Sam Illingworth: A Sonnet to Science


The High Window is grateful to Manchester University Press for kindly allowing it to reproduce here the Introduction to Sam Illingworth’s recent study A Sonnet to Science. If, when you have read Sam’s introduction, you would like to order a copy of the book, you can do so by following the link.


Dr Sam Illingworth is a Senior Lecturer in Science Communication at Manchester Metropolitan University, where his research involves using poetry to enhance dialogue between scientists and non-scientists. You can find out more about Sam’s wok by visiting his website:


A Sonnet to Science: Introduction

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
xxWho alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
xxVulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
xxWho wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
xxAlbeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car,
xxAnd driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
xxHast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

‘Sonnet to Science’ by Edgar Allan Poe[i]

When he wrote ‘Sonnet to Science’ in 1829, Poe was rallying behind the sentiments echoed by John Keats in the following section from his narrative poem ‘Lamia’, written in 1819[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 gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

The concerns of both Keats and Poe were that science would steal away some of the magic from the world; the rainbow of nature would be unwoven by the technological advancement of science, with the colour of the imagination to be replaced by monochrome facts. When writing these poems at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the two poets were living during a time of great upheaval and intellectual conflict; Romanticism’s celebration of nature and individualism opposing the new technologies and collectivism of the Industrial Revolution. As a writer, it is perhaps no wonder that Poe felt this way, his poetry reflecting the uncertainty of what lay ahead, and the worries that there would be no place left for his craft in this new world order. Keats, himself a trained apothecary and surgeon, was arguably better placed to make a more rational judgement, but like Lord Byron and others before him he was wary of the double-edged nature of these technological advances, and the negative effect that it would have on both nature and the working classes.

When I first read Poe’s poem I found myself disagreeing with his sentiment. Instead, I believe that the more we find out about science, the more we realise what a beautiful and incredible world we live in. The fact that the patterns on a pinecone match those of the Fibonacci sequence, or that we can stare back into the void a few seconds after the creation of the Universe is, to me, a beautiful thing. Like many fears, I think that those of Poe and others were based in recognition or familiarity. And that in reality, science and poetry are actually very similar. For example, there are many overlaps in the process of writing a poem or conducting a scientific experiment. When you begin experimenting in either discipline, you have to follow rules and regulations that produce half-expected results; it is only by fully exploring these rules that you get an underlying sense of how they can be used to create your own work, or how they must be rejected in favour of a new form or hypothesis.

It was a rejection of Poe’s sentiments that led to the development of ‘Peer Reviewed Poetry’, a spoken word show that I toured across the United Kingdom (UK[iii]) with my friend and colleague Dan Simpson[iv]. This show involved a somewhat strawman argument centred around which discipline was better, ‘science’ (defended by myself) or ‘poetry’ (for which Dan put forward the case), with the arguments centred around a collection of poetry that had either been written about science or by scientists themselves. In doing the research for this show it quickly became apparent that a number of well-known scientists had written poetry, and that while the aesthetic quality of their output was something of a mixed bag, it was not immediately apparent why they had written it. Did writing poetry help them to make better sense of the world in which they lived? Did they consider themselves to be talented polymaths? Was it purely a private pursuit of pleasure?

It was wanting to better understand this line of enquiry that lead to me successfully applying for a Research Grant from the Royal Society entitled ‘How has poetry expanded scientists’ understanding of the world in which we live?’ This research aimed to investigate which other scientists wrote poetry, and their motivation for doing so. Taking inspiration from the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein and his maxim that ‘the limits of my language mean the limits of my world’[v], I wanted to determine if scientists who embraced poetry were also increasing their understanding of the world, expanding their language and thereby their capacity to communicate their science to others.  By reading the poetry of scientists and contextualising their verse alongside the endeavours of their scientific research I aimed to establish the why, and in doing so better understand the effectiveness of such an approach for science communication. This book is a result of that research, and while some might argue that such a scientific approach to poetry is incongruent, it is arguably the line through which both Western science and literary criticism arose, courtesy of Aristotle.

Aristotle is considered to be one of the greatest philosophers of all time; in addition to being the forefather of Western science, his Poetics[vi]  is thought by many academics to be the starting point for the literary theory of Western culture[vii]. In this treatise, Aristotle approaches poetry with the same methodology that he had previously adopted when discussing biology and physics in texts such as Physics[viii]and The History of Animals[ix]. By collecting data in the form of poetry, analysing it, and discussing the implications of this analysis he proposed a number of distinct classifications and conclusions; for example, the notion that mythos (or plot) is the most important and dominant aspect of a tragic poem. This approach to poetic analysis might seem familiar to any scientists that are reading this book, as effectively it is the scientific method: propose a hypothesis, gather data, make observations, analyse these observations, and then revisit the original hypothesis to either accept, amend, or reject it.

