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‘An Oration…’ by Francis Hopkinson, 1789

My Chosen Poem is An Oration Which Might Have Been Delivered to the Students in Anatomy in the Late Rupture between the Two Schools in This City by Francis Hopkinson (1789). I don’t suppose it really responds to ’scientific thoughts’ directly, though I think it exists as a product of an 18th century episteme and in this way is an important poem for considering the ‘Scientific Gaze’ and its inability to be disentangled from other ‘gazes’.  I have been using it recently as a way to comprehend the significance of the skin around the turn of the 19th century.   In his account of a corpse, Hopkinson conflates a sexual, manly passion of the woman with an equally manly but dispassionate, scientific interest in her anatomy. His account, to me, epitomises the way in which skin has been seen as belonging to a particular person and place, whilst simultaneously being considered ‘general’ in that it is something to be removed so that the anatomist can get to the real ‘treasure’ of anatomy, to use Hopkinson’s term.  The skin is highly localised and pertains to an ‘individual’, yet superfluous and abundant in that it is a barrier, and regenerates. For my purposes, writing about transplantation, this also links with the skin being detachable and not part of the body’s equipment in the same way as the ‘internal’ objects of anatomy are.

As instructed, I’m pasting the whole of the poem into this window, which makes my post well over 1000 words because it’s a damned long poem, but it does seem quite compulsive reading! If you don’t believe me and don’t have time to find out that it’s compulsive reading, I’ve referenced the sections of the poem I’m referring to.

I’ll give a bit of context, then look briefly at the poem: Francis Hopkinson was federal judge for Pennsylvania in 1789 when he published a satirical verse responding to a ‘rupture’ between two schools of thought in anatomy in the city. Hopkinson was famous for his satires arising from his distaste for individuals using the newspaper columns as their platform to carry on personal altercations. An Oration Which Might Have Been Delivered to the Students in Anatomy in the Late Rupture between the Two Schools in This City was his final such satire, which responded to a quarrel between Dr. William Shippen, professor of anatomy, and Dr. John Foulke, a lecturer in Shippen’s department. Hopkinson artfully turned the whole dipsute into a farce. In mainly comprising of a detailed, amorous description of a corpse, the ‘oration’ is somehow an appeal to the two factions not to ‘turn their dissecting knives against each other’. (Hastings 1928, 425-426)

In the poem, the orator first calls the followers of ‘F[oulke]’ and ‘S[hippen]’ to attention. The students quieten. The orator suggests that the charge of anatomy is much too serious to carry on such pointless bickering; newspaper quarrels are ‘sport for others’, but ‘ruinous to you’. The squabbling threatens the future of the craft, as public opinion already complains: ‘Give us our father’s, brother’s, sister’s bones […]. Revenge! Revenge! They cry […]’. (Hopkinson 1793, 144) The orator boasts that he is not like the students. For him, anatomy is ‘[o]ne ruling passion [which] quite absorbs the rest’. (ibid, 146) He then continues to personify the earth, referring to its tufts of hair (trees) and so forth, promising that, if given the opportunity, he would ‘all nature’s works anatomise’. Not surprisingly, his obsession with anatomy means that he does not ‘feel love’ like other men do. ‘Yet’, he continues, ‘I have lov’d, — and Cupid’s subtle dart / Hath thro’ my pericardium pierc’d my heart / Brown Cadavera did my soul ensnare […]’ (ibid, 147) Cadavera he goes on to describe, and this section occupies the majority of the poem. She is, predictably enough, a cadaver in which he is lustfully and scientifically interested.

Describing Cadavera, Hopkinson’s orator tells us that the bones of his ‘amour’s’ hand are ‘enveloped by a skin’, the bones being what he is most interested in. He meditates ‘beneath that shrivell’d skin what treasures lie’, though the way in which he describes the cadaver draws upon the way specifically she looks. The dispassionate, scientific, and anatomical gaze acting on Cadavera’s body along with this man’s passion is a sign of a complex relationship, where individuality is conflated with scientific detachment. The beautiful dead woman is appreciated both for her external, animal beauty and the beauty of her internal workings; as a gorgeous woman and an equally stunning specimen. Following a description of her charms, he even mentions that ‘[n]ow what remains of Cadavera’s mine. / Securely hanging in a case of pine […]. There stretch’d, at length, close to my faithful side / She lies all night, —a lovely, grinning bride’ (ibid, 150). What announces the presence and loveliness of Cadavera to the Orator is her skin, her appearance. The modifications to that appearance – the scars of her dissection – only serve to further distinguish her. Even Hopkinson’s choice of name (‘Cadavera’) is very telling, as it doubtlessly is meant to signify a cadaver, which is a very general term indeed – it can refer to anybody once they’re laid out on the slab. While Cadavera is presented to us as a particular person, she is simultaneously signifying an instance – any instance – of a dead body. It is this interpretation of bodies as general and consisting of general matter of general importance that seems prevalent around this time in scientific discourse.  That said, the body – especially the skin – cannot be disassociated from the person to whom it was once attached. This is why, in the first place, people called for the return of the bodies of their loved ones and, in the second, the orator conflates the scientific lust for knowledge with his earthly lust for Cadavera.

List of Works Cited:

Hastings, George Everett (1926), Life and works of Francis Hopkinson, Illinois: The University of Chicago Press.

Hopkinson, Francis (1793), ‘AN ORATION, Which might have been delivered to the Students in Anatomy, on the late Rupture between the two Schools in this city’ in American Poems, selected and original, Litchfield: Collier and Buel, pp.143-153


Hopkinson, Francis, 1737-1791 :  AN ORATION,
Which might have been delivered to the Students in Anatomy, on the late Rupture between the two Schools in this city. [from Landmark Anthologies: American poems, selected and original [1793] ]


ADDRESS—the folly and danger of dissention—the Orator enumerates the enemies of the fraternity—reminds them of a late unseasonable interruption—a night scene in the Potter’s Field—he laments the want of true zeal in the brotherhood—and boasts of his own—the force of a ruling passion—the earth considered as a great animal—the passion of love not the same in a true son of Esculapius as in other men—his own amour—a picture of his mistress in high taste—shews his learning in the description of her mouth, arm and hand—his mistress dies—his grief—and extraordinary consolation—his unparallel’d fidelity—he apologizes for giving this history of his amour—the great difficulties Anatomists have to encounter in the present times, arising from false delicacy, prejudice and ignorance—a strong instance in proof that it was not so formerly—curious argument to prove the inconsistency of the present opinions respecting the practice—he mentions many obstacles in the road to science—and reproaches them for their intestine broils, at a time when not only popular clamour is loud, but even the powers of government are exerted against them—he then encourages his brethren with hopes of better times, founded on the establishment of the College of Physicians —is inspired with the idea of the future glory of that institution—and prophesies great things.

Friends and associates! lend a patient ear,
Suspend intestine broils and reason hear.
Ye followers of F— your wrath forbear—
Ye sons of S— your invectives spare;

[Page 144 ]

The fierce dissention your high minds pursue
Is sport for others—ruinous to you.

Surely some fatal influenza reigns,
Some epidemic rabies turns your brains—
Is this a time for brethren to engage
In public contest and in party rage?
Fell discord triumphs in your doubtful strife
And, smiling, whets her anatomic knife;
Prepar’d to cut our precious limbs away
And leave the bleeding body to decay.—

Seek ye for foes!—alas, my friends, look round,
In ev’ry street, see num’rous foes abound!
Methinks I hear them cry, in varied tones,
“Give us our father’s,—brother’s,—sister’s bones.”
Methinks I see a mob of sailor’s rise—
Revenge!—Revenge! they cry—and damn their eyes—

[Page 145 ]

Revenge for comrade Jack, whose flesh, they say,
You minc’d to morsels and then threw away.
Methinks I see a black infernal train—
The genuine offspring of accursed Cain
Fiercely on you their angry looks are bent,
They grin and gibber dangerous discontent,
And seem to say,—”Is there not meat enough?
“Ah! massa cannibal, why eat poor Cuff ?”
Ev’n hostile watchmen stand in strong array
And o’er our heads their threat’ning staves display,
Howl hideous discord thro’ the noon of night,
And shake their dreadful lanthorns in our sight.

Say, are not these sufficient to engage
Your high wrought souls eternal war to wage?
Combine your strength these monsters to subdue
No friends of science, and sworn foes to you;
On these,—on these your wordy vengeance pour,
And strive our fading glory to restore.

