Essay on Science and Poetry


  • Introduction
  • The relation of literature and science
  • Fundamental difference between science and literature
  • The beginning of scientific spirit in England
  • Examples of great poets having scientific mind also
  • The foundation of Royal Society
  • Poets ridiculing the science in 18th century
  • The attitude of romantic poets
  • A wide gap between science and literature in modern literature
  • Why literary men are disgusted with science?
  • Limitation of science
  • Conclusion

Literature or art and science are two fundamentally different activities of the human mind. Man is a complex creature. Science was born from the insatiable curiosity of his intellect.

To measure every wandering planet’s course,

Still climbing after knowledge infinite

And Science has flourished exceedingly. But a man is also a poetical animal, and it has been wisely said that a savant who is not also a poet in soul and religionist at heart is a feeble and unhappy creature. On the balanced development of both sides of his nature depends on his worth as an individual.

The relation of literature and science has been a very interesting one. Thomas Huxley, a great scientist of the nineteenth century, recognised the intrinsic value of classical learning. He argued that the culture necessary for science student must be gained from literature. For “an exclusively scientific training”, he said, “will bring about a mental twist as surely as well an exclusively literary training”. Tyndall, another scientist of the nineteenth century tells how he was spurred on in the pursuit of science by inspiration drawn from Tennyson. Darwin has recorded his intense delight as youth in Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth and Shelley, and when in later years he lost his life was maimed and stunted. Two great scientists, Humphrey Davy and Roman Hamilton, were addicted throughout their lives to the writing of verse, though being mainly devoted to scientific research they could attain prominence in the field of poetry. And some men of science have been genuine poets. In the second century, Ptolemy, the great astronomer, was a true poet, and the following verses which he wrote in praise of heavenly bodies, can do credit to any great poet.

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Mortal the ‘I be, ye ephemeral, if but a moment

I gaze up to the night’s starry domain of heaven,

The no longer on earth I stand I touch the creator

And my lively spirit drinketh immortality

Sir Ronald Ross, who spent most of his time in researches into tropical malaria, was true and genuine poet and he wrote his spiritual diary in verse.

In spite of these instances, where men of science have also been devotees of literature, the fact remains that there is a fundamental difference between science and literature. The business of science is to ascertain, and to set in intelligible and ordered relation of the facts of the physical world, while literature through the feelings quickens that life to a higher consciousness. Of man as a social being, science has little to tell us, of his life as an individual nothing.

“Man”, as the poet assures us, “is a spiritual being, and the proper work of his mind is to interpret the whole world according to his own higher nature, and to conquer the material aspects of the world so as to bring them into subjection to the spirit.” But the material aspects of the world must be recognized if they are to be conquered, when prevalent notions of the universe, of man’s origin and destiny, are revolutionized, or modified or even challenged by science, literature cannot ignore it. The effects of scientific discovery on social conditions are inevitably reflected in the mirror of literary art.

In England, the scientific spirit, which was heralded in Europe by Copernicus spread in the seventeenth century. Gilbert’s book on magnetism had appeared in 1599, followed by Napier’s work on Logarithms, Harvey’s discovery of the circulation of the blood, Boyle’s researches in chemistry and physics, the climax was reached by the supreme and comprehensive genius of Isaac Newton, whose Principia appeared in 1687. But it is significant to note that the prophet of the movement was a great man of letters, Francis Bacon. Science was the master passion of Bacon’s life; he saw within man’s grasp a vast unexplored kingdom of knowledge. Bacon created for science an intellectual atmosphere in which it might live and thrive: The widespread interest which Bacon did so much to foster affected imaginative literature as well. The poets began to draw metaphors and analogies from the processes and instruments of science. This is especially notable in the poetry of Donne and Milton. When the scientific movement was in full swing, Donne wrote.

The new philosophy calls all in doubt

The element of fire is quite put out

The sun is lost, and the earth, and no man’s wit

Can well direct him where to look for it

Though a religious preacher, Donne was, to a certain extent, affected by science, as there are skeptical undercurrents troubling his religious consciousness. Milton, on the other hand, was more directly affected. Though he adopted for the imaginative setting of his epic the traditional Ptolemaic system, there is evidence in plenty that he was abreast of informed astronomical theory. He was under the influence of the new scientific spirit that he declared. “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and argue, according to conscience, above all liberties”.

In 1662, the Royal Society came into being with the help of a small group of scientists. But in conception, the Society owed much to the suggestions contained in the writings of literary men as Bacon and Cowley. In fact, among its original members were most of the acknowledged leaders of the literary world — Denham, Evelyn, Waller, Cowley and Dryden. Cowley wrote beautiful odes on Mr. Harvey on Mr. Hobes and to the Royal Society.

