I’ve just begun Richard Holmes’ latest work, The Age of Wonder, and it’s as good as everyone says it is. The book is a history of late 18th century romantic science, filled with digressions into hot air balloons, Tahitian beaches and the “near suicidal” experiments of Humphry Davy.
One of the subplots of the book is the entanglement of science, religion and poetry. For these madcap empiricists, there was no clear line separating art from experiment, or God from nature.
Consider the career of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. (Holmes has already written two magisterial biographies of Coleridge.) The romantic poet was once asked why he attended so many public lectures on chemistry. Coleridge replied: “To improve my stock of metaphors.” He declared that science, “being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, was poetical.” Along with Davy, he began experimenting with nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, at the Dowry Square laboratory and recorded his mental state in exquisite detail. Here’s Holmes:
His heart thumped “violently,” he involuntarily ‘beat the ground’ with his feet, and he watched some trees in the garden becoming dimmer and dimmer,’ as if seen through tears. Nitrous oxide seems strangely reassuring to Coleridge, even homely: ‘ an highly pleasurable sensation of warmth over my whole frame, resembling what I remember once to have experienced after returning from a walk in the snow into a warm room.’
This wasn’t Coleridge’s first foray into druggy experiments. Coleridge was an opium addict, and even though the “sweet poison” destroyed his life, it did, he said, “reveal to me the mind’s self-experience in the act of thinking.” Strung out on purple smoke, Coleridge would compose line after surreal line, none of which he was able to consciously understand. He discovered that his own mind was as “deep as the sea,” guarded by a “deep romantic chasm.”
And these aren’t just pretty metaphors: long before Freud emphasized the power of the unconscious, Coleridge was developing his own theories of unconscious processing, which he generally referred to as the imagination: “It [the imagination] dissolves, diffuses, dissipates, in order to recreate,” Coleridge wrote. “It is essentially vital, even as all objects (as objects) are essentially fixed and dead.” Like Freud a century later, Coleridge insisted that our perceptions and poetry emerged from a place we couldn’t understand.
The point, of course, is that the romantic attempt to describe our inner experience was itself a kind of science. There were no control variables or acronyms, but it still represented a sincere psychological investigation, which discovered important facts about the mind.