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Full Review
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The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science
by Richard Holmes
Book Reviews
Reviewed by Dale Pendell, 9/8/2009

Scientists, Poets, and Laughing Gas

This review encompasses two books, The Age of Wonder and The Atmosphere of Heaven.

Until 1833, scientists were not called such: they were called “natural philosophers.” In that year, at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge objected to the term “philosopher” on philological grounds. After the august assembly disposed of the term “savants” because it was too French, William Whewell offered the term “scientist”, on the model of “artist”, “economist”, and “atheist”. Despite the grumblings of those objecting to such a barbaric neologism, the term quickly came into general use. Scientific researchers were becoming professionals, and they needed something to call themselves. The two excellent books here under review, in different ways, explore the world of the preceding generation, the golden age of gentleman amateurs. This period—the years prior to and following the French Revolution—is also the last time that poets and scientists commingled and collaborated, both in scientific experiments and in the writing of verse.

So what happened? Why did the scientists and the poets part ways? Neither of these books tell that story, both ending with the death of Sir Humphry Davy in 1829, but I’ll add my own reflections at the end of this review.

Mike Jay, in The Atmosphere of Heaven, explores this rich time period through the life of Dr. Thomas Beddoes: physician, author, translator, Oxford lecturer, republican pamphleteer, chemist, geologist, philanthropist, and the founder of the Medical Pneumatic Institution. The Pneumatic Institution was dedicated to the alleviation of suffering, especially of the working classes, through the new possibilities of chemical medicine, and in particular, “factitious airs”, the newly isolated gases such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrous oxide. The Pneumatic Institution was also the meeting place for the rising generation of young intellectuals who would shape the decades to come, including Humphry Davy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and Peter Roget. Beddoes was also closely associated with the Lunar Society of Birmingham, whose members included Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley, Josiah Wedgwood, James Watt, and Matthew Boulton.

The Lunar Society met monthly, on the Monday nearest the full moon, and the members were happy to call themselves “the lunaticks.” They were industrialists, chemists, botanists, and doctors, primarily interested in applied science, and for the most part, progressive politically and socially. Many of them, Priestley in particular, were of Dissenting persuasion, Quakers, or atheists, or members of some sect other than the Church of England, and they were the prime movers of the emerging Industrial Revolution in the English midlands.

Jay begins his story on the anniversary of Bastille Day, 1791, and the destruction of the home and laboratory in Birmingham of England’s foremost chemist, Joseph Priestley, by a mob shouting “God and King”. Priestley narrowly escaped with his life by hiding first at the house of a friend, later in London, and finally by emigrating to America where he was welcomed by Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Beddoes, returning from Oxford to his home in Shropshire, passed through Birmingham the weekend after the riots and witnessed the wreckage.

Having experienced the viciousness of the reactionary forces in the Priestley Riots, the Lunar Men stopped meeting, and, if of republican or Jacobin leaning, learned to keep quiet about their support of the French Revolution and other progressive causes. This was not true of Thomas Beddoes, who made no secret of his political ideas either in person or in print. While some of the wealthy men of the Lunar Society continued to support Beddoes, he was unable to garner support from Joseph Banks of the Royal Society. While Beddoes was admired as a scientist and an intellectual, his reputation as a “democrat” and a radical kept him marginalized, where “radical”, then as now, referred to any beliefs that would disturb the hereditary privileges of the propertied class in any substantial way. I’m stating the case here much more strongly than does Mr. Jay, who is scrupulous in letting the facts speak for themselves, rather than drawing more general conclusions himself. For example, he notes that Banks also had reservations about Beddoes’s methodology in testing his new gases on living patients. (Banks also refused to publish Edward Jenner’s findings on the success of his smallpox vaccinations.) The political history of the years leading up to the war between England and France unfold in The Atmosphere of Heaven almost as a subtext, but for that reason are all the more cogent. “Gagging Laws” were enacted, rationalized by the supposed necessities of patriotism and the war, and are eerily familiar.

The marginalization of Thomas Beddoes continued after his death. Readers of The Atmosphere of Heaven may feel that even Richard Holmes, in The Age of Wonder, gives him short shrift. Holmes states: “Thomas Beddoes was regarded indulgently as a sort of secular saint by the Watt family: a holy fool of science. A gifted physician and lecturer, he had been forced to resign from his Fellowship at Oxford for his staunchly (and tactlessly) held republican and atheist views.” As Jay’s research uncovers, Beddoes had already offered his resignation a year before in order to pursue his philanthropic project of founding the Pneumatic Institution. Nonetheless, Beddoes fills a full half column in Holmes’s index.

The Age of Wonder is broader in scope than The Atmosphere of Heaven. Holmes defines his “age of wonder” as the period between the first round-the-world voyage of James Cook on the Endeavor (1768–71), and the voyage of the Beagle in 1831, two years after the death of Humphry Davy. The Age of Wonder begins with a chapter invitingly titled “Joseph Banks in Paradise”. Banks was the official botanist aboard Cook’s Endeavor, and the ship had anchored at Tahiti, still quite unspoiled, in order to record the transit of Venus across the disk of the sun and therefore establish solar parallax with similar observations being made in England and thus accurately determine the sun’s distance from the earth. Banks spent as much time studying the natives as he did plants, and contributed some of the first ethnographical writing in English. Holmes follows this account with a chapter on the musician and astronomer William Herschel and a chapter on the balloonists.

