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Humphry Davy and the Natural World

Summing up
© Lancaster University
Humphry Davy was strongly attracted to the natural world. We can see 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 concerns 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 of 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 everywhere 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. There is a 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, Carnolia and Italy whilst Accompanying the Late Sir Humphry Davy (1832) (It is freely available to download as a pdf online). It is a fine elegiac 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. Davy’s health means he passes through university cities like Heidelberg without visiting or being visited by the scientists working there. It is a great shame for all concerned and Tobin writes with great sensitivity and regret about Davy’s isolation. He quotes Davy: “Now it only serves to make me feel that I am but the shadow of what I was.” Tobin writes that Davy’s ‘fine mind is still full of intellectual power and elasticity, and he deceives himself thinking otherwise.’ He cannot make Davy change his mind.
Tobin describes spectacular landscapes, mountains that he climbs and rivers that Davy explores. Much of the action is enacted by Tobin as Davy is frail from his poor health throughout. However, Tobin does describe some epic adventures the two undertake, for example, a bid to find the source of the Sava River, the third longest tributary of the River Danube that rises in the Slovenian highlands, and the Isonzo, or Soca, River that flows into the Gulf of Trieste. A great passage describes a local fisherman snatching Davy’s rod and fishing tackle because he was fishing on a private stretch of river. After a search by the local magistrate the offender is found and returns the equipment to Davy.
The book is a fascinating description of their ‘road trip’ and includes details of what Tobin read to Davy in the evenings, for example, the last book they read was Tobias Smollet’s satire on travel journals, Humphry Clinker. Davy receives the first edition of his book, Salmonia, from the British Embassy in Vienna in which he makes corrections and includes additions for the next edition. He is sent Walter Scott’s review of the book which he is very pleased with. Throughout their journey Tobin sketches the landscape while Davy is fishing, and one sketch of a fish is so good, Davy says it will be added to the next edition of Salmonia. Also, of great interest is Davy’s dictation to Tobin, his amanuensis, of Consolations of Travel, or the Last Days of a Philosopher, originally entitled Philosophical Dialogues though changed shortly before his death – an event Tobin describes. Davy explains to Tobin the source of the first dialogue, ‘The Vision’. He describes to him the dream in which he was ‘borne through the firmament from planet to planet.’ It is a splendid account by Tobin though Davy’s own account in ‘Dialogue I: The Vision’ is an incredible piece of science fiction where Davy imagines key moments in human history from around the world before he embarks on his cosmic blast through the Solar System. It is a verbal tour de force that has now been superseded by CGI documentaries of space travel, as in Brian Cox’s recent ‘The Planets.’
The section in Davy’s book that I find remarkable, largely due to my own research into cave literature and science during this period, is ‘Dialogue IV: The Proteus, or Immortality’. It concerns the search that Davy and Tobin embark upon to find Proteus Anguinus – or the Olm (also known as Siren Anguina or the Austrian Siren). It is an aquatic salamander (a troglobiont) – the only exclusively cave-dwelling chordate species found in Europe. It can be found in the spectacular limestone caves of Slovenia. Tobin is the one who visits the caves as Davy is far too frail to join him. Tobin wonderfully describes the caves and his efforts to find the shy salamander though Proteus, like the god he is named after, remains elusive. However, in Davy’s book his fictional characters who produce the dialogue are the ones who descend into the caves to search for the salamander and, having visited this region in the past and having been more recently thoroughly debriefed by Tobin, describe the caves in detail and, of course, describe their discovery of Proteus! They have to find it as what follows is a description of all that is known of the shape-shifting Proteus. In first seeing it, the character called Philosopher says, “I was carried in my imagination back to the primitive state of the globe, when the great animals of the sauri kind were created under the pressure of a heavy atmosphere.” Both writers produce wonderful passages of cave aesthetics and the search for remarkable creatures and they remain illuminating comparative sections of the two books.
‘Dialogue V: The Chemical Philosopher’ has one of the characters deliver a definition of chemistry: ‘Chemistry relates to those operations by which the intimate nature of bodies is changed, or by which they acquire new properties.’ This is a key element of much of Davy’s work in both chemistry, geology and poetry and was one of the reasons he was fascinated by Proteus Anguinus as it was believed to change colour when exposed to light. In the final ‘Dialogue VI: Pola, or Time’, the characters discuss the transformation of rain water into carbonic acid as it falls through the atmosphere, absorbing carbon dioxide, and how it leads to the weathering of rocks, particularly the dissolution of limestone, for example, producing the Slovenian caves in which they discover the Proteus. Davy, with his religious faith and scientific optimism, concludes his final work with the following: ‘Time is almost a human word and change entirely a human idea; in the system of nature we should rather say progress than change.’ This is fascinating when you consider that the geologist Charles Lyell published his ground-breaking Principles of Geology the same year as Davy’s posthumous Consolations of Travel and referred to Davy as one of the key figures who opposed his view of ‘steady state’ earth processes with his, Davy’s, own ‘progressionist’ views. Further to this, a young botanist called Charles Darwin set sail on his voyage on The Beagle a year after (1831) with a copy of Lyell’s book. What great times – but this is all another story!
© Lancaster University
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Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

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