Brief romp through the

relationship of poetry and

science, now largely, and

sadly, estranged

NOTE: In this useful - but needfully brief - endeavour, we shall be particularly assisted by the invaluable guiding light of the Preface to ‘Poems of Science’ (Edited John Heath-Stubbs and Phillips Salman, Penguin,1984), from whence a good number of the following interwoven extracts originate. Sadly, a fair number of excellent illustrations from poetry were devoured by deeply ungrateful mice (see Introduction).

‘The first thing to note in an explanation is that, for humans, thinking by analogy is almost inescapable.’ David Bodanis, Web of Words, 1988

‘It is my thesis that the spirit of wonder which led Blake to Christian mysicism, Keats to Arcadian myth and Yeats to Fenians and fairies, is the very same spirit that moves great scientists…’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘Science is the Differential Calclus of the mind, Art the Integral Calculus; they may be beautiful when apart, but are greatest only when combined.’ Sir Ronald Ross

“With both the very large discoveries and the smaller, poets have responded to the power of science. Willingly or unwillingly, they have had to come to terms with the entity that Alfred North Whitehead saw as the major influence on Western culture since the seventeenth century. After the several significant scientific poems of the Middle English period, one finds increasing numbers of poets respnding to science. In the earlier English Renaissance, poets tend to restate Medieval views, even as the work of Copernicus, Galileo, Gilbert or Tycho Brahe is discarding those views. In the later Renaissance and into the eighteenth century, as the thought and research of Bacon, Locke, Hobbes, Kepler, and Descartes exert pressure, medieval views show suprising tenacity, but are finally supplanted as Newton’s discoveries and solutions to ancient problems become widely known. Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and into our own, science becomes a powerful entity for poets to deal with…’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

How can we fail to wonder more

How can we ignore the brilliant dust that makes the stars,

stone Moon’s pocked complexion; spinster composition -

they do not shine the less but even more in knowing

why light finds them in the vast black seas of space;

or beats there in a heart of ice, an acid sea -

bending rays beyond the resin rules of time.

How can we fail to wonder more at Earth and life,

to see symbolic writing etched in chaptered heart -

enthralling art and chemistry at skilful journeywork;

such mastery and trial that makes the hand or eye -

to read such fabulous machinery - evolving copyright -

describing products mysteriously full of unnamed light. 

‘This is not just a debating point for the deplorable war of the two cultures. The story of the influence that Greek atomistic philosophers  had, by way of a Roman poet, on the founding of modern science is not a meaningless historical accident. It is a prime example of the way in which our major ideas are generated, namely, through the imagination… That is why something as important as science could not possibly be an isolated, self-generating thought-form arising on its own.’ Why visions matter, Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘It is certain that in the earliest times the distinctions which we make between poetry, in the widest sense of the term, science, and philosophy simply did not exist…. At this period it was perfectly understandable that ideas of this kind should be presented in poetic form, indeed in verse. Thus Empedocles (fifth century BC) composed a long poem, of which only fragments survive, on the nature and origin of the world. It was Empedocles, likewise, who was responsible for the formulation of the four elements – Fire, Air, Water, and Earth – considered as the primary substances of the world, the concept which was to be an important part of Western Thinking right down to the seventeenth century. The tradition of expouding scientific theories in verse was continued by the Roman poets. One of the greatest of these was Lucretius (c99-c55BC). His De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things) was to be an important model for expository and philosophical verse from the Renaissance onwards... In the succeeding age of Augustus, Virgil (70-19BC) was a philosophical eclectic… Virgil’s Georgics is a poem about agriculture… incorporating an almost romantic feeling for nature as well as much of the scientific speculation of Virgil’s age. Virgil’s contemporary, Ovid (43BC-AD18) in his Metamorphoses…. includes an account of the creation of the world based on the philosophical ideas of Pythagoras. Among other Roman poets, Manilius (first century BC), with his Astronomica, and Oppian (early thirds century AD), whose Halietica, a poem about fishes… must also be mentioned. It is mainly these Latin poems, rediscovered in the Renaissance, which, especially in the eighteenth century, provided the models for the exposition of scientific ideas in verse.’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

One knowledge; triple-Janus, limbs

on the same branch - language used

in primary sense as communication -

embroidered with poetry for meaning;

illustration, understanding - accuracy

by connection, focus; so, illumination.


Our hall was great - and one; nobody was excluded

from the table where we laid our gifts. Our thoughts

were as birds then, spiralling into limitless blue;

and the best language, fit for the job, accepted -

part of the holy cause – the Elements, gods, Nature -

illuminated, explored, to the best of anyone’s ability.

Our treasures were three-dimensional; such pure, simple

truth we learned, merely from being alive - experiencing.

The word of poetry grew from the first earth

The word of poetry grew from the first earth -

as eyes were formed from understanding light;

beyond just grunting function, essential information,

to the meaning and mystery of things, without which

there is no comprehension of this life or weird planet;

essentials of love – process, restless art of chemistry.

The word of poetry will illuminate the reach of science

as a torch, lighthouse, perspicacious flame – not a star

has travelled further than imagination at her heart;

she will hypothesise with more freedom, meaning. 

Into the heart I went

Into the heart I went,

and found fires, red

and terrible to comprehend;

for this was love’s crucible,

her boiling chasm -

pumping forth blood

that was red light,

made from water,

first seas, moon fallen,

crashing into waves -

crawling, wet with original light,

I emerged onto dragging earth -

where my legs grew,

my eyes responded

by becoming, to see -

but still I was burning

and wet. From stars -

a solid creature of light.

‘The Middle Ages are generally thought of as a period when the memory of scientific discoveries which the Greeks and Romans had pioneered was lost. This is only partially true. Much ancient learning survived thought the medium of writers like Boethius (480-524), Isidor of Seveille (c480-575), and Martianus Capella (early fifth century). These writers wrote summaries and epitomes, sometimes using the quasi-poetical mode of allegory, and formed the basis of much encyclopedic writing…. Greek Scientific ideas and Greek medical knowledge, in the other hand, found their way into the Arab Moslem world, being largely transmitted in the firsti nstance by Christian physicians of the Syrian, Jacobite and Nestorian churches. The Arabs continued and developed  the tradition they had received, making important advances in mathematics, astonomy, and chemistry. In the twelth century this tradition re-entered the Western world when Latin translations of Aristotle and of his Arab commentators began to appear in the West. St Thomas Aquinas (c1225-74) in his Summa Theologica, strove to reconcile the philosophy of Arisotle and an essentially rational and scientific view of the world, with Biblical teaching and Christian tradition.. this Arisototelian synthesis formed the basis of medieval thinking and literature from the twelfth century onwards…’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

We were vessels, lending ourselves;

receptacles for knowledge - willing

sponge-brains, employed our fingers

to serve the past - invigorate futures.

Christian and Muslim united in healing,

in poetry, as great religions should be -

harmonised, passing the baton of learning,

holding hands across the physical world -

showing in spirit what the Genome proves -

extreme brotherhood, such fundamental love.


Poetic grid lashed through time; survival catamaran

cobbled for the seas of centuries, when all this light,

cast and written in the world, might fall again to dark

cellars of ignorance. Meshed in starry language nets -

altering, wandering; sending tendrils across the world,

to any heart and hand as vessel, communicator - home.

‘It was thus that for the thinker of the Renaissance and for the proponents of the new scientific philosophy of the seventeenth century the authority of Aristotle became a dogmatic tyranny… The idea that the Renaissance, which reached its peak in England in the sixteenth century, was a period when man was liberated from irrational superstitions is largely a misconception…the dominant Neo-Platonism, with its view of the matieral world as a symbolic reflection of a transcendent world of ideas encouraged the revivial of magical thinking and a renewed interest in astrology and alcehemy. These psuedo-sciences had played a less important part during the Middle Ages…. The experiments of the alchemist accompany actual chemical discoveries, and the astrologists’ investigation of the stars, actual advances in astronomy. But their basis in both cases was essentially magical. Medieval poems like the Cursor Mundi and South English Legendary show didactic properties in diverse ways. Their material teaches science and also offers their teachings as a way towards worshipping God. As in Psalm 104, their science declares the glory of God and assumes that learning about the creation directs one towards divinity. The poems follow out St Augustine’s point that the significant miracles are not those of loaves and the fishes, cures, or raisings from the dead, but rather the daily orderly workings of the universe – the rsing and setting of the sun, the procession of the seasons, the growth of plants from seeds (In Joannis Evangelium, Tractatus XX1V).’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

The poorest man is surrounded by miracles

Even the poorest man is surrounded by miracles -

the slow, quiet movements of the whole Universe;

small certainties on a gigantic scale -

for him the Sun is rising in the East,

gloriously dies each evening, blooding

summer skies, pouring gold over him -

shutting his eyes as two blind coins -

stars creep from the hand of darkness,

shyly from the black space curtain,

such show and sparkle just for him;

knowledge of orbits - deaths and lights

in fabulous places outwith imagination,

are part of the story of the galaxy

and beyond - told always for him.

To plant a seed and watch it grow

is miracle enough; understanding

of the force that drives the planet -

that flower is a beautiful equation

of light, genetics, solar energy, earth;

colour, beauty, sexuality and green –

that can be grown in a man’s own garden;

to witness, even amid all the 21st Century

miracles of technology, the miraculous

principles of this first magic – still free.

At the ultimates

At the ultimates of mathematics, physics -

chemistry, poetry, philosophy, is radiance;

beauty and mystery, the uncertain elements

of comprehension, description, connection.

Approximation and elucidation may be one -

as best option; all these separations of thought

re-combined, concentrated - where they bleed

at the edges, into one another, for illumination.