The intimate association in the Royal Society of men of letters with men of science brought a great change over literature. The great writers of the early seventeenth century were preoccupied with problems of man’s ultimate destiny. But attention was not focused upon the actual world in which we live. Men were brought down from heaven to earth. The effects of scientific discovery upon many sides of their social life could not fail to fascinate them. Their child like faith in traditions was ousted by common sense. The darker forms of superstition fell into disrepute.

The Royal Society insisted on rational view of the world. Its influence gradually permeated both literature and society. It affected the style of literature no less than its general temper and subject matter. The Royal Society “exacted from all its members a close natural way of speaking positive expression, clear senses, a native easiness, bringing all things as near the mathematical plainness as they can.” The revolution in style, here advocated in the interest of science, was successfully achieved because contemporary men of letters were as fully convinced of its necessity. To literature there resulted a loss in beauty of rhythm, in colour, in the power of mysterious suggestion, but also indubitable gain. Prose now became an adequate instrument of clear thinking and common sense a fitting vehicle of history and biography for essay and novel; and science gained models from which to learn that difficult but indispensable art of lucid and logical expression. While science in the seventeenth century gave literature a new orientation, it owed to literature not only its prestige but also the perfection of an instrument essential to its progress.

In the eighteenth century, the relation between literature and science presents an interesting spectacle. Some men of letters, intent on social life, ceased to take a serious view of science, started ridiculing it. Thus in Pope’s Dunciad, among the first to receive a degree from the goddess of Dullness are those who “Shine in the dignity of F.R.S.” Swift’s satire is even more. scathing. When Gulliver visits the College of Legado, he meets one professor who has striven for eight years to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, and another devising a plan for building a house from the roof downwards. Addison alone, among leading men of letters in the early eighteenth century had any real appreciation of science. “No writers,” he affirms in the spectator, “more gratify and enlarge the imagination than the author of the new philosophy, whether we consider their theories of the earth or the heavens, the discoveries they have made by glasses or any other of their contemplations of nature.” “Science,” he concludes, “opens infinite space on every side of us, but the imagination is at a stand.”

Of Romantic revival in literature, which took the form of a return to nature to real nature as opposed to the rational nature applauded by Dr. Johnson, Wordsworth was the prophet and the inspiring genius. The mind of man was the main region of Wordsworth’s song, and in the mind of man, as he knew it within himself, he found an element that the scientific approach to nature were wholly incompetent to explain. From youth up he had been haunted by mysterious presences in the sky and in the hills, and his experience convinced him of the reality of vast world which can only be comprehended by a quality which he terms imagination, a quality not irrational, but on which in transcends mere reason, or may be termed “reason in her most exalted mood.” Yet this experience did not lead him to repudiate science, but rather to define the just limits of her domain. With this intent he exposes the shallowness of the mind that is wholly satisfied with mechanical analysis, hence his oft-quoted aphorism “we murder to dissect,” hence, too, those lines that pained the susceptibilities of many a scientist, in which the physician is held up to scorn as a “fingering slave.”

One who would peep and botanies

Upon his mother’s grave

But elsewhere Wordsworth extols the greatest gifts of science!

Happy is he who lives to understand

No human nature only, but explores

All natures to the end that he may find

The law that governs each, and where begins

The union, the partition where, that makes

Kind and degrees among all visible… things

Up from the creeping plant to the sovereign man

The scientist, as such, excludes all sense of ultimate values they are not his concern; whereas says Wordsworth it is the peculiar function of the poet “to carry sensation into the midst of objects of science itself,” i.e. to transfer pure thought into the world of imagination, of combined thought and feeling, in which the life of the spirit is lived. For poetry is the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge the impassioned expression which is on the countenance of all science.

And as Wordsworth recognized the place of scientific knowledge in the sum of man’s intellectual experience, so he welcomed its application to the relief of man’s estate.

I exult to see

An intellectual mystery exercised

O’er the blind elements, almost a soul

Imparted to brute matter,

I rejoice Measuring the force of these gigantic powers

That by the thinking mind have been compelled

To serve the will of feeble bodied man

The Victorian literature was born out of the conflict between science and theology, which is stated by Mathew Arnold.

The sea of Faith

Was once too at the full, and round earth’s shore

Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d

Bt now I only hear

Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Retreating to the breath

Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear

And naked shingles of the world

But the prevalent mood of the time found its well nigh perfect expression in the poetry of Tennyson. He had always been interested in natural science, but the more obvious inferences drawn from scientific investigations:

The stars, she whispers, blindly run,

So careful of the type she seems

So careless of the single life ran counter to the instincts of his spiritual consciousness, The answer, he felt, could be in more knowledge; and pending that knowledge, man’s sole refuge was in faith a faith which is not stolid adherence to what science proved, but rather a faith in that which is beyond both proof and disproof. As he wavers in his faith, so too, at times, he will doubt the validity of the verdict his reason urges him to accept. Is our knowledge of the physical universe, confessedly incomplete as it is, to have the last worn on the spiritual life and destiny of man:

Who loves not knowledge? Who shall rail?

