“Romantic science can be dated roughly, and certainly symbolically, between two celebrated voyages of exploration…”
As in Captain Cook’s first expedition, begun in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s voyage begun in 1831.
“This is the time I have called the Age of Wonder,” Richard Holmes writes in his book of the same name, “and with any luck we have not yet quite outgrown it.”
Holmes hasn’t, he is positively giddy with delight over Joseph Banks discovering surfing in Tahiti. He falls head over heels in love with William Herschel’s sister Caroline, so essential to Hershel’s exploration of the heavens through a series of homemade telescopes, the only kind of telescope to be had at the time. The story of Humphrey Davy inventing the safety lamp that saved so many coal miners’ lives is so real he might have been an eyewitness, including all the times Davy blows up at Michael Faraday, not to mention all the times he blows up his lab.
Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats were fascinated and inspired by these new scientific explorations and discoveries, and employed many of them as images in their work. There is a whole chapter on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, where Holmes traces the Monster’s beginnings to lectures given at the Royal Society in London, which Shelley attended and which included the attempt by one philosopher to use a primitive form of electricity to shock a corpse back to life. Eeew.
Holmes writes of what may have been our most polymathic age in deft and witty prose. Of Herschel, an accomplished musician as well as an astronomer, he writes, “He moved from earthly music to the music of the spheres.” He writes demurely of the balloon ascension of a Mr. Biggin and a Mrs. Sage, which may or may not have given birth to the Mile High Club. He quotes a contemporary critic as saying, somewhat apologetically, “Poetical descriptions, though they may not be strictly conformable to the rigid principles of the Science they are meant to elucidate, generally leave a stronger impression on the mind, and are far more captivating than simple unadorned language.”
And then Holmes lets Keats underline the point,
…Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken…
That watcher of the skies was Herschel. And the new planet? Uranus.
Read more of my Goodreads reviews here.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.