storm of scientific revolution. A chronological view of poetic allusions to science makes a sound, logical approach to this discussion. Therefore we will begin with John Milton and the seventeenth century.
An appropriate opening to a discussion of English poets in relation to science begins with John Milton. His awareness of science hinges heavily upon his acquaintance with Galileo whom he visited in 1638 when he was only thirty years old (Rosen). Contemporary scholar Jonathan Rosen points out that:
The encounter left a deep imprint on him. It crept into “Paradise Lost,” where Satan’s shield looks like the moon seen through Galileo’s telescope, and in Milton’s great defense of free speech, “Areopagitica,” Milton recalls his visit to Galileo and warns that England will buckle under inquisitorial forces if it bows to censorship, ‘an undeserved thraldom upon learning.’ (Rosen)
Galileo’s battles of reason versus religion undoubtedly inspired Milton’s views of classic religious beliefs. Milton’s young eyes were opened to the larger universe and revolutionary ideas in science, which seemed to open his perception to new and innovative interpretations of paradise, good versus evil, Satan, and Adam and Eve. Paradise Lost portrays the entire biblical origin story with large doses of complex reality rather than, “ . . . an incomplete or merely literary simplicity or comfort” (Summers 185). Even if Milton did not subscribe to all of science’s revolutionary ideas, he would certainly have acquire enough knowledge to intuit that traditional views of God, heaven, and hell were not as simplistic as antiquity made them out to be. Milton’s Satan often has redeeming qualities. God is sometimes imperfect. Man and woman are not lost forever, but rather on a complicated journey toward redemption.
The impact of science, hinting at his dawning awareness of the vast universe, appears many times in Milton’s Paradise Lost. A few examples are as follows: Book V includes “Thousand Celestial Ardours,” and “. . . the Glass/ of Galileo” (Milton 116). Book VII speaks of “Morning Planet,” “. . . the Pleiades before him danc’d,” and “Revolv’d on Heav’n’s great Axle” (169). And Book X mentions “planetary motions and aspects,” “Poles of Earth,” “Sun’s Axle,” and “Oblique the Centric Globe” (246) But perhaps most telling or prophetic of revolutionary thought for the future are these lines from Book V:
Of amplitude almost immense, with Stars
Numerous, and every Star perhaps a World
Of destin’d habitation; but thou know’st (175).
From his concrete awareness of astronomy, Milton extrapolated new and unique ideas for the human course of existence. It is due to his complex views, aided by scientific awareness, that in Milton’s epic poem, God, heaven, and earth take on their complexity and depth—certainly revolutionary views to traditionalist faith. Perhaps it was due to his blindness that Milton visualized so much of the vast universe, because he alludes to science more often than almost any other English poet. As we move into some of their allusions, perhaps we can look back at Milton and add another chapter to Rosen’s concept of “Milton’s Enduring Relevance.” If the preceding lines from Book V are any indication, Milton was indeed a forward thinker, spurred by the revolutions in science.
Other renaissance era poets who allude to the world of science include John Donne, Ben Johnson, Robert Herrick, George Herbert, Andrew Marvell, and Henry Vaughan. By far the most predominant poetic sketches of science from this list of poets come from Donne, who obviously grappled with his religious background in the context of the new astronomy of Copernicus and Galileo. Donne’s “An Anatomy of the World” challenges this revolution in astronomy in lines 251-264 from the poem:
We think the heavens enjoy their spherical,
Their round proportion embracing all.
But yet their various and perplexed course,
Observed in diverse ages, doth enforce
Men to find out so many eccentric parts,
Such diverse down-right lines, such overthwarts,
As disproportion that pure form. It tears
The firmament in eight and forty shares,
And in these constellations then arise
New stars, and old do vanish from our eyes:
As though heaven suffered earthquakes, peace or war
When new towns rise, and old demolished are.
They have impaled within as zodiac
The free-born sun, and keep twelve signs awake
Throughout this segment Donne, “ . . . sardonically turns the optimism of the scientists into proof of pessimism” (Martz 157). The parallel Donne implies between new and old towns represents the concept of revolution and change in general, difficult enough for a culture to adapt to. Therefore the revolutions in science and astronomy add “earthquakes” to the cultural challenges. Martz interprets the scientific criticism of Donne as follows:
The course of the heavenly bodies is so involved, so tangled, that man cannot follow it and is “enforced” to discover, or to invent (“finde out”), a fantastically complicated scheme of the universe which serves to “disproportion that pure forme,” but never surely hits the truth of things. We may also take “perplexed” in another sense: the heavenly bodies themselves seemed to be confused about their course. . . Man’s claims to worldly power and knowledge mean only that he refuses to undergo the spiritual discipline necessary for his salvation. (Martz 160).
