Book of the week: The Age of Wonder

Richard Sha explores the influence of science on Romanticism

October 16, 2008

In The Age of Wonder, Richard Holmes, perhaps best known for his magisterial biographies of Coleridge and Shelley, combines his keen sense of story, his erudition and his limpid prose to restore to our view a whole range of scientific conquests and debates that occurred during the Romantic period.

This is a timely and shrewd endeavour. Choosing "wonder" because it united poets and scientists, Holmes definitively puts to rest the idea that Romanticism was intensely hostile to science, and these stories testify to how impoverished a view of Romanticism that neglects science is. Educated readers and scholars alike will find this a reader-friendly intervention, and one that has the potential to thrust Romanticism back on to the radar of a wider audience. The scholarly apparatus does not obtrude, but is there for readers who want it. And Holmes' cast of characters and short bibliographies on each major subject give a rich sense of the minor players without impeding the narrative flow of his main stories.

Telling the history of science through biography makes for a compelling narrative. Framed by accounts of Joseph Banks, explorer and president of the Royal Society, William Herschel, astronomer and discoverer of Uranus, and Humphry Davy, the chemist, The Age of Wonder takes us on journeys of scientific discovery and makes us aware of the sacrifices made along the way.

Holmes opens in Tahiti, where Banks and Captain James Cook catalogued the flora and fauna. (Much of the time spent there, as Holmes details, was spent bargaining for sexual favours, and because the Tahitians needed and could not produce metal, the ship was almost stripped of nails.) We move through William and Caroline Herschel's construction of huge telescopes capable of finding planets and comets and mapping star systems. In 1781, William discovered the first planet to be found in 1,000 years, although he cautiously referred to it as a comet at first. In a later chapter, Holmes refreshingly balances his accomplishments with those of his sister, who found multiple comets for the first time and saw her discovery published in the Royal Society's prestigious Philosophical Transactions, a rare honour for a female writer.

Holmes also narrates the Montgolfier brothers' and James Sadler's attempts to take flight using balloons - since no one then knew how to navigate air currents, and since hydrogen was highly flammable, this was a dangerous enterprise indeed. Mungo Park penetrates into the deepest interiors of Africa, and, just when things look their bleakest, discovers a new fruiting moss. Davy experiments with gas, demonstrates that electricity is a form of pure energy, and successfully develops a lamp that would safely allow miners to excavate. Holmes situates vitalist attempts to specify the nature of life alongside Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and describes Michael Faraday's electro-chemical experiments and Charles Babbage's invention of calculating machines that required 25,000 brass cogs to function.

Biography also allows Holmes to humanise his scientific protagonists by accounting for their failings without resorting to a kind of anachronistic indignation that says more about our need to insulate ourselves than it does about the past. Thus we witness the way in which scientific curiosity was inextricably wedded with Cook's, Banks' and Park's imperialist ambitions; William Herschel's sexism towards his sister; rising fears over the potential for military deployment of balloons; and Davy's need for glory, his failure to follow up on nitrous oxide's potential as an anaesthetic, and his deliberate encouragement of his assistant Faraday's undertaking of a dangerous experiment that nearly blinded him. Yet here biography sometimes comes at the expense of science. Robert Richards more ably balances scientific contribution and life in The Romantic Conception of Life (2002), albeit at the cost of narrowing his readership.

In contrast, Holmes is so gifted a storyteller that one wonders about the stories he chooses not to tell. Certainly, Scottish scientist and polymath Mary Somerville deserves fuller treatment. Women writers of the time who might well have claimed a place here are neglected: the poet Anna Seward wrote the opening lines to Erasmus Darwin's The Botanic Garden; Joanna Baillie's plays teemed with allusions to the anatomical writings of her brother, Matthew Baillie, not to mention the work of her famous uncles William and John Hunter; and Charlotte Turner Smith wrote of the latest discoveries in geology and fossils in her poem Beachy Head. Moreover, the Romantic period witnessed key developments in, among other things, botany, brain science, neurology, biology, psychology, human artificial insemination and the discovery of the mammalian ovarium, and each of these deserves its moments in the sun.

Holmes also misses an opportunity to think about the wonder of science during this period in terms of its hybrid forms. To modern eyes, Rousseau or Virgil should not stand cheek by jowl with anatomy, and yet this is precisely what happened in the science writing of the time. Although Holmes suggests that "true science required not speculation but accurate observation and ... proof", and that in chemistry "the old alchemy was being replaced by true experiments", science in this period sometimes needed theory and speculation because commitment to scientific observation and method alone could be seen as merely and vulgarly empirical. Science's reliance upon theory had the practical result of dispensing with the butchery of animal experiments even as it hearkened back to a moment at the start of the 18th century when the real was localised in the mind.

Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison have argued, in their book Objectivity (2007), that scientific objectivity culminated in the 1860s and must be seen in terms of a calculated suppression of subjectivity. This meant that scientists could and did turn to metaphor and speculation so long as they bracketed them as being merely for heuristic purposes. Indeed, scientists were far more open to tropes because of their ability to bridge the gaps between the known and the unknown, and because figures of speech helped them to deal with the remarkable plasticity of concepts such as life and cognition. On the heels of Daston and Galison, Peter Dear in The Intelligibility of Nature has argued that from the 17th century onwards, scientists sought intelligibility and not truth. The goal was to make nature comprehensible, and so science could be far more forgiving of the excesses of figuration so long as metaphors helped to make things understandable.

But this also meant that Romanticism played an important role in the formation of scientific knowledge even when the Romantic imagination was framed as the "other" of science. Einstein would later acknowledge the imagination's crucial role in science: how else might one conceptualise matter as a form of energy? As William Blake aptly put it in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, "what is now proved was once, only imagin'd". Of course, the rise of objectivity meant that the science and the art of wonder ultimately would have to part ways.

On balance, The Age of Wonder is a remarkable achievement. Romanticism in all of its multifaceted richness has had no guide more eloquent than Richard Holmes.


While Richard Holmes was studying at Churchill College, Cambridge for an undergraduate degree in literature, he spent a lot of time at the Cambridge University Observatory. Despite no training in science, he believes that: "Ignorance is your great weapon - the learning process feeds into the book."

After Holmes graduated, he wrote literary features for The Times, and published a volume of poetry before writing a biography of Shelley. The success of the book led to a noted series of biographies of influential figures such as Coleridge, Mary Wollstonecraft and Samuel Johnson.

Holmes lived in France for many years and returned to Britain shortly after being awarded an OBE in 1992. He now lives in Norfolk. A fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the British Academy, Holmes became professor of biographical studies at the University of East Anglia in 2001, retiring last year.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science

By Richard Holmes

Harper Press, 554pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780007149520

Published 6 October 2008

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