Holmes is at home among the romantic poets, having previously written a biography of Shelly, a book on Samuel Johnson and Richard Savage, and a two-volume biography of Coleridge. Not surprisingly, his book contains a great deal of literary history and is sprinkled with literary anecdotes. Holmes is also more apt to speculate on who is in love with whom than is Jay, and has a slightly breezier style. (When Jay, in his epilogue, writes of Davy that it was not only his “experiences of the poison chalice of power that fed the bitterness of his last days,” the trope stands out.)

It is the second half of both books that considerably overlap, centering on the life and career of Humphry Davy and his experiments with nitrous oxide at the Pneumatic Institution in Bristol. Beddoes hired Davy as his assistant physician and researcher at the Institution in 1798. Thus Beddoes becomes the crucial link in a chain that runs, we might say, Priestley → Beddoes → Davy → Faraday → Maxwell → Einstein.

Nitrous oxide quickly became the darling gas of the Institution. Davy named the gas, refined and scaled-up the technique of producing it from ammonium nitrate, and was both the chief administrator of the gas and the chief inhaler. James Watt, Lunar Man and developer of the steam engine, designed the breathing apparatus. Davy also had Watt design a complete airtight chamber with a window into which the gas could be pumped to study the effects of extended inhalation. As he did with all of the gases at the Institution, Davy first tried this apparatus on himself. After one particularly deep session, Davy reported “nothing exists but thoughts,” an insight that, as refined by yogic philosophers, is not solipsistic and, east of the Indus, changed the course of history. But nitrous insights, even of great profundity, often seemed to lack such lasting transformative power.

Therapeutically, after some initial successes, especially in treating palsy, the medical value of nitrous oxide seemed disappointing, at least to Thomas Beddoes, who was looking for a cure for consumption. But the effect of the gas on the poets, such as Coleridge and Southey, and their host of luminous friends was spectacular. Davy kept careful notes, and required his subjects to submit reports. His findings resulted in his first book, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical; chiefly concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and its respiration, published in 1800 by Biggs and Cottle (a copy of which was recently listed by a UK bookseller for ₤5,000, or over US$8,000). Joseph Cottle was Beddoes’s publisher, both of his scientific books and his political pamphlets. He also published Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and, most significantly, Lyrical Ballads, which first appeared anonymously. Cottle was one of the few in the circle who resisted trying nitrous oxide.

Davy and Beddoes had both noted the pain-relieving qualities of nitrous oxide. Davy even used the gas to relieve the pain of a toothache, but wrote that the pain returned after he stopped using the gas. A half-century passed before the gas’s usefulness as an anesthetic was employed for tooth extractions and for surgery—and that occurred in the United States. It was also in the United States that the next chapters exploring the revelatory and spiritual qualities of nitrous oxide inebriation were written. The researchers were Benjamin Blood and William James.

As for the poets, where did they go? There is certainly nothing in Tennyson, Browning, or Longfellow that responds to Wordsworth’s challenge when he wrote:

If the labours of men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep then no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of Science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of the Science itself. The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or Mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the Poet’s art as any upon which it can be employed . . .
— Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads, 1802

None of the succeeding generation of poets followed Wordsworth’s dictum to embrace science, and none of them learned mathematics. Physicist James Clerk Maxwell did write poetry, but he was not a part of the poetic community as was Davy, whose poems were published by Robert Southey in his Annual Anthology. The truth is that Maxwell’s best poems were his equations, but at least a modest familiarity with vector calculus was required to read them.

Perhaps more importantly, however, the scientific metaphors were proving more revolutionary than those of the poets. Coleridge understood this, but still felt that the more godless (we might say “philistine”) implications of mechanistic materialism were secondary and peripheral to science itself, and that the denigration of Imagination to “mere” was not justified by experiment. On the Continent, Goethe tried to create a parallel science, dubbed “phenomenological” by Rudolf Steiner, which still struggles feebly on the margins of scientific research, called today either “holistic” or “pseudo”, depending on one’s temperament.

Neither Tennyson nor Longfellow challenged the underlying worldview, and the mantle of the salvation and hope passed to Progress, wholly the province of science, or to revolutionary philosophers such as Karl Marx, whose philosophy, we might say, was a subset of the scientific paradigm. The scientists went their own way, and poetry seemed more and more at odds to their endeavor, or simply irrelevant.

And finally, as for the wondrous wisdom of the gas, I went in and checked. I found that my previous conclusions in Pharmako/Poeia were still valid, by at least a full order of difference. And two degrees of difference are enough for me.

1 Comment »

  1. Thank you for your interesting and informative essay on these two books, which deal with a critical point in our cultural history, where science and art (psychology?) approached and then fell apart again.

    Comment by Bruno Degazio — 10/10/2009 @ 5:08 am

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