Ah! think how, late, our mutilated rites
And midnight orgies, were by sudden frights
And loud alarms profan’d—the sacrifice,
Stretch’d on a board before our eager eyes,
All naked lay—ev’n when our chieftain stood
Like a high priest, prepar’d for shedding blood;
Prepar’d, with wondrous skill, to cut or slash
The gentle sliver or the deep drawn gash;
Prepar’d to plunge ev’n elbow deep in gore
Nature and nature’s secrets to explore—
Then a tumultuous cry—a sudden fear—
Proclaim’d the foe—the enraged foe is near—

[Page 146 ]

In some dark hole the hard got corse was laid,
And we, in wild confusion, fled dismay’d.

Think how, like brethren, we have shar’d the toil,
When in the Potter’s Field we sought for spoil;
Did midnight ghosts, and death, and horror, brave,
To delve for science in the dreary grave.
Shall I remind you of that awful night
When our compacted band maintain’d the fight
Against an armed host?—fierce was the fray,
And yet we bore our sheeted prize away.
Firm on a horse’s back the corse was laid,
High blowing winds the winding sheet display’d;
Swift flew the steed—but still his burthen bore—
Fear made him fleet, who ne’er was fleet before;
O’er tombs and sunken graves he cours’d around,
Nor ought respected consecrated ground.
Mean time the battle rag’d—so loud the strife,
The dead were almost frighten’d into life;
Tho’ not victorious, yet we scorn’d to yield,
Retook our prize, and left the doubtful field.

In this degen’rate age, alas! how few
The paths of science with true zeal pursue?
Some trifling contest, some delusive joy,
Too oft the unsteady minds of youth employ.
For me—whom Esculapius hath inspir’d—
I boast a soul with love of science fir’d;
By one great object is my heart possest;
One ruling passion quite absorbs the rest,

[Page 147 ]

In this bright point my hopes and fears unite,
And one pursuit alone can give delight.

To me things are not as to vulgar eyes,
I would all nature’s works anatomize:
This world a living monster seems, to me,
Rolling and sporting in the aerial sea;
The soil encompasses her rocks and stones
As flesh in animals encircles bones.
I see vast ocean, like a heart in play,
Pant systole and diasttole ev’ry day,
And by unnumber’d venus streams supply’d
Up her broad rivers force the arterial tide.
The world’s great lungs, monsoons and trade-winds shew
From east to west, from west to east they blow
Alternate respiration—
The hills are pimples which earth’s face defile,
And burning Ætna , an eruptive boil:
On her high mountains hairy forests grow,
And downy grass o’erspreads the vales below;
From her vast body perspirations rise,
Condense in clouds and float beneath the skies.
Thus fancy, faithful servant of the heart,
Transforms all nature by her magic art.

Ev’n mighty LOVE, whose power all power controuls,
Is not, in me, like love in other souls;
Yet I have lov’d—and Cupid ’s subtle dart
Hath thro’ my pericardium pierc’d my heart.
Brown Cadavera did my soul ensnare,
Was all my thought by night, and daily care;
I long’d to clasp, in her transcendent charms,
A living skeleton within my arms.

[Page 148 ]

Long, lank and lean, my Cadavera stood,
Like the tall pine, the glory of the wood:
Ofttimes I gaz’d, with learned skill to trace,
The sharp edg’d beauties of her bony face:
There rose Os frontis prominent and bold,
In deep sunk orbits two large eye-balls roll’d,
Beneath those eye-balls, two arch’d bones were seen
Whereon two flabby cheeks hung loose and lean;
Between those cheeks, protuberant arose,
In form triangular, her lovely nose,
Like Egypt ’s pyramid it seem’d to rise,
Scorn earth, and bid defiance to the skies;
Thin were her lips, and of a sallow hue,
Her open mouth expos’d her teeth to view;
Projecting strong, protuberant and wide
Stood incisores —and on either side
The canine rang’d, with many a beauteous flaw,
And last the grinders , to fill up the jaw;
All in their alveoli fix’d secure,
Articulated by gomphosis sure.
Around her mouth perpetual smiles had made
Wrinkles wherein the loves and graces play’d;
There, stretch’d and rigid by continual strain,
Appear’d the zygomatic muscles plain,
And broad montanus o’er her peeked chin
Extended, to support the heavenly grin.
In amorous dalliance oft I stroak’d her arm,
Each rising muscle was a rising charm.
O’er the flexores my fond fingers play’d,
I found instruction with delight convey’d;

[Page 149 ]

There carpus, cubitus and radius too
Were plainly felt and manifest to view.
No muscles on her lovely hand were seen,
But only bones envelop’d by a skin.
Long were her fingers and her knuckles bare,
Much like the claw-foot of a walnut chair.
So plain was complex matacarpus shewn,
It might be fairly counted bone by bone.
Her slender phalanxes were well defin’d,
And each with each by ginglymus combin’d.
Such were the charms that did my fancy fire,
And love—chaste scientific love inspire.

At length my Cadavera fell beneath
The fatal stroke of all subduing death:
Three days in grief—three nights in tears I spent,
And sighs incessant gave my sorrows vent.

Few are the examples of a love so true—
Ev’n from her death I consolation drew,
And in a secret hour approach’d her grave,
Resolv’d her precious corse from worms to save;
With active haste remov’d the incumbent clay,
Seiz’d the rich prize and bore my love away.

Her naked charms now lay before my sight,
I gaz’d with rapture and supreme delight,
Nor could forbear, in extasy, to cry—
Beneath that shrivell’d skin what treasures lie!
Then feasted to the full my amorous soul,
And skinn’d, and cut, and slash’d without controul.

‘Twas then I saw, what long I’d wish’d to see,
That heart which panted oft for love and me—

[Page 150 ]

In detail view’d the form I once ador’d,
And nature’s hidden mysteries explor’d.

Alas! too truly did the wise man say
That flesh is grass, and subject to decay:
Not so the bones; of substance firm and hard,
Long they remain the Anatomist’s reward.
Wise nature, in her providential care,
Did, kindly, bones from vile corruption spare,
That sons their fathers’ skeletons might have,
And heaven-born science triumph o’er the grave.

My true love’s bones I boil’d—from fat and lean
These hands industrious scrap’d them fair and clean,
And ev’ry bone did to its place restore,
As Nature’s hand had plac’d them long before:
These fingers twisted ev’ry pliant wire
With patient skill, urg’d on by strong desire.
Now what remains of Cadavera ’s mine,
Securely hanging in a case of pine.

Ofttimes I sit and contemplate her charms,
Her nodding skull and her long dangling arms,
‘Till quite inflam’d with passion for the dead,
I take her beauteous skeleton to bed;
There stretch’d, at length, close to my faithful side
She lies all night,—a lovely, grinning bride.—

Excuse, my friends, this detail of my love,
You must the intent, if not the tale, approve;
By facts exemplary I meant to shew
To what extent a genuine zeal will go.

[Page 151 ]

A mind, so fix’d, will not be drawn aside
By vain dissentions or a partial pride;
But ev’ry hostile sentiment subdue,
And keep the ruling passion still in view.

False delicacy—prejudices strong,
Which no distinctions know ‘twixt right and wrong,
Against our noble science spend their rage,
And mark the ignorance of this vulgar age.

Time was, when men their living flesh would spare,
And to the knife their quiv’ring nates bare,
That skilful surgeons noses might obtain
For noses lost—and cut and come again;—
But now the living churlishly refuse
To give their dead relations to our use;
Talk of decorum—and a thousand whims—
Whene’er we hack their wives’ or daughters limbs;
And yet their tables daily they supply
With the rich fruits of sad mortality;
Will pick, and gut, and cook a chicken’s corse,
Dissect and eat it up, without remorse;
Devouring fish, flesh, fowl, whatever comes,
Nor fear the ghosts of murder’d hecatombs.

Now where’s the difference?—to the impartial eye
A leg of mutton and a human thigh
Are just the same: for surely all must own
Flesh is but flesh, and bone is only bone;
And tho’ indeed, some flesh and bone may grow
To make a monkey—some to make a beau,
Still the materials are the same, we know.

[Page 152 ]

Nor can our anatomic knowledge trace
Internal marks distinctive of our race.—

Whence, then, these loud complaints—these hosts of foes
Combin’d, our useful labours to oppose?
How long shall foolish prejudices reign?
And when shall reason her just empire gain?

Ah! full of danger is the up-hill road,
That leads the youth to learning’s high abode;
His way thick mists of vulgar errors blind,
And sneering satire follows close behind;
Sour envy strews the rugged path with thorns,
And lazy ignorance his labour scorns.

Is this a time, ye brethren of the knife,
For civil contest and internal strife?
When loud against us gen’ral clamours cry,
And persecution lifts her lash on high?
When government—that many headed beast—
Against our practice rears her horrid crest,
And, our noctural access to oppose,
Around the dead a penal barrier throws?
To crush our schools her awful pow’r applies,
And ev’n forbids the gibbet’s just supplies.