Donne’s understanding of science led to his awareness of the ripples science would make in the world of religion, tradition, and established faith. If we look back to lines 205-214 of the poem, we see a clear synopsis of Donne’s awareness of science along with his piercing criticism of it.
And new philosophy calls all in doubt,
The element of fire is quite put out;
The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit
Can well direct him where to look for it.
And freely men confess that his world’s spent,
When in the planets and the firmament
They seek so many new; they see that this
Is crumbled out again to his atomies.
’Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all relation . . . (Broadview 843)
Most telling is the phrase “all coherence gone” which implies upheaval of traditional beliefs and notions of cosmology. Donne seems to have sensed the scope and scale of astronomy and science. As a 1979 Norton Anthology notes, “The idea of infinite space was unsettling to many people, especially when another speculation was added to it that our world might be only one of several, all of which would have to be subject to divine providence” (1085). Donne seems to have intuitively felt this difficulty for the average person to accept the new cosmological theories. Yet Donne wrestled with more than just the precepts of astronomy. In the essay “John Donne, A Reconsideration” J.E.V. Crofts writes the following:
His poems are pestered with the apparatus by which contemporary science endeavored to extend man’s tactual apprehension of the universe, and reduce the immeasurable or mysterious to something which he could hold in the palm of his hand: globes, orreries, compasses, deep-sea plummets; a model of the planets consisting of beads threaded on a string; a model of the nervous system done in hair; a dissecting-table, . . .(85)
And indeed science appears frequently elsewhere in Donne’s poetry. The compass is alluded to as well as ‘trepidation of the spheres’ in his “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning,” and from “The Ecstasy” we can visualize his awareness of biology and perhaps the physics of atoms:
We then who are this new soul, know
Of what we are composed, and made,
For the atomies of which we grow
Are souls, whom no change can invade.
(Hieatt and Park 94)
Throughout all of the allusions, Donne seems to perceive the power of science to foster change, and the immense challenges it posed to the mind and sentiments of the renaissance era thinker. Donne’s “Holy Sonnets 5” perhaps captures this sentiment the best:
I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements, and an angelic sprite;
But black sin hath betrayed to endless night
My world’s both parts, and O both parts must die.
You which beyond that heaven which was most high
Have found new spheres, and of new lands can write
Pour new seas in mine eyes, that so I might
Drown my world with my weeping earnestly,
Or wash it if it must be drowned no more . . .,
(Hieatt and Park 100)
Donne’s “new spheres” and “new seas” in terms of science certainly did “drown” the known world with revolutionary ideas. Perhaps the line, “Or wash it if it must be drowned no more . . .” leaves us with the hope that a cleansing of the old and making it new might ensue, rather than a drowning of the old. Viewing scientific revolution through Donne’s poetry makes us think both paths are difficult—one path is of science and change, and one path is of mostly religious-based tradition. But Donne was unique. He seems to be the only poet beyond Milton of the Renaissance and Restoration Eras to grapple at length with ideas in science. Other poets of the era alluded only briefly and infrequently to science. Perhaps this is because they, like the rest of society around them, needed more time to fully embrace the significance of scientific change. Their views through allusion, nonetheless, are worth looking at as well to see some other perspectives on science and change.
VAUGHAN, MARVELL, AND HERBERT
Henry Vaughan alludes to pre-Copernican ideas in “The World” with the line “Driv’n by the spheres” (Hieatt and Park 179). Although brief, when paired with his words “eternity” and “great ring of pure and endless light” he indicates an awareness of scientific precepts. Vaughan’s following lines, “Like a vast shadow moved, in which the world/And all her train were hurled” (179) seem to show the shadows of doubt new science has cast upon the previously known light of awareness.
Andrew Marvell provides a rather precise look at the concept of the vacuum in physics in “An Horatian Ode upon Cromwell’s Return from Ireland” when he writes these lines:
Nature, that hateth emptiness,
Allows of penetration less:
And therefore must make room
Where greater spirits come.
