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Skip to 0 minutes and 6 secondsIn one of his notebooks, which is now held here at the Royal Institution's Collections, Davy began writing a poem about his experiences with the safety lamp priority dispute. It's difficult to know exactly when Davy used this notebook, but sometime between 1819 and 1827, so some years after the events themselves had happened. The poem is unfinished, a fragment really, and we can see lots of crossings out and insertions over the lines as Davy wrote the poem. As one of the editors of Davy's letters, I'm continually struggling with Davy's handwriting. In a moment you'll see the original poem, and I would welcome your comments on my transcription and interpretation of it.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsThe poem is titled 'Thought After the Ingratitude of the Northumbrians with Respect to the Safety Lamp', which immediately gives you a sense of his view on the matter.

Skip to 0 minutes and 57 secondsI'll read my transcription now. "And though in all my intercourse with man, / The feelings recollected scarcely leave / Aught to admire or glory in. Though good has been replaced with evil. And a light / Of science and humanity received / With stern ingratitude. Yet have I not / Recanted or relaxed in labours high / For these my enemies. And if a chill of indignation has oppressed my mind. / It was but transitory like the chill of a snow cloud in summer. / Which though dark and threatening soon in genial dews / Dissolves to vivify the parched earth.

Skip to 1 minute and 38 seconds/ And I have not both coldness and unkindness / As the fair plant of Ceylon, which when cut / Does not alone perfume the axe, but gives a balmy oil / Which preserves its harsh and sullen texture from decay." He's really quite unhappy at the beginning of this poem. When he remembers his dealings with men over the past years, they rarely offered anything worth admiration or glory. Obviously the light of science and humanity is the miners' safety lamp itself, as well as the scientific knowledge behind it. Perhaps the first word I'm not 100% sure of is "recanted". I've wondered whether this was "resorted" instead.

Skip to 2 minutes and 18 secondsHave a look at the way that Davy writes his "s" in the next line, for example, in the word "these". Both of these words would work to produce a particular sentiment. Davy did not recant in the sense that he never relinquished his belief that he was the one who invented the lamp first. But perhaps he means instead that he never resorted to the methods of those who attacked him. In any case, Davy writes that he has not stopped working on his important labours since then. He claims that the indignation felt has only been a transitory emotion.

Skip to 2 minutes and 49 secondsHe likens it to a snow cloud in summer that actually does more good than harm in the much needed watering of the parched earth. In the poem, the oil from the unnamed plant from Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, "now only perfumes the blade of the axe that wounds it", it also preserves the tree itself from decay. Something seemingly negative also has a positive effect. We can see in the manuscript that Davy has changed the word "wounded" to "when cut". This offers him the same number of syllables, but is quite a different kind of word I think. "Wound" is far more emotive than "cut".

Skip to 3 minutes and 25 secondsI think he changes this word to make it clear that the experience was one of a necessary cut rather than an emotional wound. Perhaps we see here Davy's final word on the matter. Certainly he seems to be giving us his reflections or considered thoughts. The final message is that while he remains bitter about the experience, he is also resilient.

Davy’s Unfinished Manuscript Poem on the Safety Lamp

In this video, Professor Sharon Ruston examines a fragmentary, unfinished manuscript poem that Davy wrote about the safety lamp.

It has the title ‘Thoughts after the ingratitude of the Northumbrians with respect to the Safety Lamp’. It is only a fragment, so unfinished, but it gives us an idea of what Davy thought about the safety lamp episode some years after it had happened.

  • What do you think about the sentiments expressed in this poem?

  • Do you think the difficult word is ‘resorted’ or ‘recanted’ and why?

  • Does this poem tell us anything about why Davy used poetry (instead of other forms of writing) to express himself?

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This video is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University

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