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 In an unpublished and untitled poem (roughly dated between 1799 and 1802) Davy seeks to interpret nature through a poetical medium.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
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.
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)