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On Davy and Nature

In Sections 3.9 and 4.1, Margaret M asked about Davy and his connection with nature and whether he found peace in nature on his final European tour, on which he died. In this essay, Frank P explores Davy’s thoughts and responses to nature and includes some passages from his writings.

As we have discussed over the last four weeks, Davy was strongly attracted to the natural world. We have seen this through the natural imagery in his poetry and through biographical details that link him with Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth and Walter Scott climbed Helvellyn in the Lake District with him and Coleridge imagined climbing Skiddaw, Glaramara and Eagle Crag with him. Both poets tried to persuade Davy to move to the Lake District to join them, where they would even build and equip a small laboratory for him.

Davy showed in much of his writing his attachment to nature, especially when discussing geology. In his first lecture on geology in the 1805 series, he wrote:

 Geology, perhaps more than any other department of natural philosophy, is a science of 
 contemplation. It requires no experience or complicated apparatus, no minute processes upon 
 the unknown properties of matter. It demands only an enquiring mind and senses alive to the 
 facts almost everywhere presented in nature. (from: Humphry Davy on Geology. The 1805 
 Lectures for the General Audience. Edited by Robert Siegfried and Robert Dott)

The lectures urge people to explore the natural world. Davy discusses localities that many of his audience would have visited on their own travels or would have read about in the ever-expanding market for travel literature. He writes further of the enjoyment of studying geology:

 The imagery of a mountain country, which is the very theatre of the science, is in almost all 
 cases highly impressive and delightful […] To the geological inquirer every mountain chain 
 offers striking monuments of the great alterations that the globe has undergone. The most 
 sublime speculations are awakened, the present is disregarded, past ages crowd upon the 
 fancy, and the mind is lost.

There were ten lectures in Davy’s series and they covered most of the current discoveries, theories and accounts of the subject. Two years later, Davy would be one of the founding members of the Geological Society.

Davy travelled widely observing and commenting on natural phenomena and in the scientific papers he wrote he would include passages that conveyed his wonder of nature. Here is an example from an essay published in the Royal Society’s journal, Philosophical Transactions (1819, No. 109), ‘Some observations on the formation of mists in particular situations’:

 During a voyage to and from Pola, I passed the nights of September 3, 5, and 6, off the coast 
 of Istria (in the Adriatic Sea); there was very little wind on either of the nights, and from sun- 
 set till nearly midnight it was perfectly calm in all of them. On the third it was cloudy, and the 
 lightning was perceived from a distant thunder storm […] but on the 5th and 6th the sky was 
 perfectly clear, and the zodiacal light, after sun-set, wonderfully distinct and brilliant.

Later when further looking for mist on water he observes the crater lake on Monte Albano near Rome:

 Before sunrise, there not being a breath of wind, a dense white cloud of a pyramidal form was 
 seen on the site of Alban Lake, and rising far above the highest peak of the mountain, its forms 
 gradually changed after sun-rise, its apex first disappeared, and its body, as it were, melted 
 away in the sun beams.

His writing also shows his love of mountain climbing, especially volcanoes where is curiosity took him close to eruptions. In another paper published in Philosophical Transactions (1828, No. 118), ‘On the phenomena of volcanoes’, he goes into detail of his numerous ascents of the volcano collecting data and recording observations. The following quotation was found by Peter Wood and posted in 4.1 concerning an eruption of Vesuvius Davy witnessed from his bedroom window at night:

 I heard the windows shake; and going to the window, I saw ascending from Vesuvius a column 
 of ignited matter to a height at least equal to that of the mountain from its base; and the 
 whole horizon was illuminated, notwithstanding the brightness of the moon, with direst 
 volcanic light, and that reflected from the clouds above the column of ignited matter.

As with the previous extracts, Davy uses a blend of scientific and common vocabulary to describe vivid moments that the Romantic writers would term ‘sublime’. What I enjoy reading about Davy’s encounters with nature is his willingness to fully engage with it and in his insistence, when describing the natural phenomena, to convey his wonder.

