Sunday, September 06, 2009

`He Walks in the Midst of Wonders'

Finally, my copy of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science has arrived. Richard Holmes, the foremost biographer of our time, has already given us the definitive life of Coleridge and even managed to make Shelley interesting across 800 pages. Holmes announces his theme with eight epigraphs – one each by a philosopher (Kant) and essayist (Lamb), four by poets (Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats) and two by scientists. The first of the latter is from a lecture delivered by Humphry Davy (1778-1829), the great chemist and minor poet:

“Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete; and that there are no new worlds to conquer.”

Human imagination tempered by humility is the unacknowledged linkage among science, art and religion. Despite the claims of Dawkins and Co., hubris kills wonder. The other epigraph is by Sir John Herschel (1792-1871), the extraordinary English mathematician, astronomer, botanist, photographer – in short, one of those remarkable polymaths England once produced on an industrial scale. Holmes draws it from A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830):

“To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling…a soap bubble…an apple…a pebble…He walks in the midst of wonders.”

At this point poet and scientist merge. There is no antagonism, only a shared sense of adventure. I’m reminded of another English text written almost two centuries earlier by the poet and divine Thomas Traherne (1637-1674). Centuries of Meditation is studded with passages suggesting a merging of scientific and spiritual attentiveness to the physical world. For instance:

“When Amasis the King of Egypt sent to the wise men of Greece, to know, Quid Pulcherrimum? upon due and mature consideration they answered, The World. The world certainly being so beautiful that nothing visible is capable of more. Were we to see it only once, the first appearance would amaze us. But being daily seen, we observe it not.”

Observing it not makes for bad science and art, and spiritual nullity.

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