Yet in this night of darkness, storms and fears,
Behold one bright benignant star appears—

[Page 153 ]

Long may it shine, and, e’er it’s course is run,
Increase, in size and splendour, to a sun!—
Methinks I see this sun of future days,
Spread far abroad his diplomatic rays—
See life and health submit to his controul,
And, like a planet, death around him roll.

Methinks I see a stately fabric rise,
Rear’d on the skulls of these our enemies;
I see the bones of our invet’rate foes
Hang round it’s walls in scientific rows.
There solemn sit the learned of the day
Dispensing death with uncontrouled sway,
And by prescription regulate with ease
The sudden crisis or the slow disease.

Then shall physicians their millennium find,
And reign the real sov’reigns of mankind:
Then shall the face of this vile world be chang’d,
And nature’s healthful laws all new arrang’d—
In min’ral powders all her dust shall rise,
And all her insects shall be Spanish flies:
In medicated potions streams shall flow,
Pills fall in hail-storms, and sharp salts in snow;
In ev’ry quagmire bolusses be found,
And slimy cataplasms spread the ground—
Nature herself assume the chymist’s part,
And furnish poisons unsublim’d by art.

Then to our schools shall wealth in currents flow,
Our theatres no want of subjects know;
Nor laws nor mobs th’Anatomist shall dread,
For graves shall freely render up their dead.

Post by Paul William Craddock (London Consortium)
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‘Scientific Wooing’ by Constance Naden

‘Scientific Wooing’ – Constance Naden (1858-1889)

Angela Leighton and Margaret Reynolds eds. Victorian Women Poets: An Anthology, (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995), pp.558-567.

Scientific Wooing
I was a youth of studious mind,
Fair Science was my mistress kind,
And held me with attraction chemic;
No germs of Love attacked my heart,
Secured as by Pasteurian art [5]
Against that fatal epidemic.

For when my daily task was o’er
I dreamed of H2SO4, [page 566]
While stealing through my slumbers placid
Came Iodine, with violet fumes, [10]
And Sulphur, with its yellow blooms,
And whiffs of Hydrochloric Acid.

My daily visions, thoughts, and schemes
With wildest hope illumed my dreams,
The daring dreams of trustful twenty: [15]
I might accomplish my desire,
And set the river Thames on fire
If but Potassium were in plenty!

Alas! that yearnings so sublime
Should all be blasted in their prime [20]
By hazel eyes and lips vermilion!
Ye gods! restore the halcyon days
While yet I walked in Wisdom’s ways,
And knew not Mary Maud Trevylyan!

Yet nay! the sacrilegious prayer [25]
Was not mine own, oh fairest fair!
Thee, dear one, will I ever cherish;
Thy worshipped image shall remain
In the grey thought‐cells of my brain
Until their form and function perish. [30]

Away with books, away with cram
For Intermediate Exam.!
Away with every college duty!
Though once Agnostic to the core,
A virgin Saint I now adore, [35]
And swear belief in Love and Beauty.
Yet when I meet her tranquil gaze,
I dare not plead, I dare not praise,
Like other men with other lasses;
She’s never kind, she’s never coy, [40]
She treats me simply as a boy,
And asks me how I like my classes!

I covet not her golden dower—
Yet surely Love’s attractive power
Directly as the mass must vary— [45]
But ah! inversely as the square
Of distance! shall I ever dare
To cross the gulf, and gain my Mary?

So chill she seems—and yet she might
Welcome with radiant heat and light [50] [page 567]
My courtship, if I once began it;
For is not e’en the palest star
That gleams so coldly from afar
A sun to some revolving planet?

My Mary! be a solar sphere! [55]
Envy no comet’s mad career,
No arid, airless lunar crescent!
Oh for a spectroscope to show
That in thy gentle eyes doth glow
Love’s vapour, pure and incandescent! [60]

Bright fancy! can I fail to please
If with similitudes like these
I lure the maid to sweet communion?
My suit, with Optics well begun,
By Magnetism shall be won, [65]
And closed at last in Chemic union!

At this I’ll aim, for this I’ll toil,
And this I’ll reach—I will, by Boyle,
By Avogadro, and by Davy!
When every science lends a trope [70]
To feed my love, to fire my hope,
Her maiden pride must cry is “Peccavi!”

I’ll sing a deep Darwinian lay
Of little birds with plumage gay,
Who solved by courtship Life’s enigma; [75]
I’ll teach her how the wild‐flowers love,
And why the trembling stamens move,
And how the anthers kiss the stigma.

Or Mathematically true
With rigorous Logic will I woo, [80]
And not a word I’ll say at random;
Till urged by Syllogistic stress,
She falter forth a tearful “Yes,”
A sweet “Quod erat demonstrandum!”

Brief Analysis
‘Scientific Wooing’ is one of a quartet of poems that form ‘Evolutional Erotics’ which was published in the 1880s. The poem explores the idea of courtship through scientific processes, which Naden establishes by employing a male scientist as the poetic voice, and by creating a female lover who is named as Mary Maud Trevylyan. The poem has a distinctly renaissance style as it is written as a lyrical love poem, and is immediately reminiscent of Andrew Marvell’s ‘To His Coy Mistress’ (ca. 1650-52) by the language used, the form of the poem, and also the hyperbolic style. In the first two lines this is established:
‘I was a youth of studious mind,
fair science was my mistress kind.’ [lines 1-2]
Lines 40 and 43 also resemble Marvell’s poem by the mention of the mistress being ‘coy’ [40] and by her ‘golden dower’ [43]. The poem is not simply a journey of courtship that incorporates scientific theory, but Naden illuminates the relationship and interconnectivity of emotion, science, and at times religion, within the inherently imaginative writing form of the poem. It diminishes the dichotomies that Mary Midgely discusses in Science and Poetry (2001) of science being in direct opposition with imagination, emotion and religion, to name just a few dichotomies that she highlights. Naden explores the passion for a woman and the passion for science from the point of view of a scientist and by the end of the poem the process of the scientific experiment and romantic courtship become the same.
The scientist is described as being devoted both night and day to science, as his work consumes his dreaming with images of ‘H2SO4’ [8] and the imaginative transformation of certain elements:
‘Came Iodine, with violet fumes,
And Sulphur, with its yellow blooms,’ [10,11].
Love was then described in terms of disease:
No germs of Love attacked my heart,
Secured as by Pasteurian art
Against that fatal epidemic.’ [4-6].
This ‘epidemic’ has taken its hold, and by the sixth stanza he has cast aside ‘books’ and ‘cram/for Intermediate Exam!.’, and ‘every college duty’ [31-33]. Love has not simply invaded and mutated his passion for science, but his new love Mary appears to have affected even his religious view:
Though once Agnostic to the core,
A virgin Saint I now adore,
And swear belief in Love and Beauty.’ [34-36].
Not only is his devotion to science challenged, he is now invigorated by the devotion of faith in another, and is therefore loaded with religious connotations. In stanza ten there is a direct link established between religion, science, and emotion with the poet’s desire to ‘lure the maid to sweet communion’ [63] and by the use of ‘magnetism’ to create the chemical version of this communion in ‘chemical union’ [66]. Naden is reinforcing the interconnectivity of emotion, science and religion.
Mary’s elevated status to that of a saint is contrasted by the only coldness in the poem, which is not evinced by scientific theory, but by Marys herself. For example:
‘She’s never kind, she’s never coy,
She treats me simply as a boy,’ [40, 41].
She appears to be so remote from the scientist that he questions the actual lengths he must journey to gain her love, which he states as ‘inversely as the square/ Of distance!’ [46,47]. His enthusiasm is not quelled by it, but he hopes she will succumb to the ‘radiant heat and light’ [50] of the process of the courtship.
The comedic element is sustained throughout the poem, with the scientist calling for a ‘spectroscope’ [68] to capture a glimpse in Mary’s eye of the chemical properties of ‘Love’s vapour, pure and incandescent!’ [60]. The scientist’s original tongue and cheek desire to ‘set the river Thames on fire/ If but Potassium were in plenty!’ [17, 18] changes to simply using the discoveries of others to feed his love, no longer for science, but to woo his lover:
When every science lends a trope
To feed my love, to fire my hope,’ [70, 71].
An excellent example of this is when Naden dedicates the twelfth stanza to Darwinian theory, where the courtship rituals of ‘little birds with plumage gay’ are referred to, but the scientist is displaying his scientific knowledge in an attempt to impress his chosen partner. The scientist promises:
‘I’ll teach her how the wild-flowers love,
Any why the trembling stamens move,
And how the anthers kiss the stigma.’ [76-778].
This rather erotic, but humorous reference to Darwin’s work is then followed by the final stanza which refers to the mathematical processes of problem solving in direct comparison to the process of courtship. The scientist declares that only by ‘rigorous Logic will I woo/ And not a word I’ll say at random;’ [80, 81]. Yet, Mary only answer ‘yes’ [83] when she has endured ‘Syllogistic stress’ [82]. The poem is concluded by the QED, but what exactly has been proved?


