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SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY POETRY:
2.1 The History of Science Poetry
by
JONATHAN VOS POST

Copyright 1996,1997,1998 by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
All rights reserved Worldwide. May not be reproduced without permission.
May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.
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2.1 The History of Science Poetry

Science Fiction Poetry has a prehistory from before the genre of Science Fiction was established. To understand this, we consider the history of natural history and science in poetry from Ancient Greece through the early 20th Century, when Science Fiction and Fantasy became recognized as distinct genres, and note the poetic output of major non-genre scientists. Poetry was at one time the language of philosophy, science, and all serious thought. Major treatments of Science expressed as Poetry included the works of Lucretius (especially De Rerum Natura), Parmenides of Elea, Archytas (Pythagorean general, statesman, philanthropist, educator) and Empedocles of Acragas, plus the "Phaenomena" of Aratus and the Latin "Astronomica" of Manilius. Ancient Greek MOUSIKE of Homer, Pindar, and Anaximander preceded prose culture, until Pythagoras identified music with mathematics, Aristotle distinguished Poetry from Rhetoric, and poetry began to separate from science. Aristotle's Poetics [Translated by Thomas Twining, New York: Viking, 1957] states: "For even they who compose treatises of medicine or natural philosophy in verse are denominated poets: yet Homer and Empedocles have nothing in common except their metre; the former, therefore, justly merits the name of the poet; while the other should rather be called a physiologist than a poet" [I:2]. Aristotle has begun the split between "high art" and mere science or science fiction in verse. Aristotle goes on to comment that: "poetry demands either a great natural quickness of parts, or an enthusiasm allied to madness. By the first of these we mould ourselves with facility to the imitation of every form; by the other, transported out of ourselves, we become what we imagine" [II:17]. The enthusiasm allied to madness -- recalled by Shakespeare as "the lunatic, the lover, and the poet are of imagination all compact" -- leads to Coleridge's emphasis on imagination, and on the science fiction fan scene, since "fan" is an abbreviation of "fanatic." Aristotle concludes that: "the surprising is necessary in tragedy; but the epic poem goes further and admits even the improbable and incredible, from which the highest degree of the surprising results [III:4] .... The poet should prefer impossibilities which appear probable to such things as, though possible, appear improbable [III.6]." This lays out the key to science fiction poetry: that it verge on improbable, incredible, and impossible in order to provoke surprise. Later echoes of the pre-Aristotelian tradition include:
  1. Ovid's mention of pyramidal numbers in "De Nuce";
  2. Hesiod's agricultural/sheepherding treatise in Works and Days;
  3. Parmenides' theories on the One and the Many (only poetic fragments survive);
  4. Antipater's poem in the Greek Anthology about the water-driven mill that had freed the slave women from the dehumanizing toil of grinding wheat or barley flour;
  5. Virgil's agricultural technics in the Georgics;
  6. Julius Caesar's (100-44 BC) lost "De Astris";
  7. 2nd Century Imperial Astronomer Chang Heng's "Ssu Hsuan Fu";
  8. the Venerable Bede's (c. 673-735) six works on mathematics;
  9. Benedictine nun Hrotsvitha (c.932- c.1002) verses and mathematics;
  10. the Hindu Sridhara's (c.991-?) "Trisatika";
  11. Rabbi ben Ezra (1093-1167);
  12. Fibonacci's teacher Michael Scott (c.1175-1234);
  13. Omar ibn al-Khayyami Giyat ed-din Abu'l Fath (A.k.a. Omar Khayyam) (c.1044-1123);
  14. Geoffrey Chaucer's (c. 1387-1400) treatise on the Astrolabe (1391), and Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (trigonometry in Prologue to the Parson's Tale; in the Franklin's Tale, algebra removes all rocks from the Brittany coast; The Doctor of Phisik "for he was grounded in astronomye"; and The Canon's Yeoman's Tale, 535-622, blasting "A Fraudulent Alchemist");
  15. Nicolo Tartaglia's (c.1506-1557) cryptic verse on the solution to the cubic equation [plagiarized by Girolamo Cardano];
  16. Robert Recorde's (c.1510-1558) works on mathematics and medicine with frequent use of verse;
  17. Buckley's (?-c.1570) rules for extracting roots;
  18. Edmund Spenser (c.1552-1599) (The Faerie Queen: V.5-8 on Ptolomy and the stars, VII.16-26 on Mutability);
  19. Fulke Greville (Lord Brooke) (1554-1628) A Treatise of Humane Learning (stanzas 73-75, 116-119 on Experiment, Arithmetike, Geometrie, Astronomy);
  20. Sir Philip Sydney (1554-1586) The 7 Wonders of England;
  21. Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) The Translation of the 104th Psalme;
  22. Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) (Doctor Faustus, dispute on Astronomy between Faustus and Mephistophilis);
  23. and quite a bit of William Shakespeare (1564-1616).