Against here beauty? May she mix?

With men and prosper! Who shall fix

Her pillars? Let her work prevail

But on her forehead sits a fire,

She sets her forward countenance

And leaps into the future chance,

Submitting all things to desire

George Meredith wholeheartedly welcomed the evolutionary doctrine, and drew from it a buoyant optimism, untempered by any hankering after the spiritual. Barth was to him the great mother of all living things; the principle by which she educates her children natural selection through a conflict of types, is but “her cherishing of the best endowed.” By accepting her discipline, and in mystical union with her, man gains all that he needs, the knowledge.

Of good and evil at strife

And the struggle upward of all

And his choice of the glory of life

Wordsworth admits no quarrel between science and poetry. He delights to record how science, “comforting man’s animal poverty, and leisuring his toil, hath humanized manners and social temper,” and no one has paid more lovely tribute than he to science’s latest achievements · but science does not attempt to satisfy the spirit of man. When we ask how it is that our material bodies are capable of consciousness, of thought and spiritual inspiration, she refuses to answer, not because she denies these mysteries, but because she can make nothing of them. The scientist works with faith – faith in the validity of the mind’s logical processes in the ultimate explicability of the physical world, in the order of nature, the faith of the poet that there is a purpose in that order, and that the order is good, is but a reasonable trust in our deeper nature and better desires, to doubt which were destructive of reason itself.

In modern literature, there is a wide gulf between science and literature. The men of letters are either indifferent to the modern scientific achievements or they are severely critical of them. On the other, the men of science have no taste for literature. Pope and Tennyson found it easier to absorb the new science of their day into their general picture of the universe than even the best contemporary poets.

In the Middle Ages Dante wove the Ptolemaic system of the universe in his Divine Comedy in such a manner that it is an essential part of the poetic structure. The Ptolemaic hypothesis provided Milton also with some noble passages. But among the moderns, as among the ancients, there is no rule except that the scientific spirit bloweth where it listeth Coleridge would have gone through an arduous course of science as a propaedeutic to a great epic; but in fact he has given us The Ancient Mariner, and Kublai Khan. Tennyson expressed the moral problems of the Darwinian age in haunting melodies. Browning seems to have been completely unaware of them. If we are concerned about the lack of impact of science on poetry today there is the Testament of Beauty.

The problem is not of literature alone. We may just as reasonably ask why contemporary painters and composers do not find inspiration in Chemistry and physics. One possible answer worth testing is that science has today become too specialized for any but its own devotees to comprehend it. This seems plausible, for clearly when the biochemist cannot know what his colleague the astrophysicist is doing; it is useless to expect the poet or the musician to know. Goethe was the last man who sought a commanding position in both science and literature. But the answer, though plausible, is not convincing. Shelley did not need a profound knowledge of the diffraction of light by a prism to write the lines.

Lifelike a dome of many-colored glass

Stains the white radiance of Eternity

Until Death tramples it to fragments

In this magical simile, he has shown how greatly an understanding of science may help the poet’s vision and has emphasized how much we may be missing today from lack of contact between science and creative art. It would be unjust wholly to blame the men of science. Although this is the age of Specialization, it is also the age of popularization. It is an age in which great leaders of science have put their main concepts into language.

Is it possible that the men who would have been the poets in another age are the astronomers and the biologists of today? It has been said, with a measure of exaggeration that Sir Humphrey Davy would have been the first poet of his age if he had not been the first chemist. How many Davys may there be hiding their candles under bell jars in our laboratories today? We know there are some, such as Sherrington, who have published verse with true poetic qualities. But the real poetry of the practitioners of science goes into their scientific works? In their differential equations, their vectors and their tensors they find the perfection of form that others seek in poetry and music.

It may be a partial explanation that science today attracts the best energies of men who in early times would have been the music makers and dreamers of dreams. It may not be true of them, as Darwin confessed it to be true of him, that he has lost his appreciation of artistic forms, that his mind had become a machine for grinding general laws out of collection of facts, but their artistic sense finds sufficient outlet in their own disciplines. There are enough poets of known sensitivity, however, for us to be sure that this is not the whole explanation. If we ask why science, which dominates the outlook of men so much at the present time, has made relatively little impact on poetry, the responsibility must in large part with the poets themselves. They tend to hold themselves aloof, to regard science a little disdainfully. In doing so they impoverish themselves. They can learn something from the writers of prose, for science has provided raw material for not a little imaginative fiction in recent decades. For good or ill, science is reshaping the world around us, and the poet who deliberately cuts himself off from science cuts himself of the life.

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