World Poetry Day may seem a strictly literary shindig. But despite the ongoing evocations of C.P. Snow’s 1959 ‘two cultures’ lecture, science and poetry are not-so-strange bedfellows. Nature itself is the perfect exemplar: the journal’s very title is taken from a poem by English Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
That was Wordsworth’s 1823 sonnet ‘A Volant Tribe of Bards on Earth are Found’, which contains the lines “To the solid ground/Of nature trusts the Mind that builds for aye.” That inspired choice by Nature’s first editor, Norman Lockyer, was amplified by the journal’s first article, ‘Nature: Aphorisms by Goethe’. In opening with the work of a poetic titan equally versed in morphology and anatomy (who also authored a highly original colour theory), the biologist T. H. Huxley admitted that the journal’s new readers might find it “terribly Pantheistic”. But he noted, too, that Goethe himself (who wrote the lines in 1786, while en route to discovering the human intermaxillary bone) was aware of that, and even wryly critical of it. And many of the lines still carry a satisfying scientifically poetic punch.
As Ruth Padel (Charles Darwin’s great-great granddaughter and a celebrated poet) notes, science and poetry have been entangled since the birth of Western culture. In a 2011 Guardian article she reminds that poetry was “the first written way we addressed such questions as what is the world made of, and how did it come to be”. From the pre-Socratics of the fifth and sixth centuries BC to the eighteenth-century physician Erasmus Darwin, who predicted the theory of evolution in his poem ‘The Temple of Nature’, poetry has been a vehicle for ‘big science’ — sometimes the very biggest. Advances in astronomical observation from early telescopes to Hubble have energised poets from the eighteenth-century celebrant of the ‘cosmic sublime’ Anna Barbauld to Tracy K. Smith, part of whose 2011 collection Life on Mars celebrates her father’s role as a Hubble engineer.
Speculating on this ancient fusion of science and poetry, Padel points to their mutual use of metaphor; their predication on precision; their toleration of uncertainty. But I’ll let Wordsworth — that preeminent ‘nature’ poet — have the last word. In the 1802 edition of Lyrical Ballads, co-written with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he wrote that if scientists’ labours “should ever create any material revolution”, then “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”.
For Nature’s full coverage of science in culture, visit www.nature.com/news/booksandarts.