Saturday, January 23, 2010

Romantic poet Keats and period science

Okay, this is not going to be Poetry 101 entry but Carol Rumens will be offering a series [seven] on the Romantic poets and science. So, check the Guardian . Her opening comments are on Keats' "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" and science of the period.

On First Looking into Chapman's Homer

John Keats


Much have I travelled in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortes when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific – and all his men
Looked at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

"The Romantic poets: On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer by John Keats"

This week, the Guardian and the Observer are running a series of seven pamphlets on the Romantic poets. To coincide with it, I'm blogging daily on one of each day's selected works.


Carol Rumens

January 23rd, 2010

A bibulous dinner party given by the artist and diarist Benjamin Haydon to celebrate the completion of the first stage of his vast painting, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem brought together the "Lakeland" and "Cockney" schools of poets, ie William Wordsworth, Charles Lamb and John Keats. In fact, among the crowd of dazzled spectators with which Haydon has surrounded the triumphant Christ, are portraits of Wordsworth and Keats, as well as Voltaire and Newton. Lamb humorously took the pious Haydon to task for including Newton, "a Fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle". The poetic company concurred, rising to drink to "Newton's health and confusion to mathematics".

Keats was bantering, perhaps, when he asserted at Haydon's gathering that Newton had spoiled the rainbow by reducing it to a prism. But again in his poem Lamia he alludes to the power of "cold philosophy" to "unweave the rainbow". There's no doubt that his death-shadowed early life provided an additional impulse to his devotion to literature: he needed an escape route into enchantment. And yet, Keats's openness to experience and his powerful impulse towards self-education are hardly the qualities of an opponent of science. That famously stated willingness to remain "in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts" is surely proof enough of an essentially scientific temperament. He was medically trained, and, as all biographical accounts make clear, he confronted his own mortality to the very end with courageous, pitiless realism.

It's in an early sonnet, "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" (1816) that Keats displays the attitudes of a true scientist. With a superbly sustained metaphor of exploration, the sonnet describes an episode in the imaginative voyage that was of paramount importance to his development – that of reading. He had learned Latin, but Greek was not available to "Cockney" poets. It was thanks to his schoolmaster Charles Cowden Clarke that Keats had first discovered Edmund Spenser. Now Clarke introduced him to the work of another Elizabethan, George Chapman, whose translations of Homer the young men read together during an evening's get-together which the enthralled Keats would describe as "our first symposium". The celebratory sonnet was completed the same night, in time to be delivered to Clarke in the following morning's post.

Chapman was the first poet to try to render Homeric rhythms in English. Translation, for such a writer, is a voyage in pursuit of the truthfulness of linguistic beauty, and reading a translation aimed at fidelity to the original was perhaps the profoundest way in which Keats could appropriate scientific method to the literary art to which he had sworn "fealty".

Keats's metaphor would be less effective if he did not invoke two actual discoveries in the poem - one astronomical, the other terrestrial. It's well-known that the sighting of the Pacific Ocean, alluded to in the last four lines, should not have been attributed to Cortez but to another conquistador, Balboa. (Yes, Keats should have done more research – but he was in a forgivable hurry.) Less widely known is the fact that the "watcher of the skies" summoned in lines nine and 10 is the astronomer, William Hercshel, who had discovered a new planet, Uranus, in 1781.

Keats had learned about astronomy in boyhood. At school he had taken part in a learning-game devised by the marvellously imaginative educator John Rylands, in which the boys arranged themselves on the school playground in the form of an orrery. Later, for the self-imposed project of translating Virgil, Keats was awarded a copy of Bonnycastle's Introduction to Astronomy, an early work of popular science fully up-to-date on the latest developments, including Herschel's discovery of Uranus.

The rhythms of the Chapman sonnet convey a wide-sweeping sense of movement – of planets circling the heavens, and ships circumnavigating the earth. These patterns were perhaps already implicit in the Petrarchan sonnet. But the last object to move physically in the poem is the planet that "swims into" the watcher's ken at the start of the sestet. And then there is immobility: the stock-still immobility of wonderment.

Keats and his readers are truly in a new world – a rather cinematic one. The moment of revelation on Darien is viewed in lingering long-shot. Somehow, the comfortable closure which the sonnet-form invites is "translated" into an open question. We see the focused, interrogative stare of the expedition's leader, and, on the faces of his men, the "wild surmise" that generates further questions. We have not only reached the Pacific Ocean, but the emotional core of scientific discovery.

There is no need for overstatement, and the poem's quiet last line – literally quiet in that the men are silent with amazement, but also quiet in its perfectly-realised naturalism – is perhaps its greatest triumph. No other proof is needed of Keats's power to conquer territories in his short swift voyage to poetic mastery. "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer" is an early page in the log-book of a journey from lush fancifulness to telescopic clarity of observation.

Additional material provided by POSP stringer Tim.

"Science and the Sublime"


Christopher Benfey

July 19th, 2009

The New York Times

In this big two-hearted river of a book, the twin energies of scientific curiosity and poetic invention pulsate on every page. Richard Holmes, the pre-eminent biographer of the Romantic generation and the author of intensely intimate lives of Shelley and Coleridge, now turns his attention to what Coleridge called the “second scientific revolution,” when British scientists circa 1800 made electrifying discoveries to rival those of Newton and Galileo. In Holmes’s view, “wonder”-driven figures like the astronomer William Herschel, the chemist Humphry Davy and the explorer Joseph Banks brought “a new imaginative intensity and excitement to scientific work” and “produced a new vision which has rightly been called Romantic science.”

A major theme of Holmes’s intricately plotted “relay race of scientific stories” is the double-edged promise of science, the sublime “beauty and terror” of his subtitle. Both played a role in the great balloon craze that swept across Europe after 1783, when the Montgolfier brothers sent a sheep, a duck and a rooster over the rooftops of Versailles, held aloft by nothing more substantial than “a cloud in a paper bag.” “What’s the use of a balloon?” someone asked Benjamin Franklin, who witnessed the launching from the window of his carriage. “What’s the use of a newborn baby?” he replied. The Gothic novelist Horace Walpole was less enthusiastic, fearing that balloons would be “converted into new engines of destruction to the human race — as is so often the case of refinements or discoveries in Science.”

The British, more advanced in astronomy, could afford to scoff at lowly French ballooning. William Herschel, a self-taught German immigrant with “the courage, the wonder and the imagination of a refugee,” supported himself and his hard-working assistant, his sister Caroline, by teaching music in Bath. The two spent endless hours at the enormous telescopes that Herschel constructed, rubbing raw onions to warm their hands and scanning the night sky for unfamiliar stars as musicians might “sight-read” a score. The reward for such perseverance was spectacular: Herschel discovered the first new planet to be identified in more than a thousand years.

Holmes describes how the myth of this “Eureka moment,” so central to the Romantic notion of scientific discovery, doesn’t quite match the prolonged discussion concerning the precise nature of the tail-less “comet” that Herschel had discerned. It was Keats, in a famous sonnet, who compared the sudden sense of expanded horizons he felt in reading Chapman’s Elizabethan translation of Homer to Herschel’s presumed elation at the sight of Uranus: “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken.” Holmes notes the “brilliantly evocative” choice of the verb “swims,” as though the planet is “some unknown, luminous creature being born out of a mysterious ocean of stars.” As a medical student conversant with scientific discourse, Keats may also have known that telescopes can give the impression of objects viewed “through a rippling water surface.”

Though Romanticism, as Holmes says, is often presumed to be “hostile to science,” the Romantic poets seem to have been positively giddy — sometimes literally so — with scientific enthusiasm. Coleridge claimed he wasn’t much affected by Herschel’s discoveries, since as a child he had been “habituated to the Vast” by fairy tales. It was the second great Romantic field of science that lighted a fire in Coleridge’s mind. “I shall attack Chemistry, like a Shark,” Coleridge announced, and invited the celebrated scientist Humphry Davy, who also wrote poetry, to set up a laboratory in the Lake District.

Coleridge wrote that he attended Davy’s famous lectures on the mysteries of electricity and other chemical processes “to enlarge my stock of metaphors.” But he was also, predictably, drawn to Davy’s notorious experiments with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas. “The objects around me,” Davy reported after inhaling deeply, “became dazzling, and my hearing more acute.” Coleridge, an opium addict who coined the word “psycho­somatic,” compared the pleasurable effects of inhalation to the sensation of “returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room.” Davy passed out frequently while under the influence, but strangely, as Holmes notes, failed to pursue possible applications in anesthesia.

In assessing the quality of mind that poets and scientists of the Romantic generation had in common, Holmes stresses moral hope for human betterment. Coleridge was convinced that science was imbued with “the passion of Hope,” and was thus “poetical.” Holmes finds in Davy’s rapid and systematic invention of a safety lamp for English miners, one that would not ignite methane, a perfect example of such Romantic hope enacted. Byron celebrated “Davy’s lantern, by which coals / Are safely mined for,” but his Venetian mistress wondered whether Davy, who was visiting, might “give me something to dye my eyebrows black.”

Yet it is in his vivid and visceral accounts of the Romantic explorers Joseph Banks and Mungo Park, whose voyages were both exterior and interior, that Holmes is best able to unite scientific and poetic “wonder.” Wordsworth had imagined Newton “voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.” When Banks accompanied Captain Cook to Tahiti and witnessed exotic practices like surfing and tattooing and various erotic rites, he returned to England a changed man; as president of the Royal Society, he steadily encouraged others, like Park, to venture into the unknown.

“His heart,” Holmes writes of Park, “was a terra incognita quite as mysterious as the interior of Africa.” At one low point in his African travels in search of Timbuktu, alone and naked and 500 miles from the nearest European settlement, Park noticed a piece of moss “not larger than the top of one of my fingers” pushing up through the hard dirt. “At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification irresistibly caught my eye,” he wrote, sounding a great deal like the Ancient Mariner. “I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves and capsula, without admiration.”

For Holmes, the “age of wonder” draws to a close with Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle in 1831, partly inspired by those earlier Romantic voyages. “With any luck,” Holmes writes wistfully, “we have not yet quite outgrown it.” Still, it’s hard to read his luminous and horizon-expanding “Age of Wonder” without feeling some sense of diminution in our own imaginatively circumscribed times. “To us, their less tried successors, they appear magnified,” as Joseph Conrad, one of Park’s admirers, wrote in “Lord Jim,” “pushing out into the unknown in obedience to an inward voice, to an impulse beating in the blood, to a dream of the future. They were wonderful; and it must be owned they were ready for the wonderful.”

[Christopher Benfey is the Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke College. His books include “A Summer of Hummingbirds” and an edition of Lafcadio Hearn’s “American Writings” for the Library of America.]

"The Scientist and the Poet"


Paul A. Cantor

Winter 2004

The New Atlantis

The worthiest professor of physics would be one who could show the inadequacy of his text and diagrams in comparison to nature and the higher demands of the mind.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

This is the kind of comment we expect from a poet on a scientist. Poets generally seem to be unsympathetic to science; they question its capacity to tell us the full truth about our world. Typically, poets claim that science offers us only abstractions, and destroys the living phenomena it purports to study in the very process of analyzing them into their separate (and hence lifeless) parts. As William Wordsworth famously put it: “We murder to dissect.”

Accordingly, the scientist and the poet seem to us to be perpetually at odds. To the poet, the scientist seems unimaginative and literal-minded—with his head buried in the ground of facts, incapable of comprehending the larger significance of what he does. To the scientist, the poet seems to have his head up in the clouds, indulging in fantastic visions of what might be and losing sight of the way things really are. It is difficult for us to imagine a successful conversation between a scientist and a poet—they seem almost to speak different languages.

But before positing an unbridgeable gulf between science and poetry, it is well to remember that the great poet Goethe was also a scientist. He is of course best remembered for his imaginative works, such as Wilhelm Meister and Faust, but his contributions to science were not insignificant. Among other things, he was an accomplished botanist, he helped found the field of comparative anatomy, he coined the term morphology, and he anticipated the theory of evolution. If these achievements do not sound enough like “hard science,” it is well to remember that in 1784 Goethe discovered the intermaxillary bone in the human jaw, thus supplying a link to primate anatomy that proved crucial to later evolutionary theories. Goethe is an exception in many respects, and thus his ability to combine the talents of a poet and a scientist does not tell us much about the general run of poets, but it does at least offer evidence that science and poetry are not utterly incompatible. One might think of other examples, such as the twentieth-century American poet William Carlos Williams, who earned his living as a practicing physician. To open up a dialogue between science and poetry, we do not have to show that the two fields are completely in tune—only that they have at least been in touch. And given the possibility that poets might have something to teach scientists, it is worth looking back at the history of their interaction to see if they have enough in common to be able to speak to each other.

Wisdom and Ignorance

This is potentially a vast historical undertaking, and in order to make it more manageable, I will confine myself to the area I know best, roughly the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Romantic Period. The Romantics were the first poets to confront science in its fully modern sense. Living at a time when the Industrial Revolution was well underway, the Romantic generation experienced the chief distinguishing characteristic of modern science: its link to modern technology and its effort to transform the world from the ground up in material terms. The Romantics are famous for reacting to these developments with hostility. We think of them as nature poets, and chiefly remember them for being appalled at the way the beautiful landscape of England was transformed into something ugly by the scars of industrialization. Think of William Blake’s well-known lines (from his preface to his poem Milton):

And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills?

