13th May 1830. Unweaving the Rainbow: Rhyme or Reason?

The poet Wordsworth wrote, ‘Words we Murder to Dissect’, recognized the utility of science and recognized that even anatomists found a beauty and pleasure in their work.

Samuel Coleridge, better known as a romantic poet, said, ‘He would attack his work [chemistry], like a shark.’ (1)

Philosophy (Science) and poetry have always stepped together: when William Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood, it was natural for Abraham Cowley to write him an ode. The 18thc Erasmus Darwin wrote his Temple of Nature to describe evolution.

Humphrey Davy, discoverer of elements, wrote his ‘Annual Anthology’, and later James Clerk Maxwell the propounder of the unifying theory of electro-magnetism, converted scientific thought into poetry.(2)

This relationship between scientist and poet we note obliquely Today in 1830, when it was reported, [That] ‘The King [George IV] passed a more comfortable night.’

However on his death, a little over a month later, the autopsy was undertaken by Astley Paston Cooper, whose one-time student was one John Keats.

Keats was much influenced by Cooper’s work on corpses, in the facing of ‘Truth’, however painful, physical or emotional; themes later pursued by the poet.

The Keats who was to say of Isaac Newton, that he had ‘unweaved the rainbow, by reducing it to prismatic colours.'(3)

It was in December 1817, that Keats was introduced to Wordsworth at a dinner in the studio of painter and fundamentalist Christian, Benjamin Haydon, where Charles Lamb and other poets were present.


They were there to celebrate that the painter was half-way through his giant painting of Christ entering Jerusalem, included in which were Newton, Keats and Wordsworth as believers, and Voltaire as the sceptic.(4)

A scientist it suggested could well be a believer, a romantic, for was not poetry man’s first attempt to ask questions about the world around him, going back to ancient writings, including  the Bible.

Man is not one dimensional be he poet, scientist, believer or unbeliever. In fact we are mostly a mixture of all.

(1) From Wordsworth’s, ‘The Tables Turned’. Coleridge was a romantic poet of the time. Quotes from Natural History Magazine, see below.

(2) An inextensible heavy chain/lies on a smooth horizontal plane/An impulsive force is applied at A/requiring the initial motion of K.(Problems in Dynamics 1854. James Maxwell.

(3a) The king died on 26th June at Windsor.

(3b) Keats in 1820 in his Lamia, wrote that philosophy [science]: ‘would clip an angel’s wings/out to dissolve beauty…unweave a rainbow’.

(4) Richard Dawkins argued that, ‘science far from destroying beauty, revealed it.’

Ref: Dawkins. ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’: Science, Delusion and Wonder 1998. Title based on Keat’s ‘Lamia’, which has the words: ‘Unweave a rainbow as it erewhile made’.

Ref: newscientist.com/rhyme and reason/victorian poets.

Ref: thenewatlantis.com/science-fallen-among-poets.

Ref: ncbl.nim. nih.gov. Thomas Wakley: Death of George IV.

Ref: naturalhistorymagazine.com/Beauty of Body Snatching Druin Burch. Referring to Cooper as an early body-snatcher in the cause of anatomy.

Ref: theguardian.com/books/science-poetry.



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About colindunkerley

My name is Colin Dunkerley who having spent two years in the Royal Army Pay Corps ploughed many a barren industrial furrow until drawn to the 'chalk-face' as a teacher, now retired. I have spent the last 15 years researching all aspects of life in Britain since Roman times.

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