‘Reason is the pace; the Encrease of Science, the way; and the Benefit of man-kind, the end. And, on the contrary, Metaphors, and senselesse and ambiguous words, are like ignes fatui; and reasoning upon them, is wandering among innumerable absurdities.’ Hobbes, Leviathan, 1651

‘A question originating in the seventeenth century is the role of science in human affairs. Poets as diverse as Pope, Blake, and Jeffers press for the subordination of science to human purposes and reject the mentality that a purely scientific training produces.’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

‘We can see that science, in the space of a half century (the same half century that saw the foundation of the Royal Society), beginning to become a hated alternative to poetry, barbaric, ugly, offensive to cultured ears.’ John Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science, 2005

‘Later, in the seventeenth century and also in the eighteenth, this use of science to advance worship is revived in poems that accommodate new discoveries to the ancient Bibilical form of the psalm. Chaucer, by contrast, puts medieval science at the service of revealing character… In Renaissance  England, medieval scientific learning continues strong even as the work of men like Copernicus is engineering its demise. His proof that the earth rotates around the sun does not figure in literary texts unitl the seventeenth century and even then there is some hesistation about replacing the Ptolemaic system with his heliocentric construct…. [Edmund Spenser] is mainly concerned to retain and elaborate medieval science for his philosophical purpose of fashioning a courtier in poetry. His ‘Canots of Mutabilitie’ develop the theme of change in all things beneath God’s throne. For his theory of mutability he draws on the Pythagorean theory of change in the fifteenth book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a theory and text that fascinated Isaac Newton. Shakespeare at once relies on earlier scientific notions and verges on turning them into images that represent his characters… Lorenzo’s description of the stars and the music of the spheres, although it might had had reality for shakespeare’s audiences, is couched far less philosophically than the speeches of Edmund and Menenius. Their visual and aural effect seems to undermine their importance as science, and yet they reveal another aspect of scientific material as it is used by some poets. To be scientific is to find out the divine order and is also to find it beautiful because it offers certitude and because it reaches the sense in a proportion that is pleasing, Nevertheless, in the later Shakespeare of the great tragedies, we seem to be in a universe where such traditional images are under threat. King Lear, in particular, can be interpreted as a debate on the ambiguities of the word ‘Nature’.’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

If the flower is described to the last atom

If the flower is described to the last atom,

via workings; sex, colour, species, genus,

but how it feels to look upon her white light,

green heart and eye - dusting of gold pollen,

is not part of part of her equation; the poem

of her standing this morning in a wet field -

then so much of the lily is lost, overlooked;

she is not complete, delivered - yet known.

If neck mechanisms, chemistries of chlorophyll,

photosynthesis, are not - in turn, re-synthesised

with how our lily looks bending her white head,

searching for sun to fill the white cup of herself

with light, to dazzle - her teary dripping sugars

dissected without human fingers understanding

such sweetness as the hungry, lustful bee fathoms;

then the whole lily has just escaped our experience.


Science cannot annotate, describe the world alone,

but must act in willing synthesis - with language –

poetry and art; the aesthetics of Earth’s genomes

melded into observation - reaction and intuition -

emotion not excluded by rigorous measurement,

single vision; for that is how the world is written.


If the idea of spirit in life and nature,

concentrations of such called deities;

gods and goddesses sprung from green

and water, fairies that rose from flowers,

had no good currency for the mind,

why would they survive Science -

such intense bright shorthand keeps describing

powerful effects on the receptive human mind.

‘Since Renaissance science still largely operates at the level of the senses, it can pass readily into the imagery of poems. In the seventeenth century, however, the situation begins to change as science develops a mathematical exserimental method capable of finding out facts not available to the unaided senses. This move away from immediate sensual reality necessarily alters what poetry can draw on for imagery from science and what poetry can talk about in science. It necessarily also begins to participate in changing the role of the poet… It must be said that Donne knew less about the new science than has sometimes been supposed. The roots of his metaphycial poetry are in the scholasticism of the Middle Ages and in such studies as alchemy. Nevertheless, it is true that the seventeenth century saw the emergence of a new world picture and that its implications were sometimes disturbing. At the same time, many intelligent men embraced with enthusiasm the ideas which Francis Bacon had put forward in his Novum Organum and New Atlantis… Donne’s reference to the extinguished ‘elements of fire’ stands for the rejection of the four ‘elements’ of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Donne has also been seen as referring to an end to a unity in the Ptolemaic cosmos, a unity seen in terms of the perfect form of the circle and its three-diemnsional form, the sphere. The effect of the ‘New Philosophy’, particularly the astronomical, was, in Marjorie Nicolson’s phrase, ‘the breaking of the circle’. The ‘New Philosophy’ supplanted this finite nest with an infinity of space and possibility. An early example of this is a nova that appeared in the constellation Cassiopeia in 1572. Given that God had finished the creation and had rested, the nova implied that God had begun again. And beyond that there were the observations that could now be made with the telescope and the microscope… they put a challenge to the poets. [Milton] was aware of both the Ptolemaic and Coperinican systems and chose the Ptolemaic for its images, correspondences and associations, and appeal to the wide readership his epic aimed at…’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

Aw, c’mon, a wiz just ha’en forty winks

Aw, c’mon, a wiz just ha’en forty winks;

Cassiopeia, it wiz a toughie – a just shut

ma eyes fir a moment… An Gee Wizz!

Wars, disasters, hawf the bloody planet

destroyed - blimmin Arctic half melted -

a they forests that wir supposed tae keep

yees a lifetime or zillion or two, a wasted,

combusted up - whit ir yees LIKE! Jings!

