Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds Not many people know that Sir Humphry Davy wrote poetry. This week we’ll be asking to what extent can Davy’s chemistry be considered imaginative and creative? We’ll look at Davy’s friendships with poets, his own poetic output, and his views on the similarities and differences between science and poetry. In fact, Davy wrote poetry from an early age until his last years. He wrote poetry in a variety of forms and genres and on a range of topics. It has been estimated that there are over 150 poems written in his personal notebooks held here at the Royal Institution.
Skip to 0 minutes and 43 seconds Davy writes poems on the landscape of his childhood in Cornwall, such as the poem called “Lines,” which has the catchy subtitle, “Descriptive of feelings produced by a Visit to the place where the first nineteen years of my Life were spent, on a stormy day, after an absence of thirteen months.” He writes poems on his experiments with nitrous oxide; the safety lamp; philosophical poems reflecting on life, his fame, and his mortality; as well as poems written on his travels abroad and within Britain.
Skip to 1 minute and 13 seconds Since only a few of his poems were published in his lifetime, many of them exist in varying states of completion in manuscript sheets and notebooks in amongst records of his scientific experiments, accounts of his travel and illustrations of geological strata. Davy was proud of his poetry. He would recite it at parties and circulate it in manuscript. The novelist Walter Scott said, “I have myself heard Davy repeat poetry of the highest order of composition.” And Scott’s son-in-law, John Gibson Lockhart, claimed, “Davy was, by nature, a poet.” So can we ask whether it’s possible to think of Davy’s science and his scientific writing as themselves poetical?
Skip to 1 minute and 55 seconds Throughout his scientific writings, Davy claims that chemistry is concerned with what he calls, “Continual transmutations and changes of” things. Later, in his 1812 book, Elements of Chemical Philosophy, Davy reiterates the point that, “Most of the substances belonging to our globe are constantly undergoing alterations in sensible qualities, and one variety of matter becomes as it were transmuted into another.” In Davy’s mind, chemistry and the imagination have the power to transform one thing into another. Chemistry has the power to modify elements and forms, to make solids into gases, or to reveal new elements through chemical processes. Similarly, the poetic imagination can modify and transform the world around us.
Skip to 2 minutes and 42 seconds In July 1800, on the suggestion of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the poet William Wordsworth asked Davy to proof read the second volume of the Lyrical Ballads. This book would become one of the most important of the period, held up as a manifesto for a new kind of writing, now called Romantic. After reading the Preface in which Wordsworth claimed that poetry was the opposite of science, Davy asserted in his 1802 Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures, that chemistry was just as imaginative and creative as poetry. Next, we’ll hear from the biographer, Professor Richard Holmes, on Davy’s poetry, and from the chemist, Professor Mark Miodownik on Davy’s scientific achievements.
Skip to 3 minutes and 22 seconds We’ll look at Davy’s notebooks with Professor Frank James, Head of Collections at the Royal Institution, and think about how Davy used his poetic talents in the lectures he gave here.
Davy as a Poet and a Chemist
This week, we will focus on Humphry Davy’s poetry and its connections with his chemistry.
Watch this video, in which Professor Sharon Ruston discusses some of the key ideas for the coming week.
She will introduce Humphry Davy’s poetic writings, give an overview of the kinds of poems that he wrote and how they now exist in manuscript form rather than as published works.
While watching the film, have a think about the following questions:
Can you think of examples of when science has been creative and imaginative?
What similarities might there be between poetry and chemistry?
NB. There is a tiny mistake in Professor Ruston’s reading of the ‘Lines’ poem subtitle. Feel free to point this out and think about the difference it makes if any.
Many thanks to Dr Andrew Lacey for sourcing some of the images for this video.
Audio recordings of some of Davy’s poems
If you would like to, you can listen to Professor Keith Hanley read a selection of Davy’s poems. You can access these in the downloads section below. Davy’s poems are difficult to get hold of - some were published in his brother’s memoir in 1836 - but this may well be the first time anyone has recorded these poems. If you have the time and the inclination, see what you think of them!
‘Oh, most magnificent and noble Nature!’
‘The massy pillars of the earth’
‘To the Fire-Flies’
‘Think not that I forget the days’