Watchers of the Skies

Heroes of British science, and the Romantic poets they inspired


The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, by Richard Holmes, Pantheon 573 pp., $40

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or The Modern Prome­theus (1818), would seem to be the ultimate statement of British literary Romanticism about the role of science in its time. The popular image of the story is of a mad scientist who plays God in the laboratory and is punished for his madness by the monster he creates. In this view, science is a threat to our very humanity. Or, as Wordsworth put it, “We murder to dissect.” In fact, as Richard Holmes shows in The Age of Wonder, his remarkable book about what he calls “Romantic science,” the truth about both Mary Shelley’s book and about the regard in which the Romantics held science is somewhat more complicated than that. Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein is an earnest, solitary idealist, and his creation is not, at least at first, the mute, lurching, bloodthirsty monster of the films, but a superbly articulate, sentient being who is maddened by his desire to be more human. As Shelley herself writes in a later preface to the book, Dr. Frankenstein’s impulse to animate his creature is certainly hubristic, an act raising questions about the terrifying possibilities of science that trouble us to this day. But neither Mary Shelley nor the Romantic poets, beginning with her husband and including Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Keats, were hostile to science. All of them, but especially Coleridge and Percy Shelley, were deeply interested in the scientific discoveries of their time, which often engaged both their thinking and their poetry.

For Holmes, a gifted English biographer of Coleridge and Percy Shelley, Romantic science “can be dated roughly, and certainly symbolically, between two celebrated voyages of exploration. These were Captain James Cook’s first round-the-world expedition aboard the Endeavour, begun in 1768, and Charles Darwin’s voyage to the Galapagos islands aboard the Beagle, begun in 1831.” This is the scope of The Age of Wonder, which focuses on four scientists (a term that would not be in use until soon after three of the four were dead)—the botanist Joseph Banks, the astronomers William Herschel and his sister Caroline Herschel, and the chemist Humphry Davy. But what Holmes calls a “cast list” includes nearly 70 others who cross his stage, ranging from Benjamin Franklin to Immanuel Kant to Darwin’s poet grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, with principal supporting roles played by Coleridge, the Africa explorer Mungo Park, the physicist Michael Faraday, and William Herschel’s son, John, also an astronomer.

But Banks steals the show. A wealthy young aristocrat, at 22 he bought passage on a navy ship exploring the coast of Newfoundland, a seven-month expedition during which he got to know Lt. James Cook. Two years later Cook would captain the voyage of the Endeavour, and Banks would sign on as the trip’s botanist, spending £10,000 of his own money to hire and outfit an eight-man botanical crew. As one of Banks’s contemporaries wrote to the famous naturalist Carolus Linnaeus, “No people ever went to sea better fitted out for the purpose of Natural History.”

One of the main goals of the expedition was to observe the Transit of Venus across the sun on June 3, 1769, from various spots on the island of Tahiti. The ship arrived on the island, already known to Europeans as a tropical paradise, more than six weeks early to prepare for the astronomical event. Banks spent the time botanizing, but also learning the language and customs of the Tahitian people, availing himself of their avid and yet somehow innocent sexuality, and eventually becoming the mediator of disputes between the natives and the British crew. All the while he kept what Holmes calls “his great journals, most notable for their racy style, appalling spelling and non-existent punctuation.” After they left Tahiti in July, Banks wrote an anthropological essay called “On the Manners and Customs of the South Sea Islands,” in which he reported in detail about the Tahitians as a variation on a notion that would preoccupy the Romantics—that of the “noble savage.” When the ship returned to England two years later, the South Seas idyll had turned to despair—half the crew including half of Banks’s own men died of malaria and dysentery contracted in what is now Jakarta. Banks was, according to Holmes, “shattered and disoriented.”

But he found himself to be more celebrated in England even than Captain Cook for the voyage’s many successes. The collection Banks brought home went beyond things botanical, Holmes writes, amounting to “a complete museum of Pacific culture, combining natural history with ethnology and human artefacts in a quite new way.” Banks became a botanical adviser to King George III and in 1778 was elected president of the Royal Society, a position from which he would promote British science for the next four decades. Although Holmes makes a wonderful story out of Banks’s time in paradise, it is in this bureaucratic role that the botanist has the more dramatic impact upon his times.

He had not been head of the Royal Society for long when he began to hear about a German astronomer who was working in the city of Bath. William Herschel had come to England from Hanover to perform music and would eventually conduct an orchestra. But he had a passion for astronomy that led to a talent for constructing telescopes. Eventually he built a seven-foot-long model so powerful that in 1781 he became the first man since Ptolemy a millennium and a half before him to add a planet to the solar system. It was Uranus. Banks got him the Copley Gold Medal from the Royal Society and became his avid benefactor. William’s much younger sister, Caroline, had moved to England from Hanover to live with him nearly a decade earlier. She began to assist him with his astronomical observations, and together they began to sweep the heavens with his powerful telescopes, creating maps that would help alter the world’s perception of the size of the universe. By 1786 she would achieve international recognition for her discovery of the first of eight comets that she would find.

Together, the Herschels created an interest in astronomy that captured the imagination of England’s educated classes, from the Hanoverian British king to two little boys who would one day be among British Romanticism’s brightest literary lights. Coleridge later remembered when his father, a clergyman who kept up with the serious magazines of the day, took him out at age eight into a field at night to show him the stars and the planets, emphasizing their tremendous size and distance. Keats would remember a game at school in which all the boys would stand in for the planets and moons of the solar system and then, according to Holmes, would whirl “round the playground in a huge choreographed dance.”

The last of Holmes’s principal characters is Humphry Davy, who in 1820 succeeded Banks as president of the Royal Society. A self-taught chemist from provincial Cornwall who also wrote poetry, Davy was such a prodigy in chemistry that Banks took notice of him when Davy was still in his early 20s. Even then, as Holmes puts it, Davy “believed passionately in his own ‘genius’—a word he used constantly—and in the future of English science. Banks sometimes concluded that Humphry Davy thought these two things were identical; and that very possibly he was right.” By the time Davy moved to London in 1801 to become a lecturer in chemistry at the Royal Institution, he had already conducted promising if somewhat zany experiments with gases, including nitrous oxide or laughing gas, and somehow just missed discovering the medical use of anesthesia some decades before it would come to be. He counted as a close friend the poet Robert Southey—also, Coleridge, who would attend Davy’s lectures in London “to enlarge my stock of metaphors.” Davy’s lectures sketched out a progressive view of science that would help make man the master of his own fate. He inspired a passage linking poetic imagination to scientific discovery in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, the influential manifesto of literary Romanticism that Coleridge wrote with Wordsworth.

Davys’s lectures and writings led to a knighthood and a glamorous society wife, but Davy became best known to the world at large for inventing a mining safety lamp that dramatically decreased the number of fatal mine explosions, and for other public displays of science in action. But for all his brilliance he would not match Banks’s success in promoting British science. Even his important protégé Michael Faraday would be the victim of Davy’s small-mindedness toward others. By the time Davy died in 1828, he was an object of some derision in his world.

Holmes knows so much and marshals his knowledge so well that it might be churlish to say that The Age of Wonder loses some of its fizz after the stories of Banks and the Herschels, and that even Holmes himself seems to nod on occasion (in one brief passage the word great appears six times, applied to subjects ranging from a telescope to the Amazon river to an academy in Berlin). The Romantics gave us many of our notions of how science is done, which makes the subject of this book, even leaving aside the brilliance with which much of it is told, significant beyond its importance as intellectual history. But it is a richer and subtler story than I would have thought, and having read it, I doubt I’ll ever look at the Romantics, or at science, in the same way again.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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