Good joab am no really intae smitein an a

that – tho mibbe a shid start pittin it aboot

a am like that after a - no just like the New

Testament, nice ‘New Goad’ like...Onywy,

thocht ad better just finish oaff – a wee nova

before tea, nae problem, thoat they wouldnae

even notice; but a hadnae noticed – telescopes!

Jings! Yeez saw it a sparkling away, brant new!

Aw - am just jokin’ wi ye; why diz abody think

av nae sense o humour? Doh! Emus! Elephants

bein feart o mice; duck-billed platypuses, jellyfish,

and whit’s goin on wi the millipede – whit kindae

DNA maks a they legs? Well, there’s Evolution

an Free Will fir ye. That’s it y’see - they thoat -

silly buggers, thon new wee nova meant a hadnae

made a the rest! Naw, naw, nithin tae dae wi me -

either that or ad come oot o retirement,

an maybe a wee bit o fire an brimstone

wiz in oarder – they just didnae get it -

it’s nae some kind o budget, hawf-price,

static Universe made by an eejit, yir ordinary

everyday deity - nae just stickin a they stars

in the sky like decoratin the front room -

the once-an-only-pattern, forever, Amen.

Naw, naw, it’s movin, developin, changin;

there’s nithin static aboot ma yooniverse -

did yees nae get a clue fae the Earth itself,

once ye’d realised whit the stoary meant -

whit the garden symbolized - Adam an Eve…

Whit, did yees really think a wid dump them

a ignorant wi nae claes, nae clue, nae will,

wanderin through eternity wi nae brains -

ignorant? When I said yees were like ma sheep

that’s nae whit a meant - see that’s a metaphor

tae. ‘Am the good shepherd’ disnae mean

av a great bloody crook an a dishtool roon

ma heid like wee Jimmy in the school Nativity!

Yees ir like sheep, yir ma floak, a look after ye;

a come lookin for yees even when yees wander aff

stewpit, a dinnae actually think yir white an woolly! 

Aw, a thocht ad gi’en ye the brains tae work a thin oot,

nae go aroon split atween thon spooky yins who thunk

they’ve goat ma number oan speed dial; direct line, ken,

like weez are best pals, like they cin speak ma language,

nae mentionin ony names, but a ken ye ken;

maist perplexin’ - oar those who get roosed

by some o whit’s bin said an done in ma name -

no by me, mind, never by me, but a get lumped

in wi the blame - an whoosh - that’s me, oot

wi the bathwater, splodge. Bloody frustratin,

an me such a good deity tae, devoted like, tireless;

an am nae allowed tae moan, oh, no, goat tae keep

oan lovin, that’s ma main principle; if a gave tha up,

Bang! If ye think the Big Bang wiz amazin, ye shid

see whit wid happen wi the Anti-Bang - that wid be

the Big Wham! Universe wid turn tae Spam, sludge;

nae love, nae energy - nae energy, nae universe;

simple really. Onyway, a wiz saying ye’d think

ye’d ken from seeing noo how the Earth an a

her creatures came – including yoos, fae mud

an water, evolvin – kinda magic, eh; still

brings a tear tae ma eye each time a sees

yin of ye boarn - sae long waiting fir yees

fae the mud, worms, tae see yis, love yees;

aye, it wiz a loang time comin, that’s the point -

ma Universe is always evolvin, that’s the point

o creativity - always a-movin, expanding,

experimentin’; the nova’s time had come,

in a the minutes an seconds an aeons

o time an history, it’s time had come

tae shine, just like yoos, robing yir genomes

that ye now ken ir there, yir patterns o flesh,

co-ordinates oan Earth, yir magic domains

when yir there, yir ane grip oan Chemistry;

am gid at Chemistry in nae mistake,

as ye must hae gathered bi now…

Onywy, tha’s ma Tuppence worth,

noat much else a can dae, really -

as yiv proabably also hae gathered,

lookin aroon the state of the place -

nae if a keep tae Free Will, an well,

if yees lose that - there’s nae point

in the whole damn thing; but a must say,

a hid never thoat - goin tae a that trouble

tae make floors, an butterflies, an hearts

an stuff possible, that yees wid ruin it a;

took me by surprise - sae quick it’s come -

hiv yees all goan loony now sae many of yi

are distant, like thon wee sparklin furthest stars

waiting their turn; c’mon noo, dinnae leave me

wi the fanatics - a cannae stand a fanatic -

as onyone can tell fae ma works and deeds,

ma main messages – yiz hiv goan aff message

tae use the parlance; dinnae leave me wi them

sayin am their Goad; ir thon wimps, goody-two-shoes,

nae ma style, ken; an talkin o style, is there ony reason

why yi hiv tae ‘abandon a style all ye who enter here’;

diz it sae that onywhere, oan ony o ma church lintels?