While scholars accept that there is some merit to this scientific approach to literary analysis, they also largely agree that poetry cannot be studied in the same way as science[x]. They argue that while the scientific method is dependent on a set of underlying laws and characteristics that govern the behaviour of the natural world, poetry, and art in general, is often driven by questioning the accepted assumptions of previous generations. However, I would argue that as with poetry, science also thrives by questioning the conventions and norms that a previous generation has accepted. As such, it is perhaps naïve to assume that poetry cannot also be characterised using a systematic approach more readily adopted by the scientific method. Likewise, more modern forms of literary criticism can also be applied to the fields of frontier science, and indeed there exist several studies which try to bring together these two seemingly dissimilar analytical approaches; with examples including a quantum approach to literary deconstruction[xi] and Feminist explorations of gerontology[xii],[xiii]

Aristotle himself points to the differences between the two disciplines, arguing in Poetics that while poetry paints an imaginative picture, physical philosophy (i.e. science) deals only in facts. However, once more I find myself disagreeing with this viewpoint, as poetry can deal in facts just as science can be used to paint imaginative pictures. To demonstrate this argument, consider the following two extracts, both of which concern the yellowhammer, a sparrow-sized, bright-yellow bird that is native to Eurasia, and found across many parts of the UK. The first is taken from the methods section of a scientific research article written in 2000, and entitled ‘Habitat associations and breeding success of yellowhammers on lowland farmland’[xiv], and the second is an extract from ‘The Yellowhammer’s Nest’, a poem written by the poet John Clare between 1825 and 1826[xv]:

For nests that failed, the date and, where possible, the cause of failure were recorded (e.g. starvation, predation, nest collapse). The date of failure (or fledging) was estimated as the mid-point between the date when the nest was last known to be active and the date on which it was found to have failed (or the fledglings to have left the nest). When nestling age was not known precisely from observation of hatching, it could be estimated by comparing the degree of feather development of the largest nestling with known-age broods.

Yet in the sweetest places cometh ill,
A noisome weed that burthens every soil;
For snakes are known with chill and deadly coil
To watch such nests and seize the helpless young,
And like as though the plague became a guest,
Leaving a houseless home, a ruined nest—
And mournful hath the little warblers sung
When such like woes hath rent its little breast.

Both of these passages are concerned with describing the ‘site’ of a yellowhammer’s nest, and the risk of predation and starvation that the occupants face. The poetry of Clare is factually accurate, as indeed is much of Clare’s writing on birds and nature; for example, earlier in the poem when he describes the contents of the nest as: ‘Five eggs, pen-scribbled o’er with ink their shells / Resembling writing scrawls which fancy reads’. The folk-name for the yellowhammer is the ‘scribble-lark’, due to the mesh of fine dark lines that cover their eggs and make them look as though someone has scribbled over them with a pen[xvi]; one of several facts that are contained within Clare’s poem.  Likewise, while the language that is used in the scientific research paper is somewhat academic, words and phrases such as ‘nest collapse’, ‘starvation’ and ‘degree of feather development’ cannot be read without conjuring up specific imagery; a narrative relating to the plight of the yellowhammers under observation quickly forming in one’s mind. The words of the poet and the scientists thus both presenting an argument that deals in facts, while also painting imaginative pictures.

Were Poe and Aristotle both incorrect in their delineation of these two disciplines? Could poetry and science cohabit the same spheres of fact and imagination, and in doing so offer us a more complete image of the world and an understanding of how it worked? By choosing scientists who also wrote poetry I hoped to be able to examine more closely the relationship between science and poetry, within the context of individuals who had a personal commitment to both disciplines.