Post by Joanna Wargen (University of Westminster)

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‘Electronic Theory’ by Basil Wright

‘If you are to think of the ultimate components of matter . . . in terms of electric charges, in terms of rhythm and energy . . .’
Prof. Wolf in The Observer, Jan. 20, 1929.

When we two die
at the far ending of our small romance
apart and blind, forgetful of the sun
we lorded once

out of the failure
of our long-wasted bodies will arise
new energies transmuted out of flesh
to trembling force

Your eyes that I
prevailing kissed, your eyes now atrophied,
and all your loveliness, so wrinkled now
and torn by years,

passing the bounds
of visible time, disintegrated nothings,
retaining yet a vigour most renewed
in powerful void

will join with mine
unseen, a second union none shall quell,
in arrowy vibrations travelling,
the dust of broken worlds, beyond the stars.

First published in The Cambridge Review, 50 (15 Feb. 1929), 275. Basil Wright (1907-87) was at that time a third-year student at Corpus Christi College; he went on to become a well-known film maker.

I might make passing allusion to this in my talk on Friday, so it would be helpful (but not essential) if you’ve read it.


Post by Michael Whitworth


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‘Sonnet – to Science’ by Edgar Allen Poe

Sonnet – to Science
Edgar Allen Poe

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise?
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?


I selected this poem (1829) by Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849) as I felt it exemplified the Romantic poets’ engagement with science. This engagement, if we can call it such, is an antagonistic one that pits Science against Poetry, portraying Science as a miasmic influence on mediation and as a scourge intent on eradicating the reverie in which the poet plied his trade.

There seems to be no room for dialogue, no common ground between the two opposing forces. On one side are the forces of Good: the deities of Greek and Roman mythology that animate nature –Diana of the untamed wilderness, the Hamadryad’s spirit of the tress and, Naiad, the soul of the gently stirring water. On the other is Science – a marauding, imperialist force daring to treat the deities of nature with violent disdain, “dragg[ing] Diana from her car,” “[driving] the Hamadryad from the wood” and [tearing] the Naiad from her flood,” leaving in its wake an atonomised nature devoid of soul.

It is interesting to note that, in this sonnet, Poe attributes agency to Science, not scientists. In doing so he attacks, not the totalitarian ideology of scientism that rejects any sensation not legitimised by scientific method, but a method of inquiry that could potentially be of service to the poet. In redeploying the antagonist imagery used by purveyors of scientism it seems that he shares their view that science and poetry cannot coexist. Is he asserting that if poetry is to live, science must die? Such an attitude (if indeed this is the attitude he held) was soon to become untenable, for the impressive fruits of science and technology throughout the nineteenth century (electricity, the telegraph, the theory of evolution) indicated that, if there was indeed a war, it would be Science that would prevail. Science would eventually completely devour the poet’s heart. Poetry needed to evolve to survive, and poets in the twentieth century realised this. They largely eschewed the strictly binary views espoused by Poe and some other Romantics and sought out more conciliatory ways of engaging with science, choosing to find within the scientific method inspiration for new ways of looking at the natural environment, and within science itself new subjects for exploration.


Post by Ruselle Meade (University of Manchester)

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‘Biology’ by Robert Crawford

from ‘Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science’ ed. Robert Crawford (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)


for Lewis

Our days and ways, our chromosomes are numbered,
Lettered, making up a long, tagged story,

A still unfolding Book of Genesis,
But one, like poetry, lost in translation,

So most of us, to find the original sense,
Must call to mind some song our mother sang,

One taken in with nursery rhymes and milk,
Then dream we come to love strange dialects-

From zymogens to Avogadro’s Number-
Whose folktales speak in strands of narrative,

Dense, trailing clauses scribbled by pipettes,
Enzyme legends, each a secret pathway

Through tiny mitochondric organelles,
Where carnitine, the label proteins read,

Acts out unseen, wee recognition scenes,
Atom-fine get-togethers, microbondings,

Pos and neg held in a cyclic shape,
And there, in trees, in cats’ or human kidneys,

Articulates a sort of Word made flesh,
Goes recognized, unspoken, joins together

Mice, people, choughs, so colourlessly proving
Gut feelings true, that all are held in one

Genetic myth, one Loch Ness-deep, compelling,
Deft, intermolecular embrace.

Robert Crawford’s Biology explores the metaphors and language through which biology has come to be understood. The mapping of the human genome in 2000 was announced with the aid of a range of metaphors, many hyperbolic and grandiose, but also familiar. One of the most powerful metaphors posited genetics as a kind of language, where DNA was analogous to an alphabet and the genome comparable to a book. Crawford takes the literary and linguistic analogies commonly associated with the human genome and creates “strands of narrative” which borrow their couplet form from the famous double helix structure of DNA.

The poem is a meditation on how “we” can understand the “long, tagged story” (despite its “strange dialects”) of biology, which is also the story of “our” lives. Beyond the tired linguistic metaphors through which science can become “lost in translation”, it is still language and writing, the poem suggests, through which we might understand “the original sense”. The difference is that rather than acting as an analogy as it had in discourses around the genome, language in the poem is biology, and biology is language. The seamless fusion of the two is enacted in the poem’s genetic form, a biological model captured in poetry whose strands, or lines, weave language and science in “a sort of Word made flesh”. The enzymes, proteins and atoms are made literate, human, they “read”, have “get-togethers” whilst humans are defined not by their language but by their physicality, their genetic similarity to animals and plants “in trees, in cats’ or human kidneys”, “joins together / Mice, people, choughs”. Thus the poem’s conclusion, the “intermolecular embrace”, reinforces not only the unity of humans with other life forms but presents an inclusive vision of language and science; biology is narrative and in the poem’s exposition narrative becomes biology, they embrace each other in each couplet, line vs strand, each manipulating our “Gut feelings”.

The poem appears in an anthology of literature and science, and is the product of a meeting between a scientist, Rona R. Ramsay and the poet. It has been created to engage with science, in an era where such cross disciplinary encounters are increasingly valued. Science is its subject, but I would go further than Ramsay who introduces the poem, describing it as “love poem for science”. It is more an ode to the joint project of both language and biology –to tell the tales through which we live.


Post by Josie Gill (University of Cambridge)

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“The Pedigree” by Thomas Hardy (1916)

I bent in the deep of night
Over a pedigree the chronicler gave
As mine; and as I bent there, half-unrobed,
The uncurtained panes of my window-square let in the watery light
Of the moon in its old age:
And green-rheumed clouds were hurrying past where mute and cold it
Like a drifting dolphin’s eye seen through a lapping wave.


So, scanning my sire-sown tree,
And the hieroglyphs of this spouse tied to that,
With offspring mapped below in lineage,
Till the tangles troubled me,
The branches seemed to twist into a seared and cynic face
Which winked and tokened towards the window like a Mage
Enchanting me to gaze again thereat.


It was a mirror now,
And in it a long perspective I could trace
Of my begetters, dwindling backward each past each
All with the kindred look,
Whose names had since been inked down in their place
On the recorder’s book,
Generation and generation of my mien, and build, and brow.


And then did I divine
That every heave and coil and move I made
Within my brain, and in my mood and speech,
Was in the glass portrayed
As long forestalled by their so making it;
The first of them, the primest fuglemen of my line,
Being fogged in far antiqueness past surmise and reason’s reach.


Said I then, sunk in tone,
“I am merest mimicker and counterfeit! –
Though thinking, I AM I
–The cynic twist of the page thereat unknit
Back to its normal figure, having wrought its purport wry,
The Mage’s mirror left the window-square,
And the stained moon and drift retook their places there.

Thomas Hardy composed “The Pedigree” in 1916 and it appeared in his 1917 collection Moments of Vision. The poem responds to theories of heredity discussed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which undermine the speaker’s sense of individuality. Amongst Hardy’s reading as a young man, Darwin, Herbert Spencer and August Weismann had all presented individual humans as minor nodes in vast intergenerational networks of biological change. The speaker glimpses his status as one link in a vast chain of inheritance through
visions of his family tree and the moon outside, which has endured while his successive ancestors passed away. Contemporary conceptual and disciplinary links between philology and biology shape the failure of language to offer any consolation to the speaker: the vocabulary in which he tries to differentiate himself equally descends from untold generations of past speakers.