Kin ye see an equation onywhere thit says ‘Christian Equals

Style Victim’; ir ‘Crap Jumpers Only’ - ‘Pit Oan Yir Broon

Loafers fir Goad’; Armani himsel wiz created

by Goad tae, y’know. Onyway - a shouldnae

complain, (just get sick o lookin at dun-coloured

cords – an women in shiny blooses an cardies fae

the 1950s - and it’s nae cos they’ve given the money

fae Prada lookalikie tae the poor; soarry, a said a wid

stoap complainin - am just getting grouchy, tired,

see - lookin at a yiz are doin tae the world - well,

it’s enough tae break ma heart - aye, tae break

Goad’s heart - y’ken there’s so much mair left

fir yees tae discover, so many right directions

fir ye tae go in. Go oan then - wi yir Genome;

yeez have seen ma patterns, ma tools - ma grasp

o Chemistry; just try to understand, noo, ma love. 

‘The seventeenth century is indeed an age of puzzling contradictions and and cross currents. Astrology and alchemical studies continued and perhaps increaserd in popularity but were intertwined with the studies of atronomy and chemistry. Henrey More and Richard Blackmore… tried to accomodate the new science to their religious beliefs….Blackmore, though he seems ignorant of Newton on gravity, displays a fine knowledge of scientific discoveries, as well as an ability to summarise them concisely in poetry… More and Blackmore illustrate two possible responses to scientific discoveries, but it would be wrong to say that there is a polarity between them. Neither questions scientific discovery; both use if for religious argument; and Blackmore tried to scotch any arrogant atheistic use of the discoveries. These positions are generally typical of the responses to the new science. The celebrations implicit in More’s poems is relocated in Cowley’s praise of the Royal Society…The ideals of Bacon were in some respects realised by the foundation of the Philosophical Society in 1645. This developed into the Royal Society, which received its charter in 1622. Abraham Cowley’s ode on this subject is full of uncritical enthusiasm…John Dryden, the greatest poet of his age after Milton was, for a time, a member of the Royal Society. His wide-ranging poetry can make use of traditional ideas, such as that of the music of the spheres, and equally Platonism or Carteisian, as poetic fancy dicates. Pope was capable of following Blackmore’s lead also, as in An Essay on Man, where he encompasses science within a sphere of providence…In the discoveries of Isaac Newton all this reached a climax…In spite of the clarity and logic of his mathematical and scientific thinking, he was also involved in numerological and apocalyptic interpretations of Biblical prophecy. But to his contemporaries and the whole of the 18th century he seemed to have produced a synthesis which gave a simple and logical explanation to all natural phenomena such as had scarcely been available to the imagination since the breakdown of the medieval world picture. The Newtonian view of the universe seemed an argument for the existence of a deity who ruled the cosmos by mathematical laws…’  Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

Tramplers of the soul - O arrogant Men

Tramplers of the soul - O arrogant Men,

humble underlings dressing up as Kings;

insulters of spirit - ignorant popinjays;

such prancers, preeners, rushing fools -

think you the endless vaults of Heaven hid

behind the Moon’s ethereal peephole cease,

because you sketch a paper skeleton of night’s bright skies?

That angels will come tumbling down like autumn leaves -

lie upon the ground like twitching golden butterflies -

because you whispered that their Master did not exist?

Think you that light will lose her beauty like an aged woman,

if you fillet white, her luminescence, for rainbow-colour guts?

That the peacock has become a duck, tree lost his high nobility,

in reductive tales of refraction, attraction - seasonal prediction?

The diamond shines less brightly, prised from her cold black tomb,

by knowing now her brotherhood with coal, uncut charmless heart?

The flower will lay her one-eyed head upon the layered earth,

her bee-loved sweetest secrets all in ruins - smile, petals shed?

That man will cease to fly in spirit, shorn of glorious wings -

you upstart Princes rule, true Paupers in place of richest Love?

‘The eighteenth century proliferated with poems that attempted to instruct by straightforwardly expanding moral and natural philosophy or which combined description with scientific theory. These poems parallel the incredible scientific activity of the period, some of it professional, some of it amateur and subject to ridicule, as in the case of those randomly collecting objects from the natural world. Yet even that collecting related to honest science and to poems of science… Johnson sadly describes Sober, the would-be scientist…. But founding members of the Royal Society, for example, were also ridiculed for their experiments, for scientific method was still innovatory and uncertain at the time. Fumbling was inevitable, especially in taxonomic fields like botany or zoology.’ Poems of Science, John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

Why do I collect? Child…

Why do I collect? Child…

when the labours of my day are spent,

how leaps my heart to pull my muffler round

and stretch my legs upon the field and moor -

for there lie treasures bountiful - nay infinite -

given freely to the hand of any man, who cares

to while his time in gathering and contemplation;

wondering why this whorling shell - its pattern -

spirals as it does; at such small life as is the creature

once lived within. Take this rock - what tales it tells,

such stories in its stripes, as one day I shall know.

These eggs I dust - each one by Nature painted -

look Child - true blue of sky in a robin’s egg; 

why are the young so brought into the world,

when you resided inside Mother for that time,

my chick! I so desire to understand - and yes,

to have them all, to lay their beauty in this tray,

preserve and label; see my insects skate forever

on the glass - no, do not look away, this beauty

is of different order - black skeletons they wear

as armour to the world - this tiny marching knight,

his sword and mace, shiny visor, see how different,

yet similar to this, his brother, green with rainbow hue,

and somewhere in between comes this one - but brown

and dowdy, yet he may be clue to… I don’t know what.