Here we see a new and revolutionary idea in science applied to society and revolution. Marvel implies that changes in human affairs also abhor the vacuum. For instance, when someone is unseated from a position of power, the vacancy rarely lasts long. Both revolutionary social change as well as new scientific precepts must have been equally difficult for many to understand or accept. Marvell also alludes to science in “Mourning” with, “When, molding of the watery spheres,/ Slow drops untie themselves away” (Hieatt and Park 174). These lines show no judgment of scientific knowledge, but several principles and properties of science can be interpreted in these lines, including an understanding of the properties of water as well as knowledge of traditional astronomy. Perhaps the tears have a secondary and intuitive meaning that tears are shed for loss of scientific innocence and simplicity.
“Man” by George Herbert presents several lines alluding to scientific knowledge beginning with “All things are in decay./For Man is ev’ry thing,/And more”(Hieatt and Park 128). It might be a stretch to presume this is an allusion to new knowledge in the physical sciences, but stanzas three and six of his poem expand on Herbert’s conceptualizations of science:
Man is all symmetry
Full of proportions, one limb to another,
And all to all the world besides:
Each part may call the furthest, brother:
For head with foot hath private amity,
And both with moons and tides. . .
The stars have us to bed;
Night draws the curtain, which the sun withdraws;
Music and light attend our head.
All things unto our flesh are kind
In their descent and being; to our mind
In their ascent and cause. (128)
Here we see a more accepting view of science, one that celebrates rather than disparages new scientific knowledge. It seems that Herbert was somewhat of a social optimist as well. It is interesting to note how rare this type of positive view is, and it is uniquely portrayed as a poetic idea. When we move to the Restoration Era poets, they seem not to share an evolving positive view such as Herbert portrays, but rather a cynical view of their own stylistic creation.
SWIFT AND POPE
Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope give us some insightful landmarks for science in allusions during the Restoration Era. Swift satirically incorporates astronomy, astrology, and planetary mythology by naming the astrologers Partridge and Gadbury, the Astronomer Flamstead, and the planet Mercury in “The Progress of Beauty.” By using all of these characters in a rather base and lowly manner, Swift seems also to satirize both astronomy and astrology, ridiculing their sometimes inordinate influence on human affairs. Swift is most likely posing a similar satirical view of celestial sciences in “The Progress of Poetry” when he writes, “Nor Pegasus could bear the load/Along the high celestial road; (Hieatt and Park 200). We know that the forty constellations were named early on and astrology derived from them. When Swift makes Pegasus a beast of burden on the “celestial road,” we might imagine that he is obliquely satirizing modern astronomy’s new logic, which is at this time overpowering classic astrological archetypes. These allusions by Swift might be the first scientific satire ever written.
We see a different focus when reading Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Criticism,” which is replete with allusions to science, and each allusion gives a different meaning to science and its relationships to culture. These references begin with line 60 which reads, “One science only will one genius fit;” (203) which is a broad enough statement to allow many interpretations. But by lines 150-3 and 161-5 we see Pope portraying some of the controversy precipitated by modern science:
Thus Pegasus, a nearer way to take,
May boldly deviate from the common track;
Great Wits sometimes may gloriously offend,
And rise to faults true Critics dare not mend. . .
But though the Ancients thus their rules invade,
(As Kings dispense with laws themselves have made)
Moderns, beware! Or if you must offend
Against the precept, ne’er transgress its End;
(Hieatt and Park 205)
There is little doubt that Pope is discussing the upheavals modern science has wrought upon society, and particularly upon the entrenched religious beliefs that were firmly lodged in old scientific precepts. Yet Pope does not stop here; he becomes almost prophetic in lines 192-200:
Nations unborn your mighty names shall sound,
And worlds applaud that must not yet be found!
Oh may some spark of your celestial fire,
The last, the meanest of your sons inspire,
(That on weak wings, from far, pursues your flights;
Glows while he reads, but trembles as he writes)
To teach vain Wits a science little known,
T’ admire superior sense, and doubt their own!
Pope’s vocative passion here celebrates the intellect and knowledge with an awareness of the cultural barriers that often stand in front of the realization of new ideas and concepts. Soon after these lines he states, “A little learning is a dang’rous thing” which adds poignancy to both the scientific revolutions of his time and the propensity for mankind’s slow acceptance of change. Swift’s satire and Pope’s enigmatic views allow us to see new and differing viewpoints regarding science and change, preparing us for the step into the next century.