Gazing at his reflection, the speaker fancies, with horror, that he sees the many predecessors from whom he has inherited his physical, mental and behavioural predispositions. These inherited characteristics are not superficial externalities to a unique, internal soul but permeate his whole being, as the speaker clarifies: “every heave and coil and move I made/ Within my brain, and in my mood and speech/ Was in the glass portrayed”. Victorian and Edwardian psychology had materialised consciousness as organic activities of the brain and nervous system. The notion that these activities might be inherited rather than unique shake the speaker’s conventional belief in the individual as a self-contained agent and personality. The speaker’s exclamation “THAT I AM I/ AND WHAT I DO I DO MYSELF ALONE” is voiced in a clause subordinate to his inescapable conclusion that “I am merest mimicker and counterfeit”. Hardy’s use of capitals and quotation marks heighten the sense of an individual voice distinguishing itself from the preceding lines. Yet, this outburst remains locked in wider metrical and rhyming patterns (“I”, “wry”; “tone”, “ALONE”). Language appears to individuate speakers, but its structures precede them, as “the recorder’s book” suggests, noting ancestors’ names in the same English with which the speaker tries to assert himself. In Darwinism and the Linguistic Image, Stephen J.
Alter has shown how through the Victorian era biological evolution was conceived and presented in tandem with philological evolution. Languages were held to adapt and mutate through deep time the same as
organisms, and philologists and biologists cited examples from each others’ disciplines to support their arguments. Hardy echoes this comparison between language and heredity by describing the intersections of the pedigree as “hieroglyphs”. As the speaker imagines his race evolving from prehistory so he imagines the language in which he writes emerging from ideograms into a phonetic alphabet. At the same time, hereditary characteristics are conceived as a kind of natural language, the speaker’s “mien, and build, and brow”
signifying the many people named in the recorder’s book. Like the book, the speaker’s body becomes a narrative of biological descent.

In Darwin’s Plots (1983) Gillian Beer argues that natural selection and transmutation of species ruptured the logic of conventional European language, which had grown for over a millennium around the concept of divine creation. Shaped by traditions of creationist belief, Victorian English literally lacked the words to describe the
world suggested by Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). Hardy’s poem stages a similar disjunction between linguistic tradition and scientific knowledge in its description of “The first of them, the primest fuglemen of my line”. Such “first” predecessors are imagined “making” the myriad characteristics which the speaker has inherited.
They were substantial individuals in themselves, of whom their present descendant is a “merest mimicker and counterfeit”. Yet, the speaker’s longing for authentic origins is also undermined by a dimension of irony suggested in the naïve image of his predecessors as “fuglemen”. The idea that his progenitors were exemplary soldiers leading their platoons quietly mocks ancestor-worship as a childish chimera. The speaker’s distant ancestors would have been no more authentic than him, inheriting their own characteristics from further  predecessors equally “fogged in far antiqueness”. Linguistic inheritance again parallels the biological with Hardy excavating an archaic English word originally derived from the German “flügelmann”. This choice of words (and word origins) is particularly loaded, given the wartime context in which Hardy was writing when the establishment was eager to distance images of Britishness from Germany. The chains of language and ethnicity undermine not only the speaker’s personal identity but also his national identity. The speaker’s countrymen fighting in the trenches are as likely to glimpse such “kindred look[s]” across No Man’s Land as they are among their comrades.


Post by William Abberley (University of Exeter)

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“Gorgo and Beau” by Edwin Morgan

It’s a long one but a good one!!

Gorgo and Beau

GORGO, a cancer cell BEAU, a normal cell

GORGO My old friend Beau, we meet again. How goes it?
Howzit gaun? Wie geht’s? Ca va? Eh?

BEAU Same old Gorgo, flashing your credentials:
Any time, any place, any tongue, any race, you are there.
It is bad enough doing what you do,
But to boast about it — why do I talk to you?

GORGO You talk to me because you find it interesting.
I am different. I stimulate the brain matter,
Your mates are virtual clones —

BEAU — Oh rubbish —

GORGO You know what I mean. Your paths are laid down.
Your functions are clear. Your moves are gentlemanly.
You even know when to die gracefully.
Nothing is more boring than a well-made body.
Why should this be? That’s what you don’t know.
And that is why you want to talk to me.

BEAU You will never get me to abhor
A body billions of us have laboured to build up
Into a fortress of interlocking harmonies.

GORGO Oh what a high horse! I never said
`Abhorrent’, I said ‘boring’, not the same.
Take a dinosaur. Go on, take a dinosaur,
Tons of muscle, rampant killing-machine,
Lord of the savannahs, roars, roars
To make all tremble, but no, not anger,
Not hunger fuels the blast, but pain
Look closer, watch that hirpling hip
That billions of my ancestors have made cancerous,
Deliciously, maddeningly, eye-catchingly cancerous.
Not the end of the dinosaurs, I don’t claim that,
But a tiny intimation of the end
Of power, function, movement, and the beauty
That you would say attends such things.
Dinosaurs on crutches, how about that?

BEAU You think you can overturn pain with a cartoon?

GORGO Pain, what is pain? I have never felt it,
Though I have watched our human hosts give signs
A gasp, a groan, a scream — whatever it is,
They do not like it, and it must be our mission
To give them more, if we are to prevail.
But in any case what is so special about pain?
Your goody-goody human beings, your heroes
Plunge lobsters into boiling water — whoosh —
Skin living snakes in eastern restaurants
Make flailing blood-baths for whales in the Faroes —
What nonsense to think it a human prerogative,
That pain, whatever it is. Not that I myself
Or my many minions would refuse
To make a camel cancerous, or a crab
For that matter! First things first.
Our empire spreads, with or without pain.

BEAU Shall I tell you something about suffering?
Imagine a male cancer ward; morning;
Curtains are swished back, urine bottles emptied,
Medications laid out. ‘Another day, another dollar’
A voice comes between farts. Then a dance:
Chemo, man gathers up his jingling stand
Of tubes and chemicals, embraces it, jigs with it,
`Do you come here often?’, unplug, plug in,
Unplug, plug in, bed to toilet and back,
Hoping to be safe again with unblocked drip.
Afternoon: chemo man hunched on bed
Vomiting into his cardboard bowl, and I mean vomiting,
Retching and retching until he feels in his exhaustion
His very insides are coming out. Well,
That’s normal. Rest, get some sleep.
It’s midnight now: out of the silent darkness
A woman’s sobs and cries, so many sobs,
Such terrible cries; for her dying husband
She arrived too late, she held a cold hand.
The nurses stroked her, whispered to her,
Hugged her tight, in their practised arms.
But they could not console her,
She was not to be consoled,
She was inconsolable.
The ward lay awake, listening, fearful, impotent,
Thinking of death, that death, their own death to come
The sobbing ended; time for sleep, and nightmares.

GORGO Well now that’s very touching I’m sure,
But let me open up this discussion.
I was flying over Africa recently
To see how my cells were doing, and while you
Were mooning over the death of one sick man
Lying well cared for in a hospital bed,
I saw thousands, hundreds of thousands
Massacred or mutilated, hands cut off,
Noses, ears, and not a cancer cell in sight.
Oh you bleeding hearts are such hypocrites!

BEAU Gorgo, you cannot multiply suffering in that way.
Each one of us is a world, and when its light goes out
It is right to mourn. And if the cause is known,
That you and your claws were scuttling through the flesh,
I call you to account. What are you up to?
Don’t tell me you care about Africa.
Don’t you want more wards, more weeping widows?

GORGO I want to knock you out, you and your miserable cohorts.
I want power. I am power-mad. No I’m not.
That’s a figure of speech. I am not repeat not
Mad, but calculating and manipulative.
I am not at the mercy of blind forces.
You may think I am, but it is not so.
Consider: a tidy clump of my cells,
A millimetre long, a stupid mini-tumour,
Is stuck because it cannot reach its food,
It’s lazy, dormant, useless and I can’t stand
Uselessness. I help it to take thought.
It must expand. It can’t expand.
It suddenly — and I mean suddenly —
Finds itself synthesising proteins
That generate blood-vessels, capillaries,
Tiny but broad enough for a breakthrough
Into nutrients, into voyages,
Into invasion and all that that implies.
Our human hosts are baffled: a thinking tumour?
Well, would you prefer an effect without a cause?

BEAU You could say something about this, I’m sure.

GORGO Could, but won’t. There’s a war on, you know.

BEAU Justify your armies, justify your battles.

GORGO Did you not hear what I said about power?
Are your ears clean, or you keep them half-closed
Against infection from a satanic tempter?
You may not even think I am a tempter,
But I am the insidious one, hissing
Listen listen. Every tumour begins with a single cell
Which divides and divides and is its own boss.
It laughs to feel its freedom, to hell with blueprints,
It shoulders and jostles its way in the organ-jungle.
Even on a glass in the lab it’s huddling and layering
Like caviar, and does caviar have to justify
Its juicy rolling formless proliferations?
The joy of kicking decent cells away,
Sucking their precious nutrients, piercing
Membranes that try to keep you from the waves
Of lymph and blood you long to navigate —
Through unimaginable dangers, be robust! —
Until you reach those Islands of the Blest —
I hear you snort, Beau, don’t explode! —
The distant organs where you plant your flag
And start a colony. Those cells are heroes,
Homer would hymn them, but I do my best!