I plot their families and relations, spider webs that bind

them to a greater tree, and where I think we are, my child,

I dare not say. So, though I do not know the special word

that must describe why I collect; nor can name the feeling

shivers o’er my hand and eye, nerve and brain exciteable -

some strange connection sparkles in my jumping heart,

a Will o’ the Wisp clue to truth, I clutch at in the dark -

that is as yet like light in water in my hand... My hand -

see how it is the shape of this leaf, a star; your mouse’s.

‘Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), grandfather of Charles, was a doctor, inventor, and poet…Over half a century before his grandon’s The Origin of Species, Erasmus expounded a theory of evolution, declaring that ‘all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament’, during a time-span of ‘millions of ages’. He was the first scientist to analyse plant nutrition and photosynthesis, and to explain the process of cloud formation. He took up poetry-writing in his fifties and his two-part poem The Botanic Garden anticipates the ‘big-bang’ theory of the universe. The first event in the cosmos, according to Erasmus’s account, is an explosion, sparked off by God saying ‘Let there be light’, whereupon: ‘…the mass starts into a million suns;/ Earths round each sun with quick explosions burst,/ And second planets issue from the first.’ Erasmus defends his explosion theory in one of the poems many ‘Philosophical Notes’.’ Faber Book of Science, 2005

‘It has been pointed out that the earlier detailed filling in of species in the framework of the tenacious Great Chain of Being prepared the way for Charles Darwin’s inferences on evolution, and much responsible world was done in this field by collectors. In the 18th and 9th centuries we have the poetry of natural history, which as its origin and greatest influence in James Thomson’s The Seasons…The Romantics were to react against the over-simplified concept of poetry which this kind of writing implies, but if one is prepared to make allowances for its conceptions, the writings of the 18th century contain much that is curious, interesting and entertaining. In Erasmus Darwin’s The Loves of the Plants, a poem that was enormously popular at the time, this tendency was carried almost to the point of absurdity. The great Swedish botnaist Linnaeus had devised a classification of plants according to the arrangement and number of their sexual organs, the stamens and pistils.Erasmus Darwin translated this into polished 18th century heroic couplets, the female organs or pistils becoming nymphs and the stamens, swains. The results are often hilarious and were to be parodied by James and Horace Smith in the Antijacobin as The Loves of the Triangles, in which the propositions of Euclid are given a similar treatment. But Darwin’s tone was rarely mock-heroic. He was a very considerable thinker as well as a polished versifier, and anticipated many of the ideas of his grandson, Charles Darwin, as well as influencing such poets as Coleridge and Shelley. His later poem, The Temple of Nature, is more ambitious than The Botanic Garden and contains many striking items.’ Poems of Science, Eds John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

‘The second part of Erasmus’s poem, the Loves of the Plants (1789), ministered to the craze for botany in the 1770s and 1780s…The Loves of the Plants personifies 90 different species, and recounts their sex-lives, paying strict attention to Linnaeus’s botanical descriptions…Rather suprisingly, Erasmus was an extremely popular and influential poet. Young Wordsworth imitated him. Coleridge called him ‘the first literary character in Europe’, and his great fantasy-poems, Kubla Khan and The Ancient Mariner, borrow scenes and phrases from Erasmus. Shelley, his keenest disciple, took from him the idea of combining science and poetry in famous lyrics like ‘The Cloud’, and ‘The Sensitive Plant’, and followed his lead in atttacking supersitition, tyrants, slavery, war and alcohol.’ John Carey, Editor, Faber Book of Science, 2005

Erasmus is prickling me the way dead people sometimes do –

Erasmus is prickling me the way dead people sometimes do –

Erasmus Darwin, Grandfather of Charles, Eighteenth Century

Genius; beckoning from somewhere with his original sparkle.

He has been re-lit by thinking of him, his description of DNA

before its known chemistry; elucidation of helical structure –

theory that all organic life had risen from one living filament,

occurring two hundred and fifty years ahead of his time -

he imagined Big Bang just in the starry galaxy of his head.

Burning still from post-genomic light there - in dream thought

that can be entered through sleep, touching an old yellow book,

where the ghost of deoxyribonucleic acid lingers, with a shine;

in one of these wandering silver strings that tangle about a life,

weaving from significance to chance, fate to fortune, shadow

to serendipity – it tautens when I think of him, and I will reel

myself closer in blue space after this book, when everything

is again possible; some paths may be better seen, illuminated.


