The Poetry of Victorian Science


Watercolour portrait by William Buckler of Robert Hunt, 1842 — Source (Wellcome Library)

by Gregory Tate

Originally published at Public Domain Review under a Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 license. 

In a review published in The Examiner in December 1848, Charles Dickens heaps praise on the scientific study of natural phenomena.

To show that Science, truly expounding nature, can, like nature herself, restore in some new form whatever she destroys; that, instead of binding us, as some would have it, in stern utilitarian chains, when she has freed us from a harmless superstition, she offers to our contemplation something better and more beautiful, something which, rightly considered, is more elevating to the soul, nobler and more stimulating to the soaring fancy; is a sound, wise, wholesome object.[1]

Despite the lavish terms in which it celebrates science, Dickens’ prose also reveals the tensions that permeated attitudes to scientific knowledge in Victorian Britain. Admiration for its clear-sighted objectivity and analytical precision is mixed with a fear, inherited partly from Romanticism and partly from Christianity, that experimental science is destructive, reductive, and degrading; that it diminishes nature to a quantifiable and soulless mechanism. But this view of science as the “stern utilitarian” oppressor of natural beauty and of the imagination is, Dickens assures his readers, groundless, and the “sound, wise, wholesome object” of disproving it has been successfully attained in the book which he is reviewing: Robert Hunt’s The Poetry of Science.[2]

Dickens’ endorsement of The Poetry of Science is not unequivocal. In his view, the book is let down by its ornamented and long-winded style: “We might object to an occasional discursiveness, and sometimes we could have desired to be addressed in a plainer forms of words.”[3] And it is true that Hunt, in his efforts to show that science is neither mechanistic nor utilitarian, sometimes overcompensates, indulging in flights of expostulation that are even more grandiloquent and sentimental than those of Dickens’ novels. In the introduction to The Poetry of Science, for instance, Hunt announces that:

To rest content with the bare enunciation of a truth, is to perform but one half of a task. 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.[4]

Detail from an 1842 photograph taken by Hunt of his house in Falmouth, one of several sent to John Herschel in September of that year. Although unidentified, it seems likely that the man pictured is Hunt himself — Source (National Media Museum)

Hunt presents an analogy between nature itself and the study of nature. Natural processes, he argues, are simultaneously material and immaterial, directed both by the motions of atoms and by the operation of powers and forces (light, gravity, magnetism, electricity) that cannot be reduced to matter. Similarly, the interpretation of those processes must find room both for science, the empirical and experimental investigation of factual “truth”, and for poetry, the expression of the aesthetic, moral, and spiritual “impulses” which surround that truth. This analogy may seem loose and not especially convincing, but it proved popular among Victorian readers. When the first edition of The Poetry of Science sold out, Hunt wrote that “a Second Edition of this work being demanded within a twelvemonth of the publication of the first, convinces the author” that “he was not mistaken in believing the generalizations from mechanical experiments to be capable of assuming a poetic aspect.”[5]

Hunt’s goal in The Poetry of Science is to reconcile the experimental with the poetic, terms which denote not just two different perspectives on natural knowledge but also two competing kinds of cultural authority. Although poetry steadily lost readers over the course of the nineteenth century to the novel and the press, it retained its exalted status, at least in theory, as the highest form of imaginative expression. At the same time, by 1848, the capacity of the sciences to explain natural processes, and to harness those processes through the development of new technologies, was starting to secure them a more prominent place in British culture. It was easy to see poetic imagination and scientific knowledge as mutually antagonistic, but, as Robert Hunt’s career demonstrates, it was also possible bring them together.

Hunt started his working life as a surgeon’s apprentice before making a living, at different times, as a chemist and druggist, a statistician with the geological survey, and a professor at the School of Mines in London. He was a pioneering photographer and published research on photography in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions. He also regularly wrote and published poetry and tried in the 1830s to pursue a career as a playwright. Hunt’s diverse interests were not exceptional: several more famous nineteenth-century figures — the astronomer John Herschel, the physicist John Tyndall, and the mathematician James Clerk Maxwell — also combined specialist research with the writing of poetry and of popular expositions of their scientific theories. Their polymathic careers were made possible by the open borders between disciplines in Victorian Britain; there were no rigid barriers of education or language, as there would be in the twentieth century, between scientific research and science communication, or between science and literature.

