Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds Davy now began to reflect on the overall purpose of science, and the possibilities of it benefiting humanity on a new scale. In perhaps his most powerful lyric poem, ‘The Massy Pillars of the Earth’, Davy celebrates this idea in nine oddly hymn-like stanzas. Developing his previous idea of transformations, Davy now suggests that science shows that nothing is ever really destroyed in the physical universe. This promises a kind of immortality for man. If matter cannot be destroyed, the living mind can never die. Drawing imagery from his own lamp, he believes the “ethereal fire” of science once lit will always burn brightly. It’s a strong and a confident poem, but also perhaps an arrogant one.
Skip to 1 minute and 3 seconds In 1812, Davy had been knighted and married a wealthy young Scottish socialite, Jane Apreece. As Sir Humphry and Lady Jane, they were now the most celebrated scientific couple in Europe. They embarked on a series of triumphant Continental tours, which would last on and off for another decade. Inspired by the landscapes and geology of the Alps and the Pyrenees, Davy wrote a number of long blank verse descriptive poems like ‘Mont Blanc’ and ‘Canigou’. Later in Italy, at the Bagni di Lucca to take the healing waters, Davy wrote more meditative poems reflecting on his life, his lost youth, and his unfulfilled ambitions.
Skip to 1 minute and 50 seconds Notable among these is ‘The Fireflies’ written while wandering alone along the banks of the River Serchio where these tiny creatures like animated lamps dancing beneath the moon brought him temporary relief and joy. These poems now seem influenced by the Romantic poetry of Lord Byron whom he’d met on these tours. And Byron put Sir Humphry Davy’s lantern into his own poem, ‘Don Juan’, in a lively stanza beginning ‘this is the patent age of new inventions’. Like his father before him, Davy had a stroke at the early age of 48 and retired from the Presidency of the Royal Society in 1827.
Skip to 2 minutes and 38 seconds He was now living separately from his wife, Jane, and his last Continental journeys were undertaken first with his faithful brother, John Davy, and then alone. He drifted through the Austrian and Julian Alps on the borders of Slovenia, following the River Sava, fishing, writing scientific notes, and jotting down fragments of poetry. He completed a book of dialogues, Salmonia, or Days of Fly Fishing, in 1828 which explored such curious questions as whether fish feel pain. This was accompanied by several beautiful short lyric poems of exile, old age, and a growing fear of death like ‘And When the Light of Life is Flying’ in 1825, and ‘Our Life is Like a Cloudy Sky ‘Midst Mountains;.
Skip to 3 minutes and 32 seconds These express surprisingly tender feelings of what he called “gloom and alternate sunshine”. They were also last fragmentary love poems about a young woman who nursed him in the village of Laybach back in Illyria. “Kiss me Papina, kiss me again.” In his last year, 1829, as he grew weaker, Davy continued to experiment on the electrical properties of the torpedo fish and sent papers back to the Royal Society. He worked on a remarkable last book, part autobiography, part science fiction, and part poetic visions, Consolations in Travel, or, The Last Days of a Philosopher. This is perhaps the first autobiography of a professional scientist in English. Davy said, “it contains the essence of my philosophical opinions, and some of my poetical reveries”.
Skip to 4 minutes and 34 seconds In the fifth dialogue, ‘The Chemical Philosopher’, Davy summarised much of what he believed about the role of the scientist, the immortal nature of the human spirit, and the relations between scientific research and the poetic imagination. He wrote “whilst chemical pursuits exalt the understanding, they do not depress the imagination or weaken genuine feeling”.
Skip to 5 minutes and 2 seconds So, in sum, Davy’s little-known poems are closely related to his research work as a chemist, as a popular lecturer, and as an early philosopher of Romantic science.
Davy Among the Poets II
Watch this video, in which Professor Richard Holmes considers some of Davy’s later poetry including a poem that you heard earlier ‘When the light of life is flying’.
You can also play some audio files of Davy’s later poems attached to the end of step 2.1, such as ‘To the Fire-Flies’.
How does Davy’s poetry change as he gets older?
Davy would have considered himself a ‘natural philosopher’ rather than a ‘scientist’. Can you see this wider philosophical perspective in his later poems?
Many thanks to Dr Andrew Lacey for sourcing some of the images for this video.
If you’re interested in reading further, see the related resources:
Richard Holmes’s book The Age of Wonder has a great deal on Davy’s science and poetry.
Wahida Amin’s PhD thesis is entirely on this subject and can be accessed online for free.
© Lancaster University