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Wordsworth and the Reweaving of the Rainbow 
by Lori Burton 

Throughout history there has been a distinction between that which belongs to science and that which belongs to art.  However this distinction became a marked difference in the post-Newton era.  The desire held by Isaac Newton and his contemporaries to explain the world revolutionized scientific thought, yet left the literary figures of the consequent generations struggling to cope with the loss of imagination and poetic speculation about what had been previously unexplained.  William Wordsworth was one poet very much affected by the development of the modern sciences; at once he spoke out against the reduction of the scientific spirit into methods and data while at the same time he clearly showed through his work an affinity for scientific, methodological thinking.  While modern readers may see these contradictory viewpoints as confusing, in the context of Wordsworth’s era they epitomize the Romantic struggle against scientific development.  

In 1620 philosopher Lord Francis Bacon published Novum Organum (New Method) which introduced his audiences to a different kind of scientific method, known now as Baconian Induction.  In his writing, Bacon stressed “observation and experiment, the collection of facts rather than the forming of speculations” (Smith 15).  This method was embraced by those who wished to know the workings of the universe.  None, however, held this desire more than Newton.  Possessing the mathematical skills lacked by Bacon, Newton was able to go further, effectively explaining the mysteries of gravity, light, and motion.  The scientific spirit continued on with the intent to resolve all other mysteries, and by the nineteenth century there was an increase in the number of newly established sciences and many of those already in existence experienced change (Chapple 2).  Breakthroughs in biology that led to the modern understanding of human reproduction led to a “fundamental change in thought about nature” (Chapple 3) and the scientific ‘need-to-know’ attitude permeated nearly every facet of life.  This turned out to be a mixed blessing, especially for the Romantic poets, many of whom openly lamented the loss of imagination in exchange for detailed explanations.  Although Bacon and Newton were still highly respected, subsequent followers of either Bacon or Newton were, particularly in the minds of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, generally not held in high regard because of their attempts to reduce everything to simplistic, mechanical terms.  

The influence of Isaac Newton on Wordsworth has been well documented by scholars.  In fact, many hold that the poet’s “description of the grander aspects of the universe” had foundation in Newton’s work.  For example, Newton’s  explanation of the phenomenon of tides linked the sea to the solar system, and Wordsworth scholar B. R. Schneider Jr. points out that “Wordsworth’s poetry is haunted by the sun, moon and stars.  The sea also is ever present with these . . .” (Thomas and Ober 39).  In a passage from the Preface, Wordsworth states that the poet “considers man and the objects that surround him as acting and re-acting upon each other,” an obvious recontextualization of Newton’s third law of motion (“For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”) (Smith 54).  A more explicit example of Wordsworth’s respect for Newton comes directly from a passage the poet wrote for Newton’s memorial statue quoted from Thomas and Ober (250):  

Her pealing organ was my neighbour too;  
And from my pillow, looking forth by light  
Of moon or favouring stars, I could behold  
The antechapel where the statue stood  
Of Newton with his prism and silent face,  
The marble index of a mind for ever  
Voyaging through the strange seas of Thought, alone. 
Despite his admiration for Newton, throughout the Preface to Lyrical Ballads Wordsworth makes many distinctions between the man of science and the poet.  For example he writes that “[t]he knowledge of both the Poet and the Man of Science is pleasure” but soon makes the statement that “[t]he Man of Science seeks truth as a remote and unknown benefactor; he cherishes it and loves it in his solitude:  the Poet . . . rejoices in the presence of  truth as our visible friend and hourly companion”  (Mellor and Matlak 579).  In the beginning of the piece, he states his refusal to offer a systematic defense for the different aspects of the ballads as compared to the poems of his colleagues.  However, a reading of this piece shows that in fact his mind was sufficiently scientific to indeed offer a detailed theory of his poetry.  In fact, as noted by author Jonathan Smith, “the word ‘experiment’ is the first word used to describe both the Lyrical Ballads as a whole and the individual poems contained within it” (54).  Consequently, the results of this experiment were to be measured against a standard, vague as it may be:  “the quality and quantity of pleasure” of the poems before his Lyrical Ballads (54).  