Detail from the bookplate of the English bibliographer, paleontologist and geologist Charles Davies Sherborn, engraved by his father in 1890. In the image can be seen a bust of Shakespeare alongside a portrait of Darwin, a copy of the Venus de Milo alongside a microscope. The Latin on the bookcase reads “books are friends, nature is God” — Source (Wellcome Library)

The exchanges between these different disciplines are encapsulated in the style and structure of Hunt’s writing in The Poetry of Science. Together with probably the majority of Victorian science writers, he regularly quotes lines and stanzas of verse in the course of his explanations of scientific experiments and theories. The uses of poetic quotation in Victorian science are numerous, varied, and often difficult to pin down: authors deploy the language of poetry sometimes as supporting evidence for particular scientific theories, and sometimes as a kind of eloquent ornamentation to their prose. Some quotations are used to summarize the inductive reasoning characteristic of science, which moves from the observation of a particular natural phenomenon to a broader conclusion about that phenomenon’s significance or meaning; and some are employed to gesture beyond the inductive method, to hint at the emotional or spiritual effects of a scientific fact. Perhaps surprisingly, Victorian science communication shares its interest in poetry with more recent popular science writing. Even such a pugnacious and controversial proponent of scientific rationalism as Richard Dawkins, for example, is happy to use poetic quotations to convey what he terms the “wonder” of scientific knowledge. But while this practice of quotation suggests that science and poetry are in some ways complementary — both are necessary parts of a full and nuanced understanding of the physical universe — it also imposes a distinction between them, separating the factual and objective knowledge of science from the exclusively emotional or subjective remit of poetry.

This duality is evident in Hunt’s discussions of Shakespeare, which manage to be both laudatory and dismissive. After quoting the song “Full fathom five” from The Tempest (“Those are pearls that were his eyes”), he suggests that Shakespeare “little thought how correctly he painted the chemical changes, by which decomposing animal matter is replaced by a siliceous or calcareous formation.”[6] The lyrical language of Shakespeare’s verse and the technical terminology of Hunt’s prose describe the same phenomenon, but they do so from fundamentally distinct perspectives. Poets, according to Hunt, “have revelations more wonderful than even those of the philosopher, who evokes them by perpetual toil and brain-racking struggle with the ever-changing elements around him.”[7] Natural philosophers or scientists acquire their insights through a painstaking and disciplined investigation of the facts of nature. Shakespeare’s poetry, in contrast, expresses a kind of sublime ignorance, an intuitive knowledge of the truth, but not of the causes or details, of a natural process. Dickens disapproved of this backhanded compliment — “Why Mr Hunt should be of opinion that Shakespeare ‘little thought’ how wise he was, we do not altogether understand”[8] — and Hunt altered it in later editions, commenting, still with some equivocation, that Shakespeare “painted, with considerable correctness, the chemical changes” involved in the formation of pearls.[9]

“Full fathom five…” by Edmund Dulac, from Hodder and Stoughton’s 1915 edition of The Tempest — Source.

For Dickens, this quotation risks patronising Shakespeare, reducing his poetry to an eloquent decoration of scientific wisdom. Elsewhere, though, Hunt suggests that poetry can actively support and possibly supplement the knowledge gained through experimental science. He sets out this argument by directly juxtaposing two different kinds of language: on the one hand, his own poetry, which he inserts into his prose at several points throughout The Poetry of Science, as if it were the work of a canonical poet; and, on the other hand, the detailed description of experiments which was a prominent feature of nineteenth-century science writing. In a chapter on gravity Hunt recounts an experiment in which drops of olive oil are suspended in a mix of water and alcohol that has the same specific gravity as the oil: instead of being “flattened” by the “earth’s gravitating influence”, as they would be “under any other conditions”, the drops retain their “orbicular form.” “Simple as this illustration is,” Hunt writes, “it tells much of the wondrous secret of those beautifully balanced forces of cohesion and of gravitation; and from the prosaic fact we rise to a great philosophic truth.” He then documents a means of extending the experiment:

If we pass a steel wire through one of those floating spheres of oil, and make it revolve rapidly, thus imitating the motion of a planet on its axis, the oil spreads out, and we have the spheroidal form of our earth. Increase the rapidity of this rotation, and when a certain rate is obtained the oil widens itself into a disc, a ring separates itself from a central globe, and at a distance from it still revolves around it. Here we have a minute representation of the ring of Saturn.[10]

In these experiments, he concludes, “we produce results resembling, in a striking manner, the conditions which prevail in the planetary spaces.”[11] For Hunt, the relation between experiment and nature is fractal: experimental processes represent natural processes in miniature. In this case, from the starting point of the “prosaic fact” of the olive oil’s motion, “we rise” in scale to an apprehension of sublime astronomical phenomena, and we also rise, through inductive reasoning, “to a great philosophic truth,” a theoretical understanding of the forces that shape matter across the universe.[12]

In the next paragraph Hunt refers to the force of gravity as “a ruling spirit” in nature, and its importance is emphasized again, but in markedly different terms, in the lines of verse which immediately follow, and which form the peroration to his chapter on gravity:

The smallest dust which floats upon the wind
Bears this strong impress of the Eternal Mind.
In mystery round it, subtile forces roll;
And gravitation binds and guides the whole.
In every sand, before the tempest hurl’d,
Lie locked the powers which regulate a world,
And from each atom human thought may rise
With might, to pierce the mystery of the skies,⎯
To try each force which rules the mighty plan,
Of moving planets, or of breathing man;
And from the secret wonders of each sod,
Evoke the truths, and learn the power of God.[13]

In contrast to recent writers such as Dawkins, and to Victorian agnostics such as Tyndall, who quote poetry to articulate a sense of secular awe at the natural sublimity revealed by science, Hunt employs verse to promote natural theology, the mode of reasoning which uses observations of nature to demonstrate the existence of the Christian God. He announces that the study of matter, and of the forces that act on matter, launches the mind towards truths which are not just theoretical but theological: “each atom”, through the agency of “human thought”, is capable of illuminating “the mystery of the skies.” The rhymes of his verse set out a series of antitheses (the “dust” on the “wind” and “the eternal mind”, “sod” and “God”) which turn out to be continuities, as the apparent gap between them is closed by an inductive ascent which is comparable to that made possible by experiment.

This connection between science and poetry established by Hunt must have been reassuring to Victorian readers troubled by the potentially unsettling truths of science: both, his writing suggests, can use seemingly mundane and insignificant phenomena to make sense of the universe. As a whole, though, The Poetry of Science echoes the conflict present in Victorian society regarding poetry’s relevance to the increasingly influential scientific worldview. Hunt’s use of poetic quotation indicates that poetry is best used as an ornamental illustration of scientific knowledge, which is inevitably more accurate and detailed than the kind of knowledge conveyed in poems. But the sentiment of his own poetic writing reverses this hierarchy, suggesting that verse has the power to reconcile the natural with the divine. Poetry communicates a spiritual and transcendent understanding of the universe, which can be supported, but which cannot be overturned or usurped, by the evidence of experimental science.


[1] Charles Dickens, “The Poetry of Science”, Examiner 2132 (December 9, 1848): 787.

[2] Dickens, 787.

[3] Dickens, 788.

[4] Robert Hunt, The Poetry of Science, Or: Studies of the Physical Phenomena of Nature (London: Reeve, Benham & Reeve, 1848), xxii.

[5] Robert Hunt, The Poetry of Science, Or: Studies of the Physical Phenomena of Nature, 2nd ed. (London: Reeve, Benham & Reeve, 1849), v.

[6] Hunt, Poetry of Science, 288.

[7] Hunt, 288.

[8] Dickens, “Poetry of Science”, 788.

[9] Hunt, Poetry of Science, 2nd ed., 291–2.

[10] Hunt, Poetry of Science, 24.

[11] Hunt, 25.

[12] Hunt, 24.

[13] Hunt, 25.

About the Author:

Gregory Tate is a Lecturer in Victorian literature at the University of St Andrews. His first book, The Poet’s Mind: The Psychology of Victorian Poetry 1830-1870, published in 2012, examines the ways in which Victorian poets both responded and contributed to the emergence of psychology as a scientific discipline in nineteenth-century Britain. He has just completed his second book, Poetical Matter, which studies the exchange of methods, concepts, and language between poetry and the physical sciences in the nineteenth century.