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Davy Among the Poets I

In this video Professor Richard Holmes gives a sense of Davy's early poetry, its concerns, and the different poetic forms that he uses.
Davy was born in Penzance, Cornwall, and possibly his earliest poem reflects on the graves of his ancestors at the local churchyard at Ludgvan. ‘My eyes are wet with tears’. It’s striking for its plain style, and its materialistic views of death apparently rejecting any idea of an immortal soul. His other early poems reflect young Davy’s enthusiasm for the outdoor life, fishing, which remained a passion all his life, shooting, riding, and sketching the landscape. He wrote poems about the wild Cornish countryside like ‘Ode to St Michael’s Mount’, and about an early love affair with a young woman who had fled Revolutionary France. His poems also witness his fascination with scientific books, experiments, storytelling, and speculative ideas.
In ‘The Sons of Genius’, he expressed his passionate ambition to be a great scientist like Sir Isaac Newton and on “Newtonian wings to soar.” In 1798 at 19, Davy moved to Bristol. He formed close friendships with Robert Southey, the literary publisher Joseph Cottle, and, of course, with Coleridge. Coleridge encouraged him to write a long philosophical poem about the nature of life, and whether he had a religious or an atheist view of it. He called it ‘The Spinosist’ dated 1799 and named after the Dutch pantheist and rational philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. Southey published six of these Cornish poems in the Bristol Annual Anthology for 1799.
And a year later, Davy published his first scientific essays in Researches, Chemical, and Philosophical; Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide. Davy wrote to his mother, “Do not suppose I have turned poet. Philosophy, chemistry, and medicine are my profession.” Davy now also met William Wordsworth. He parodied his simplistic style of poetry in the famous Lyrical Ballads, but he greatly admired him and helped prepare the second edition for the press. Davy’s own influence on Wordsworth appears in the Preface to this edition of 1800 in which Wordsworth announced that “the poet will sleep no more, but be ready to follow in the steps of the man of science.
The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or the mineralogist will be proper objects of the poet’s art.” Davy had many letter exchanges with Southey and Coleridge on the connections between scientific and poetic observation. Coleridge wrote that science being necessarily performed with the passion of hope, it is poetical. Davy, making his scientific notes out of doors, deliberately cultivated a deep sympathy with nature. Yet, he also remarked “how different is the idea of life in a physiologist and a poet.” At Bristol, he began an affair with his boss’s young wife, Mrs Anna Beddoes, and wrote a series of poems to her between 1800 and 1805 which suggest his inner turmoil.
These include the lyrical ‘Glenarm by Moonlight’ about their romantic walks along the banks of the River Severn together. In 1801, aged 22, Davy was appointed Lecturer and later Professor at the Royal Institution in London. And for the next decade, he gave hugely popular chemical lectures with truly explosive demonstrations. Their success caused traffic jams outside in Albemarle Street, and it became the first one-way street in London. A French visitor, Louis Simon noted his lectures are frequently “figurative and poetical”. While Coleridge attended them to “enlarge my stock of metaphors.” In 1808, Davy began his famous series of Bakerian lectures at the Royal Society. Simultaneously, back at the Royal Institution he brought Coleridge to lecture on poetry and the imagination.
All this time, Davy was working with intense excitement. He gained a visionary sense of looking into the very essence of material reality. A nearly fatal illness brought on by overwork gave him time to reflect on this experience in the laboratory. It produced a complex philosophical poem of 72 lines long beginning ‘Lo, o’er the earth the kindling spirits pour’. Here Davy reflects on the continuous transformations, which the scientist observes in the physical universe “All speaks of change”. He asked whether mankind shares in this transience or intellectually transcends it, and perhaps, spiritually evolves. From Coleridge, Davy drew the image of nature as an Aeolian harp played upon by some unnamed higher power, the one intelligence.
In this video Professor Richard Holmes gives a sense of Davy’s early poetry, its concerns, and the different poetic forms that he uses.
Watch the video and then choose one or more of the ideas suggested here for further thought and discussion.
Professor Holmes uses the word ‘scientist’ a number of times because this is a word we are now comfortable with but in fact the word was not coined until 1833. The term scientist was coined to be an analogy to ‘artist’.
  • What do you think is the relation between science and the arts?
  • Do you know any other scientists who were poets or vice versa?
Many thanks to Dr Andrew Lacey for sourcing some of the images for this video.
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