THE POETRY OF VICTORIAN SCIENTISTS by Daniel Brown, Reviewed by John Holmes

By Daniel Brown
(Cambridge, 2013) xi + 310 pp.
Reviewed by John Holmes on 2013-05-01.

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Science mattered to Victorian poets. The most famous poem of the most famous Victorian poet, Alfred Tennyson's In Memoriam, pivots on the question of extinction. It reaches its nadir as Tennyson faces fossil dragons dug from iron hills, rising to newfound hope as he puts the ape and tiger behind him and joins the onward march of evolution. Daniel Brown's highly original and stimulating new book shows us that poetry mattered to Victorian scientists too. Where other critics ask how poets responded to science, Brown considers the poetry written by the scientists themselves. Where conventional literary history prioritizes geology and evolution as the sciences which had most impact on Victorian literature, Brown concentrates instead on physics and mathematics. Where the rest of us examine fossils in In Memoriam, he looks at the "fossil record of British scientific culture" (109) preserved in James Clerk Maxwell's "To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode." In taking this approach, Brown gives us a fresh perspective on the culture of Victorian science. At the same time, he makes an implicit case for taking Maxwell and his fellow scientists seriously as poets in their own right.

Brown's scholarship is intense and impressive. As well as meticulously itemizing the arcane details of late Victorian metrics and displaying a detailed knowledge of Cambridge and Scots university education in the 1840s, he shows a thorough understanding of debates over the legitimacy of different conceptions of physical science in the 1870s. He is at home too with Maxwell's mathematical methods. Along with his friends and colleagues in the North British group of scientists, including P. G. Tait and William Thomson (later Lord Kelvin), Maxwell championed a mathematical conception of physics over the experimental empiricism and descriptive language that were preferred by John Tyndall and his allies in the Metropolitan X Club and that are generally more amenable to analysis by literary scholars today. Brown's scholarly rigour and mathematical competence serve him very well in tracing the significance of the scientific references that appear to pepper Maxwell's poems. In fact, "pepper" is precisely the wrong word here, as Brown's analysis shows. Maxwell's poems are not spiced with science; science is their substance, their very essence. They are coded expositions of scientific method, from his suggestive undergraduate lyrics to the satires of the 1870s in which he lampooned Tyndall and more gently Tait for forsaking the true path of science. Rarely written for publication, they were meant to be shared with fellow scientists in the North British group and the Red Lion Club, the dining society of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Brown's scholarship allows us to read these poems as they would have been read by their original readership, to appreciate how witty and deft they really are. For Maxwell and his peers, poetry was a unique instrument. In the hands of the scientist, it could tease out the existential implications of different scientific worldviews, define his conception of scientific method against those of rivals (all the scientists in Brown's book are men), and enable him to revel in the pleasures of induction and deduction whether as sense or nonsense.

Brown's exegesis is not merely rigorous. In the fullness of the attention he pays to his subjects, especially Maxwell, it is positively loving. The last section of Chapter 1 introduces Maxwell as a playful character, both in science and in verse. By means of a selection of his early poems, Chapter 2 takes us through his education. Chapter 3 examines three of his most subtle early lyrics-- "Reflex Musings," "A Student's Evening Hymn," and "Recollections of Dreamland" -- that are sophisticated and distinctive enough to sustain Brown's complex and insightful analysis. On the other hand, I wonder whether "To the Chief Musician upon Nabla: A Tyndallic Ode" really deserves to dominate the next three chapters, even in dialogue with several other poems by Maxwell and others. The number of chapters Brown gives to this little-known comic poem is partly justified by his palaeontological metaphor: the poem preserves a fossil record of the scientific culture of its time. But this implies that the poem is only a somewhat arbitrary way into real subject of these chapters--the wider scientific culture. On the other hand, by lengthily explicating one poem, Brown also implies that it deserves to be considered a work of literature. Glossing the "fields of fractured ice" in the very first line of the poem, for instance, he takes five pages (104-109) to explain different theories of glaciation from the 1840s to the early 1870s, and he later spends six more pages (121-27) applying the terms of this discussion to remaining seven lines of this first stanza. If not impregnable, however, the case for lavishing so much attention on Maxwell is certainly defensible. As a physicist, his importance is second to none in the Victorian period. As a poet, he was skillful and accomplished, and Brown's judicious attention to his more polished poems shows him at his best. He gets so much attention, in fact, that he should have been recognized in the book's title, which is somewhat misleading without him.

Brown's chief subject is Maxwell, his circle, and their battles with Tyndall, and he makes a cogent case for the value of their poetry as documentary evidence in the cultural history of science and -- in Maxwell's case -- as literature in its own right. But he neglects poetry written by other Victorian scientists. He does not mention, for example, the Fugitive Poems gathered by Charles Daubeny, Professor of Chemistry and Botany at Oxford, and published after his death in 1869. Responding among other things to the geological researches of Lyell and Buckland, this collection of lyrics by Whewell, Herschel, and others closely parallels the poems of Maxwell and his circle. Both groups use comic verse to cement the social networks of science while lightly policing the boundaries of legitimate scientific practice. Yet even though Brown's title seems to promise a comprehensive survey of the Victorian poetry of science, he sidesteps not only Fugitive Poems but also the substantial poetic output of the evolutionary biologist G. J. Romanes and the more occasional poems of T. H. Huxley.

There are two or perhaps three reasons why Brown ignores this body of poetry. Firstly, he is not much interested in the life sciences. Though he might have found some way to signal this point in his title, this is a legitimate preference that counters a prevailing bias in Victorian studies at large and literary scholarship in particular. Secondly, he cares little for the more avowedly serious poetry written by scientists. Aside from Chapter 3, he spotlights comic poetry. In turn, this may suggest a third reason for neglecting a scientist-poet such as Romanes. If the time that Brown spends on Maxwell's poetry shows how much he values its literary merit, the brevity of his discussions of the serious poetry of Herschel and Tyndall suggest that he doesn't think much of it.

Brown also takes a somewhat restrictive approach to style. Though he uses the word in his subtitle, and though he contrasts the "appreciative layers of creamy poeticism" (65) in Herschel's "Man the Interpreter of Nature" with the more chaste, less exaggerated style of Maxwell's "Evening Hymn," he does not ask why Herschel and other scientists chose a patently obsolete style: a style freighted with "the most extraordinarily conventional (or once conventional) use of Della-Cruscan phrases," as Dante Gabriel Rossetti called them in a review of the poems of another scientist, his friend the physician Thomas Gordon Hake (Works [1911], 626). Such stylistic choices are harder to defend on grounds of literary merit than the allusive wit and playful paradoxes and puns of Maxwell's ostensibly less serious poetry.

Playfulness approximates the meaning of another word featured in Brown's subtitle: "nonsense." Since nonsense verse, Brown argues, shadows science as a kind of ludic and parodic double, nonsense counts at least as much as scientific credentials in in determining which poets he includes. Aside from Maxwell, the only poets discussed at length in their own right are Edward Lear and James Joseph Sylvester. Yet both draw Brown away from his main subject: Maxwell and the role of his poems in Victorian scientific culture. Lear seems particularly out of place. He was a remarkably accomplished illustrator of natural history, as Brown notes, and the Linnean Society prized his work on parrots in particular. But to rank him as a scientist with Maxwell, Herschel, or Tyndall is to over-promote him, and to include him as the sole representative of natural history seems bizarre. Moreover, the argument that Lear's nonsense alphabets and limericks enact the principles of natural history taxonomy is over-stretched, unconvincing, and adds little to the argument of the book as a whole. Speaking of taxonomy, Lear's species of nonsense is very different from Maxwell's. Far less witty and referential, it bears a different relation (if any) to a very different science. Fittingly, Lear falls out of the picture almost completely after the first chapter.

Standing between chapters respectively dedicated to Maxwell's poems "Molecular volution" and "A Paradoxical Ode," chapters 8 and 9 feature Sylvester. On the face of it, Sylvester is less of a diversion than Lear, for he was an influential mathematician and academic who corresponded with Maxwell, read his work, and thus fits into the social milieu of this book. Yet he doesn't well fit the book itself. Though Brown scrupulously examines Sylvester's work on metrics in The Laws of Verse (1870), the links he forges between this account and the argument of the book as a whole are only either loose analogies or haphazard biographical intersections. To assess Sylvester's attempts to rethink the principles of English meter, one would have to set them within a fuller account of late Victorian metrical theory -- something Brown as a Hopkins scholar understands very well, but cannot accommodate in this book. Consequently, though Sylvester's theories of prosody can be suggestive, Brown's exposition of them seems a distraction from his chief topic. By showing how Sylvester used exuberant, riddling, nonsensical verse to exemplify his theories, Brown prompts us to group him with Lear. But like Lear's nonsense, Sylvester's differs from Maxwell's in its relation to science.

Though very impressive as a work of scholarship, this book is insufficiently coherent. Lacking both an introduction and conclusion, it fails to lay out clearly its own priorities, its line of argument, and its principles for exclusion and inclusion. It struggles to define its own objective. Where it could have been an excellent study of Maxwell and his circle, it only partly succeeds as a book on science and nonsense, or as a general account of the poetry of Victorian scientists. Nevertheless, Brown's work on Maxwell remains important and very valuable. It shows the part that poetry played in scientific circles and debate in the Victorian period, and brings to light the skillful poetics of one of the period's most accomplished scientists. Maxwell displayed his poetic accomplishment very largely within what he saw as the necessarily closed world of science itself. Where Tyndall sought to bring science to the masses with dramatic experiments and vivid prose, Maxwell and the North British group viewed mathematics as the language of physics: a language that only an elite could ever fully comprehend. Maxwell's poetry is written for the same closed circle, and Brown's exegesis enables us to read it as it should be read. At the same time, it demonstrates why the poetry that Victorian scientists wrote for themselves did not participate in the wider literary culture of the time, but remained inevitably an eccentric offshoot from Victorian poetry at large.

John Holmes is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Reading, U.K., and the Chair of the British Society for Literature and Science.

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