BEAU Heroes! If anything so small can be a monster,
That’s what you and your mates are. You sound like —

GORGO Forgive the interruption. I have a few words
On monsters to give you later. Carry on —

BEAU — sound like Jenghiz Khan at the sack of Baghdad —

GORGO — at least he got into the history books —

BEAU Will you let me speak?

GORGO All right all right.
But I know what you are going to say.
BEAU You do not, but even if you did
It would be worth saying. Imagine the baby
Still in the womb, the image screened by ultrasound
Flickering and shifting, not sharp but unmistakably
Alive, the soft hand at the mouth, the dome
Above it, that forehead of a million secrets
Waiting to be born, everything vulnerable
To the last degree, but with the strength
That attends vulnerability in its beginnings.
It grows, it emerges, it grows, not a single
Bad gene in its body (your turn to snort,
All right Gorgo, but listen, listen now).

GORGO (sings) The oncogene, the oncogene, it squats in the DNA
As proud and mim as a puddock, and will not go away.
– Sorry, Beau. Continue.

BEAU As I was saying, imagine his growth,
He is strong, well formed, not brilliant but bright,
Explores the sea-bed, writes a book, has children,
Tells them stories sitting on the terrace.
Vibrations of health and harmony
Are like a talisman he gives back to nature.
His cells are in order, dying when they should.
He measures power by love, given and taken.
Your power does not tempt him.

GORGO So Pollyanna
Put on her skis, and was never seen again.
It is a nice picture, but you made it all up.
If there are such people, I must see what I can do
To infiltrate, subvert, and overthrow them.
Health and harmony? What a yawn.
I promised you a word on monsters.
I was helping one day to tie a knot
In a long tumour which had got itself twisted
(Deliberately, I’m sure) like a Mobius strip
In a body cavity of a pleasant young woman:
She was flapping and shrieking on the hospital bed
In what I imagine was very great pain.
Doctors brought students, teratologists were tingling.
There was a sharp ferocity in the air
That put all thoughts of the ordinary to flight.
– A microscope will show you a different monster:
A nucleus too gigantic for the cell,
Ragged, pulsing, encroaching, a bloodshot eye
Staring at a wreckage of filaments and blobs,
Bursting with DNA, breaking apart
In a maelstrom of wild distorted chromosomes –
That was a sight to make you think, friend Beau!

BEAU I am thinking, of how these observations
Have twisted your mind like the tumour you described.
It is death to want to make the abnormal normal.
Suppose you and your assiduous myrmidons
Had made a body into one whole tumour,
Pulsating on a slab like a Damien Hirst exhibit,
A gross post-human slug, a thing of wonder,
What then? It dies, it is not immortal.
Preserve it? Mummies tell the future
How terrible the past was. Your goal and god
Is death, and that is why I oppose you.

GORGO And how will you get rid of me,
If it is not too delicate a question?

BEAU There’s always regular hormone injections –

GORGO – make you fat and sexless –

BEAU A pinpoint zap with radiotherapy –

GORGO – leaves you tired and listless –

BEAU The swirl and drip of chemotherapy –

GORGO – you’re sick as a dog and your hair falls out –

BEAU How about nano-bullets of silica
Plated with gold and heated with infra-red light –

GORGO — oh please —
BEAU Plants offer extracts; they get cancer too,
So they should know what they are talking about.
(sings) Sow periwinkle and the mistletoe,
For these are fields where cancer cannot grow.
GORGO — you’ve got a point there —
BEAU Of course we are living now in a New Age —
GORGO — this should be hilarious —

BEAU Since mind and body can scarcely be separated,
We shall not cease from mental fight etcetera.
I can see my cells as nimble stylish knights
While yours are clumsy dragons on the prowl.
I can see my tumour as an old bunch of grapes
From which I pick one rotten fruit each day
Until the bad cells have all got the message
And shrivel into invisibility.
Some take it further; if there are good vibrations
There must also be bad. How come you got the cancer
And not Mr Robinson down the road?
You must have self-suppressions, inhibitions,
Guilts black or bleak or blistering, promises unkept,
Hatreds unspoken, festering coils
With their fangs and toxins destabilising
Cells that are as open to emotion as to disease.
If you want to dip further into the cesspit of causes,
Remember those who believe in reincarnation.
You send a poison-pen letter in one life
And in the next it’s returned with a sarcoma —
Consequences are not to be escaped!
What think you of all this, friend Gorgo?

GORGO I think it is nonsense and I don’t believe it.
Mind you, if it was true, I’ve no complaint
When disillusioned visualisers
Still sick, or more sick, go suicidal.

BEAU I don’t believe it either, but I’m loath
To brush any possibility aside.
In Celtic tradition, poets had the power
(It is said) to rhyme an enemy to death.
He was attacked in ruthless public verse,
And through suggestion and fear did actually
Fall ill and die. Cases are recorded.

GORGO I must watch what I say.

BEAU You take it lightly, but there are mysteries —

GORGO Of course there are mysteries. I give you leave,
Indeed I encourage it, to examine everything,
Fact, rumour, faith, fantasy, cutting edges
Of science (pretty blunt cut so far),
Cutting edges of imagination (look: a tumour transplant!).
I am so confident, we are so confident,
We black sheep are so confident (and remember
Black sheep are natural) that we challenge you
To ever catch up as we race ahead.
I said there was a war on, and so there is,
But let me recommend William Blake to you:
`Without contraries is no progression.’
Where would medical science be without us?

BEAU So pain, suffering, fear, death, bereavement
Are grist to the mill of the universe,
And the devotees of progress cry with joy
As Juggernaut crushes them in its murderous wheels
Down to the sea?

GORGO Is it monsters again?
You are overheated. Think calmly. Thank me
For opening many secrets of the body.
Thank me for forcing your thought into channels
Of what is at once minute and vast speculation,
Our place, your place, in the scheme of things,
Should there be a scheme of things, which I doubt!
My hordes, my billions, my workers
Have added imperfection to any design
You might impute to some beneficence —
Beneficence without maleficence, no go! —
You’ll find us in the elephant, the cricket,
The flatworm, the pine-tree, not stones yet
But who knows? Medieval spheres
Gliding on crystal gimbals could not last.
The rough inimical perilous world is better.
We rule; you rule; back and forward it goes.
Your hosts, your victims, have their obituaries
Closed in the figure of a hard-fought fight.
I leave you with the thought that we too,
We wicked ones, we errant cells
Have held our battleground for millions of years,
Uncounted millions of years.

BEAU The past is not the future. We are ready
To give you the hardest of hard times.
My host is walking gently in the sun.
Will you grit your teeth, and think of her?
We shall surely speak again. Arrivederci.

To begin it seems prudent to give some brief detail of the poet and to consider the poetry itself: its contexts, range and character, Morgan’s affinities with science and so on. After a lifetime of writing academic articles, plays and poetry (for which he is best known) Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) was made Scotland’s first Makar in 2004. Arguably Scotland’s most experimental poet, his work explored concrete poetry, sound poetry, colour poetry, fantasy and science fiction poetry, as well as traditional forms including entire collections of sonnets. Morgan’s poetry has frequently maintained a scientific intrigue through an up-to-date engagement with scientific and technological advancements, particularly through narrative and dialogue poetic forms.

Here we shall focus on Morgan’s “Gorgo and Beau” (Morgan 2007, 56-64), which Kathleen Jamie describes as “a robust dramatic dialogue between a cancer cell and a normal cell” (Jamie 2007). The poem demonstrates Morgan’s ability to involve scientific theory/understanding with a creative narrative whilst (perhaps uncommonly for Morgan) instilling a great sense of personal emotional involvement. The poem was written after Morgan was diagnosed with terminal cancer and though it avoids solemnity it demonstrates that scientific concepts can still pack an emotive punch. In the following extract we see the cancerous cell, Gorgo, attempting to convince the healthy cell, Beau, that its presence, though perhaps life threatening, is less damaging than the available treatments to eradicate it:

GORGO And how will you get rid of me,
If it is not too delicate a question?

BEAU There’s always regular hormone injections –

GORGO – make you fat and sexless –

BEAU A pinpoint zap with radiotherapy –

GORGO – leaves you tired and listless –

BEAU The swirl and drink of chemotherapy –

GORGO – you’re sick as a dog and your hair falls out –

BEAU How about nano-bullets of silica
Plated with gold and heated with infra-red light –

GORGO – oh please –

BEAU Plants offer extracts; they get cancer too,
So they should know what they are talking about.
(sings) Sow periwinkle and the mistletoe,
For these are fields where cancer cannot grow.