Major Renaissance and Elizabethan poets were expected to refer to scientific images, as did Samuel Butler in "The Elephant in the Moon", John Donne on Kepler's Nova of 1604, or (frequently) Shakespeare. "it was the influence of such scientists as Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus, Palissy, and Tycho Brahe that stimulated the literary renaissance of the period, rather than the reverse" [David Eugene Smith]. That is, poetry portrayed the emergence of the "new science" of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and William Harvey as culture left its Neoplatonic Aristotelian Astrological Alchemical medieval heritage and entered a post-Ptolemaic era. "In the Seventeenth Century there was much less disparity between literary and scientific achivement than there had been in the sixteenth.... The growth of scientific rationalism largely eliminated the mythical and occult from the sciences ... [but] poetry by no means surrendered to the new materialism and determinism..." [Douglas Bush, pp.27 & 44]. This marks the split between Science Poetry and Fantasy Poetry. We must not ignore these significant works of poetry on "New Science":
  1. Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) writings such as "Tertius Interveniens" and the fragment "Somnium" which is often cited as the first work of modern science fiction;
  2. Joachim Camerarius' (1500-1574) poems on Astronomy;
  3. Jakob Kobel (1470-1533);
  4. Sir John Davies (1569-1626): Orchestra: A Poem of Dancing (stanzas 34-37 on The Cosmic Dance);
  5. John Donne (1571/2-1631) An Anatomy of the World (The First Anniversarie, 203-214 & 247-304 on "The New Philosophy", The Second Anniversarie, 261-280 on the Body);
  6. Ben Jonson (1572-1637) The Alchemist;
  7. Claude-Gaspar Bachet (1581-1638);
  8. Michael Drayton's "Poly-Olbion" (1612);
  9. Phineas Fletcher's (1582-1650) "The Purple Island" (1633) (anatomy);
  10. Sir William D'Avenant (1606-1668) Gondibert (stanzas 15-20 on "The Optick Tubes" i.e. telescopes);
  11. John Milton (1608-1674) often in Paradise Lost;
  12. Henry More's "Democritus Platonissans" (1646) (Copernican astronomy), Psychathanasia or The Immortality of the Soul (III.iii.59-60 on The Sun as Logos), The Infinity of Worlds, and Insomnium Philosophicum;
  13. Samuel Butler (1612-1680) The Elephant in the Moon;
  14. Abraham Cowley (1618-1667) Ode upon Dr. Harvey and Ode to the Royal Society;
  15. Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) The Definition of Love;
  16. Isaac Barrow (1630-1677);
  17. John Dryden (1631-1700) Upon the Death of the Lord Hastings, To my Honour'd Friend, Dr. Charleton on Stonehenge, and Annus Mirabilis (stanzas 155-166 on The Progress of Navigation).
In the 18th Century, even more science poetry triumped. "As professor John Arthos has elaborately demonstrated ... [18th Century poetic] diction ... naturalized[d] in poetry the terms and concepts of science and philosophy; when the concepts died, the diction remained.... The poets thought more highly of Newton than Newton thought of poetry..." [Douglas Bush, pp.53 & 55]. And yet most pivotal giant in the history of science, Isaac Newton (1642-1727), wrote a considerable quantity of poetry when still a student. Samples of the poetic response to Newton and his kin include:
  1. James Thomson (1700-1748) To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton and The Seasons (Summer 1531-1563 on Bacon, Boyle, Newton, and Locke; Summer 81-159 on Minerals);
  2. Sir Richard Blackmore (c.1650-1729) The Creation (II.295-350 & 450-453 on Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler; VI.280-329 on Development of the Embryo; and VII.228-256 on Association of Ideas);
  3. Sir Samuel Garth (1661-1719) The Dispensary (especially Canto VI: The Cave of Disease);
  4. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) On Poetry (319-344 on Hobbes, Great Fleas and Lesser Fleas);
  5. Joseph Addison (1672-1719) An Ode on "The Spacious Firmament on High";
  6. William Diaper (1686-1717) Nereides: or Sea-Eclogues;
  7. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) An Essay on Man;
  8. Dr. John Armstrong (1709-1779) The Art of Preserving Health;
  9. Thomas Gray (1716-1771) Luna Habitabilis (in Latin, on Life in the Moon);
  10. Gilbert White (1720-1793) The Naturalist's Summer-Evening Walk;
  11. Mark Akenside (1721-1770), sometimes considered "a minor prophet of evolution," wrote Hymn to Science and The Pleasures of Imagination [1744];
  12. Christopher Smart (1722-1771) On the Omniscience of the Supreme Being (a nice passage on Bird Migration, for example), and The Song to David [1763];
  13. the Marquis de Condorcet (1735-1796);