Oi, stop takin the piss, all that nymphs and swains, a-merrily,

all that - very fashionable at the time you know - unlike sex -

I could hardly write about shaggin and porkin pistils; most indelicate,

and anyway, just wanted to say - coming to you in sort of translation

to most appalling grammar and vocabulary used today, the present -

not only was my poetry popular at the time - and rightly so, I stress,

it seems I was nearer to the truth than most of you!

with your entirely unheroic couplets, blank verse -

that certainly lived up to its name. And if I’m not much mistaken

you’ve found not only my description of these ‘organic filaments’

to be well, pretty bloody brilliant - excuse me, pretty fucking accurate,

binding all organic life, and now the Human Genome placing us square

among this mighty web, as I, though modest, must put claim -

to suggesting even far ahead of my boy Charlie, who did good

with the name I grant you. Though I’m not complaining, mind,

for at the time ‘twas not in many ways so vicious, yet, a world,

so specialised and riven - so jealous, cynical and tired –

what marvels have you found and yet, so miserable you are;

I think sometimes though we were often ignorant and sick,

yet had we not lost wonder, and were free to dream, to call

the soul a soul and draw the spirit even in a shape;

would not be ridiculed for celebrating love in full,

or thinking on the latest bright discoveries where’er

they came; Nature, Science, Man and God all bound,

all part; and do not my words fresh-dusted from the past,

give clue to how our minds will find such shining truths

as God and Nature puts beneath our feet; but bend

to pick some treasure from the world, and wonder –

yes, I dreamt the Genome long before its proof

was dragged into the scientific light - presence,

conjecture, observation and imagination - with these

bright tools, as much a part of Evolution as our eye

or hand, fabulous new systems by which you track,

dissect the genes, I cast the Genome in my mind -

how Evolution’s beauty came to be, and thus preserved,

bound us to our fellow creatures - even to the humblest,

this langorous lily swooning in my hand –

OK, its nymphs and swains too. So perhaps

you might look upon and turn my dusty work anew - 

illuminated by such sparkling light the Genome casts;

for now I feel this strange connection comes to fade -

my words begin to shuffle from such apparel borrowed,

Farewell! (good nymphs and swains), from such a place

where poetry - advancing even from evolving Genome -

has no need of words or letters, ink.Go dream upon

the Genome’s heart - unity of life; that arching love.

‘The issue that ‘collectors’ raise is not a trivial one, for the 18th century or any of the centuries in which quantative science is a central influence. Very early, as science became quantified…went beneath the sensually perceptible surface of things, it deprived poetry of a major source of images and themes…The genre of natural history poems is part of what was left. Clearly, the scientist now had the greater authority. As science began to make major demonstrations about the natural world and as those demonstrations led to important practical applications, the poet grew less important as a purveyor of knowledge. The increase in scientific power partly shifted the kind of knowledge the poet could include in his work… for additional reasons, the poet was in general used to write about subjective inner reality so that what the poem presented was not so much objective truth as truth seen by a particular writer.’ ref

‘For the poet in Western culture, scientific discovery has been a cause of his transformation from a public speaker entrusted with propogating the knowledge and morality of his tribe to a relative outsider speaking for himself and largely about himself and his views.’ Poems of Science, Eds John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

Is this what we have to thank for poets droning on…

Is this what we have to thank for poets droning

on about their unrequited love-lives, or worse –

such consummation they’ve had, in finer detail

than we’d like, or care to know - learning more

about their private instances than is interesting.

Is this where it started - excluded from Science,

the cutting edge of things - the poet first gazing

not upon a peak in Darien, but his own navel -

but didn’t stop there, letting his pen and hand

slip lower down, leaving flowers to the ladies;

not just obsessing on his own personal mechanism

but his own particular impulse, stories, adventures –

huffed, piqued, excluded, but not becoming humble;

placing himself on a pedestal, apart, misunderstood,

not human and vulnerable as all and so representive,

just pathetic, wanting sympathy; wholly obsessed

with his own condition - not the miner or child -

his place in the company of brilliant, fast science -

but just himself; like a party bore at Society’s party

who is soon ignored because he cannot stop talking

about himself - which, let’s face it - after a hundred

years or stanzas just ain’t that interesting; important.

Then drunkenly weeping into his soup - about a lack

of interest, philistines, the neglect of art; how nobody

listens, when he has much more to say about himself. 

‘Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,/ Vulture, whose wings are full realities?\ How should he love thee? Or how deem thee wise.’ Edgar Allan Poe, 1809-1849, To Science

‘In addition, the so-called Romantic movement in English poetry both gew out of and reacted against the tendencies of the 18th century. One of its characteristics was a rejection of mechanistic philosophy and the feeling that man’s spiritial health could be restored only by re-establishing an organic union with nature. Blake and Wordsworth clearly recognise the effects of mechanistic science on poetry and they make criticisms in terms of the faculty of the imagination. Their major point, which was shared by other Romantic poets, was that scientific thinking was attractive as well as powerful, but was only a partial mode of thought, for it ignored other human realities, notably those of the imagination and emotions. The reaction against the mechanism of the age is seen in its most extreme form in William Blake, for whom a false philosophy is typified by the three figures of Newton, Locke and Bacon….He knew Newton’s world and grasped that it was possible to adopt the scientific mentality and to perceive reality through it and it alone. Science could replace what, for Blake, was the inclusive, more fruitful mentality of the religious and visionary imagination.’  Poems of Science, Eds John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

Rocking in its blue sky socket, the world

Rocking in its blue sky socket, the world

lays down her unity; stripped to elements,

shivering in space, she is stone and fire,

air, earth - dissected now, annunciated -

stratified, bound, described by impersonal laws -

inflexible, austere, clinical, mechanical; classified

her creatures, neatly linked - species, genus, genera,

her green and flowers all split, scalpelled, annotated

to reaches of understanding we call the end -

absoutely pinned in existence. All is splitting

from the root, communal bulb binding all -

yet theories, explanation of the great forces,

have not touched the driving fire of love -

such guiding light of tenderness that fuels

a parent, pastor, man, even unto death.