So where to start? There already exist a small number of high-quality texts that examine the nature of science and poetry. Science and poetry[xvii] by Mary Midgley is a mainly philosophical text that challenges the concept that science rather than poetry has a ‘right’ to explaining how the universe operates. While some of the ideas that are presented in Midgley’s book underpin the ethos of A Sonnet to Science, the context of the two books is different, with the former not primarily focussed on individual scientists. Similarly, Science in modern poetry: new directions[xviii] is a collection of essays edited by John Holmes that is mainly concerned with how science has influenced modern poets, and not how poetry has influenced scientists. Peter Middleton’s Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After[xix] presents a broader history of how science and poetry have worked together to find universal truths, examining the work of poets and scientists such as Oppenheimer and Heisenberg. However, it is limited to the period of history surrounding the Cold War and is more concerned about the sociological influence behind the poetry of the time rather than why certain scientists wrote poetry, and the relationship between their writing and their scientific research.  The poetry of Victorian scientists: style, science and nonsense[xx](Brown, 2013) by Daniel Brown presents an overview of the life of several Victorian scientists, who wrote and were influenced by poetry, and perhaps most closely matches the aims of my own research; however while it is an excellent text it again deals with a very specific time period, and is perhaps aimed at a core audience of literary scholars. While I hope that A Sonnet to Science similarly appeals to this audience, I wanted to write a book that was also appealing, and easily read, by a more general audience. Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science[xxi] presents a collection of essays written by both contemporary poets and scientists and features an afterword by Gillian Beer, who has also written widely on the relationship between literature and science[xxii]. This book investigates the similarities and differences in the way that poets and scientists examine the world around them, but for the most part[xxiii] is concerned with the opinion of either scientists or poets, rather than an exploration of scientists who wrote poetry and the effect that this had on their research and practice.

By highlighting the work of several scientists and the role that poetry played in both their personal lives and their scientific achievements I wanted to present an aspirational account of how the two disciplines can work together, and in doing so hopefully inspire current and future generations of scientists and poets that these worlds are not mutually exclusive, but rather complementary in nature. It is at this point that I must also make a confession and declare that such a goal is not entirely altruistic in nature, as it is also driven by my own identity as a scientist and a poet, and my struggles to better understand the relationships between the two disciplines. The research that I had conducted for ‘Peer Reviewed Poetry’ had revealed a large number of scientists who wrote poetry, and in selecting the scientists to focus on for this book, the following three criteria were applied: the scientists must be Western; their poetry must be readily available in English, with any translations approved by the poet; and the poets must occupy a continuous timeline from around the end of the eighteenth century until the present day.

It was first necessary for me to limit the scientists that feature in this book to be those who were from the Western world. This was required because the book is grounded in a Western approach to the perception and dissonance of science and poetry, as set forth by both Aristotle and Poe. Indeed, the relationship between science and poetry is far less fractured in many other regions of the world than it is in the West. This meant that luminaries such as Ahmed Zaki Abu Shadi, the Egyptian Romantic Poet and bacteriologist, and A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, the space scientist, poet, and former president of India are missing from this collection. I accept that this is a failing of the aspirational ambitions of this book, especially in light of the issues of diversity that face STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths) researchers working and studying in the West[xxiv], but I hope that it can serve as an impetus for future studies.

One of my many personal failings in life is that I am only fluent in one language: English; as such I am only able to comment on and analyse poetry that is written in English. Where translations do exist for non-English poems I only considered those that was sanctioned by the author, both as a mark of respect and to further ensure the validity of any analysis. This meant that several important scientific and literary figures were excluded from the selection, most notably the Russian polymath Mikhail Vasilyevich Lomonosov, for whom author-sanctioned translations do not, to the best of my knowledge, exist. It is important to acknowledge that for one of the scientists that does feature in this book, Miroslav Holub, there are some reported issues with his translations from Czech into English[xxv], but the poet himself was satisfied with those that are used in this book.

In determining the criteria for the timeline, I thought that it was essential to ensure that there was an overlap between each of the scientists, both in terms of their lifespans and their activity as researchers, so that a narrative of the developing relationship between the disciplines could be established. Given that this book came about as a direct response to a poem written by Edgar Allen Poe at the beginning of the nineteenth century, I did not want to extend too far beyond this timeframe. Arguably the most important person to be excluded because of this criterion is the English physiologist and botanist Erasmus Darwin, but I would urge interested readers to seek out Martin Priestman’s The poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened spaces, romantic times[xxvi], which presents a brilliant account of Darwin’s literary accomplishments and scientific achievements. Choosing the cut-off date at around the beginning of the nineteenth century is also important, as this is when the term ‘scientist’ first came into being; suggested by the English polymath William Whewell at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Sciences on 24 June 1833 as an analogy to artist. Interestingly this suggestion was put forward in response to a criticism by the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who will feature later in this book), who believed that the term philosopher, while applying to his own achievements as a writer, did not apply to the majority of the association’s members. This coining of the phrase ‘scientist’, heralded in the creation and division of a large number of scientific societies, which drove forward the professionalism of science, and was in part responsible for further divisions between poetry and science. This new professionalism meant that my selection criteria could not reasonably have included any ‘poets who practiced science’, as science became a far more specialised and expensive pursuit.

