The Romantic period of Blake, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly in England and of others around Europe is not normally thought of in conjunction with Science.  This turns out to be a lacuna that need not be, as Richard Holmes makes clear in The Age of Wonder: The Romantic Generation and the Discovery of the Beauty and Terror of Science (2019,) a fine biographical history of early Victorian era scientists, British and French primarily. With it, he provides a glimpse at the great liftoff of science, began scarcely two hundred years ago, that put us on the trajectory we now are. 

This is not the first “Scientific Revolution, of two hundred years earlier, “traditionally assumed to start with the Copernican Revolution (initiated in 1543) and said to have been complete in the “grand synthesis” of Isaac Newton‘s 1687 Principia)  Nor is it, by itself, the full story of early modern science, touching only briefly on the later work of Charles Lyell, Charles Darwin, Michael Faraday and others. 

What Holmes tells us is “a relay race of scientific stories … of the second scientific revolution, which swept through Britain at the end of the eighteenth century,” resulting in what has been called “Romantic science.”

Chemistry as we now know it, scarcely existed.  Those who dabbled in gasses and liquids were teased as alchemists.  What was known of the stars was essentially what had been known since the great Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi published The Book of Fixed Stars in the 10th century

These were the years of the Seven Years War, the American, and then the French, Revolution, the Napoleonic wars.  It was also the age of the great Romantic poets who every liberal arts major in the United States and Europe studies to this day; Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelly, Keats.  Germany, Spain and France, of course, had their romantic poets and painters, admirably set forth in Michael Ferber’s European Romantic Poetry, Longman (2005.)  As Holmes shows, many were swept up, in varying degrees, with the discoveries and possibilities.  In England, particularly, poets and scientists were often in each other’s company. 

Three major subjects provide the through-threads of a great cloth of invention, intellectual ferment, and personality. The story begins with Joseph Banks who, as a young man, was the chief botanist on Captain Cook’s voyage to Tahiti, chartered by King George III, to observe the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun.  The second, a pair of figures, are William Herschel and his sister Caroline who created a new, technically advanced, generation of telescopes and mapped the heavens in meticulous detail.  The third is Humphry Davy, later “Sir,” who opened investigations into the behavior and composition of gas before moving on to chemistry and who, by his compelling public lectures, popularized this new science among the educated elite of England, much in the manner of TED talks today. 

Easily the most exotically interesting chapter is “Balloonists in Heaven.” Following early efforts to ascend to the heavens by hanging below giant paper balloons, French and British adventurers and amateur scientists began an “arms race” with competing textiles, fuels, apparatus to maneuver and methods to control ascent and descent — sand-bags pitched overboard primary among them– leading to both comic and awe-inspiring efforts.  The first solo balloon ascent, following dozens with teams of two and three, reached 10,000 feet in only ten minutes. Huge crowds turned out to watch some ascents.  In 1783 some 400,000 French people (about 1/2 the population of Paris) came to the Tuileries Gardens to watch one launch.   Benjamin Franklin was a close observer, through his own telescope. 

 
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The linchpin of the book is Joseph Banks, an independently wealthy young man who took an obsessive, early interest in botany.  By the time he was twenty-three he was an advisor to King George III, had been elected to the Royal Society, and had come back from an expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador, documenting some 34 species of birds.  He was, as one recent writer has called him, the “rock star” of the scientific establishment.  Because of his stature, and “his requisite physical and mental steadiness” he was appointed the chief botanist on then Lieutenant James Cook’s Endeavor voyage to Tahiti to observe the transit of the sun by Venus. Banks funded eight other gentlemen scientists to come with him, including the Swedish naturalist Daniel Solander.   Along with enjoying the “paradise” of Tahiti and “taking full advantage of it,” he set up three observatory points.  As the news of exotic islands, daring adventure, and scientific discoveries made its way back to Europe an “age of wonder” had been launched. Banks continued in his role as talent-scout, funder, and mentor to many in this new generation of scientists.

William Herschel and his sister Caroline were two of those he championed.  German-born emigres to England —he, to escape conscription into the Prussian army– with his technical telescope building skill, and the obsession both had with the skies, revolutionized European knowledge of the solar system, the Milky Way and beyond.  It was they who realized that distant nebulae were not simply cloudy gases as they were thought to be, but included galaxy upon galaxy of stars.  By the time of his death, he and Caroline had located over 2,000 of them, up from the thirty known at the time of his birth in the 1740s.

