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Title:Reweaving the Rainbow: Science in Romantic Poetry
Author(s):Prescott, Robert Allen
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Stillinger, Jack
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Literature, English
Abstract:Contrary to popular belief, the Romantic poets were not anti-scientific thinkers. Their poems, both major and minor, are heavily infused with the scientific knowledge of the period, a time marked by monumental advances in British chemistry and geology. Though they all asserted at times that there is a danger in a cold, scientific perspective on nature and on human life, they grounded both their nature poetry and their visionary poetry in terms of atoms, ether, and stratigraphy.
One of the most important scientific issues to the poets, and one little-understood today, is that of the conflated ether theories spawned by Newton in his Opticks. Many of the most widely read Romantic poems--Tintern Abbey and The Eolian Harp, for instance--rely at some point upon an "ether-reality" for a scientific sense of assurance in spiritual truth.
The ether theories--as fundamentally important to the poets as they were to such important chemists as Priestly, Davy, and Dalton--are merely one aspect of the chemical thought that is woven within the fabric of Romantic poetry. We find also a myriad of references to atoms, distillation, and diffusion, all indicating that the poets did not wish to escape from chemical knowledge, and that they had already begun, as Wordsworth predicted, to carry the human heart into the very objects of science itself.
Geology, too, heavily informed the poetry, especially that of Shelley, whose upward-flowing whirlpools do have a scientific source, and whose geological strata contain fossils of extinct species. But all the poets filled poems with images of the cataclysmic history of the earth as seen through the eyes of Hutton and Cuvier. And, interestingly, Wordsworth's Guide to the Lakes contains five letters to the poet from the Cambridge geologist Adam Sedgwick, letters that together form one of the important geological texts of the early nineteenth century.
In comparison to the Romantics' poetic interest in chemistry and geology, their use of astronomical knowledge is comparatively meager. The poets have their characters go off into space, but they learn different things from the voyages. Shelley's and Byron's characters develop a sense of cosmic insignificance--astronomy denying divinity--and Keat's and Wordsworth's characters simply long to get back to the earth--humanity denying the astronomical vision.
Issue Date:1988
Description:258 p.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1988.
Other Identifier(s):(UMI)AAI8823228
Date Available in IDEALS:2014-12-15
Date Deposited:1988

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