The Age of Wonder
Richard Holmes paints a different picture of the Romantic Age, one in which scientific discovery and artistic creation shared close company.
(Page 2 of 2)
Holmes’s book is populated by a diverse number of similarly lively characters, including William and Caroline Herschel, siblings whose rigor and zeal transformed observational astronomy; Humphry Davy, autodidact chemist and inventor of the mining lamp; mathematician Charles Babbage, who all but invented the computer more than a century before the advent of the microprocessor; polymathic poet and physician Erasmus Darwin, whose spirit inspired his grandson to follow nature wherever it took him.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Holmes hardly stints on the poets, either, charting the work and opinions of Wordsworth, Southey, Shelley, Schelling, and Coleridge – who vowed to “attack Chemistry like a shark,” and whose verse is filled with stellar imagery that is a legacy of its author’s fascination with the Herschels’ discoveries.
And not least he includes Mary Shelley, who imbued the pursuit of scientific discovery with the dark rhythms of Germanic folk tales in her strange, great, much-misunderstood masterpiece, “Frankenstein.” In her protagonist Shelley showed that the Promethean ambitions of the scientist and the Orphic inspiration of the artist were twin passions. All but ignored alongside her well-known husband and the dazzling Byron, Mary Shelley captured the spirit and terror of Romantic science perhaps better than any author by inventing the genre we now call science fiction.
Holmes pursues his many-chambered nautilus of a tale with energy and great rigor, unearthing many lives and assembling remnant shards of biography, history, science, and literary criticism. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are gaps in his fossil record. “The Age of Wonder” is frank in its Anglocentrism; the near-absence of such a towering figure as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is particularly puzzling; Holmes’s otherwise terrifically helpful “cast list” archly and bizarrely describes the poet as a “German heavyweight boxer” who “went ten rounds with the ghost of Sir Isaac Newton.” Similarly conspicuous is the invisibility of the American transcendentalists, whose engagement with science helped to spur a literary renaissance on this side of the Atlantic.
Such quibbles notwithstanding, “The Age of Wonder” will be rightly regarded as a magisterial treatment of an era which, in Holmes’s words, “contained terror as well as wonder... [and] brought new dread as well as new hope into the world.” As Holmes observes, it is this ironic predicament, as much as poetry, planets, and paradigms, which constitutes our Romantic inheritance.
Matthew Battles is a freelance writer in Jamaica Plain, Mass.