Blake’s sense that the material transformations brought about by the new factory system in England were at odds with ancient spiritual impulses colors his understanding of modern science. In “Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau,” a poem attacking the spirit of the French Enlightenment, Blake contrasts the reductionist tendencies of modern science with the expansive vision of a mythic/poetic view of the world:

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.

Here Blake takes atomic theory as emblematic of science’s more general tendency to reduce things to their component parts and in the process to lose sight of their wholeness, their larger human meaning and above all their spiritual significance.

Blake thus seems to fit our stereotype of the Romantic and the poet more generally as someone hostile to science. It is understandable that a scientist, with a turf to defend, might mistake this hostility for ignorance. Indeed, a scientist might justify ignoring a poet’s criticism of science on the grounds that the poet did not know what he was talking about. Often the Romantics do appear to be reactionaries in their critique of science, clinging to old-fashioned and outmoded ways of life in the face of developments that, in retrospect, we recognize as the wave of the future in their day.

A scientist might further attempt to discredit a poet as a critic of science by imputing to him a kind of professional jealousy. Beginning in the nineteenth century, science and poetry began to compete for prestige and authority in Western culture, and there is little question that in this competition science gradually won out, displacing poetry from a position it had occupied for centuries as the cultural center of the West. Going into the nineteenth century, poets were still thought of as the great embodiment of the wisdom of their societies. If people in the nineteenth century had been asked: “Who is the wisest man in Europe?” many would have answered: “Goethe.” But in the twentieth century, if the same question had been posed, I very much doubt that many people would have offered a poet, or any imaginative writer, as their answer. I would venture to say that the most common answer in the twentieth century to the question: “Who is the wisest man?” would have been: “Albert Einstein.” That is a rough indication of how in the course of the nineteenth century science replaced poetry as the central image of wisdom in our culture. “No wonder the poets are so hostile to us,” scientists could say: “We stole their thunder.”

Reason and Myth

The idea that science would replace poetry as the center of our culture was actually suggested during the Romantic period, by a minor poet named Thomas Love Peacock, who in 1820 published a provocative essay entitled “The Four Ages of Poetry.” Peacock argues that poetry flourished in the early stages of humanity, when people were passionate and superstitious, and grand poetic myths appealed to them. But as humanity advances, and develops the various sciences, people lose their taste for myth and embrace a more prosaic view of the world. As Peacock writes:

Feeling and passion are best painted in, and roused by, ornamental and figurative language; but the reason and the understanding are best addressed in the simplest and most unvarnished phrase. Pure reason and dispassionate truth would be perfectly ridiculous in verse, as we may judge by versifying one of Euclid’s demonstrations.... As the sciences of morals and of mind advance towards perfection,... as reason gains the ascendancy in them over imagination and feeling, poetry can no longer accompany them in their progress, but drops into the background, and leaves them to advance alone. Thus the empire of thought is withdrawn from poetry.

Although Peacock did not know Blake’s poetry, he might as well have been writing in answer to Blake’s criticism that science misses the mythic dimension of human life. For Peacock, by contrast, poetry has gone wrong in the nineteenth century precisely because it insists on producing myths in a demythologized world:

In the origin and perfection of poetry, all the associations of life were composed of poetical materials. With us it is decidedly the reverse. We know too that there are no Dryads in Hyde-park nor Naiads in the Regent’s canal. But barbaric manners and supernatural interventions are essential to poetry.... While the historian and the philosopher [the scientist] are advancing in, and accelerating, the progress of knowledge, the poet is wallowing in the rubbish of departed ignorance, and raking up the ashes of dead savages to find gewgaws and rattles for the grown babies of the age.... A poet in our times is a semi-barbarian in a civilized community. He lives in the days that are past. His ideas, thoughts, feelings, associations, are all with barbarous manners, obsolete customs, and exploded superstitions. The march of his intellect is like that of a crab, backward.

I have quoted Peacock at length to show that the quarrel between science and poetry did not begin in the twentieth century and that in fact a contemporary of the Romantics—indeed a friend of Percy Shelley—could be as nasty in his comments about poetry as any poet has ever been about science. But was Peacock right about the Romantic poets (and he does attack Byron, Wordsworth, and Coleridge by name)? Were they ignorant of science, jealous of its new-found prestige, and simply hostile to its progress? Let us look at the evidence. Blake was probably the least educated of the Romantics. He basically lacked formal schooling, and taught himself whatever he knew in a very eccentric manner. But even Blake was interested in the new science of comparative mythology, and there are signs that he was aware of developments in what came to be known as the Higher Criticism, the scientific study of the Bible as a text that was just beginning in the late eighteenth century. Those who believe that Blake was implacably opposed to science would be surprised to read the final lines of his magnum opus, The Four Zoas. It builds up to a magnificent apocalyptic vision, in which the divisions of the world are overcome and human life is redeemed, culminating in the words:

The war of swords departed now,
The dark Religions are departed & sweet Science reigns.

This is a strange way for a foe of science to describe the redemption of the world—indeed, with its dismissal of “dark Religions” and triumphant turn to science, this passage seems to be very much in the spirit of the Enlightenment.

One might question whether Blake is using the word science here in its modern sense; perhaps he intends it as a synonym for a more general concept of “wisdom.” But if one turns to a comparable moment in Blake’s poetry—the conclusion of his other great work, Jerusalem—one finds something similar and this time Blake is more specific in his references to science. Once again, at the moment of apocalypse, science has a role to play in the redemption of the world, but now we recognize the participants:

The innumerable Chariots of the Almighty appear’d in Heaven,
And Bacon & Newton & Locke, & Milton & Shakespeare & Chaucer.

Blake’s poetry is notoriously obscure, and never more so than in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem. One cannot say for certain what Blake is getting at in this enigmatic and to some extent bizarre passage. But we saw how Newton was his representative of science in “Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau,” and we know from his other writings that he closely associated Bacon and Locke with the scientific/empiricist view of the world. Thus in the culminating moment of Jerusalem (and in a sense the culminating moment of all his poetry), Blake seems to call for a reconciliation of science and poetry, as the chief representatives of both camps are brought together to make the apocalypse possible. Whatever one ultimately makes of these passages, they strongly suggest that the negative view of science expressed frequently in Blake does not tell the whole story. He would hardly invite scientists to his apocalyptic party at the end of the universe if he had nothing but contempt for them. He was capable of thinking of science as an integral part of human life, and indeed in his vision of the apocalypse, he insists on integrating science—and some very famous scientists—into his account of the restoration of human wholeness.