In stark contrast to his apparent admiration for Newton and the respect for scientific thinking evident in the Preface is the recurring theme in Wordsworth’s poetry that individual knowledge ought to come from personal experience rather than books.  The last two stanzas of “The Tables Turned” offer a less than favorable view of science:  

Sweet is the lore which nature brings;  
Our meddling intellect  
Mishapes the beauteous forms of things;  
--We murder to dissect.  
Enough of science and of art;  
Close up these barren leaves;  
Come forth, and bring with you a heart  
That watches and receives.  (Mellor and Matlak, 571) 
Wordsworth indeed seems at odds with the pervasive science that sought to demystify the unexplained, yet he had also clearly internalized the quest for exploration.  In the article “Theories of the Mind:  Wordsworth’s Anticipation of Neural Darwinism,” author Michael G. Miller offers evidence that the poet’s desire to explain the human mind resulted in ideas that would later be the fundamental basis of a theory explaining brain functioning set forth in the late twentieth century.  Miller claims that “Wordsworth’s . . . exalting of the mind is a definitive feature of his poetry, and his greatest influence on Western literature and thought has been his focus on the developing mind as a poetic subject” (12).  By working so diligently to understand and explain the functioning of the mind, to explain the previously unexplainable, Wordsworth could be seen as just as guilty of following Newton’s science as the scientists he deplored.  The difference for Wordsworth, however, is that his quest for self-exploration was based on his desire for the attainment of knowledge relevant to each individual, rather than the desire to reduce both nature and the human mind into systems using mechanical terms.  Smith attributes the following quote to Wordsworth:  
Lord Bacon two hundred years ago announced that knowledge was power and strenuously recommended the process of experiment and induction for the attainment of knowledge.  But the mind of this Philosopher (Bacon) was comprehensive and sublime and must have had intimate communion of the truth of which the experimentalists who deem themselves his disciples are for the most part ignorant viz. that knowledge of facts conferring power over the combinations of things in the material world has no determinate connection with power over the faculties of the mind. (52)
Thus, for Wordsworth, although Bacon employed scientific methodologies in his work, his focus was still on the journey to the truth, rather than on the path taken, whereas his “disciples” are content to focus on merely the methods used to obtain knowledge.  Wordsworth also feared the decline of the imagination: “[A]ll these products of knowledge which are confined to gross—definite—and tangible objects, have, with the aid of Experimental Philosophy, been every day putting on more brilliant colours; the splendour of the Imagination has been fading” (Smith 52).  

In light of the perceived reduction of the scientific spirit into merely methods and data, Wordsworth, as well as his friend Coleridge, had problems with those who tried to bridge the increasing gap between science and poetry. Humphry Davy, a chemist by vocation who also had an affinity for poetry, was a one time friend to both Wordsworth and Coleridge.  This friendship deteriorated, however, when Davy’s development as a scientist began to affect his thoughts regarding the poets.  Where he once claimed Newton and Shakespeare to share a similar genius, the ability to employ imagination as well as reason, he eventually began to elevate the scientist over the poet indicating that the “influence of the poet is limited by the pleasure that they give” (Smith 81).  Although these sentiments appear to concur with those of Wordsworth in the Preface, Davy went on to say that the work of even the greatest poets is not universal.  For Davy, neither Milton nor Shakespeare could transcend their culture, but the language of science, the “language of facts,” was completely universal.  Davy’s continued “decline” into the methodological sciences, as well as Wordsworth’s contempt over his remarks, resulted in Davy being branded by the poets, particularly Wordsworth, as “Baconian.”  

In addition to Davy, Erasmus Darwin was another Romantic figure who sought to bring together poetry and science.  As a scientist, like his famous grandson Charles, Erasmus Darwin proposed a theory of evolution.  As a poet, he combined his interests in his The Botanic Garden, which was comprised of “poems heavily annotated with botanical information” (Mellor and Matlak 109).  This work was criticized, particularly by Coleridge, who claimed that the poetry of Darwin  “strikes the reader as a succession of Landscapes or Paintings,” which is explained by Patricia M. Ball as meaning that to Coleridge, Darwin’s work was not poetic but rather a ‘study’ which might lead to a poem (34).  This idea was further articulated by Thomas De Quincey who elaborated on the differences between poetic and scientific texts by contrasting the differences between “Paradise Lost” and a cookbook.  He claimed that although new knowledge is gained from the cookbook, it must not be placed in a “higher level of estimation than the divine poem” (Smith 51).  Speaking of Newton’s masterpiece Principia, De Quincey claimed that although it is one of “the very highest work[s] that has ever existed in the Literature of Knowledge (it is) but a provisional work” (51).  “Provisional” in the sense that no matter how important, it is merely information, “not associated with the truths of a higher and permanent sphere, and therefore susceptible to revision and reinterpretation” (51).   “Poetry,” writes Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, “is the first and last of all knowledge—it is as immortal as the heart of man.”  For Wordsworth as well, poetry was universal, unlike the “language of science.”  