  14. Lorenzo Mascherone (1750-1800).
"The poets see the divine beauty of nature as enhanced, not lessened, by scientific explanation..." [Bush, p.73]. The 19th Century continued the tradition, but with major stylistic changes. The Romantic revolution from rational mechanism to enthusiastic imagination shifted the perspective in Science Poetry. As the elder Coleridige said [The Theory of Life], "from the time of Kepler to that of Newton, and from Newton to Hartley, not only all things in external nature, but the subtlest mysteries of life and organization, and even of the intellect and moral being, were conjured within the magic circle of mathematical formulae." The Romantics sought to break that magic circle, and to merge it with more ancient magics. But whatever the emphasis of feeling over thought, Romanticism, and all of 19th Century poetry, reacted to Science in a more sophisticated and informed fashion. "Byron ... was far more concerned than the casual reader might expect with science, especially with astronomy and geology [Bush, p.100].... The only one of the Romantic poets who had scientific training was Keats, but his poetic themes and creed rarely admitted the medical ... most of the images that might be called scientific are astronomical ... [besides his] quite unscientific passion for the moon... [p.101]. Shelley manifested an ardent, if amateurish, interest in science ... and science appeared in his poetry from Queen Mab onward ... [especially] Prometheus Unbound.... Professor Grabo ... called Shelley 'A Newton among poets' and made large claims for his expert knowledge and use of scientific ideas and images. One source ... [was] Erasmus Darwin..." [p.103]. Notable examples of Romantic Science Poetry included:
  1. Peter Pindar/John Wolcot (1738-1819) Peter's Prophecy on Banks and Herschel;
  2. William Blake (1757-1827) Vala or the Four Zoas (Night the Sixth, 180-228, on Vortices and Chaos), Jerusalem (I.6-20 on Bacon, Newton, and Locke), and "Mock on, Mock on Voltaire, Rousseau";
  3. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) ("The Tables Turned", The Prelude III.46-63 on Newton's Statue and VI.115-141 on Geometric Science, The Excursion IV.1230-1275 & VIII.196-230 & IX.1-20 on the Proper Place of Science, and "To the Planet Venus";
  4. Farkas Bolyai (1775-1856);
  5. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1850) Religious Musings (224-259 on The Origins of Science, 322-376 on Newton and Priestley);
  6. Joel Barlow's "The Columbiad" (1807);
  7. Sarah Hoare (1777-1856) Poems on Conchology and Botany;
  8. Sir Humphrey Davy (1778-1829) The Sons of Genius;
  9. Lord Byron (1788-1824) whose Cain was based on Cuvier's cataclysmic geology;
  10. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) Queen Mab (68-96 on the Universe, 38-46 on Polar Shifts and Fossils, 146-173 on life vs. Chaos), Prometheus Unbound (IV.325-492 on the Moon and Earth), Letter to Maria Gisborne (15-105 on "Shelley's Scientific Experiments");
  11. John Keats (1795-1821) Lamia (185-199 & 221-38 on Rainbow);
  12. Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849) A Subterranean City;
  13. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) Monadnoc (244-281 "The Atoms March in Tune");
  14. Charles Tennyson Turner (1808-1879) "Old Ruralities: A Regret" ("The boom of Science...");
  15. Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894) Extracts from a Medical Poem;
  16. Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849) "To Science";
  17. Joseph Swan (1828-1914);
  18. Augustus de Morgan's (1806-1871) "The Astronomer's Drinking Song";
  19. Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) Locksley Hall ("I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see...") and the single greatest Victorean poem In Memorium A.H.H. [1830] (LVI and CXXIII on God and Nature at Strife?), and Lucretius;
  20. Robert Browning (1812-1889) Caliban upon Setebos or Natural Theology in the Island responded to Darwin, An Epistle Containing the Strange Medical Experience of Karshish, the Arab Physician, and Paracelsus [1835];
  21. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-1861) When Israel Came out of Egypt (47-82, Science denies God), "Uranus", and Natura Naturans [1849];
  22. Herman Melville (1819-1891) "The New Zealot to the Sun" ("but Science yet an effluence ampler shall beget...");
  23. Walt Whitman (1819-1892) Leaves of Grass (49-64 "all space, all time.... beyond thy telescope or spectroscope..."), Song of Myself (1159-1169 nebula, strata, sauroids), "When I heard the Learn'd Astronomer";
  24. Matthew Arnold (1822-1888) Empedocles on Aetna;
  25. Coventry Patmore (1823-1896) "The Two Deserts" and "Legum Tuam Dilexi";
  26. Emily Dickenson (1830-1886) "Arcturus";
  27. John Philips (xxx) Cyder;
  28. Abbe' Delille (xxx) Les Jardins;
  29. XXX Tiedge (xxx) Urania;
  30. Erasmus Darwin's (1731-1802) very important epic science poem Zoonomia (1794-6), as well as The Botanic Garden [1789-1791] and The Temple of Nature all of which sought "to inlist the Imagination under the banner of Science".
