A Romantic Kind of Evening

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On Shrove Tuesday, the 24th February, it was time for the English Department’s annual Wordsworth lecture, this year given by Richard Holmes on the subject of ‘Romantic Science’. There wasn’t a pancake in sight, but the lecture given roamed across subject boundaries as diverse as social history, science, art and (of course) literature.

Richard Holmes is an esteemed biographer, having covered the lives of Romantic poets Percy Shelley and Lord Byron. He has even been described by the New York Times as “redeeming the art of biography”. On Tuesday evening, however, the lecture was based around his new book ‘The Age of Wonder’ and focused on the stories of various scientists from the Romantic period.

Holmes sees science as being the “missing perspective” when analysing the Romantic Age, and argues that scientists can have a Romantic view of the world; the two are not mutually exclusive. For example, Joseph Banks was a botanist on the ship ‘Endeavour’. Throughout the voyage he kept a diary, and described seeing a group of Tahitian surfers use the “wild nature” of the sea in an activity that had “no practical purpose”. His philosophical interest in the Tahitian surfer society and how it worked shows a state of mind more often seen in a Romantic thinker than a scientist.

Holmes also argued that the Romantic predisposition to fiery, intense relationships had a mirror within the scientific world. Sir Humphrey Davy (inventor of the miner’s lamp) became increasingly jealous of his apprentice Michael Faraday. He suppressed his talent, meaning that Faraday could only gain recognition after his mentor’s death. Once again, this extreme emotion shows parallels with the Romantic literary world.

Holmes also mentioned that the Romantics were interested in scientific discovery, a connection not often made. In ‘Don Juan’, for example, Byron mentions the (relatively new) phenomenon of “air balloons”. Scientific ideas not only made their way into Romantic writing but also inspired it, as in the case of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel ‘Frankenstein’. In this novel, the monster is brought to life using electricity.

At the time there was much excitement in the scientific community about the possibility of returning life to dead animals (and, presumably, humans) through the use of a process called galvanisation. This was when an electrical current was passed through the body causing the dead muscles to twitch. This highlights the idea that human emotions are necessary for scientific discoveries.

As Richard Holmes mentioned, the Davy miner’s lamp was only invented because of the ambition and dedication of Humphrey Davy; both these qualities are mirrored in Romantic poetry.

All in all, the lecture raised some interesting points about how different aspects of history can be used in order to better understand the literature produced within a certain time period.

Richard Holmes was an engaging speaker with a real passion for his subject, which made for an interesting night out. After the lecture there was a free wine reception with the option to buy ‘The Age of Wonder’ (the writing of which took him over ten years to complete) and have it signed by the author.

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