Wandered lonely as a scientist . . .
By ELISABETH GEAKE Romantic poets of the 18th century knew more about the science of their times than today’s literary critics, according to the poet and retired space scientist Desmond King-Hele. Their enthusiasm for science can be traced to one man, Erasmus Darwin, the best-selling author, doctor, botanist and grandfather to Charles. Erasmus Darwin’s life shows how there is no need for a cultural divide between the arts and sciences, King-Hele told the BA. He said poets such as Coleridge, Wordsworth and Shelley drew their accurate descriptions of nature from Darwin, who not only studied botany and mechanics but also wrote verse about them. Born in 1731, the older Darwin became the leading doctor in the Midlands. He was also the first to explain how clouds form, and encouraged James Watt to persevere over 30 years with his inventions for steam engines. With the potter Josiah Wedgwood, he designed the Grand Trunk Canal between the Trent and Mersey rivers. Darwin waxed lyrical on the technical details of Matthew Boulton’s steam-powered coin-making machines, and predicted that steam would power barges and cars, and ‘bear the flying-chariot through the fields of air’. But his poem about sexual reproduction in plants, The Loves of the Plants, and his writings on geology, the atmosphere and the oceans, had the greatest influence on the Romantic poets. The poets were not aware of any divide between arts and sciences. ‘Coleridge’s ambition was to write a poem encompassing all knowledge, including all branches of science,’ said King-Hele, ‘but he became addicted to opium’. In The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge did manage to mention luminous microscopic sea creatures, first described by Darwin. King-Hele said that Shelley was ‘the most scientific and the most indebted of the Romantic poets to Erasmus’. Shelley’s The Cloud accurately describes the water cycle: ‘I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers, from the seas and the streams’. He describes a snow cloud on a mountain top as ‘sleeping in the arms of the blast’, which shows he knew that a cloud could cling to the peak despite its particles being constantly replaced in the strong wind, said King-Hele. Scientific terms in the 18th century were often poetic, said David Knight of the University of Durham. For example, flowers of sulphur were named after their appearance. By the beginning of the 19th century, chemists had realised that ‘a nuanced and resonant language was not wanted, for it might set people off on all sorts of unprofitable speculations’, said Knight. ‘Chemistry might then be dull and impersonal, but its progress would be safe.’ Knight said the language of chemistry must seem disappointing to today’s poets, a fact that could contribute to the ‘two cultures’. King-Hele disagreed: