Summing up

Each week, mentors will compile a short list of questions that have come from learners during discussions to ask the educators, Professor Frank James and Professor Sharon Ruston.

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2.3 Karen Dow

A lovely reading of the poem [‘Sons of Genius’]. I was very much enjoying it at first but then felt it went on a bit too long and became rather self indulgent. Davy seemed to me to characterise sons of genius as being philosophers in ivory towers only descending once the great opus was ready. Interesting stance for a scientist I feel. Did he classify himself as a son of genius?

While some learners have enjoyed Davy’s now best-known poem, ‘Sons of Genius’ others have not enjoyed its length or have thought it not very good at all. This was also Davy’s earliest poem, written at the age of 17. I thought I would give some sense of what his contemporaries thought of his poetry and then say something of why I think it’s of interest to us today. To answer Karen’s question immediately though, I’m absolutely certain that Davy did think he was one of the ‘sons of genius’!
A number of important poets and writers of Davy’s time thought very highly of his poetry. For example, in his 1817 poetry collection Sibylline Leaves, S. T. Coleridge wrote that Davy was

a man who would have established himself in the first rank of England’s living Poets, if the Genius of our country had not decreed that he should rather be the first in the first rank of its Philosophers and scientific Benefactors. (p. 90)

Walter Scott agreed, noting that Coleridge’s compliment was “as just as it is handsomely recorded” and added, “I have myself heard [Davy] repeat poetry of the highest order of composition” (Letters 11:442). Joseph Cottle, the publisher of the Lyrical Ballads, described Davy with much the same: “it was impossible to doubt, that if he had not shone as a philosopher, he would have become conspicuous as a poet” (Letters 1:263). John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law and editor of the Quarterly Review, is also glowing in his praise: “an illustrious philosopher, who was also a true poet – and might have been one of the greatest of poets had he chosen” (Letters 2:275). Lockhart later noted: “Davy was by nature a poet” (Letters 6:244). In 1799, Robert Southey told Davy he thought that one of the poems he published in first volume of the Annual Anthology on Mount’s Bay had an “elevation” in its blank verse like an “organ swell,” which he had also felt “from the rythm [sic] of Milton” (Southey Letters, 4 May 1799). But privately to William Taylor, Southey declared of “Sons of Genius,” that “towards the close … there are some fine stanzas, but as a whole it is tedious and feeble” (Southey Letters, 27 October 1799). In turn, Taylor considered Davy’s poem “Song of Pleasure” to be “brilliant … but he has not breathed the air of Helicon so familiarly as the light of nature, or not so inspiringly” (qtd. in Fullmer, p. 129). The play on the idea of inspiration presumably refers to Davy’s chemical experiments with gases and his extensive tests on himself with the euphoria‑inducing nitrous oxide. ‘Sons of Genius’ was published in Southey’s Annual Anthology so it is one of the poems Coleridge, Southey, Cottle, Peter Mark Roget, and the Bristol set at that time knew. In the poem Davy pictures a ‘poor shepherd’ who ‘Surveys the darkening scene with fearful eye’, imagining that he sees ‘haggard sprites’ in the ‘moonbeams’ (ll. 13–16). There were some great discussions of the word ‘haggard’ in this step! Superstition, in this poem, ‘rules the vulgar soul’ and does not allow ‘the energies of man to rise’ (ll. 17–18). In contrast, ‘Aspiring genius’ loves the moonlit night because then ‘Reason extends her animating sway, / O’er the calm empire of the peaceful mind’ (ll. 20, 27–8). The power of reason is described as governing the mind and — gendered female — her reign is described, in a commonplace metaphor, as an ‘all-enlightening ray’ that drives all the ‘gloomy terrors’ of superstition away (ll. 29, 31). The effect of ‘Reason’ upon the sons of genius may be superficially like that of the sublime: ‘Inspired by her’, they ‘rise’, and are ‘Enraptured’ (ll. 33, 36). Scientific work can bring greater calm though: ‘To scan the laws of Nature, to explore / The tranquil reign of mild Philosophy’ (ll. 77–8). The ‘sons of genius’ are ‘By science calmed’ and peace ‘drives the puny passions away’ (ll. 91, 94). In other words, science brings calm while reason excites.

2.4 Liz Ross

Davy revised this poem [‘Written after recovery from a dangerous illness’] several times as he grew older, as did Wordsworth with his ‘Prelude’. This time series shows the poem must have conveyed something important about his beliefs, and his revisions (like Wordsworth’s) show a more conservative approach from the youthful daring of his earliest version ‘The Spinosist’, relinquishing the sublime to become more establishment.

I suspect that this poem was the best known during Davy’s lifetime. One of Davy’s early friends Clement Carlyon remembers Davy giving him a copy of this poem and Davy reading it out at a party: “at the request of Coleridge” (1: 235). Lockhart must be referring to this poem when he writes: “for who that has read his sublime quatrains on the doctrine of Spinoza can doubt that he might have united, if he had pleased, in some great didactic poem, the vigorous ratiocination of Dryden and the moral majesty of Wordsworth?” (6:245). The first version of this poem is found in a notebook (now at the Royal Institution) and is called “The Life of the Spinosist” (Davy RI HD 13c: 7‑10). I have recently discovered that Davy printed a revised version of this poem in around 1807. An imprint of this “original impression” has survived inserted into Michael Faraday’s copy of Paris’s Life in the Royal Institution archive. The same poem is published in this revised form by John Ayrton Paris in his 1831 Life of Sir Humphry Davy (Paris 84‑86), and by John Davy in his 1836 Memoirs, and this is the first time it is given the title “Written After Recovery from a Dangerous Illness” (1: 390‑92). A very different version of the poem with the title “Life” also appeared anonymously in a book edited by Joanna Baillie in 1823 (Baillie 156‑62). This was clearly a poem that Davy valued enough to publish twice in his lifetime and which he continued to work on and revise throughout. We have a letter from Coleridge to Davy written on 9 October 1800 in which he tells Davy that thought that the poem good but that he has a number of pointers for its improvement:

In your Poem “impressive” is used for impressible or passive, is it not? – If so, it is not English – life‑diffusive likewise is not English – The last Stanza introduces confusion into my mind, and despondency – & has besides been so often said by the Materialists &c, that it is not worth repeating –. If the Poem had ended more originally, in short, but for the last Stanza, I will venture to affirm that there were never so many lines which so uninterruptedly combined natural & beautiful words with strict philosophic Truths, i.e. scientifically philosophical (Letters 1: 630)

All of the changes Coleridge suggested were made: Davy crosses out the words Coleridge objected to in his notebook and the new words suggested are written over them. Coleridge is most impressed with the poem’s ability to express scientific truth beautifully. This version of the poem contains ten stanzas, discernible despite the crossings out and revisions. They fall into quatrains, loosely of iambic pentameter, with lines rhyming alternately. Spinosists believe that matter and thought are attributes of God and this poem explores this view, showing us an active nature in the eternal process of becoming living forms, constantly transmuting into other, new forms. The later form of the poem “Life” is very different from the earlier versions here considered. It certainly is not the case that the earlier poem is simply incorporated into the longer one, though consideration of the longer poem further explicates the shorter one, since many ideas are unpacked at greater length in “Life”. In the same vein as the earlier versions, this poem imagines an individual life, from infancy to death, of a person who is always referred to by the pronoun “it”, perhaps to suggest that the imagined subject could be female as much as male. The “Life” poem is less concerned with matter changing into other forms; much of this material has been left behind. In the first stanza, the “ministering spirits from above” are made more responsible for the new life that is witnessed, where in the earlier published and manuscript versions “bounteous Nature” “gives” the “flames of life”, which are merely poured over the earth by “kindling spirits” (Memoirs 1: 390, ll. 1‑4). The “Life” poem still concerns new life but at the start of the poem perhaps this is less the coming of spring than the beginning of the universe: “Where all was dull and dark, inert and cold, / Now power and motion, light and heat abound” (Baillie: Poems 156, ll. 5‑6). The words “dark” and “inert” were used in the ‘Written after…’ poem to describe the way that all “mortal things” would be but for the “power” of the “One Intelligence” (Memoirs 1: 390, ll. 10‑14). In “Life” the reference to the earth’s dynamic forces is new and the “power” exercised is “creative” (Baillie: Poems 157, l. 21). Perhaps referring to the ‘Written after’ version, in his Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine review of Salmonia, John Wilson writes:

independently of his great scientific attainments, [Davy] has the reputation of being a man of taste and literature. Nay, in his early manhood, Sir Humphry was even a bit of a poet: and we have read a published poem of his, that appeared to us to lift up and set down its feet with considerable vigour and alacrity, even like one of Mr Ducrow’s horses dancing on a platform to a band of music. (Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 24 (1828), 248-72 (p. 248))

It is clear that Davy’s work as a poet was generally known far beyond his immediate social circle, if sometimes — as here — heavily criticised. Wilson is here really quite rude about the poem when he compares it to the sound of horse’s hooves. In a more positive vein, writing specifically of the last incarnation of ‘Life’, Melesina Chenevix St. George Trench noted:

Sir Humphry Davy’s contribution, called Human Life, is a very fine bird’s-eye view of existence, chiefly as connected with the Deity – commencing from, and returning to, the Divine Essence – in the enjoyment of whose favour, and the possession of knowledge, he makes our heaven to consist. (The Remains of the Late Mrs. Richard Trench, p. 494)

Such appraisals show just how far Davy’s religious sentiments had come from their Spinosist beginnings. By contrast, the final 1823 version of the poem presents far more orthodox Christian sentiments, ‘pious statements’, which Joanna Baillie thought ‘would do good to all the young men of the kingdom’ were they to read them (Letters. I, 497).

2.6 Alison Wake

The poem [‘And when the light of life’] is different in style to “The Sons of Genius”. It is shorter, less rambling, less flowery, fewer allusions to classical myth, fewer exclamations. It is, due to all of the aforementioned, far more impactful as it keeps close to its theme. Common threads through the poems we have studied are mortality, night and the stars. I am not sure I understand what is meant by the “Romantic Sublime”. If it means a sense of wonder at Nature, then that is still present in his description of the lightning and the thousands of stars.

Yes, the lyric ‘And when the light of life’ (my favourite poem by Davy) is very different from ‘Sons of Genius’. The first poem was written in 1799 and the later poem in 1825. He had his first stroke in 1827 and died in 1829. His thoughts clearly turned to ideas of mortality and to thinking about future existence after death. I think that Davy held the theory that the atoms we are made of (not atoms as we understand them now) would continue to exist but transform into new substances and forms. We can see a lifelong preoccupation with light in Davy’s poetry — whether moonlight, the sun’s rays, the light of fire-flies or glow worms — and this can be linked to his scientific researches into light and heat. Edmund Burke’s aesthetic theory of the sublime, as set out in An Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757), is an extremely important text for Romantic painters and writers. Here, Burke argued that feelings of terror and dread evoke a powerful psychological response. Subjects such as seemingly infinite space, overwhelming mountains, and open seas, could elicit such a response. Protected from real danger by being at a safe distance, the viewer experiences a kind of mental blockage at the immensity of, say, the mountain or ocean, and the experience momentarily obliterates the viewer’s sense of their self:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully, is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other, nor by consequence reason on that object which employs it. Hence arises the great power of the sublime, that, far from being produced by them, it anticipates our reasonings, and hurries us on by an irresistible force. (Burke, 1999, p. 64)

Far from being a horrible experience, the dread that is felt gives way to ‘delight’ and the viewer is left changed by this encounter with the sublime. Burke’s theories clearly owed much to his conservative notions of gender in which the ‘beautiful’ is described as small, delicate and weak, while the sublime is a masculine ‘Power’ and is characterised as dominant, controlling and strong. It is clear from the evidence of ‘The Sons of Genius’ and other poems that Davy has read Burke. He is careful to distinguish between the sublime and the beautiful and to gender these accordingly: the beautiful is ‘soft and fair’, while the ‘grander scenes of nature’ are described as ‘great, sublime, and terrible’ (ll. 53–6). The ‘sons of genius’ are delighted and moved by both kinds of scenes. In 1818 John Keats identified two kinds of poets: one of which he describes as the Wordsworthian or ‘egotistical sublime’ (Norton, 2006, II, 947). Keats does not place himself within this category of poet. An ‘egotist’ is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘one who thinks or talks too much of himself’. In another letter to John Hamilton Reynolds that speaks of Wordsworth as an ‘egotist’, Keats writes:

Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle it or amaze it with itself but with its subject. How beautiful are the retired flowers! How would they lose their beauty were they to throng into the highway crying out, ‘Admire me, I am a violet!’, ‘Dote upon me, I am a primrose!’ (3 February 1818).

For Keats, a poet of the ‘egotistical sublime’ is ‘a thing per se’ which ‘stands alone’: it is a thing in itself, without need of any other agency to create or sustain it (Norton, 2006, II, 947). Coleridge and Wordsworth are examples of subjective poets where the ego governs and unifies poetic experience. Nature and the external world are experienced through the poet. The other kind of poetical character is the category to which Keats believes he (and Shakespeare!) belong, one that he calls the ‘camelion poet’ (Norton, 2006, II, 947). This character has no self, is not a whole individual who can stand alone but instead belongs nowhere, inhabits many different skins and has no identity of its own. Just as chameleons can change the colour of their skin to adapt to their environments, these poets can assume the identity of the character they write about. They are less concerned with talking of themselves and more concerned with the feelings and lives of others. This distinction can be seen as a fundamental division between poets. John Clare is another who might be regarded as a ‘camelion poet’; instead of making himself the subject of the poem and being concerned with nature only in so far as it reflects this self, Clare often writes as if he were nature, speaking from the perspective of the land and the animals that live on it, enjoying nature for its own sake. To conclude, I would have to say that Davy’s use of the sublime (from ‘Sons of Genius’ onwards) aligns with what Keats calls the ‘Wordsworthian sublime’ rather than the ‘camelion poet’.

  1. 7 Adam Birdsall

Davy expresses an optimistic view of the role of science in his present day [in Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures]. He points to concrete advancements: a better understanding of gases, the atmosphere, electricity, the building blocks of life. Those specific pieces of evidence bolster his claim that scientific advances really will improve society and give humanity greater “creative” powers. Science is framed as a way for people not to just understand, but “master” Nature.

Davy’s Discourse, Introductory to a Course of Lectures (1802) uses the word ‘sublime’ seven times, and testifies to Jan Golinski’s point that popular scientific lecturers, and Davy in particular, ‘gave way to transports of rhetorical intensity’ (Golinski 2009, p. 547). Davy’s is not necessarily a democratic vision; he is giving this lecture on behalf of the landed gentry who run the Royal Institution but it is an optimistic text. Davy uses the language of the sublime in these lectures to impress his audience, to excite and awe them. From the outset, Davy writes that the subject of these lectures — chemistry — is a sublime one (Collected Works, II, 310). He writes that chemistry and natural history are intimately related, for while the latter concerns itself with the bodies of the external world ‘in their permanent and unchanging forms’, chemistry instead looks at ‘the laws of their alterations’ and the ‘active powers’ within them (Collected Works, II, 312). There are slight, possible references to his previous work, which suggest a desire to qualify his earlier claims: admitting that man knows ‘little of the laws of his own existence’, he has still ‘derived some useful information concerning the nature of respiration’ (Collected Works, II, 314). In the next sentence though he comments that the connection of chemistry and physiology has ‘given rise to some visionary and seductive theories’, which coming so close to a reference to respiration might suggest that he is referring to the nitrous oxide experiments (Collected Works, II, 314). The lecture concerns the many ways in which chemistry is a useful science, detailing all of the sciences it aids. The invention of glass is held to be a particularly important achievement of chemistry, without which ‘the sublime researches of the moderns concerning heat and light would have been wholly lost to us’ (Collected Works, II, 317–18). He goes on to compare ‘primitive’ man with civilized man who has all the benefits and enjoyments provided by scientific knowledge. ‘Science’ has given to man ‘creative’ powers that enable him to

modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments. (Collected Works, II, 319)

The chemist, then, does not simply study the active powers of nature, he is in possession of active powers, able to ‘modify and change’ other beings. The chemist can change matter into other forms, such as solids into gases through sublimation, reveal the existence of previously unknown elements through the use of instruments such as galvanism, and control other transformative activities and processes. Davy’s chemist is not the subject of nature but superior to it. Though chemistry is a branch of ‘sublime philosophy’ it has much still to achieve. It can produce, by means of our instruments of experiment, an almost infinite variety of minute phænomena, yet we are incapable of determining the general laws by which they are governed; and in attempting to define them, we are lost in obscure, though sublime imaginations concerning unknown agencies. (Collected Works, II, 320)
Here again, Davy may be referring privately to his own speculations on the laws that govern existence. Such thoughts are ‘sublime’ though and they are also to be encouraged. He continues by saying that he is confident that these general laws ‘will be discovered’ at some point (Collected Works, II, 320). Later in the Discourse, he writes that ‘The study of nature, therefore, in her various operations must be always more or less connected with the love of the beautiful and sublime’ (Collected Works, II, 325). This means, specifically, that chemistry is connected with the beautiful and the sublime, and ‘in consequence of the extent and indefiniteness of the views it presents to us, it is eminently calculated to gratify and keep alive the more powerful passions and ambitions of the soul’ (Collected Works, II, 325). The views gained by chemical study are themselves sublime (characterized as large and indefinite), and they have a sublime effect upon us.

Sharon Ruston, Lancaster University

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Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

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