The Poetry of Science: A Victorian Portal to Wonder
By Maria Popova
“Science describes accurately from outside, poetry describes accurately from inside,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in her wonderful meditation on subjectifying the universe. “Science explicates, poetry implicates. Both celebrate what they describe.”
We have a word for that common celebration: wonder — the sense that the world is strange and beautiful, and we are hovering on the edge between understanding and awe as we behold the naked poetry of reality.
A century and a half before Le Guin, a century and a half before the inception of The Universe in Verse, the polymathic scientist and poet Robert Hunt (September 6, 1807–October 17, 1887) explored the consonance and complementarity of these twin languages of wonder in his 1848 book The Poetry of Science; or, Studies of the Physical Phenomena of Nature (public library | public domain) — an ambitious summation of all the major discoveries of science to that point, from gravity and light to the molecular forces and the reproduction of plants, revealing the poetry and aesthetic ecstasy inside the scientific facts.
In the epoch when Keats laid down the Romantic dictum that “beauty is truth, truth is beauty,” Hunt considers the interdependence of poetry, philosophy, and science through the lens of their common pursuit of truth and beauty:
The True is the Beautiful. Whenever this becomes evident to our senses, its influences are of a soul-elevating character. The beautiful, whether it is perceived in the external forms of matter, associated in the harmonies of light and colour, appreciated in the modulations of sweet sounds, or mingled with those influences which are, as the inner life of creation, ever appealing to the soul through the vesture which covers all things, is the natural theme of the poet, and the chosen study of the philosopher.
Science solicits from the material world, by the persuasion of inductive search, a development of its elementary principles, and of the laws which these obey. Philosophy strives to apply the discovered facts to the great phenomena of being, — to deduce large generalities from the fragmentary discoveries of severe induction, — and thus to ascend from matter and its properties up to those impulses which stir the whole, floating, as it were, on the confines of sense, and indicating, though dimly, those superior powers which, more nearly related to infinity, mysteriously manifest themselves in the phenomena of mind. Poetry seizes the facts of the one and the theories of the other; unites them by a pleasing thought, which appeals for truth to the most unthinking soul, and leads the reflective intellect to higher and higher exercises; it connects common phenomena with exalted ideas; and, applying its holiest powers, it invests the human mind with the sovereign strength of the True.
So viewed, science is not a materialist diminishment of the world’s magic but a magnifying lens for it — a kind of spirituality of wonder. A century and a half before Richard Feynman’s classic Ode to a Flower and two decades before Emily Dickinson captured this very sentiment in her great ecological poem, Hunt writes:
The form and colour of a flower may excite our admiration; but when we come to examine all the phenomena which combine to produce that piece of symmetry and that lovely hue, — to learn the physiological arrangement of its structural parts, — the chemical actions by which its woody fibre and its juices are produced, — and to investigate those laws by which is regulated the power to throw back the white sunbeam from its surface in coloured rays, — our admiration passes to the higher feeling of deep astonishment at the perfection of the processes.
With an allusion to Shakespeare, he adds:
There are, indeed, “tongues in trees;” but science alone can interpret their mysterious whispers, and in this consists its poetry.
He returns to the dialogue between truth and beauty that animates the best parts of the human spirit:
The human mind naturally delights in the discovery of truth; and even when perverted by the constant operations of prevailing errors, a glimpse of the Real comes upon it like the smile of daylight to the sorrowing captive of some dark prison… Truth cannot die; it passes from mind to mind, imparting light in its progress, and constantly renewing its own brightness during its diffusion. The True is the Beautiful; and the truths revealed to the mind render us capable of perceiving new beauties on the earth. The gladness of truth is like the ringing voice of a joyous child, and the most remote recesses echo with the cheerful sound. To be for ever true is the Science of Poetry, — the revelation of truth is the Poetry of Science.
As each atom of matter is involved in an atmosphere of properties and powers, which unites it to every mass of the universe, so each truth, however common it may be, is surrounded by impulses which, being awakened, pass from soul to soul like musical undulations, and which will be repeated through the echoes of space, and prolonged for all eternity.
Complement with the science and poetry of astronomer Rebecca Elson — the twenieth century’s high priestess of our “responsibility to awe” — then revisit the poetic physicist Alan Lightman on the shared psychology of creative breakthrough in art and science.
Published February 20, 2023