Battling Rainbows! John Keats vs. James Thomson Poetry Smackdown

Richard Dawkin's Unweaving the Rainbow: Science Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder is on my active reading docket. The book has been around for a while (published in 1998), but it's proving to be a most enjoyable discovery as I continue to read it. So far, I concur with complete reviews' take on the book. It is a marvelous paean to the majesty and artistry of science. Dawkins' sense of wonder very much resonates with my own - that feeling of transcendence when I look at light shining through green leaves or the transformations of calculations that are revealed as a colorful abstract collection of molecules on a computational chemist's monitor screen.

Dawkins derives the title of the book from John Keats' poem, Lamia. In the opening paragraph of "Barcodes in the Stars" in Unweaving the Rainbow, Dawkins recounts a gathering in 1817 at the studio of artist Benjamin Haydon:

In December 1817 the English painter and critic Benjamin Haydon introduced John Keats to WIlliam Wordsworth at dinner in his London studio, together with Charles Lamb and others of the English literary circle. On view was Haydon's new painting of Christ entering Jerusalem, attended by the figures of Newton as a believer and Voltaire as a skeptic. Lamb, drunk, upbraided Haydon for painting Newton, "a fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle." Newton, Keats agreed with Lamb, had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow, by reducing it to the prismatic colours. "It was impossible to resist him," said Haydon, "and we all drank 'Newton's health, and confusion to mathematics.'"

Three years after this gathering, Keats wrote Lamia and within this long poem, he laments the "unweaving of the rainbow" by science:

From John Keats' (1795-1821) Lamia, part II.

... 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.

Dawkins deftly proceeds to unravel and re-weave the rainbow in "Barcodes in the Stars" and closes the chapter with a selection from James Thomson's (1700-1748) ode to Sir Isaac Newton.

From A Poem Sacred to the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton

Ev'n Light itself, which every thing displays,

Shone undiscover'd, till his brighter mind

Untwisted all the shining robe of day;

And, from the whitening undistinguish'd blaze,

Collecting every ray into his kind,

To the charm'd eye educ'd the gorgeous train

Of parent colours. First the flaming red

Sprung vivid forth; the tawny orange next;

And next delicious yellow; by whose side

Fell the kind beams of all-refreshing green.

Then the pure blue, that swells autumnal skies

Ethereal played; and then, of sadder hue,

Emerg'd the deepen'd indigo, as when

The heavy-skirted evening droops with frost;

While the last gleamings of refracted light

Died in the fainting violet away.

These, when the clouds distil the rosy shower,

Shine out distinct adown the wat'ry bow;

While o'er our heads the dewy vision bends

Delightful, melting on the fields beneath.

Myriads of mingling dyes from these result,

And myriads still remain--infinite source

Of beauty, ever flushing, ever new.

Did ever poet image aught so fair,

Dreaming in whisp'ring groves by the hoarse brook?

Or prophet, to whose rapture heaven descends?

Ev'n now the setting sun and shifting clouds,

Seen, Greenwich, from thy lovely heights, declare

How just, how beauteous the refractive law.

Those last six lines made my old glazzies get a little misty. Dammit.

Here's the video of Charlie Rose's interview of Richard Dawkins around the time that Unweaving the Rainbow was published. The whole of the clip is about an hour in length, but the Dawkins interview encompasses the first 15 minutes or so.

More like this

As much as I am a boot-licking Dawkins worshiper, I thought it was a tad muddled and uneven. I *loved* the stuff on unweaving the rainbow... but then he stretched the idea out a bit too long, and it just didn't feel like a cohesive whole. Also him telling poets what to write seemed pretentious. (And I hate poetry.)

I kind of see it as a "nice" attempt to celebrate materialism. Nobody listened so he got cranky :-)

Keats, Lamb, and Wordsworth hated mathematics because they couldn't get better then a C- in school.

All that was left to them was creative writing and advanced prancing. Prancing while drunk is a skill not to be taken lightly.

Charles "Elia" Lamb was a splendidly nimble lush and Don Juan ( Ha-ha!)[ironic Byron reference]. No Blake, but who was?

Suffered somewhat through two - count them two - semesters of English Romantic Poets. These guys got payed by the word, I think. :D

By Gingerbaker (not verified) on 27 Sep 2007 #permalink

I agree that it's uneven. As a small example, Dawkins went off on a tangent about enzymes* in one of the earlier chapters, and it honestly added nothing to his thesis. Unweaving the Rainbow may not be one of his best tomes. Nonetheless, I like his almost Saganesque wide-eyed wonder that makes appearances in the book, just as you say, the "nice" attempt to celebrate the here and now.

Re: poetry. Heh. Some I can take, some I can leave. I suppressed the urge to run screaming from Keats' Lamia. And have I got a quote for you!

A poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child.

H. L. Mencken (1880 - 1956)

As they say in modern vernacular, I "heart" H.L. Mencken.

And I "heart" Gingerbaker. Your comment made me Jackson Pollock my computer monitor's screen.
*I'm a card-carrying mechanistic enzymologist (rate equations and stuff like that) so I found his nattering to be odd and kind of a non-sequitur.

The whole Wordsworth crowd had potential but they all sold out to England's antiJacobin reign of counterterror. IMO their sellout palpably taints the sicerity of their later work. But I agree that the Romantics have a great deal to say to us about retaining a transcendent undertanding of what we are and appreciating the wonders of the universe.

"All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors: 1. That Man has two real existing principles: Viz: a Body & a Soul. 2. That Energy, call'd Evil, is alone from the Body; & that Reason, call'd Good, is alone from the Soul. 3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies. But the following Contraries to these are True: 1. Man has no Body distinct from his soul; for that call'd Body is a portion of Soul discern'd by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age. 2. Energy is the only life, and is from the Body; and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy. 3. Energy is Eternal Delight."

-William Blake

By Christian (not verified) on 27 Sep 2007 #permalink

FORMS, qualities, lives, humanity, language, thoughts,
The ones known, and the ones unknown-the ones on the stars,

The stars themselves, some shaped, others unshaped,

Wonders as of those countries-the soil, trees, cities, inhabitants, whatever they may be,

Splendid suns, the moons and rings, the countless combinations and effects;

Such-like, and as good as such-like, visible here or anywhere, stand provided for in a handful of space, which I extend my arm and half enclose with my hand;

That contains the start of each and all, the virtue, the germs of all.