Davy’s book, posthumously published in 1830, Consolations in Travel or the Last Days of a Philosopher, is a remarkable volume that contains many passages that directly describe his wonder and his appreciation of nature. What follows is a long passage drawn from ‘Dialogue III. The Unknown’:

 Were my existence to be prolonged through ten centuries, I think I could never forget the 
 pleasure I received on that delicious spot. We alighted from our carriage to take some 
 refreshment, and we reposed upon the herbage under the shade of a magnificent pine 
 contemplating the view around and below us. On the right were the green hills covered with 
 trees stretching to Salerno; beyond them were the marble cliffs which form the southern 
 extremity of the Bay of Sorento; immediately below our feet was a rich and cultivated country 
 filled with vineyards and abounding in villas, in the gardens of which were seen the olive and 
 cypress tree connected as if the memorialize how near to each other, are life and death, joy 
 and sorrow; the distant mountains stretching beyond the plain of Pastum were in the full 
 luxuriance of vernal vegetation; and in the extreme distance, as if in the midst of a desert, we 
 saw the white temples glittering in the sunshine. The blue Tyrrhene sea filled up the outline of 
 this scene, which though so beautiful, was not calm; there was a heavy breeze which blew full 
 from the south-west, it was literally a zephyr, and its freshness and strength in the middle of 
 the day were peculiarly balmy and delightful, it seemed a breath stolen by the spring from the 
 summer. I never saw a deeper brighter azure than that of the waves which rolled toward the 
 shore, and which was rendered more striking by the pure whiteness of their foam. The agitation 
 of nature seemed to be one of breathing and awakening life; the noise made by the waving of 
 the branches of the pine above our heads and by the rattling of its cones was overpowered by 
 the music of a multitude of birds which sung every where in the trees that surrounded us, and 
 the cooing of the turtle-doves was heard even more distinctly than the murmuring of the waves 
 or the whistling of the winds, so that in the strife of nature the voice of love was dominant.

Davy wrote this while on his final tour of Europe. Much of the tour focused on Austria, Italy and present-day Slovenia. Andrew has mentioned in 4.7 the memorial plague to Davy in Podkoren in Slovenia, a place Davy visited many times. This area is renowned for its mountains, caves, forests and rivers and is considered today to be one of the great unspoilt wild places of Europe. Davy clearly loved it. His final book is not a travel journal describing the trip; however, we do have a travel journal describing it written by his godson and travelling companion, John Tobin. The book’s title is Journal of a Tour Made in the Years 1828-1829 through Styria, Carniola and Italy whilst Accompanying the Late Sir Humphry Davy (1832). It is freely available to download as a pdf online. It is a fine little book that describes Tobin’s trip as well as Davy’s. Davy spends his days, when not travelling, largely fishing. He was studying the migratory patterns of salmon and those of birds. Tobin describes spectacular landscapes, mountains that he climbs and rivers that Davy explores. To get a different view of Davy, away from Britain and controversy and one that presents his attachment to the natural world beyond the laboratory, these two volumes are well worth a read. (FP)

On Criticism of Davy

The article in The Times and Davy’s letter in response generated much debate. In the following essay, Sharon adds further context to the controversy.

Thomas Barnes (1785-1841) was editor at The Times in 1824 and his accusation that Davy was freeloading at the expense of the public purse, accompanied by the suggestion that Davy had enjoyed the journey, clearly seems to have touched a nerve. As you have seen Davy was so angry with The Times piece that he took – what I consider to be – the ill advised step of replying immediately and in anger to it. The Times printed what the editor called his ‘very singular letter’ two days later on 18 October 1824. It’s interesting to check out just how ‘factually correct’ some of the editor’s assertions in the original piece were.

Davy’s letter to The Times took the form of a five-point rebuttal moving from the affronted to the petty. Countering the proposal that he had had a ‘summer excursion, at the public expense, to the North Sea and the Baltic’, Davy responded, speaking of himself in the third person, with: ‘It is not true that he had a pleasant voyage. He had a stormy passage out, and a still more stormy passage home; and he wishes the author of the paragraph in question no severer punishment for his inaccuracies and ill-will, if he be a landsman and liable to sea-sickness, than a similar voyage’. It was indeed true that Davy had been very seasick on both journeys, of which there is ample evidence in his letters home. There are a number of letters in which Davy complains about his seasickness: see, for example, his letter to Jane Davy, 20 July 1824. His journey home was also stormy and made him ill; see letter to Jane Davy, 20 August 1824.

The claim – which Davy vehemently refuted – that he had made the journeys at the public expense is borne out in his letters though; Davy is lucky that the editor of The Times did not have access to his private correspondence (as I do!) in which he repeatedly boasted that he had the HMS Comet ‘at his disposal’. Davy wrote to his mother on 22 August 1824 that ‘the Admiralty Steam boat […] was at my disposal’, and to Heinrich Christian Schumacher on 23 August that the Comet was ‘still at my disposal’. Here is an example of private boasting (to his mother and Schumacher) about something he absolutely denies in public.

Finally, it will surprise none of you now to learn that the ships’ bottoms debacle featured in a late poem written by Davy. This poem also tells us something about the connections between Byron and Davy, which learners have also asked about.

Jane Davy told Walter Scott that he and Byron were Davy’s ‘favourite Authors’ (31 March 1825). Davy quoted ‘Churchill’s Grave’ (1816) in a letter of 20 August 1824 and wrote two poems about Byron, one ‘Lord Byron written Whilst Living’ in 1823 and one ‘On the Death of Lord Byron, composed at Westhill in the great storm Nov. 1824’ (RI HD 14/E/108-6 and RI HD 14/E/162-1; these can be read at https://goo.gl/quzNYy). Byron had mentioned the ‘Davy Lamp’ in Canto One of Don Juan: ‘Sir Humphry Davy’s lantern, by which coals / Are safely mined for’. Davy’s poetic engagement with Byron’s work continued throughout his life.

Wahida Amin discovered that Davy wrote his own version of Byron’s satire Don Juan, rewriting the famous line ‘This is the patent age of new inventions’ in a poem called ‘On the Bubbles’ dated December 1823. Instead Davy’s poem begins with the line ‘This is the age of humbug and cant’, which tells us something of Davy’s feelings at this juncture (https://goo.gl/2u4cKV). It is unusual for Davy to write a satirical poem. In it he ridicules the patent of Robert Mushet granted on 14 June 1823:

 We have copper that will not dissolve in the sea.
 The patent secures it quite from decay
 And makes it in voyages bright as the day,
 But every one knows who is not an ass
 That the work of this copper depends upon brass

Mushet is indicated by ‘Mu’ in the manuscript, identified as one who ‘found they had made blunders’. So, Davy took his revenge privately as well as publicly here too, just as he had with the safety lamp episode. I like the idea mooted by learners that poetry is a form of therapy for Davy and here he is in a different mood to that we see in ‘Thoughts after the ingratitude of the Northumbrians with respect to the Safety Lamp’. He has acquired something of Byron’s insouciance here and responds with sharp comedy; in contrast, his sense of humour is sorely lacking from the response to The Times. (SR)

On Davy Among the Poets II

A number of posts refer to Davy’s later poems as being more meditative, examining life’s meaning and mortality, and the diverse inter-connected nature of the earth. He appears to believe, or hope, that the mind never dies, as all matter on earth is never destroyed. In this essay, Sharon explores this aspect of Davy’s poetry and thought.

This final point is something that I think Davy maintains for the whole of his life and it is something I’d like to write my next book about, looking particularly at the relationships that exist between Romantic literature and chemistry. This idea of that ‘all matter on the earth is never destroyed’ but is continually transforming into new forms is there in chemistry (and geology!) but I think it is also a potent metaphor to describe the kinds of political change witnessed at the time too. For example, the French Revolution rouses the character called the Solitary in Wordsworth’s Excursion from his dejection and he describes how from the horrid wreck of the Bastille there rose, or seemed to rise, a new, golden palace in its place. At this moment in time the event seems to augur a new beginning and the Solitary claims: ‘The potent shock / I felt: the transformation I perceived’ (1836: III, 716–17). Speaking from France itself, Helen Maria Williams also considered the Bastille ruins to be ‘transformed, as if with the wand of necromancy, into a scene of beauty and of pleasure’ (1794: 21).

Interconnections between literature and science are not unique to the Romantic period, and nor is the figuring of a new political order as a kind of transformation.