Sublime Steamboats

We find a similar complexity in Wordsworth’s attitude toward science when we examine his writings carefully. To be sure, he often laments the impact of modern science and technology on the realm of nature, and, like Blake, he also regards the domination of the scientific worldview as a threat to the imagination. It is less well-known, however, that at times Wordsworth speculated that science might open up imaginative possibilities for poetry. He does so in a generally neglected passage in his most famous piece of prose, his preface to the 1802 edition of the volume of poetry he published with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lyrical Ballads:

If the labours of men of Science should ever create any material revolution ... in our condition,... the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science.... The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed.... If the time should ever come when what is now called Science, thus familiarized to men, shall be ready to put on, as it were, a form of flesh and blood, the Poet will lend his divine spirit to aid the transfiguration.

“The Poet...will be ready to follow the steps of the man of Science”—that does not sound like the Wordsworth of “We murder to dissect.” Here Wordsworth even seems to be anticipating, and already trying to counter, Peacock’s later objections to poetry. He suggests that, if scientists advance our understanding of the human condition, poets will be prepared to follow their lead and will be able to produce a new kind of poetry out of the new science.

Wordsworth never wrote an “Ode to Mineralogy,” but he did produce a sonnet with the equally unromantic title “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways”:

Motion 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.

It certainly runs counter to our common conception of the Romantics to find their chief representative using a poem to celebrate “steamboats, viaducts, and railways”—prime examples of the cutting edge of technology in his day, and cutting right into the English countryside. To be sure, Wordsworth observes how these forms of modern technology “mar the loveliness of nature” and for that reason he views them as “at war / With old poetic feeling.” But rather than seeing technology as simply at odds with nature, Wordsworth in this sonnet chooses to view it as an extension of nature’s power: “Nature doth embrace / His lawful offspring in Man’s art.” Wordsworth has a point—insofar as man is part of nature, even his technological powers may be said to grow out of nature and are in that sense natural themselves.

We begin to see here the chief point of contact between Romantic poetry and modern science—both are creative forces and put a premium on bringing new things into the world. Insofar as Romantics like Wordsworth sensed a creative power in science, they felt that they could embrace it. They too, like modern scientists, hoped to alter the world for the better. Hence Wordsworth’s sonnet culminates in his seeing something “sublime” in modern technology. Sublime was one of the keywords of the Romantics and they often used it to designate the peak of their aspirations. But we normally expect a Romantic to call an aspect of the natural world “sublime”—a towering mountain or a thundering waterfall. That Wordsworth chose to call steamboats, viaducts, and railways “sublime” should shake up our preconceptions about the Romantics. Once again, it shows that they did not simplistically reject science, but tried to incorporate what was new and powerful in it into their understanding of the world, and perhaps even to appropriate some of that power for their poetry.

Of all the Romantics, Lord Byron and Percy Shelley were the ones most interested in science and most aware of new scientific developments in their age. Shelley was intrigued by chemistry as early as his student days at Oxford, and showed so much promise in the field that the great philosopher of science, Alfred North Whitehead, was led to write: “if Shelley had been born a hundred years later, the twentieth century would have seen a Newton among chemists.” Both Shelley and Byron were fascinated by what was happening in astronomy and cosmology in their day—a fascination that is reflected in the cosmic speculations that appear in poems such as Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound or Byron’s Cain. Shelley and Byron took a special interest in the emerging fields of geology and paleontology, and in particular kept up with the latest theories about the prehistoric creatures that came to be known as dinosaurs. This kind of scientific development fed the religious skepticism of Shelley and Byron, and above all their tendency to question the Biblical account of creation. Well before Darwin’s time, Shelley and Byron were taking cues from modern science to suggest in their poetry that man might not have been created perfectly by a benevolent God. The evidence thus suggests that the Romantic poets, although they certainly had their doubts about certain aspects of modern science, did not condemn it out of simple ignorance or jealousy, but had instead entered into a genuine dialogue with the science of their day. If Shelley and Byron are any indication, the Romantics were not simply willing, but quite eager to listen to what contemporary scientists had to say.

One can even detect signs of the beginnings of science fiction in the poetry of Shelley and Byron. Byron’s remarkable poem “Darkness” portrays the end of the world in the starkest possible terms, and describes the kind of negative apocalypse that has become a characteristic mode in science fiction, beginning with H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine. Byron seems to anticipate the concept of entropy and the heat-death of the universe, and rivals Wells in his unnerving vision of the extinction of the sun. In the cosmic vistas of Prometheus Unbound, Shelley anticipates space travel. He in fact directly influenced Wells, who based his science fiction novel In the Days of the Comet loosely upon the apocalyptic vision of Prometheus Unbound. The fact that science fiction grows out of Romantic literature is perhaps our best evidence that the Romantics were not ignorant of science; rather they were among the first to recognize its imaginative potential. Even our brief survey of the Romantic view of science suggests that, although scientists of course remain free to reject the advice of Romantic poets, they cannot do so on the grounds that the Romantics knew nothing about science.

Gods and Monsters

If there is one imaginative work of the Romantic era that scientists should pay attention to, it is undoubtedly Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Mary was of course the wife of Percy Shelley, and in her account of the genesis of Frankenstein, she explains how the novel had its origins in learned conversations she listened to between her husband and Lord Byron:

During one of these, various philosophical doctrines were discussed, and among others the nature of the principle of life, and whether there was any probability of its ever being discovered and communicated. They talked of the experiment of Dr. Darwin,... who preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case, till by some extraordinary means it began to move with voluntary motion.... Perhaps a corpse would be reanimated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.

Mary Shelley here displays her familiarity with some of the latest and most exciting scientific developments of her day, and especially Galvani’s experiments with electricity as a life-force (incidentally, the Dr. Darwin referred to in this passage is not Charles, but his grandfather Erasmus). Very much rooted in the science of its day, Frankenstein embodies a profound awareness of the larger human context of scientific endeavor. This may be difficult for us to believe today, accustomed as we have become to the cheap thrills offered by all the horror movies based on the Frankenstein motif. But even these movies have something to say about the dangers of unbridled scientific research, and it is no accident that the image of Frankenstein has entered the popular imagination as our chief symbol of science gone awry. But if we go back to the original story in Mary Shelley’s novel—which is much more literate and intellectually sophisticated than the movie versions would lead us to expect—we will get our fullest sense of what literature might have to say to science.

Above all, Mary Shelley concentrates on presenting the story of Frankenstein’s attempt to create a living being as a human drama. She dwells on Frankenstein’s motives as a creator and the consequences of his mode of creation on the creature he brings to life. In terms of Frankenstein’s goals in creation, Shelley actually presents him as a kind of artist: “I doubted at first whether I should attempt the creation of a being like myself, or one of simpler organization; but my imagination was too exalted by my first success to permit me to doubt of my ability to give life to an animal as complex and wonderful as man.” With his “exalted” “imagination,” Frankenstein sounds like a Romantic poet, trying to translate an ideal vision into material terms. We begin to see the problem with Frankenstein’s creative activity when Shelley reveals how much Frankenstein is concerned with his own glory: “Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world. A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me.” In his imagery of pouring light into a dark world, Frankenstein reveals himself to be a child of the Enlightenment, and Shelley brings out the connection between modern science and modern technology—the Baconian desire to conquer nature “for the relief of man’s estate.” Frankenstein thinks of himself as a kind of god, and his motivation for bringing a new species into being is to enjoy their worship of him as their creator.