WORDSWORTH, SHELLEY AND BLAKE
As we move into the eighteenth century and look at several of the Romantic poets, we need to first give some context to the evolution of science in England in particular. As early as 1660 with the restoration of Charles II, London had become the main center of scientific activity in England. (Mason 258). This led to Charles’ establishment of the Royal Society for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge. By the early 1700s all forms of scientific study and research were in full swing in England. This is described by Mason in A History of the Sciences when he quotes Robert Hook, the first curator of the Society:
‘The business and design of the Royal Society,’ wrote Hooke, is ‘to improve the knowledge of natural things, and all useful Arts, Manufactures, Mechanick practices, Engynes, and Inventions by Experiments,--(not meddling with Divinity, Metaphysics, Moralls, Politicks, Grammar, Rhetorick, or Logick)
. . . In order to the compiling of a complete system of solid philosophy for explicating all phenomena produced by nature or art, and recording a rationall account of the causes of things.’ (Mason 258).
Therefore science and its often revolutionary discoveries expanded from astronomy and the cosmos to include engineering, biology, physics, and chemistry. When the poets of the Romantic Era begin to allude to science, there is a much broader scope and impact of science upon humanity than that of the prior four centuries. Although the Royal Society was “not meddling” with divinity et al, science was beginning to change everything from medicine to manufacturing. Perhaps because it did not rock the precepts of faith and church so radically, significant debates over scientific change seem largely non-existent. The poets, however, intuitively sensed some of that change, and they allude to it in their craft. Most noteworthy of these were William Wordsworth, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and William Blake.
Wordsworth’s view of science juxtaposes nature and science, but it retains nature as the dominant form, a form only partially described by science. Essayist A. N. Whitehead writes this about Wordsworth:
In addition (to his love for nature), he was a genius. He weakens his evidence by his dislike of science. . . . He alleges against science its absorption in abstractions. His consistent theme is that the important facts of nature elude the scientific method. (Whitehead 22)
Whitehead goes on to cite passages from “The Prelude” where nature revealing itself adequately is described as “A vulgar hope was yours when ye employed/Such ministry” (Prelude 1850 ed. 468-9). Then Whitehead boldly and with very little evidence states that, “Wordsworth, to the height of genius, expresses the concrete facts of our apprehension, facts which are distorted in the scientific analysis” (22). We can agree with Whitehead on the point about Wordsworth’s genius, and we see his awareness of scientific revolution at work elsewhere in “The Prelude” as demonstrated here:
As oftentimes a River, it might deem,
Yielding in part to old rembrances,
Part sway’d by feat to tread an onward road
That leads direct to the devouring sea,
Turns and will measure back his course, far back
Towards the very regions which cross’d
In his first outset; so have we long time
Made motions retrograde, in like pursuit
This passage of course encompasses all forms of looking back, ranging from politics and society to science and progress. The word “retrograde” however gives us the strongest clue that at least in part, he was alluding to scientific revolution as well. Ptolemy’s revolutionary mathematical explanation of retrograde motion of the planets was centuries old, but his revolutionary work would impact all astronomy that came after it. (Mason 58). Perhaps the best example of Wordsworth’s sentiments toward science comes with this short poem:
Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways
Motions and Means, on land and sea at war
With old poetic feeling, not for this,
Shall ye, by Poets even, be judged amiss!
Nor shall your presence, howsoe’er it mar
The loveliness of Nature, prove a bar
To the Mind’s gaining that prophetic sense
Of future change, that point of vision whence
May be discovered what in soul ye are.
In spite of all that beauty may disown
In your harsh features, Nature doth embrace
Her lawful offspring in Man’s art; and Time,
Pleased with your triumphs o’er his brother Space,
Accepts from your bold hands the proffered crown
Of hope, and smiles on you with cheer sublime. (Broadview 183)
This poem, loaded with images of man’s scientific design, seems almost prophetic regarding the power of science to change the face of nature. Were these lines incorporated into Whitehead’s discussion, his argument might be even more compelling. Yet themes of nature for Wordsworth seemed to ultimately triumph over all: politics, revolution, and science. Shelley on the other hand, who was distinctly influenced by his elder contemporary, took a very different view of science.
