… Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.
– John Keats
I was planning to wait a bit longer before posting this, but last week’s poem brought to mind the poet most closely associated with the pursuit of Beauty. Did Millay have Keats in mind when she wrote ‘Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace’? It seems likely, although I don’t think I would go so far as comparing him to a goose. Quite the opposite, in fact; while I’m not a fan of Keats’s themes or his view of the world, his writing is some of the most enjoyable in English.
These lines are probably some of the most famous to be written about science, and unfortunately do not give a positive assessment. They are a digression in a long poem that tells how the supernatural being Lamia is transformed by Hermes from a snake into a beautiful woman; she then seduces the prince Lycius, but at their wedding feast Apollonius, the ‘bald-head philosopher’, sees Lamia’s true nature and breaks the illusion.
Keats trained in medicine, which could be pretty horrific at that time, and he nursed both his mother and his brother while they died of tuberculosis before succumbing to the same disease himself. Many of his poems, which draw deeply on Greek myths, can be seen as fantasies to escape the surrounding reality. The still-recent scientific revolution had changed the way people thought about the world and searched for knowledge, and Keats blamed science, represented by Newton’s study of optics, for destroying the magic of the natural world.
Keats was not alone in this feeling, or in singling out Newton, and it is a theme that can’t be ignored when reading poetry of science. Scientists, of course, see their work completely differently, as revealing the true wonder of the universe. Richard Dawkins defends the scientist’s point of view in his book Unweaving the Rainbow, which takes its title from these lines by Keats and is a much more interesting read than ranting against religion. Dawkins encourages artists to take the scientific view of the universe as inspiration, and memorably asks what ‘Milton’s epic The Milky Way‘ might have been like.
But, finally, just to show that you should always be careful with rigid classifications, Keats wrote one of my favourite sonnets, and, while not the reason I like it, it contains a positive image of an astronomer:
On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
– John Keats
So, two poems for the price of one today 🙂