Ultimately, I settled on the following scientists, whose selection perfectly matched the criteria that I had set out: Humphry Davy (1778-1829), Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879), Ronald Ross (1857-1932), Miroslav Holub (1923-1998), and Rebecca Elson (1960-1999). Despite the arguments presented above, I know that there are many scientist-poets whom I have missed out, both those with several poetry collections (such as Edward Lowbury and Roald Hoffman), and those who wrote less regularly, but for whom poetry had a profound effect on their work (for example Julius Robert Oppenheimer). However, this is a personal selection, albeit one that is informed by a methodological approach; not dissimilar to that applied by Aristotle in his Poetics. By presenting the poetic accomplishments of these scientists alongside their life histories and scientific achievements I hope that I am able to provide a tentative explanation as to why these scientists wrote poetry, and how their individual stylings and reasons for writing verse might have concurred. In doing so I hope to demonstrate that the two disciplines offer complementary, rather than antagonistic, viewpoints to understanding the world and the way in which we live.


Notes to the Introduction

[i] POE, E. A. 1946. The Complete Poems and Stories of Edgar Allan Poe: With Selections from His Critical Writings, New York, NY: AA Knopf. p. 28.

[ii] KEATS, J. 1888. Lamia, Philadelphia, PA: JB Lippincott. p. 60.

[iii] The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to give its full name) refers to the political union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. In contrast, the British Isles is a collection of over 6,000 islands, of which Great Britain (an island which houses the countries of England, Scotland and Wales within its shores) is the largest. Throughout this book, when I refer to the British Government, I am referring to the government of the United Kingdom, or to give it its official title: Her Majesty’s Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

[iv] [Access Date: 9 August 2018].

[v] WILLIAMS, B. 1973. Wittgenstein and idealism. Royal Institute of Philosophy Supplements, 7, 76-95.

[vi] LUCAS, D. W. 1968. Aristotle’s Poetics, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[vii] See e.g. TUCAN, D. 2013. The Quarrel Between Poetry and Philosophy: Plato-A Sceptical View on ‘Poetry’. Procedia-Social and Behavioral Sciences, 71, 168-175.

[viii] ROSS, W. D. 1936. Aristotle’s Physics, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[ix] THOMPSON, D. 1907. Aristotle’s The History of Animals, London: John Bell.

[x] Poetics is also only concerned with the types of poetry which existed in the time of Aristotle. More modern poetic forms like the elegy (Ovid; circa 0 AD) or the clerihew (Bentley; circa 1900) are obviously absent from Aristotle’s ‘data’.

[xi] See e.g. BRINK, A. 1985. Transgressions: A quantum approach to literary deconstruction. Journal of literary studies, 1, 10-26.

[xii] The study of old age and the process of ageing.

[xiii] See e.g. REINHARZ, S. 2018. Friends or foes: gerontological and feminist theory. In Marilyn Pearsall (ed.) The Other within Us: Feminist Explorations of Women and Aging. New York, NY and Abingdon: Routledge.

[xiv] BRADBURY, R. B., KYRKOS, A., MORRIS, A. J., CLARK, S. C., PERKINS, A. J. & WILSON, J. D. 2000. Habitat associations and breeding success of yellowhammers on lowland farmland. Journal of Applied Ecology, 37, 789-805.

[xv] CLARE, J. 2013. John Clare: Selected Poetry and Prose, New York, NY and Abingdon: Routledge. p. 239.

[xvi] See e.g. OLDHAM, C. 1929. Natural History and Folk-Lore. Nature, 124, 229.

[xvii] MIDGLEY, M. 2013. Science and Poetry, New York, NY and Abingdon: Routledge.

[xviii] HOLMES, J. 2012. Science in Modern Poetry: New Directions, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[xix] MIDDLETON, P. 2015. Physics Envy: American Poetry and Science in the Cold War and After, Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[xx] BROWN, D. 2013. The Poetry of Victorian Scientists: Style, Science and Nonsense, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[xxi] CRAWFORD, R. 2006. Contemporary Poetry and Contemporary Science, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[xxii] See e.g. BEER, G. 1990. Translation or transformation? The relations of literature and science. Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, 44, 81-99; BEER, G. 2000. Darwin’s Plots: Evolutionary Narrative in Darwin, George Eliot and Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, BEER, J. 2010. Coleridge’s Play of Mind, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[xxiii]One notable exception being an essay from Miroslav Holub, who is the subject of one of the chapters of this book.

[xxiv] See e.g. TSUI, L. 2007. Effective strategies to increase diversity in STEM fields: A review of the research literature. The Journal of Negro Education, 76:4, 555-581.

[xxv] CLASSE, O. 2000. Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English: AL, Taylor & Francis.

[xxvi] PRIESTMAN, M. 2016. The Poetry of Erasmus Darwin: Enlightened Spaces, Romantic Times, New York, NY and Abingdon: Routledge.

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