In his essay on Wordsworth, Whitehead makes some interesting points regarding Shelley and his view of science, which contrasts that of Wordsworth’s. He writes this about Shelley:
Shelley’s attitude to science was at the opposite pole to that of Wordsworth. He loved it, and is never tired of expressing in poetry the thoughts which it suggests. It symbolizes to him joy, and peace, and illumination. (Whitehead 24)
And indeed we frequently see a celebration of science in Shelley’s work. Shelley also seemed to be aware of the difficulties wrought by discoveries and revolutions in science. The very concept of Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound gives him the perfect venue for including science in the context of social change. Shelley himself writes in his preface, “For my part, I had rather be damned with Plato and Lord Bacon, than to go to Heaven with Paley and Malthus” (Shelley 207). By including Francis Bacon in his preface, Shelley is including a key mention of scientific inquiry. Bacon argued the following:
The primary requirement of the new method of advancing the sciences and the arts was the searching out of new principles, processes, and facts. When they became understood then they would lead to fresh applications in both the arts and the sciences. (Mason 143).
With this in mind, we see numerous allusions to science and inquiry and new knowledge in Prometheus Unbound. Perhaps the best of many examples occurs in Act II, Scene IV when Asia speaks to Demogoran and says:
And gems and poisons, and all subtlest forms 70
Hidden beneath the mountains and the waves.
He gave man speech, and speech created thought,
Which is the measure of the universe;
And Science struck the thrones of earth and heaven,
Which shook, but fell not; and the harmonious mind
Poured itself forth in all-prophetic song. (Shelley 237)
Indeed scientific revolution shook the “thrones” or established conventions, but scientific knowledge prevailed during Shelley’s time. Later in Act IV, line 115 gives a prophetic voice to a chorus of spirits saying, “Where Science bedews her Daedal wings,” and then the earth speaks to the moon in geometrical terms, “I spin beneath my pyramid of night,/Which points into the heavens dreaming delight” (264). Astronomical science is only part of Shelley’s allusions in Prometheus. Elsewhere in the poem he alludes to medicine with words such as “nerves,” “blood,” “bones,” and “labyrinthine veins.” He also hints at many other scientific disciplines throughout the work, but seems to be remarkably aware of properties of both water and light. Ranging from meteors and shafts or particles of light to vapours, mists, fogs and dews, Shelley literally imbues Prometheus Unbound with scientific principle and wonder.
Beyond Prometheus we find many of Shelley’s other poems replete with allusion to science and change, but one more particularly clear references deserves specific attention. These lines come from “Ode to Heaven” when the First Spirit speaks:
Glorious shapes have life in thee,
Earth, and all earth’s company;
Living globes which ever throng
Thy deep chasms and wildernesses;
And green worlds that glide along;
And swift stars with flashing tresses;
And icy moons most cold and bright,
And mighty suns beyond the night,
Atoms of intensest light. (Shelley 576).
The word “atoms” brings a scientific connotation to the former usage of the words “shapes,” “globes,” and “wildernesses.” Stars, moons and suns speak for themselves. Even in Shelley’s extensive work of translations such as Raphael speaking in Goethe’s Faust, we see science alluded to (595). This might make us wonder whether or not Shelley intuitively felt that sometimes science offered Faustian bargains for the knowledge it produced.
Before moving to general conclusions about science, scientific revolution and poetry, we need to look at two compelling allusions by William Blake that seem to capture the essence of science, revolution, and society in concise poetic lines. It is important, however, to note that Blake criticized Newton and rejected the Enlightenment. He is credited with literary motives such as forming, “ . . . an unholy trinity of Bacon, Newton, and Locke” (Hagstrum 145). The first three stanzas of “Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau” compress the worlds of science, religion, cultural history, and revolution all into one rather sardonic view of humanity:
Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau:
Mock on, Mock on; ‘tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again. . .
And every sand becomes a Gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine. . .
The atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
(Hieatt and Park 293)
Pairing the early atomic theories of Democritus (420 BC) with the eighteenth century Newton, Blake exemplifies scientific revolution. “Gems,” “Israel’s paths,” and “Gem Reflected” give us meanings within meanings. “Paths” can be religious, cultural, and scientific. “Gem Reflected” can be minerals, stars, wealth and power, or even a reflection of history. And of course Voltaire and Rousseau and the Age of Reason hold all of the connotations aligned with the debate over reason versus the deep spirituality that for Blake, Enlightenment era reason could not explain. What is important here is the scope of Blake’s awareness and understanding of science and reason. The reasons for Blake’s rejection of The Enlightenment are complex; however, part of his rejection might be due to the loss of innocence sometimes fostered by scientific discovery. In “Auguries of Innocence” he begins with:
To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour. (Hieatt and Park 290)
A poet capable of conceiving and articulating “a world” existing in a grain of sand assuredly has a sense of science, of the micro universe as well as the macro universe. Blake is where this essay will conclude demonstrations of poems harboring scientific allusions. It is perhaps appropriate to end with Blake who casts a shadow of doubt on the impact of science and reasoning. Northrup Fry surmises that Blake’s poetry is timeless. He states, “Poets who are for all time are also for all ages” (7). We can discern much from poetic allusions to science and its revolutions occurring in antiquity; yet we must think deeply, like Blake, about the role of contemporary scientific revolution as we visualize it manifested in poetry and song of our own time.
Despite some rather extensive examples discussed earlier, there is one pressing question: why are there not many more allusions to science throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries? The answer to this question perhaps lies in the natural propensity for human nature to be slow to change and adapt. The science of astronomy wrought extensive revolution in religion, which is alluded to in poetry. Yet the overall acceptance of the sun-centered universe and then the larger universe took hundreds of years. Furthermore, the impacts of this revolution in science were not immediate to the average human, and it seems that poetry most often trends toward immediacy in human affairs. And so only a few poets broached a subject with such long-term and often unseen impacts. Yet the impacts of the scientific revolution in physics, machinery, and therefore manufacturing were immediate and massive. If we move away from poetry for a moment and look at prose, the compelling novel Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life by Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell, we can see direct impacts of scientific revolution and its accompanying technical revolution at work. A mill employing numerous lower class workers and families has just burned. We read:
They were well insured; the machinery lacked the improvements of late years, and worked but poorly in comparison with that which might now be procured. So this was an excellent opportunity, Messrs. Carson thought, for refitting their factory with first-rate improvements, for which the insurance money would amply pay. (Barton Chapter VI)
Revolutionary inventions by science enabled manufacturing and early capitalism. This subsequently created a middle class and fostered an increase in upper class wealth. This then precipitated the decline of the village, cottage industry, and essential agrarian life which included trade and barter. The stage was set for abject poverty and broadening income disparity. The stage was set for political revolution. Poetry, prose, and essay all reflect social and political revolutions of these centuries with countless examples because political and social revolutions were felt by virtually every member of society. But only an intellectual few would connect scientific revolution with social and political revolution. If revolution was the cultural storm, then the science that helped precipitate it was equivalent to the high cirrus clouds that most people overlook. It is perhaps only in retrospect that we can see the tremendous impact science wrought on social change—both productive as a force of illuminating enlightenment and unproductive as a force of stormy change. Yet we must believe that a few poets of the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries had a positive impact. We must believe that these few aided the enlightened rhetoric of the essayist and the novelist, and that they enabled humanity to overcome some of the resistance to change.
Many of the poets discussed earlier harbored both unique and intuitive insights regarding science and its inherent changes. There are undoubtedly other allusions and other poets from these eras yet to be analyzed. When we interpret Mason’s A History of the Sciences, we can easily surmise that all disciplines of science were at times dominant players in social and cultural development from the 1400s on. Yet the allusions in poetry are infrequent. Poems in British Literature solely devoted to scientific subjects are virtually non-existent. Finding and visualizing the meaning behind these somewhat rare allusions to science in poetry teaches us much about history and human nature. Science is still fostering revolutions in culture such as the digital revolution and cellular DNA manipulation. Numerous noteworthy contemporary nonfiction authors are chronicling those revolutions and discussing the philosophical ramifications. Scientific revolution has long and lasting impact on culture and society. Is our contemporary evolving world culture prepared for the revolutionary changes looming on our own horizon? We must hope that some poets of today will follow in Milton’s, Donne’s, Wordsworth’s, Shelley’s and even Blake’s footsteps and bring science into the poetic voice, especially in the realm of modern poetry as lyrics to music. When it comes to manifestations of modern science in literature, some seek to read the rhetoric of today’s essayists, more enjoy digesting the fiction and drama, but countless people might listen to the poem.
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