The word ‘transformation’ also allows for the communication of scepticism with regard to the new world order. When the seventeenth-century poet Andrew Marvell seemingly commends Cromwell on his ability to ‘cast the Kingdoms old / Into another mould’ for example, playing with alchemical allusion, he suggests by means of this metaphor that not much has changed (2003: 275, ll. 35–6). Marvell’s ambivalence about Cromwell’s achievement becomes explicit in his use of this metaphor. Lydia Maria Child, the American Abolitionist, in her 1825 novel The Rebels; or Boston before the Revolution, perhaps uses the word transformation in a similar way: ‘On the whole it is evident that another transformation will soon take place. Pitt seems to have the power to lord it over king and parliament’ (1825: 203–204). The fictional letter in which this is written is dated 12 June 1766, a month before William Pitt was given the king’s permission to choose whomever he liked to form the Chatham ministry, which in the event only lasted for a few years (until 1768). Writing with hindsight in 1825, Child perhaps expresses the apathy of the moment. A new ministry means ‘another transformation’ but perhaps not much real political change.

Perhaps the ‘decisive innovation’ in chemistry in the eighteenth century was the recognition that matter can change state while not changing its chemical properties: great progress was made in the study of gases in Britain and France during these years with the growing ‘realization that substances could be made into gases by the addition of heat without changing their chemical nature’ (Golinski 2003: 376). By the date of Percy Shelley’s ‘Preface’ to Prometheus Unbound (1820), in which he declares that poetry creates ‘by combination and representation’, there is an understanding that there is a finite quantity of matter in the world continually circulating but not being created anew. Davy certainly believes this and – as we have seen – his later poetry shows this idea gives him comfort at the end of his life as he contemplates his own mortality. We see it in Davy’s final book, Consolations in Travel, which lots of learners have expressed an interest in this final week.

In Consolations we see Davy’s belief that we are made up of atoms, which will not be destroyed but are shaped into new beings (I mentioned this in Week 2’s summary too). He begins the book at the Coliseum in Rome and muses on the ruin and rebirth of civilisations. Crucially for Davy at the end of his life, the figure named ‘Genius’ tells him: ‘I wish to impress upon you the conviction, that the results of intellectual labour, or of scientific genius, are permanent and incapable of being lost’ (p. 34). He adds: ‘The quantity, or the number of spiritual essences, like the quantity or number of atoms in the material world, are always the same; but their arrangements, like those of the materials which they are destined to guide or govern, are infinitely diversified; they are, in fact, parts more or less inferior of the infinite mind’ (p. 43). This might be like Shelley’s ‘one mind’ perhaps in his essay On Life. The idea embraced by chemists at this time – that matter could neither be created or destroyed but that it was being continually transformed into new bodies – was one that clearly interested and appealed to the Davy and the Romantic poets. I think it offered new ways of thinking about historical and political events, literary creation, identity and selfhood. (SR)

Reading List

I was asked earlier in the course to recommend some further reading on Davy and here is my list:

Amin, Wahida, ‘The Poetry and Science of Humphry Davy’, Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Salford, 2013: https://goo.gl/ENxtEq

Fulford, Tim, ‘The Volcanic Humphry Davy’, in The Regency Revisited, ed. Tim Fulford and Michael Sinatra (New York: Palgrave, 2015), pp. 133-45.

Fullmer, June Z., Young Humphry Davy: the Making of an Experimental Chemist (Philadelphia, 2000).

Golinski, Jan, The Experimental Self: Humphry Davy and the Making of a Man of Science (Chicago, 2016).

James, Frank, ‘How Big Is a Hole? The Problems of the Practical Application of Science in the Invention of the Miners’ Safety Lamp by Humphry Davy and George Stephenson in Late Regency England’, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, lxxv (2005), 175–227.

Jay, Mike, The Atmosphere of Heaven: The Unnatural Experiments of Dr Beddoes and His Sons of Genius (New Haven and London, 2009).

Holmes, Richard, Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (London, 2009).

Knight, David, Humphry Davy: Science and Power (Oxford, 1992).

Lacey, Andrew, ‘Rethinking the Distribution of Cultural Capital in the “Safety Lamp Controversy”: Davy vs Stephenson in Letters to the Newcastle Press, 1816-17, Journal of Literature and Science, ix (2016): https://goo.gl/o6hw4i

Miller, David Philip, ‘Between Hostile Camps: Sir Humphry Davy’s Presidency of the Royal Society of London, 1820-1827’, British Journal for the History of Science, xvi (1983), 1–47.