GORGO – you’ve got a point there –

BEAU Of course we are living now in a New Age –

GORGO – this should be hilarious –

(Morgan 2007, 61-62)

A sense of humour is never far from Morgan’s work and this exchange is no different, but below the guise of the cells, real concern must surely lie. From Beau we see the view of a physician or perhaps even the desperate hope of the patient. The “New Age” seems to promise some miraculous, asymptomatic cure as Beau capitalises its name, heightening its stature as though it were a grand artistic movement or revolutionary period in history. The sad truth, as (cruelly) emphasised by Gorgo, is that this imagined age of medical revolution is too late for Beau, too late for this imagined body and too late for Morgan. Though one might reasonably argue that Morgan’s use of wit and imagined dialogue, combined with a relatively technical medical vocabulary, may be a means of avoiding the fatal truth of his health and therefore distancing himself from the emotional pressures faced through characterising them, I would be dissatisfied with this reading. In a lecture at the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School in 2010, Professor Colin Nicholson pointed out that, “when the doctor told Eddie he had terminal cancer and would last anywhere from six months to six years, Eddie replied, “I’ll take the six years, thanks”. Similarly, Janice Galloway highlights “an admiration for persistence” in Morgan’s work and general demeanour, with Jackie Kay adding her belief that Morgan saw his cancer as “another thing to learn from, to get through” (Edinburgh Book Festival 2010).

Far from a shield to hide from his emotion, Morgan adopts a scientific vocabulary and learns about scientific progress as a means to better understand and explain his thoughts and feelings. This in itself seems to me to be a truly scientific approach to the world: that through greater understanding comes greater appreciation, that knowledge can be cathartic. In contrast an awareness of scientific theory allows each cell to state their case; the discussion is far from one-sided. Science seeks a greater understanding, a step closer to “the truth”, whether the truth is what we desire or not. The poem does not shy away from the undesired truth that human bodies are imperfect but it does not abandon hope, there is always an alternative, always a dialogue worth exploring.

Works Cited

Jamie, Kathleen, Guardian Book Review Article from 2007, accessed September 2010:

Kay, Jackie, A Tribute to Edwin Morgan, poetry readings at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Main Theatre, The Edinburgh Book Festival 2010.
Morgan, Edwin, A Book of Lives (Manchester: Carcanet, 2007).
Nicholson, Colin, Lecture on The Poetry of Edwin Morgan at the Scottish Universities’ International Summer School, Edinburgh University 2010.


Post by Russell Jones (University of Edinburgh)

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“Yours is the harp of ages and the voice” by Humphry Davy (RI MS HD 13c p.33-34)

Humphry Davy, the most well-known chemist of the early nineteenth-century, wrote a number of poems. In an unpublished and untitled poem (roughly dated between 1799 and 1802) Davy seeks to interpret nature through a poetical medium. His natural philosophy is described to have Romantic characteristics, yet what does his poem reveal about his creative imagination?

“Yours is the harp of ages and the voice” poem meditates on the relationship between man, nature and the mind as the speaker explores his profound understanding of the natural landscape.

“Yours is the harp of ages & the
That sounds through time the voice
to nature
That rises from the harmony of
Thought. & sentiment & life.
To you I sing. –

There gently as O ye whose
lofty hands embody life in nature
Ye who fell In the green
wood the meadow & the stream
The secret ties of love & Harmony

Making man rise with Nature”

The speaker directs himself to something within nature, singing to a power whose “lofty hands embody life in nature.” By employing words such as “hands” and “embody” nature is given vitality and material reality. It is celebrated for its essence, otherwise empty without it. In this poem nature becomes a vehicle to appreciate its underlying force. The “sound” of the harp “rises” from the “harmony of/ Thought & Sentiment & life.” Nature’s workings can be understood through careful consideration and, as the end of the poem shows, in this process “man” become elevated or equal with nature. Corresponding to Deist ideals the poem believes that a supreme being or power controls the universe and it can be understood through reason and observation of the natural world. This in turn leads man to “rise with nature” (my emphasis). As David Knight has already argued, Davy had Deist religious beliefs, and indeed this is evident in his poem. Nature is full of “harmony”, alluding to the Romantic interpretation of a unified dynamic world which Knight had observed in Davy’s galvanic researches. In his introductory lecture on chemistry at the Royal Institution, Davy claimed that chemistry uses “the beings and substances of the external world” and “explains their actives powers,” which in turn keeps “alive the more powerful passions and ambitions of the soul” (Lawrence 220). Similarly, the poem presents an active and creative relationship between man and nature. In understanding the harmonies, or rather the underlying forces of nature, this is suggestive of the natural philosopher’s intimate relationship with nature and its dynamics.

As an unpublished manuscript text, this is a poem in process, seeking to present a personal understanding of nature. Davy, both as a poet and a scientist, is someone who is interested in nature and its underlying forces. The homologies between his scientific work and his literary interests can illustrate that Davy saw the two ways of thinking in a holistic manner, experimenting with both, and even combining them in material terms by including both scientific notes and poetry in his personal notebooks.

Secondary Sources
Knight D. Humphry Davy: Science and Power. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.
Lawrence C. “The Power and the Glory: Humphry Davy and Romanticism” in Romanticism and the Sciences. Ed. Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.


Post by Wahida Amin (University of Salford/ Royal Institution)

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‘An Inventory of the Furniture in Dr. Priestley’s Study’ by Anna Letitia Barbauld

The poem I have chosen for discussion is Anna Letitia Barbauld’s ‘An Inventory of the Furniture in Dr. Priestley’s Study’, an annotated version of which can be found here:

It is less well known than Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition’, which perhaps corresponds more closely to the traditional perception of Romantic attitudes towards science. I have chosen this text, however, because of the way it engages with the personal spaces and objects of experimental science.

Barbauld’s serio-comic ‘Inventory’ offers a tour of the private world of one of the eighteenth century’s most prominent chemists, Joseph Priestley. Barbauld met Priestley at the radical Warrington Academy, where he and her father taught, and she maintained a close friendship with the Priestleys after they moved to Leeds.

Although the poem is not dated, it appears to refer to Priestley’s experiments with gases, so is likely to have been written in the early 1770s (Priestley is credited with discovering oxygen in 1774). In Priestley’s own documentation of his work in this period, he links science with religious and political reform, writing that scientific progression would end ‘all undue and usurped authority in the business of religion’, as well as warning that ‘the English hierarchy had ‘reason to tremble even at an air pump, or an electrical machine’ (‘Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air’, Vol. 1., 1774, xxiii). In her Inventory, Barbauld identifies Priestley’s scientific apparatus as instruments of his radical dissent:

‘A shelf of bottles, jar and phial,
By which the rogues he can defy all,–
All filled with lightning keen and genuine,
And many a little imp he’ll pen you in;’ (ll.17-20)

The jar mentioned here is probably a Leyden jar, which was used to generate and store electricity. Electricity certainly had revolutionary associations in the period, but electrical experiments were also a fashionable form of entertainment. Barbauld encapsulates this double capacity: science creates a written space in which to ‘pen in’ or capture a political force, while the playfulness of the rhyme reflects the era’s excitement at the spectacle of science. Like his bottles and jars, Priestley holds ‘keen and genuine’ Enlightenment values, but his ‘imps’ are also mischievous and disruptive, causing domestic (in both senses of the term) disturbance when ‘let out’ amongst his neighbours (ll.21-2) and fellow countrymen.

The connection between politics and the objects of science continues in the following lines:

‘A rare thermometer, by which
He settles, to the nicest pitch,
The just degrees of heat, to raise
Sermons, or politics, or plays.’ (ll.25-8)

A scientific object with special cultural significance in the eighteenth century, the thermometer became a common emblem for the emotions (Terry Castle, ‘The Female Thermometer’). If the thermometer’s responsiveness replicates that of the human emotions, Priestley possesses the ability to accurately gauge the ‘heat’, or level of enthusiasm, required to write religious and political material which will in turn have an emotional effect on its audience.

Barbauld’s variation of rhythm builds a physical sense of the arrangement of the objects in the study, such as the folio books which ‘o’ertop their fellows’ (l.12) both in inches and in line length. The impression she creates is of an orderly kind of disorder, of a working space, and a place of inspiration. As the poem progresses, however, the room Barbauld explores – and thereby the mind of the man who occupies it – appears increasingly eccentric and darkly brilliant; a ‘chaos dark’ (l.40) which yields violently polemic works, as well as abortive projects.

The distinction between the study and Priestley’s intellect becomes difficult to discern, as all appears a ‘heterogeneous mass’ (l.39). Barbauld’s virtuosity matches that of her subject as she conjures up the character of the scientist through the objects in his study – indeed, the word ‘furniture’ in the title is multivalent, meaning either equipment or mental faculties.

