Thursday, September 10, 2009

When Science & Poetry Were Friends

Review of The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science by Richard Holmes
Pantheon, 552 pp.

The Age of Wonder means the period of sixty years between 1770 and 1830, commonly called the Romantic Age. It is most clearly defined as an age of poetry. As every English schoolchild of my generation learned, the Romantic Age had three major poets, Blake and Wordsworth and Coleridge, at the beginning, and three more major poets, Shelley and Keats and Byron, at the end. In literary style it is sharply different from the Classical Age before it (Dryden and Pope) and the Victorian Age after it (Tennyson and Browning)....

During the same period there were great Romantic poets in other countries, Goethe and Schiller in Germany and Pushkin in Russia, but Richard Holmes writes only about the local scene in England.... [T]his book is primarily concerned with scientists rather than with poets.... The scientists of that age were as Romantic as the poets. The scientific discoveries were as unexpected and intoxicating as the poems. Many of the poets were intensely interested in science, and many of the scientists in poetry.

[I]n 1833, the word "scientist" was used for the first time instead of "natural philosopher," to emphasize the break with the past.... Holmes's history of the Age of Wonder raises an intriguing question about the present age. Is it possible that we are now entering a new Romantic Age?

When Science & Poetry Were Friends - The New York Review of Books

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