Why does he go on to claim: “No father could claim the gratitude of his child so completely as I should deserve theirs”? Hitherto, every father has had to share the glory of human creation with a mother, whose role in bringing the child into existence was at least as great, if not greater. One can see Shelley thinking as a woman in this passage, and calling into question the masculine pride of the scientific creator. Frankenstein acts out a kind of male fantasy—to skip over any natural means of reproduction, to be solely responsible for the creation of his offspring, and thus to be able to claim its total gratitude. In her deepest insight into scientific creativity, Shelley sees its link to a will to power, and a desire to go beyond all conventional and natural limits on human aspiration.

Frankenstein’s obsession with his own glory has disastrous consequences for the being he creates. He is in a hurry to achieve his goal, and worries only about how quickly he can reach it, not about whether he can do the job right: “As the minuteness of the parts formed a great hindrance to my speed, I resolved, contrary to my first intention, to make the being of a gigantic stature, that is to say, about eight feet in height, and proportionably large.” Notice how quick Frankenstein is to revise his original plan, and solely in order to speed up his ability to get results. He does not pause to consider the consequences for his creature of the “gigantic stature” with which he endows it. In fact, all the misery the creature is forced to endure can be traced to its inability to fit in to society, and being eight feet tall is its primary problem in being accepted as normal by the human beings it encounters. Ultimately Frankenstein’s failure as a creator is a failure of imagination—he does not think through in advance what it will feel like to be a giant among ordinary men. Shelley identifies the purely technical nature of scientific thinking as its chief defect. For Frankenstein creation is simply a matter of technique. He has the parts and his only concern is how to assemble them quickly into a whole. He does not think about the nature of the whole he is creating—how the way it is being brought into being will affect the character of that whole. The result of Frankenstein’s lack of foresight and imagination is to bring tragedy on his creature and ultimately on himself.

Mary Shelley was of course an amateur when it comes to science, but in many ways her understanding of the larger context of science was well in advance of the thinking of the greatest scientists of her day. Notice that she is not skeptical about the power of science; she is not the sort of know-nothing who doubts the claims of scientists to be able to change the world. On the contrary, at the very beginning of what was to become the science of biochemistry, Shelley foresaw how potent a tool it would be in the hands of scientists. When scientists were priding themselves on merely getting the legs of a dead frog to jump, Shelley could already imagine the creation of a live human being through science. Indeed, we can now say in retrospect that Frankenstein is one of the most prophetic books ever written, and it is difficult to think about the disturbing questions raised by contemporary possibilities in biotechnology without invoking the warnings of Mary Shelley. The basic lesson Frankenstein can teach us is this: science can tell us how to do something, but it cannot tell us whether we should do it. To explore that question, we must step outside the narrow range of science’s purely technical questions, and look at the full human context and consequences of what we are doing. To fill in our sense of that context and those consequences, literature can come to the aid of science. No matter how imaginative science itself can be—and recall that Shelley does see Frankenstein as fired up by his imagination—literature is better at imagining the human things. As we have seen, Shelley can do what Frankenstein fails to do—to imagine what it would feel like to be a being created by science. And Shelley also usefully reminds us that science itself is a human activity, and that scientists may sometimes be impelled by human, all-too-human motives. Frankenstein presents his great experiment in creating life as a form of pure research, but Shelley makes us understand the dubious personal motives that are driving him, motives that in the end lock Frankenstein and his creature into a mutually self-destructive struggle.

The Wisdom of Poetry

The role that literature can play for science was eloquently formulated by Mary Shelley’s husband in his essay “Defence of Poetry.” Percy Shelley was not about to let his friend Peacock get away with his scurrilous attack on poetry, and thus he set out to answer it in an essay that lays out the contribution the imaginative arts in general have made to civilization over the centuries. Shelley argues that we may have all the scientific knowledge we need, but that only poetry in the broadest sense can teach us how to use it properly:

We have more moral, political and historical wisdom, than we know how to reduce into practise; we have more scientific and œconomical knowledge than can be accommodated to the just distribution of the produce which it multiplies. The poetry in these systems of thought, is concealed by the accumulation of facts and calculating processes.... We want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine; we want the poetry of life: our calculations have outrun conception; we have eaten more than we can digest. The cultivation of those sciences which have enlarged the limits of the empire of man over the external world, has, for want of the poetical faculty, proportionally circumscribed those of the internal world; and man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave.

When Shelley writes “our calculations have outrun our conception; we have eaten more than we can digest,” it is hard to believe that he was writing early in the nineteenth century and not early in the twenty-first. For when he claims “man, having enslaved the elements, remains himself a slave,” he seems to have captured perfectly the great threat of modern technology in our day. Shelley leaves us with a sobering sense of the dangers of a scientific wisdom completely severed from poetic wisdom. As his wife’s portrait of Victor Frankenstein suggests, such a liberated science may lead to a new kind of slavery, as human beings lose control of the products of their technological imagination, and perhaps end up serving the very forces that were meant to serve them.

[Paul A. Cantor is the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia and the author, most recently, of Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization.]

The History Guide

Lectures On Modern European Intellectual History

Lecture 16: The Romantic Era

The categories which it has become customary to use in distinguishing and classifying "movements" in literature or philosophy and in describing the nature of the significant transitions which have taken place in taste and in opinion, are far too rough, crude, undiscriminating -- and none of them so hopelessly as the category "Romantic."

"On the Discriminations of Romanticisms"


Arthur O. Lovejoy

Ask anyone on the street: "what is Romanticism?" and you will certainly receive some kind of reply. Everyone claims to know the meaning of the word romantic. The word conveys notions of sentiment and sentimentality, a visionary or idealistic lack of reality. It connotes fantasy and fiction. It has been associated with different times and with distant places: the island of Bali, the world of the Arabian Nights, the age of the troubadours and even Manhattan. Advertising links it with the effects of lipstick, perfume and soap. If we could ask the advertising genius who, fifty years ago, came up with the brilliant cigarette campaign, "blow some my way," he may have responded with "it's romantic."

These meanings cause few problems in every day life -- indeed, few of us wonder about the meaning of Romanticism at all. Yet we use the expression freely and casually ("a romantic, candle-lit dinner"). But literary historians and critics as well as European historians have been quarreling over the meaning of the word Romanticism for decades, as Lovejoy's comment above makes abundantly clear. One of the problems is that the Romantics were liberals and conservatives, revolutionaries and reactionaries. Some were preoccupied with God, others were atheistic to the core. Some began their lives as devout Catholics, lived as ardent revolutionaries and died as staunch conservatives.