While building an enormous 40-foot telescope in 1789 Herschel ran out of money.  After a visit by King George and the Archbishop of Canterbury, during which they walked through the as-yet-unmounted telescope he petitioned the King to continue the stipend he had previously granted.  Even more boldly he asked for an allowance for his sister, by now known as the “ladies’ comet hunter.”  The King, long interested in science and a collector of scientific instruments, the sponsor of Banks’ Venus transit expedition in 1769,  agreed but delivered a sharp reprimand to Banks for delays and promises unfulfilled. Among the small details of the book is the eye-opening realization that King George was quite the supporter of science and a “reasonable fellow,” before the American Revolution and the onset of, perhaps hereditary, madness – showing once again, that we are all more than the collection of quips about us.

Though there is too much in this section of biographical detail that seems trivial, or uninteresting –that Caroline had a separate room built and used a rough whitewash on it, that she sewed curtains for her small room– and not enough about say, how he taught himself to cast impossibly large telescope mirrors. We do get a strong sense of Caroline as a woman, pushing out of her brother’s shadow. When William leaves for a while she decides she is an astronomer, not a housekeeper, and begins her own daily and nightly observations, keeping meticulous notes and contributing greatly to the growth of astronomical knowledge.

The chapter on Humphry Davy, whose work on gasses and chemistry had more immediate impact on the world than the naturalism of Banks or the stars of Herschel,  takes up a good part of the central section. It also has more technical and experimental details than the chapters on the others.  It is enlivened though, with the passionate romance he found with Jane Apreece, a cousin of Sir Walter Scott, which took Davy by surprise and made something of a Romantic poet of him.

Davy developed early rules for scientific observation with, for example, blind tests, where the subject didn’t know whether or not gas was O2 or N2O or how much.  When trying to determine the effect of certain gasses on the human organism,  Davy himself always inhaled first. Carbon Monoxide almost killed him.  Various strengths of N2O (Nitrous Oxide – laughing gas) were tried, by himself and friends like Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

His experiments and lectures lifted into conversation great debates about vitalism, the electrical current in the body.  The problem of how the body gives rise to the mind became salon conversation, with leading figures publicly turning towards pantheism and atheism. Experiments took place before large audiences showing “resuscitation” of a corpse by means of electrical jolts. Mary Shelly, and her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelly,  and friends took part in these currents of thought.  Her Frankenstein ,  directly informed by all of this, was written in 1818. 

 

Among other discoveries attributed to Davy is that diamonds are composed of carbon, and that placing iron plates along the hulls of the British Navy’s copper bottomed ships would prevent marine fouling.  His biggest immediate contribution to practical science was the invention of safe coal-miner’s lamps – to prevent the many, disastrous explosions that came with open candle flame.  

 

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among all the Romantic poets, took these burgeoning fields of science and careful observation the most seriously.  He felt that the new poetry and the new science should merge, as Holmes tells us.  He invited Davy to set up a chemistry lab near him in the Lake District.  “I shall attack Chemistry like a Shark,” he wrote in his notebook.

 

As these Romantic scientists aged, their places were taken by their students, and other gentlemen scientists, men like Michael Faraday, closely mentored by Davy, William Herschel’s son, John, a renowned mathematician, and Charles Babbage.  Charles Lyell’s 1830 Principles of Geology, and Davy’s Consolations of Travel were two of Charles Darwin’s companions during the voyage of the Beagle, 1833.  His Origin of Species in 1859 marks the high-point of Victorian science, for which these early explorers laid the foundations.  (The term “scientist” wasn’t generally used until the mid 1830s,  proposed by William Whewill, another scientist, philosopher, poet.)

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For more on the poets and their poetry I can highly recommend several books by Michael Ferber ( full disclosure: a dear friend )

The above linked European Romantic Poetry, Longman’s 2005 which covers many Romantics beyond the English.

Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford, 2010, with definitions of Romanticism as it played out in religion, philosophy and poetry.

Romanticism: 100 Poems, 2021, Cambridge University Press, a slimmed down version of the above, with a few less-well-known poets added.