The sunset slips between their fingers

in all this talk and exploration of light;

the flower looks at us - refusing to be

dulled, reduced to a snatch of petals

in the wind, crude harbinger of seed,

with all her beauty left behind -

a ghost left tethered on the earth.

‘Wordsworth and Coleridge in particular went to great lengths to stress that the antithesis between thought and feeling was a false one. They insisted that both were aspects of a single whole that might best be understood by attending closely to its middle term, imagination. Here was the scene of the process of creation, both in art and science…’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Where yet imagination in the scheme of things

Where yet imagination appearing in the scheme of things;

the glorious internal picture-house, blank gallery unhung –

what scientific description for the limitless image machine,

tendriling spider filaments of her weaving, endless reach -

what crackling impulse, spotted in the brain; nervy, thready

silver stars animating jumpily on peering screens - sparkling

negative flower, computer-drawing of the brain, where colour,

connection - that pulling-rabbit-from-metaphysical-hat – gold,

mined from a zillion billion only coal-filled brains; hot diamonds

that come but once, dug inexplicably, Stars of Mankind - simple,

indestructible; beautiful and brilliant, shining spark of nothing.

Where yet emotion being understood, symbolic red connection

to the heart, where even physical pain breaks, reflective response;

force bending the body to immaterial will - how known equations

that tell of sacrifice, altruism, laying down your life for another -

yes, where yet love understood by science; even just recognised.

Love is complex biology I’ve heard said

Love is complex biology I’ve heard said -

rooted in survival, pheromones, replication;

survival of the species, protecting offspring,

housing genes, ensuring continuation of life.

But all that’s required is to be alive to know

this explanation is not enough – inadequate.

Parenthood teaches many things that make us

better, but no lesson bigger than the very first;

becoming servant of love - as real principle,

force - compellingly, fundamentally simple,

if complexly expressed; Id, ego, superego,

any blimmin’ type of ego - is obliterated -

overpowered, at love’s zenith - pinnacle

at stage of mortality; being alive, earthly.

And if a child cannot survive alone in the wild

but the parent could go on to have more kids –

why would the mother and father lay down

their lives; love overrides self preservation.

‘Wordsworth writes in admiration of Newton, but principally in the Excursion, also uses Blake’s arguments and takes them a step further. Where Blake writes in a prophetic or visionary mode about science, Wordsworth finally adopts the earlier philosophical approach, demonstrating that science must continue powerful, but must not have independent life; it must exist as an assistant to humans. Blake does not take the step of subordination and might be happy abolishing science. Wordsworth seems more a respecter of mind and perhaps, although angry with the industries of his day, is influenced by the possibility of a beneficial technology deriving from science, where Blake saw only ‘dark, satanic mills’. Among the later Romantics, Coleridge, in his prose  writings and lectures, was aiming equally at a synthesis of religion, philosophy, science, and poetry. The actual references to science in is verse are, however, comparatively few. Coleridge may be seen as the heir of a long tradition of Cambridge Platonism represented by More in the 17th century and by Christopher Smart in the 18th century, and stretching back before More through Milton and the brothers Giles and Phineas Fletcher to Spenser… This tradition, whose last heirs may perhaps be found in the new England Transcendentalists, was always hospitable to scientific ideas and, in its interest in revealing permanent elements beneath the surface of things, indicates a natural compatability between poetry and science. Against the long tradition of poetry, emotionally intprosopective writing appears almost a modern aberration from the main line.’ Poems of Science, Eds John Heath-Stubbs, Phillips Salman, Penguin, 1984

‘It seemed to leave humanity with only two choices. Either we could accept an enormous lie - the excitements of normal experience and the feelings that go with it – or, if we rejected that lie, we could face the truth, which was an impersonal, ghostly world of scientific abstractions. That ghostly world would ideally cure us of all emotion…’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

‘When Edison, the father of the American Nation, the greatest living benefacto of mankind, snatched up the spark of Prometheus in his little pear-shaped glass bulb, it meant that fire had been discovered for the second time, that mankind had been delivered again from the curse of night.’ Emil Ludwig, Historian, 1882

Physical determinism, we might say in retrospect, was a daydream of omniscience which seemed to become more real with every advance of physics until it became the apparently inescapable nightmare.” Karl Poppper, Of Clouds and Clocks, Objective Knowledge, 1972

‘It is natural and proper that our detailed thinking arises from imaginative roots. But it is important that we should recognise the nature of these roots – that we should not confuse the idea of exactness with the actual achievement of it… Einstein, when he objected to the reasonings of quantum mechanics by insisting that God does not play dice, was talking metaphysics, not physics.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
    Romantic Science
        Some visions, dreams,
        miracles and revelations
        in science
        Brief romp through the 
        relationship of poetry and 
        science, now largely, and
        sadly, estranged
        Brief romp through the 
        relationship of poetry and 
        science, now largely, and
        sadly, estranged (contd.)
    Some Special Genes
    X & Y

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