The expression Romantic gained currency during its own time, roughly 1780-1850. However, even within its own period of existence, few Romantics would have agreed on a general meaning. Perhaps this tells us something. To speak of a Romantic era is to identify a period in which certain ideas and attitudes arose, gained currency and in most areas of intellectual endeavor, became dominant. That is, they became the dominant mode of expression. Which tells us something else about the Romantics: expression was perhaps everything to them -- expression in art, music, poetry, drama, literature and philosophy. Just the same, older ideas did not simply wither away. Romantic ideas arose both as implicit and explicit criticisms of 18th century Enlightenment thought (see Lecture 9). For the most part, these ideas were generated by a sense of inadequacy with the dominant ideals of the Enlightenment and of the society that produced them.

ROMANTICISM appeared in conflict with the Enlightenment. You could go as far as to say that Romanticism reflected a crisis in Enlightenment thought itself, a crisis which shook the comfortable 18th century philosophe out of his intellectual single-mindedness. The Romantics were conscious of their unique destiny. In fact, it was self-consciousness which appears as one of the keys elements of Romanticism itself.

The philosophes were too objective -- they chose to see human nature as something uniform. The philosophes had also attacked the Church because it blocked human reason. The Romantics attacked the Enlightenment because it blocked the free play of the emotions and creativity. The philosophe had turned man into a soulless, thinking machine -- a robot. In a comment typical of the Romantic thrust, William Hazlitt (1778-1830) asked, "For the better part of my life all I did was think." And William Godwin (1756-1836), a contemporary of Hazlitt’s asked, "what shall I do when I have read all the books?" Christianity had formed a matrix into which medieval man situated himself. The Enlightenment replaced the Christian matrix with the mechanical matrix of Newtonian natural philosophy. For the Romantic, the result was nothing less than the demotion of the individual. Imagination, sensitivity, feelings, spontaneity and freedom were stifled -- choked to death. Man must liberate himself from these intellectual chains.

Like one of their intellectual fathers, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), the Romantics yearned to reclaim human freedom. Habits, values, rules and standards imposed by a civilization grounded in reason and reason only had to be abandoned. "Man is born free and everywhere he is in chains," Rousseau had written. Whereas the philosophes saw man in common, that is, as creatures endowed with Reason, the Romantics saw diversity and uniqueness. That is, those traits which set one man apart from another, and traits which set one nation apart from another. Discover yourself -- express yourself, cried the Romantic artist. Play your own music, write your own drama, paint your own personal vision, live, love and suffer in your own way. So instead of the motto, "Sapere aude," "Dare to know!" the Romantics took up the battle cry, "Dare to be!" The Romantics were rebels and they knew it. They dared to march to the tune of a different drummer -- their own. The Romantics were passionate about their subjectivism, about their tendency toward introspection. Rousseau’s autobiography, The Confessions (1781), began with the following words:

I am commencing an undertaking, hitherto without precedent and which will never find an imitator. I desire to set before my fellows the likeness of a man in all the truth of nature, and that man myself. Myself alone! I know the feelings of my heart, and I know men. I am not made like any of those I have seen. I venture to believe that I am not made like any of those who are in existence. If I am not better, at least I am different.

Romanticism was the new thought, the critical idea and the creative effort necessary to cope with the old ways of confronting experience. The Romantic era can be considered as indicative of an age of crisis. Even before 1789, it was believed that the ancien regime seemed ready to collapse. Once the French Revolution entered its radical phase in August 1792 (see Lecture 13), the fear of political disaster also spread. King killing, Robespierre, the Reign of Terror, and the Napoleonic armies all signaled chaos -- a chaos which would dominate European political and cultural life for the next quarter of a century.

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution -- in full swing in England since the 1760s -- spread to the Continent in the 1820s, thus adding entirely new social concerns (see Lecture 17). The old order -- politics and the economy -- seemed to be falling apart and hence for many Romantics, raised the threat of moral disaster as well. Men and women faced the need to build new systems of discipline and order, or, at the very least, they had to reshape older systems. The era was prolific in innovative ideas and new art forms. Older systems of thought had to come to terms with rapid and apparently unmanageable change.

In the midst of what has been called the Romantic Era, an era often portrayed as devoted to irrationality and "unreason," the most purely rational social science -- classical political economy -- carried on the Enlightenment tradition. Enlightenment rationalism continued to be expressed in the language of political and economic liberalism. For example, Jeremy Bentham’s (1748-1832) radical critique of traditional politics became an active political movement known as utilitarianism. And revolutionary Jacobinism inundated English Chartism -- an English working class movement of the 1830s and 40s. The political left on the Continent as well as many socialists, communists and anarchists also reflected their debt to the heritage of the Enlightenment.

The Romantics defined the Enlightenment as something to which they were clearly opposed. The philosophes oversimplified. But Enlightenment thought was and is not a simple and clearly identifiable thing. In fact, what has often been identified as the Enlightenment bore very little resemblance to reality. As successors to the Enlightenment, the Romantics were often unfair in their appreciation of the 18th century. They failed to recognize just how much they shared with the philosophes. In doing so, the Romantics were similar to Renaissance humanists in that both failed to perceive the meaning and importance of the cultural period which had preceded their own (see Lecture 4). The humanists, in fact, invented a "middle age" so as to define themselves more carefully. As a result, the humanists enhanced their own self-evaluation and prestige in their own eyes. The humanists foisted an error on subsequent generations of thinkers. Their error lay in their evaluation of the past as well as in their simple failure to apprehend or even show a remote interest in the cultural heritage of the medieval world. Both aspects of the error are important.

With the Romantics, it shows first how men make an identity for themselves by defining an enemy, making clear what they oppose, thus making life into a battle. Second, it is evident that factual, accurate, subtle understanding makes the enemy mere men. Even before 1789, the Romantics opposed the superficiality of the conventions of an artificial, urban and aristocratic society. They blurred distinctions between its decadent, fashionable Christianity or unemotional Deism and the irreligion or anti-clericalism of the philosophes. The philosophes, expert in defining themselves in conflict with their enemy -- the Church -- helped to create the mythical ungodly Enlightenment many Romantics so clearly opposed.

It was during the French Revolution and for fifty or sixty years afterward that the Romantics clarified their opposition to the Enlightenment. This opposition was based on equal measures of truth and fiction. The Romantics rejected what they thought the philosophes represented. And over time, the Romantics came to oppose and criticize not only the Enlightenment, but also ideas derived from it and the men who were influenced by it.