Ross, Catherine E., ‘“Twin Labourers and Heirs of the Same Hopes”: The Professional Rivalry of Humphry Davy and William Wordsworth’, in Romantic Science: the Literary Forms of Natural History (Albany, 2003).

Ruston, Ruston, Sharon, “The Art of Medicine: When Respiring Gas Inspired Poetry”, The Lancet ccclxxxi (2013), 366–7. https://goo.gl/R2Bq95

Sharrock, Roger, ‘The Chemist and the Poet: Sir Humphry Davy and the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads’, Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, xvii (1962), 57-76.


Concluding Remarks from Frank James

By way of providing a concluding response to all the comments posted on this MOOC over the last month or so, I’d like to address a general issue that, it seems to me, has lurked behind much of the extensive discussion centring on Davy’s character. Namely there seems to be a widespread belief that if someone produces creative work of outstanding value, then they must, or least should, also be of high moral standing. If this turns out not to be the case, it would appear that there must have existed some kind of major disjoint in their character. This trope appears to go back to the Enlightenment when many of its founding figures were portrayed during the eighteenth century, as paragons of virtue. One of the chief exemplars of this approach was Isaac Newton. During the eighteenth century, his work on gravitation, force and optics was taken as the very model of how rational thought could uncover nature’s secrets. Or, as Alexander Pope put it: ‘Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: / God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light’.

William Wordsworth in The Prelude nicely captured this eighteenth-century view, recollecting from his time at St John’s College, Cambridge, and thinking of neighbouring Trinity where Roubiliac’s statue of Newton still stands in its chapel:

 And from my pillow, looking forth by light
 Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold
 The antechapel where the statue stood
 Of Newton with his prism and silent face,
 The marble index of a mind for ever
 Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.

But Wordsworth’s view was not shared by all his Romantic contemporaries as illustrated by William Blake’s image of Newton (rendered by Eduardo Paolozzi into three-dimensional form in the British Library’s piazza) or John Keats’s assertion that Newton ‘destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours’ and proposing a toast to ‘Newton’s health, and confusion to mathematics’. But these were very much minority views and when twenty-one-year-old Davy wrote in his notebook, albeit under the influence of several litres of nitrous oxide, ‘Davy & Newton’, he was expressing his aspiration to eighteenth-century Newtonian excellence.

Despite the occasional Romantic criticisms of Newton, his Enlightenment reputation survived unsullied until the middle of the nineteenth century when David Brewster published his two-volume biography. Brewster a prominent Scottish natural philosopher and one of the founders of the Free Church of Scotland following the ‘disruption’ of 1843, was completely committed to the Newtonian view of the world. However, as he went through Newton’s papers, he found enormous quantities of evidence of Newton’s alchemical work and, what was even worse, in Newton’s voluminous religious writings, evidence that he had been an Arian, a form of Unitarian. As Newton was active during the period of the Glorious Revolution, which among other things restored the supremacy of the Church of England, he would have occasionally been required (to retain public office, for example as an MP) to conform with Anglican Trinitarian practices. On those occasions he seriously perjured himself, which Brewster found repugnant and his Enlightenment image of Newton collapsed. In this Brewster was imposing his own values on Newton and his time. More recent scholars have done much the same kind of thing in studies of Newton’s period as Master of the Mint where he would press for the death penalty for counterfeiters. We do not like it today, but it was standard practice at the time and any other Master would have done the same without provoking historical controversy today. But because Newton was a prominent natural philosopher, becoming an icon of Enlightenment, a herald of a liberal state, people would prefer his actions to have been more in line with modern sensibility rather than of his time.

Davy provides another good example where the character and modern morality does not match with the quality of his scientific researches. Indeed, on the basis of Newton and Davy, one could almost turn the Enlightenment trope on its head and suggest creativity has links with what are regarded as serious character flaws. Fortunately, there are some good counterexamples as well (Faraday, Darwin, Maxwell, Thomson for instance). But that makes the point that trying to draw general conclusions from historical evidence is a highly risky business and illustrates that we should dispense (as far as one can) with one’s preconceived notions of what it was like in the past when approaching figures such as Davy or Newton. Doing so helps historical understanding and helps dispel misleading ahistorical images of individuals and of science and of its place in society and culture both in the past and today. (FJ)

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Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

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