For centuries down to this very day, science and poetry have inhabited opposite universes, at least at first glance. One is cold and verifiable, the other is all emotion, but these two worlds, in fact, will find unexpected correspondences. One of them exists within a book little-known today: The Poetry of Science (1848), by mineralogy expert, photography pioneer, and amateur poet, Robert Hunt.

Written in a profusely ornate and rhetorical language, the curious volume is, in many ways, an example of the Victorian English mentality which, while admiring science for its analytical capacity and its accuracy, also feared it. This was partly because of the romantic spirit prevalent at the time, and for the crosshairs such a spirit placed on Christianity. Hunt’s book postulates that science is neither cold nor mechanical, but he explores science from its metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic aspects —all while recounting the scientific knowledge of the time.

Perhaps one of the book’s most paradigmatic and striking affirmations arises from the analogy that Hunt attended to between nature and the study of nature. The writer explains that while natural processes consist of physical parts (atoms, chemicals, tissues), they also respond to immaterial forces (like gravity, light, magnetism). Similarly, for Hunt, the human interpretation of nature should take into account the empirical and the experimental, as well as the poetry, aesthetics, and spirituality of the impulses that surround scientific and quantifiable truths. This similarity, which may seem unsophisticated, can’t but invite reflection on some of the most profound principles of what we know today as the philosophy of science.

A very successful book for its time, The Poetry of Science sought to reconcile the experimental with the poetic —and, from nearly any perspective, there’s nothing more experimental than poetic discourse. For the Victorian mentality (which witnessed the emergence of the empire of the novel), poetry was the highest discourse of the human imagination and of genius. At the same time, at the middle 19th-century, science’s ability to explain phenomena was still quite limited. It had only begun to take on an enormous authority in England (hence the profound antagonism between science and art). Hunt’s style is obviously inclined towards the lyrical, both in his language (Hunt includes parts of his own poems), and in his use of quotations from others. At one point, Hunt cites The Tempest in a discussion of how Shakespeare completely ignores the chemical processes involved in the formation of sea pearls —bringing science unexpectedly together with the poetic in Shakespearean language.

But Hunt’s own biography offers proof of an encounter between poetry and science. In his youth, the Englishman was apprenticed as a surgeon. He worked, later, in the fields of chemistry, pharmacology, and he finished by conducting geological studies along with another professor at the Mining School in London. Hunt also had an artistic streak that led him to enter the world of photography, and which prompted him to write studies on the nascent artistic expression for several publications of the time. He also published poetry and tried, at some point in his life, to be a playwright. But this particular author’s case was hardly isolated: the era saw many scientists who also wrote poetry, among them the astronomer John Herschel, physicist John Tyndall, and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell. This was due, to some large extent, to the fact that the standards of the language used to disseminate science and those used to make literature had not been conclusively delineated.

Surprisingly, writings on Victorian era science share some characteristics with the dissemination of contemporary science in terms of their interest in poetry. In parts of his book, Hunt uses metaphor (relating to the macro and micro universes and to the act of calling gravity “a ruling spirit”) to explain scientific experiments and thus to recall the divine character of everything that happens in the universe we inhabit. And then as now, the possibility that poetic language complements science is by no means unreasonable: nature and its processes are the masters of their own obvious poetry.

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality” wrote Carl Sagan long after Hunt’s book had been published. Taking into account the profound spiritual implications of poetry and the theology of nature (as proof for the existence of God) created by the English author, we might say that it’s exactly what Hunt meant more than a century ago: a message entirely relevant to our own era of science and technology.

 

Image: Wellcome Collection

For centuries down to this very day, science and poetry have inhabited opposite universes, at least at first glance. One is cold and verifiable, the other is all emotion, but these two worlds, in fact, will find unexpected correspondences. One of them exists within a book little-known today: The Poetry of Science (1848), by mineralogy expert, photography pioneer, and amateur poet, Robert Hunt.

Written in a profusely ornate and rhetorical language, the curious volume is, in many ways, an example of the Victorian English mentality which, while admiring science for its analytical capacity and its accuracy, also feared it. This was partly because of the romantic spirit prevalent at the time, and for the crosshairs such a spirit placed on Christianity. Hunt’s book postulates that science is neither cold nor mechanical, but he explores science from its metaphysical, moral, and aesthetic aspects —all while recounting the scientific knowledge of the time.

Perhaps one of the book’s most paradigmatic and striking affirmations arises from the analogy that Hunt attended to between nature and the study of nature. The writer explains that while natural processes consist of physical parts (atoms, chemicals, tissues), they also respond to immaterial forces (like gravity, light, magnetism). Similarly, for Hunt, the human interpretation of nature should take into account the empirical and the experimental, as well as the poetry, aesthetics, and spirituality of the impulses that surround scientific and quantifiable truths. This similarity, which may seem unsophisticated, can’t but invite reflection on some of the most profound principles of what we know today as the philosophy of science.

A very successful book for its time, The Poetry of Science sought to reconcile the experimental with the poetic —and, from nearly any perspective, there’s nothing more experimental than poetic discourse. For the Victorian mentality (which witnessed the emergence of the empire of the novel), poetry was the highest discourse of the human imagination and of genius. At the same time, at the middle 19th-century, science’s ability to explain phenomena was still quite limited. It had only begun to take on an enormous authority in England (hence the profound antagonism between science and art). Hunt’s style is obviously inclined towards the lyrical, both in his language (Hunt includes parts of his own poems), and in his use of quotations from others. At one point, Hunt cites The Tempest in a discussion of how Shakespeare completely ignores the chemical processes involved in the formation of sea pearls —bringing science unexpectedly together with the poetic in Shakespearean language.

But Hunt’s own biography offers proof of an encounter between poetry and science. In his youth, the Englishman was apprenticed as a surgeon. He worked, later, in the fields of chemistry, pharmacology, and he finished by conducting geological studies along with another professor at the Mining School in London. Hunt also had an artistic streak that led him to enter the world of photography, and which prompted him to write studies on the nascent artistic expression for several publications of the time. He also published poetry and tried, at some point in his life, to be a playwright. But this particular author’s case was hardly isolated: the era saw many scientists who also wrote poetry, among them the astronomer John Herschel, physicist John Tyndall, and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell. This was due, to some large extent, to the fact that the standards of the language used to disseminate science and those used to make literature had not been conclusively delineated.

Surprisingly, writings on Victorian era science share some characteristics with the dissemination of contemporary science in terms of their interest in poetry. In parts of his book, Hunt uses metaphor (relating to the macro and micro universes and to the act of calling gravity “a ruling spirit”) to explain scientific experiments and thus to recall the divine character of everything that happens in the universe we inhabit. And then as now, the possibility that poetic language complements science is by no means unreasonable: nature and its processes are the masters of their own obvious poetry.

“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality” wrote Carl Sagan long after Hunt’s book had been published. Taking into account the profound spiritual implications of poetry and the theology of nature (as proof for the existence of God) created by the English author, we might say that it’s exactly what Hunt meant more than a century ago: a message entirely relevant to our own era of science and technology.

 

Image: Wellcome Collection