The period from 1793 to 1815 was a period of European war. War, yes, but also revolutionary combat -- partisanship seemed normal. Increasingly, however, the Romantics rejected those aspects of the French Revolution -- the Terror and Napoleon -- which seemed to them to have sprung from the heads of the philosophes themselves. For instance, William Wordsworth (1770-1850) was living in Paris during the heady days of 1789 -- he was, at the time, only 19 years old. In his autobiographical poem, The Prelude, he reveals his experience of the first days of the Revolution. Wordsworth read his poem to Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) in 1805--I might add that The Prelude is epic in proportion as it weighs in at eight thousand lines. By 1805, the bliss that carried Wordsworth and Coleridge in the 1790s, had all but vanished.

But for some Romantics, aristocrats, revolutionary armies, natural rights and constitutionalism were not real enemies. There were new enemies on the horizon, especially after the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). The Romantics concentrated their attack on the heartlessness of bourgeois liberalism as well as the nature of urban industrial society. Industrial society brought new problems: soulless individualism, economic egoism, utilitarianism, materialism and the cash nexus. Industrial society came under attack by new critics: the utopian socialists and communists. But there were also men like Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) and Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) who identified the threat of egoism as the chief danger of their times. Egoism dominated the bourgeoisie, especially in France and in England. Higher virtues and social concerns were subsumed by the cash nexus and crass materialism of an industrial capitalist society. Artists and intellectuals attacked the philistinism of the bourgeoisie for their lack of taste and their lack of an higher morality. Ironically, the brunt of their attack fell on the social class which had produced the generation of Romantics.

Romanticism reveals the persistence of Enlightenment thought, the Romantic’s definition of themselves and a gradual awareness of a new enemy. The shift to a new enemy reminds us that the Romantic Age was also an eclectic age. The Enlightenment was no monolithic structure -- neither was Romanticism, however we define it. Ideas of an age seldom exist as total systems. Our labels too easily let us forget that past ideas form the context in which new ideas are developed and expressed. Intellectuals do manage to innovate and their innovations are oftentimes not always recombinations of what they have embraced in their education. Intellectual and geographic contexts differ from state to state -- even though French culture seemed to have dominated the Continent during the early decades of the 19th century. England is the obvious exception. Germany is another example -- the movement known as Sturm und Drang (Storm and Stress) -- was an independent cultural development.

National variations were enhanced when, under the direct effect of the Napoleonic wars, boundaries were closed and the easy international interchange of ideas was inhibited. But war was not the only element that contributed to the somewhat inhibited flow of ideas. Profound antagonism and the desire to create autonomous cultures was also partially responsible. This itself grew out of newly found nationalist ideologies which were indeed characteristic of Romanticism itself. And within each nation state, institutional and social differences provided limits to the general assimilation of a clearly defined set of ideas. In France, for example, the academies were strong and during the Napoleonic era, censorship was common. Artists and intellectuals alike were prevented from innovating or adopting new ideas. In Germany, on the other hand, things were quite different. The social structure, the heavy academism and specific institutional traits blocked any possibility of learning or expressing new modes of thought.

Most important were the progressive changes in the potential audience artists and intellectuals now faced -- most of them now had to depend upon that audience. Where the audience was very small, as in Austria and parts of Germany, the results often ranged between the extremes of great openness to rigid conservatism. Where the audience was steadily growing, as in France or England, and where urbanization and the growth of a middle class was transforming the expectations of the artist and intellectual, there was room for experiment, innovation and oftentimes, disastrous failure. Here, artists and intellectuals could no longer depend upon aristocratic patronage. Popularity among the new and powerful middle class audience became a rite of passage.

At the same time, intellectuals criticized the tasteless and unreceptive philistine bourgeoisie. Ironically, they were criticizing the same class and the same mentality from which they themselves had emerged and which had supported them. In this respect, the Romantic age was similar to the age of Enlightenment. A free press and careers open to talent provided possibilities of competitive innovation. This led to new efforts to literally train audiences to be receptive to the productions of artists and intellectuals. Meanwhile, literary hacks and Grub Street writers produced popular pot boilers for the masses. All these characteristics placed limits upon the activities of the Romantics. These limits could not be ignored. In fact, these limits often exerted pressures that can be identified as causes of the Romantic movement itself.

There were direct, immediate and forceful events that many British and European Romantics experienced in their youth. The French Revolution was a universal phenomenon that affected them all. And the Napoleonic wars after 1799 also influenced an entire generation of European writers, composers and artists. Those who were in their youth in the 1790s felt a chasm dividing them from an earlier, pre-revolutionary generation. Those who had seen Napoleon seemed different and felt different from those who were simply too young to understand. The difference lay in a great discrepancy in the quality of their experience. Great European events, such as the Revolution and Napoleon, gave identity to generations and made them feel as one -- a shared experience. As a consequence, the qualities of thought and behavior in 1790 was drastically different from what it was in 1820. In the Romantic era, men and women felt these temporal and experiential differences consciously and intensely. It is obvious, I suppose, that only after Napoleon could the cults of the hero, of hero worship and of the genius take full form. And only after 1815 could youth complain that their time no longer offered opportunities for heroism or greatness -- only their predecessors had known these opportunities.

The intellectual historian or historian of ideas always faces problems. Questions of meaning, interpretation and an acceptance of a particular Zeitgeist, or climate of opinion or world view is serious but difficult stuff. Although we frequently use words like Enlightenment or Romanticism to describe intellectual or perhaps cultural events, these expressions sometimes cause more harm than good. There is, for instance, no 18th century document, no perfect exemplar or ideal type, to use Max Weber’s word, which can be called "enlightened." There is, unfortunately, no perfect document or ideal type of which we may pronounce, "this is Romantic."

We have seen that one way to define the Romantics is to distinguish them from the philosophes. But, for both the philosophes and the Romantics, Nature was accepted as a general standard. Nature was natural -- and this supplied standards for beauty and for morality. The Enlightenment’s appreciation of Nature was, of course, derived wholly from Isaac Newton. The physical world was orderly, explicable, regular, logical. It was, as we are all now convinced, a Nature subject to laws which could be expressed with mathematical certainty. Universal truths -- like natural rights -- were the object of science and of philosophy. And the uniformity of Nature permitted a knowledge which was rapidly accumulating as a consequence of man’s rational capacity and the use of science to penetrate the mysteries of nature. The Enlightenment defined knowledge in a Lockian manner--that is, a knowledge based on sense impressions. This was an environmentalist psychology, if you will, a psychology in which men know only what their sense impressions allowed their faculty of reason to understand.

The Enlightenment was rationalist -- it glorified human reason. Reason illustrated the power of analysis -- Reason was the power of associating like experiences in order to generalize about them inductively. Reason was a common human possession -- it was held by all men. Even American "savages" were endowed with reason, hence the 18th century emphasis on "common sense," and the "noble savage." Common sense -- revealed by reason -- would admit a groundwork for a common morality. As nature was studied in order to discover its universal aspects, men began to accept that what was most worth knowing and what was therefore most valuable, was what they had in common with one another. Society, then, became an object of science. Society revealed self-evident truths about human nature -- self-evident truths about natural rights.