The poem was not published in Barbauld’s lifetime, but nevertheless reveals her capacity as a female navigator of the private spaces of science. Stuart Curran has suggested that women writers’ transformation of confined spaces may have been a response to their confinement to the home (‘The I Altered’). The study, however, is not traditionally a ‘women’s place’, yet Barbauld takes the role of a mediator of science to the uninitiated. In the final three lines of the poem, Barbauld’s audience disrupts her description of the room: ‘”But what is this?”’ (l.55), she imagines us to exclaim. The initiate must ask the poet, because we cannot ask Priestley, what the ‘thing’ is. Concluding her tour with a spectacle of science, Barbauld’s enigmatic response reveals the privilege of her acquaintance with a recent discovery, as yet ‘unknown, without a name’ (l.57).

‘An Inventory of the Furniture in Dr. Priestley’s Study’

A map of every country known,
With not a foot of land his own.
A list of folks that kicked a dust
On this poor globe, from Ptol. the First;
He hopes,–indeed it is but fair,–
Some day to get a corner there.
A group of all the British kings,
Fair emblem! on a packthread swings.
The Fathers, ranged in goodly row,
A decent, venerable show,
Writ a great while ago, they tell us,
And many an inch o’ertop their fellows.
A Juvenal to hunt for mottos;
And Ovid’s tales of nymphs and grottos.
The meek-robed lawyers, all in white;
Pure as the lamb,–at least, to sight.
A shelf of bottles, jar and phial,
By which the rogues he can defy all,–
All filled with lightning keen and genuine,
And many a little imp he’ll pen you in;
Which, like Le Sage’s sprite, let out,
Among the neighbors makes a rout;
Brings down the lightning on their houses,
And kills their geese, and frights their spouses.
A rare thermometer, by which
He settles, to the nicest pitch,
The just degrees of heat, to raise
Sermons, or politics, or plays.
Papers and books, a strange mixed olio,
From shilling touch to pompous folio;
Answer, remark, reply, rejoinder,
Fresh from the mint, all stamped and coined here;
Like new-made glass, set by to cool,
Before it bears the workman’s tool.
A blotted proof-sheet, wet from Bowling.
–”How can a man his anger hold in?”–
Forgotten rimes, and college themes,
Worm-eaten plans, and embryo schemes;–
A mass of heterogenous matter,
A chaos dark, nor land nor water;–
New books, like new-born infants, stand,
Waiting the printer’s clothing hand;–
Others, a motley ragged brood,
Their limbs unfashioned all, and rude,
Like Cadmus’ half-formed men appear;
One rears a helm, one lifts a spear,
And feet were lopped and fingers torn
Before their fellow limbs were born;
A leg began to kick and sprawl
Before the head was seen at all,
Which quiet as a mushroom lay
Till crumbling hillocks gave it way;
And all, like controversial writing,
Were born with teeth, and sprung up fighting.
“But what is this,” I hear you cry,
“Which saucily provokes my eye?”–
A thing unknown, without a name,
Born of the air, and doomed to flame.


Post by Joanna Wharton (University of York)

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“The Ghosts of Departed Quantities” by Adam Dickinson

Adam Dickinson: The Ghosts of Departed Quantities

Speak of small,
so small
that we differ from it
by as little as one wish.

But this implies motion,
sidling up to hope.
Are we any closer?

Cantor’s family moved from Judaism
to Protestantism,
from Russia to Germany.

To prove that two set of objects are the same size,
Cantor relived us of counting.
Simply put your hands together,
no need to add the fingers.

Relation before number;
body to faith.

A set of misunderstandings,
a list of languages you never learned,
the number of intentions two people have in common.

all the days that have come before today.

He put the infinite in a bag
and shook;
everthing came out larger.

What separates us is innumerable,
but like applause,
other words for the same thing,
all our differences fit.

’The Ghosts of Departed Quantities’ first appeared in Problematic Recreations (Littlefishartpress, 2008) and was also published in Davis, Chandler, et. al. The Shape of Content, Creative Writing in Mathematics. A K Peters, 2008.
Adam Dickinson teaches at Brock University, Ontario. He specialises in poetics, literary theory and creative writing, and is interested in mathematics, particularly in overlaps between mathematical and metaphorical thinking.

The title ‘The Ghosts of Departed Quantities’ refers to a phrase by Bishop Berkeley (1685-1753) which he used to describe infinitesimals. An infinitesimal is a mathematical concept, defined as ‘[a]n infinitely small quantity or amount, a quantity less than any assignable quantity.’ (OED ‘infinitesimal) The first stanza of the poem describes this idea: ‘Speak of small, / so small / that we differ from it / as little as one wish.’ (1-4) Infinitesimals were first used in the seventeenth century and immediately raised questions as to their status of ‘existence’. Berkeley’s comparison of infinitesimals with ‘ghosts of departed quantities’ is an exemplary reaction concerning the questioned reality of quantities that could not be stably put down but only defined as smaller than any imaginable positive number but not coinciding with zero.
Infinitesimals played a vital part in the newly invented calculus, a mathematical concept that deals with changes of quantities relative to each other: For example, by setting into relation position and time, the calculus can be used to figure continuous motion. Accordingly, the second stanza of the poem begins with: ‘But this implies motion’ (5). In the terminology of Isaac Newton, one of the inventors of the calculus, ‘the quantity generated by a motion [is called] a fluent, and its rate of generation a fluxion’ (Bell 83), and Berkeley directed a similar attack on their ‘existence’: ‘He who can digest a second or third fluxion, a second or third difference, need not, methinks, be squeamish about any point in divinity.’ Berkeley thus argued that the calculus was no less mysterious than religion; a thought taken up later in the poem but already implied when introducing mathematician Georg Cantor (1845-1918) as moving ‘from Judaism / to Protestantism’ (8-9). Cantor, a devout Protestant who was convinced to be of Jewish origin, is famous for his discoveries concerning mathematical infinity, a field that he saw as related to religious questions. He even claimed to receive his mathematical ideas directly from God.
As stanza 4 describes, Cantor developed a method to compare sets of infinite objects. As counting infinite amounts is impossible, his method works differently: ‘Cantor relieved us from counting.’ (12) Instead of considering each separate object, he related each object of one set to an object in the other set. For example:

Natural Number 1 2 3 4 …
Square 1 4 9 16 …

As each object has exactly one counterpart in the other set, it is proven that the ‘two set of objects are the same size’ (11). Matching the objects without regarding their specificity, Cantor puts ‘Relation before number’ (15): ‘Simply put your hands together, / no need to add the fingers.’ (12-14) Intuitively, one expects there to be more natural numbers as not every natural number is a square, and Cantor commented on a similar discovery: ‘I see it, but I cannot believe it!’ But like touching the resurrected Jesus made Doubting Thomas believe, so the simple and intuitive method of ‘simply put[ting] your hands together’ (13) adds ‘body to faith’ (16) in mathematics.
Cantor also showed that there are two different kinds of infinity: sets can be countably or uncountably infinite. The everyday understanding refers to countable infinity; for example, we can theoretically count natural numbers to infinity (1, 2, 3, 4…). But Cantor discovered that there is a kind of infinity that cannot be counted and which is larger than countable infinity: ‘He put the infinite in a bag / and shook; / everything came out larger.’ (21-23) For example, so the poem states, ‘What separates us is innumerable’; our differences are even larger than our everyday understanding of infinity.
The innumerable separation between people can be overcome by communication, not least by the poem itself. The very beginning of ‘The Ghosts of Departed Quantities’ signals the topic of language: ‘Speak[ing]’ (1), ‘we differ from it / by as little as one wish’ (2-3). As the mathematical quantity of the infinitesimal approaches zero without ever reaching it, so in language, according to Ferdinand de Saussure, the signifier might approach the signified but never coincide with it. Not only is the infinitesimal associated with motion in mathematics, but in language as well, ‘this implies motion’ (4), namely the incessant sliding of the signified under the signifier (Lacan), and instead of coincidence between the notions, there is only a relation between signifiers; here too, there is ‘Relation before number’ (15). The attempt to communicate is made difficult by this dissociation of signifier and signified and their ever changing relation: ‘A set of misunderstandings, / a list of languages you never learned, / the number of intentions two people have in common. // all the days that have come before today.’ (17-20) Yet, even if ‘What separates us is innumerable’ (24) and perfect communication is impossible, we can use ‘other words for the same thing’ (26), and thus matching sets of objects, ‘put[ing] your hands together’ (13) instead of trying to count or account for specifics, we realise that ‘all our differences fit.’ (27)


Post by Nina Engelhardt (University of Edinburgh)

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