The Romantic disenchantment with the sciences has been labeled as a reaction against the “unweaving of the rainbow.”  Literally, Newton’s work in optics and with the nature of light demystified the rainbow, and figuratively, the scientists of the time with their eagerness to explain everything, were demystifying all the rainbows.  Although Wordsworth’s view of science appears to be quite contradictory at times--for example, a reading of “Tintern Abbey” which focuses on the poet’s desire to understand the meaning of memories and their relationship with imagination and experience indicates that the Wordsworth had a broader aim to explore the functionality of the human mind, at the same time that he was speaking out against the obtrusiveness of science--the fact is that the poet was not in any way opposed to science. The various figures of the Romantic movement each countered with a reaction to the ever invasive sciences; Wordsworth countered by trying to show that science need not be employed in only the acquisition of facts.  

In the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth went to great lengths to express the differences between the poet and the scientist, but does so scientifically.  He was perhaps trying to show his readers that science need not be limited to the learning about the abstract workings of the universe, but could also be a useful tool in the acquisition of knowledge useful to each individual.  Even in “The Tables Turned” the persona of the poem is not speaking out against all science, just the impersonal facts and formulas gained from reading scientific books.  Rather, the persona, claims that experiencing nature will result in personally relevant knowledge:  

Come forth into the light of things,  
Let Nature be your teacher.   (15-16)  
*  *  *  
One impulse from a vernal wood  
May teach you more of man;  
Of moral evil and of good,  
Then all the sages can.   (21-24) 
Likewise, in “Michael, a Pastoral Poem” Wordsworth implicitly makes the claim that a personal connection with nature is superior to living with the modern sciences when Luke, having lost his relationship with the land, falls prey to the evils of the city when he leaves home.  

Clearly he was not alone in his disdain for the direction the sciences were taking, but given his public admiration for Newton it seems a fair claim to say that the loss of the creative spirit to the focus on scientific methods would affect him deeply.  Perhaps by using the claim that learning from personal experiences is more valuable than knowing the latest abstractions found in science, Wordsworth was trying to initiate a reality check amongst the scientific community.  By applying scientific methodologies to poetry, as well as advocating a type of science that focused on obtaining the knowledge most relevant to the individual rather than external knowledge, Wordsworth may have been issuing a warning about the impending danger to the creative imagination of the human mind imposed by the increasing abstraction of the sciences.  

If in fact Wordsworth’s goal was to open the eyes of the scientists, unfortunately it seems as though his efforts were unsuccessful.  The intertwining of poetry and science has continued to come undone—today virtually no connection remains.  The language of science has grown increasingly inaccessible to the common people and the content itself has reached higher levels of abstraction.  The rainbows that were unweaved by Newton and his disciples have yet to be reweaved, despite the efforts of Wordsworth and other Romantic figures. 

Works Cited

Ball, Patricia M.  The Science of Aspects:  The Changing Role of Fact in the Work of Coleridge, Ruskin and Hopkins.  London:  Athlone, 1971.  

Chapple, J.A.V.  Science and Literature in the Nineteenth Century.  London:  Macmillan Education, 1986.  

Mellor, Anne K. and Richard E. Matlak, eds.  British Literature  1780-1830.  Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1996.  

Miller, Michael G.  “Theories of the Mind:  Wordworth’s Anticipation of Neural Darwinism.”  Mosaic:  A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 28.2  (1995):  63-78.  

Smith, Jonathan.  Baconian Science and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. Madison:  U of Wisconsin P, 1994.  

Thomas, W. K. and Warren U. Ober.  A Mind For Ever Voyaging:  Wordsworth at Work Portraying Newton and Science.  Alberta:  U of Alberta P, 1989.  


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