Social and political thought was individualistic and atomistic. As the physical universe was ultimately machinelike, so social organization could be fashioned after the machine. Science pronounced what society ought to become in view of man’s natural needs. These needs were not being fulfilled by the past -- for this reason, the medieval matrix and the ancien regime inhibited man’s progress. The desire was to shape institutions, to change men and to produce a better society -- knowledge, morality and human happiness. The intention was at once cosmopolitan and humanitarian.

The Romantics felt all the opinions of the Enlightenment were fraught with dangerous errors and oversimplifications. Romanticism may then be considered as a critique of the inadequacies of what it held to be Enlightened thought. The critique of the Romantics -- sometime open, sometimes hidden -- can be seen as a new study of the bases or knowledge and of the whole scientific enterprise. It rejected a science based on physics -- physics was inadequate to describe the reality of experience. "O for a life of sensations rather than of thoughts," wrote John Keats (1795-1821). And William Blake (1757-1827) admonished us all to "Bathe in the waters of life." And Keats again, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty, -- that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."

The Romantic universe was expanding, evolving, becoming -- it was organic, it was alive. The Romantics sought their soul in the science of life, not the science of celestial mechanics. They moved from planets to plants. The experience was positively exhilarating, explosive and liberating -- liberation from the soulless, materialistic, thinking mechanism that was man. The 18th century had created it. The Romantics found it oppressive , hence the focus on liberation. Listen to the way Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) put it in Prometheus Unbound:

The joy, the triumph, the delight, the madness!
The boundless, overflowing, bursting gladness,
The vaporous exultation not to be confined!
Ha! Ha! The animation of delight
Which wraps me, like an atmosphere of light,
And bears me as a cloud is borne by its own wind.

The Romantics returned God to Nature -- the age revived the unseen world, the supernatural, the mysterious, the world of medieval man. It is no accident that the first gothic novel appears early in the Romantic Age. Nature came to be viewed historically. The world was developing, it was a world of continuous process, it was a world in the process of becoming. And this continuous organic process could only be understood through historical thought. And here we have come almost full circle to the views expressed by Giambattista Vico (see Lecture 10) a century earlier. This is perhaps the single most revolutionary aspect of the Romantic Age. An admiration for all the potency and diversity of living nature superseded a concern for the discovery of its universal traits. In a word, the Romantics embraced relativism. They did not seek universal abstract laws as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) had. Instead, they saw history as a process of unfolding, a becoming. Was not this the upshot of what G. W. F. Hegel (1770-1831) had argued in his philosophy of history? And look at the time frame: Kant - 1780s, Hegel - 1820s and 30s.

The Romantics sought Nature’s glorious diversity of detail -- especially its moral and emotional relation to mankind. On this score, the Romantics criticized the 18th century. The philosophe was cold, mechanical, logical and unfeeling. There was no warmth in the heart. For the Romantics, warmth of heart was found and indeed enhanced by a communion with Nature. The heart has reasons that Reason is not equipped to understand. The heart was a source of knowledge -- the location of ideas "felt" as sensations rather than thoughts. Intuition was equated with that which men feel strongly. Men could learn by experiment or by logical process—but men could learn more in intuitive flashes and feelings, by learning to trust their instincts. The Romantics distrusted calculation and stressed the limitations of scientific knowledge. The rationality of science fails to apprehend the variety and fullness of reality. Rational analysis destroys the naïve experience of the stream of sensations and in this violation, leads men into error.

One power possessed by the Romantic, a power distinct and superior to reason, was imagination. Imagination might apprehend immediate reality and create in accordance with it. And the belief that the uncultured—that is, the primitive -- know not merely differently but best is an example of how the Romantics reinterpreted the irrational aspect of reality -- the Imagination. The Romantics did not merely say that there were irrational ways of intuiting reality. They rejected materialism and utilitarianism as types of personal behavior and as philosophies. They sought regeneration -- a regeneration we can liken to that of the medieval heretic or saint. They favored selfless enthusiasm, an enthusiasm which was an expression of faith and not as the product of utilitarian calculation. Emotion -- unbridled emotion -- was celebrated irrespective of its consequences.

The 18th century life of mind was incomplete. The Romantics opted for a life of the heart. Their relativism made them appreciative of diversity in man and in nature. There are no universal laws. There are certainly no laws which would explain man. The philosophe congratulated himself for helping to destroy the ancien regime. And today, we can perhaps say, "good job!" But after all the destruction, after the ancient idols fell, and after the dust had cleared, there remained nothing to take its place. In stepped the Romantics who sought to restore the organic quality of the past, especially the medieval past, the past so detested by the pompous, powdered-wig philosophe.

Truth and beauty were human attributes. A truth and beauty which emanated from the poet’s soul and the artist’s heart. If the poets are, as Shelley wrote in 1821, the "unacknowledged legislator’s of the world," it was world of fantasy, intuition, instinct and emotion. It was a human world.

"The Age of Wonder" book


Timothy said...

shades of Galileo would you not say?

Timothy said...

for more on this subject see this article in the New York Times
Science and the Sublime
The Age of Wonder

more here
The Scientist and the Poet
Paul A. Cantor

and who can forget
Russia's Doomsday Poet Baratynsky

The worthiest professor of physics would be one who could show the inadequacy of his text and diagrams in comparison to nature and the higher demands of the mind.

–Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
from the New Atlantis article above
Goethe discovered the inter maxillary bone in the human jaw, thus supplying a link to primate anatomy that proved crucial to later evolutionary theories.

Timothy said...

you may also like this lecture
"The philosophes were too objective -- they chose to see human nature as something uniform. The philosophes had also attacked the Church because it blocked human reason. The Romantics attacked the Enlightenment because it blocked the free play of the emotions and creativity. The philosophe had turned man into a soulless, thinking machine -- a robot." more at
Lecture 16: The Romantic Era

you may also enjoy....NPR
Science Was A muse To Inspire Romantic Art

an added note, poet Robinson Jeffers was a poet that wrote on science, nature and ecology...a good evolution from the Romantic period

Mercury said...

Relevant and interesting contributions.

Note that the first three items are now included in the body of the original post. The second item was too short and the book review was by subscription.

I posted your material in light of what is happening on the Internet whereby certain organizations are beginning to charge for access to content and some have done so for a long time. I reluctantly provide links here for my experience has exhibited the instability of links...eliminated or broken or, as it may be in the future, on a pay or subscribe basis. This in essence devalues the function of this site if the links are compromised by technical features or corporate revenue ventures.