Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the Lancaster University & Royal Institution's online course, Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp . Join the course to learn more.

Educator's Summary

Each week, our educators and mentors will compile and respond to some questions and comment that have come from learners during discussions. These will be attached to the page by 12pm on November 1st 2019.

Shelley Regnier: “I agree with Davy’s notion that “The role of such men of science (was to) soften the asperities of national hostility.”’

It is interesting that many Romantic writers became conservative (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Davy). When the French revolution first took place (1789) many of them felt as though France was simply catching up with Britain’s so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 but when French expansionism provoked war with Britain and the Terror began in 1793 there was little sympathy. As soon as war was called it became unpatriotic to support the French and with the British government feared insurrection at home and invasion from abroad during the 1790s. It was a decade of suspicion and paranoia, as can be seen in such events as the Treason Trials of 1794. Radicals who continued to support French revolutionary ideals were in danger of being arrested, transported or hanged.

There is much evidence in Davy’s letters of his patriotism. For example, Davy described his journey to Bristol to take up his post at the MPI with Thomas Beddoes to his mother with ‘I came into Exeter in a most joyful time – The celebration of Nelsons victory’. This letter was written on 11 October 1799, it had taken months for news of Nelson’s victor on 1 August at the Battle of the Nile to reach Britain but Davy certainly shared sentiments of joy. In 1804, Davy wrote to his mother: ‘My predictions with regard to invasion, you will find, have been so far fulfilled. God has not intended this favoured island to be desolated by unprincipled ruffians; nor has he intended that the great, the good, and the brave amongst our countrymen should be placed upon a level, and brought into the field to meet the banditti of France’. Later in life, Davy writes some quite shocking things to Lord Liverpool in a letter sometime in the summer of 1815 that perhaps was never sent since we only have a number of draft versions of it. In this letter he seems far more positive about Napoleon than he does about the French people: ‘Bonaparte & the army are no more than the expiatory sacrifices of France. – The sins of the people are laid upon the head of the scape goats & of the burnt offering; but the xxxx the Nation itself is guilty.’ Despite this Davy was still able to enjoy Napoleon’s defeat; after Napoleon’s exile to Elba, Davy writes: ‘I saw Napoleon on his throne defeated & discomfited’.

I guess all of this means that Davy was able to reconcile his patriotism with his sense that scientists are not at war even when their countries are and of course, he courted much controversy in going to collect the Volta medal from Paris during he war. I think that patriotism also motivated some of Davy’s scientific endeavours. He wanted very much to build a larger battery than the French (and succeeded); he raced the French chemist Gay Lussac to be the first to name iodine, and his later efforts to improve the speed of British ships were definitely motivated by national as well as personal aspiration. In of his final projects, the establishment of the zoo in Regent’s Park, London, we can see him being driven by national competition: ‘I hope to see in two or three years a Zoological gallery established & a collection superior to that of the Jardin du Roi.’

Val H: ‘I was struck by the line: “Davy, as might be expected, wrote a poem”. Davy experts (as, no doubt, we all hope to become) might expect this, but it’s not expected of present day scientists - our best hope is that they can put their findings into language that a layperson will understand.’

Davy’s nitrous oxide experiments – on himself and others – are detailed in his book Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, published in 1800, but there also exist unpublished letters and manuscript diary entries from this period. As one would expect, the published account differs considerably from these, for example in adopting a more objective ‘scientific’ tone.

Taking nitrous oxide quickly moved beyond being solely of scientific interest to become a pleasurable pastime for the collection of like-minded men gathered around Beddoes and Davy in Bristol. Indeed, Davy speaks of taking his green silk bag of gas along with him on a moonlight walk in an attempt to enhance by artificial means his experience of the sublime: ‘On May 5th, at night, after walking for an hour amidst the scenery of the Avon, at this period rendered exquisitely beautiful by bright moonshine; my mind being in a state of agreeable feeling, I respired six quarts of newly prepared nitrous oxide’ (Researches, 491-2). The experience lasts beyond the length of his walk and he experiences that night an ‘intermediate state between sleeping and waking’ of ‘vivid and agreeable dreams’ (Researches, 492). This trance-like state between dream and vision is one that we hear of in a number of Romantic poems, from Shelley’s ‘Triumph of Life’ to Keats’s The Fall of Hyperion; it is a state that De Quincey and Coleridge describe as opium-induced, and clearly nitrous oxide could have the same effect.

When Davy visits the Wye valley to see Tintern Abbey by moonlight later in 1800, he experiences a kind of ‘reverie’ and we might speculate that nitrous oxide was involved on this occasion too. Davy clearly thinks the drug offers access to the sublime, and after breathing it on 26 December 1799 records in a notebook that taking it makes him feel like he has become a ‘sublime being’ himself. In another notebook he records these sublime experiences in a poem titled ‘On breathing the Nitrous Oxide’: ‘Yet are my limbs with inward transports thrill’d / And clad with new born mightiness round’. The identification of the experience as a ‘reverie’ alerts us to its potential as a counterpart of the Romantic poet’s experience. In ‘Lines Written a few Miles Above Tintern Abbey’ for example, Wordsworth describes how in

that serene and blessed mood, In which the affections gently lead us on, Until, the breath of this corporeal frame, And even the motion of our human blood Almost suspended, we are laid asleep In body, and become a living soul: While with an eye made quiet by the power Of harmony, and the deep power of joy, We see into the life of things. (lines 41-9)

When the breath and the circulation of the blood are almost ‘suspended’, when our bodies are ‘asleep’, we enter into a new kind of consciousness and thus can see more deeply ‘into the life of things’. Wordsworth is here describing the new vision brought on by a trance that is not chemically induced but is the result of harmony and joy, a ‘serene and blessed mood’. Davy was asked by Coleridge and Wordsworth to proofread the second volume of the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800); while this volume did not contain ‘Tintern Abbey’, he would surely have known the poem. In a notebook dated ‘Clifton 1800’ Davy parodied Wordsworth’s lyrical ballad form in a notebook poem, ‘As I was walking up the street’; the poem even mentions Wordsworth by name (‘By poet Wordsworths Rymes [sic]). For Davy, nitrous oxide offered an enhancement of the sublime experience, and seemed, at times, even capable of creating the sublime.

I think it is important to remember that poems such as ‘On breathing nitrous oxide’ was something just quickly jotted down in a notebook. Davy never even copied it out in a neat hand and as far as we know, it only exists here in this one instance. I feel pretty sure that it was either composed while under the influence of nitrous oxide or soon after and is an attempt to get his feelings immediately down on paper. There is some evidence in the poem that he was struggling to express what he was feeling. Davy certainly never intended this poem to be published or possibly to be read by anyone else. I would never argue that it is a good poem but it is still interesting.


Share this article:

This article is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University