"In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the heritage of romantic optimism passed to the scientists, leaving poets to the contemplation of a great void [Bush, p.108].... Even Macaulay, who was to become the very apostle of progress, in his first Edinburgh essay, on Milton, accepted the decline of poetry as the unavoidable result of advancing civilization [p.111]. The modern poetic revolt against scientific positivism has some obvious similarities to the romantic revolt against Newtonian mechanism, but modern poets have recognized the inadequacy of romanticism partly through being deprived by science of some central elements of the romantic faith. All modern poetry has been conditioned by science [p.151]." In the 20th Century, science came to dominate the world-view, and began displacing the last remnants of medievalism from literature. American poetry began to displace English poetry in the battle for the soul of the language:
  1. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) "In a Museum" and "Epitaph for G.K. Chesterton ("Darwin's theories were a snare");
  2. Matilda Blind (1841-1896) The Ascent of Man;
  3. Robert Bridges (1844-1930) The Testament of Beauty (162-173 on temperature range for organisms);
  4. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and Of the Comfort of Resurrection, and "I am Like a Slip of Comet";
  5. Alice Meynell (1847-1922) "Christ in the Universe";
  6. Thomas Thornely (1855-1949) "Dreams and Feudians", "The Atom", "The Angler on his Ancestry";
  7. Ronald Ross (1857-1932) "The Anniversary", "Science";
  8. Robert Frost (1874-1963) "Why Wait for Science?";
  9. Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) The Torch-Bearers (William Herschel Conducts);
  10. Sir John Collings Squire (1884-1958) The Survival of the Fittest;
  11. Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962) To a Roan Stallion (Humanity is the mold... The heart of the atom with electrons...);
  12. Marianne Moore (1887-1972) "In the Days of Prismatic Color", "Four Quartz Crystal Clocks";
  13. Walter James Redfern Turner (1889-1946) "Poetry and Science";
  14. Hugh MacDiarmid/Christopher Murray Grieve (1892-1978) "The Innumerable Christ", A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle, "Two Scottish Boys";
  15. Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) "Reply to Mr. Wordsworth" (Space-time has no beginning and no end);
  16. Aldous Huxley(1894-1963) "First Philosopher's Song" (a million million spermatozoa);
  17. Mark Van Doren (1894-1972) "God of Galaxies";
  18. David Jones (1895-1974) Anathemata (a Scientific Psalm);
  19. A.M. Sullivan (1896-), "Atomic Architecture", "Telecope Mirror";
  20. Michael Roberts (1902-1948) "Note on Theta, Psi and Phi";
  21. Dorothy Donnelly (1903-) "The Pink Mite" (science abhors a fiction), "The Point of a Pin", "Spider Compared to Star", "Sun and Straws";
  22. William Empson (1906-) "Invitation to Juno", "Note on Local Flora", "Doctrinal Point";
  23. Vernon Watkins (1906-1967) "Discoveries";
  24. Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) "In Memory of Sigmund Freud", "Unpredictable but Providential (for Loren Eiseley)."
Auden may be the greatest 20th century poet to use scientific themes consistently. "New England Transcendentalism and new-world optimism cushioned Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman against the fear of science [Bush, p.157].... Walt Whitman ... is intoxicated alike by the practical achievements of science ... and by the infinities of time and space [p.153]. [Among Whitman's followers] Hart Crane ... was also a kind of modern Poe. In his most ambitious work, The Bridge [1930] Crane attempted an epic of America, a fusion of native myth with engineering [pp.154-5].... W.B. Yeats ... had little to say of science in his poetry, but his whole evolution and his whole body of writing were, like [D.H.] Lawrence, a kind of answer to it [p.158].... T.S. Eliot's ... awareness of science was conveyed, like everything else, obliquely [p.160]. Other 20th Century examples [and see sections 7.0 and 11.0] include:
  1. Louis MacNeice (1907-1963) The Kingdom (Portrait of the Scientist), "Variation on Heraclitus";
  2. Sir Stephen Spender (1909-) "Bagatelles XII: Renaissance Hero" ("A galaxy of cells composed a system");
  3. Edward Lowbury (1913-) "Redundancy", "Daylight Astronomy";
  4. R. S. Thomas (1913-) "The Gap", "Pre-Cambrian", "Emerging";
  5. David Ignatow (1914-) "Poet to Physicist in his Laboratory";
  6. Robert Conquest (1917-) "Humanities";
  7. William Bronk (1918-) "How Indeterminacy Determines Us";
  8. Howard Nemerov (1920-) "Unscientific Postscript", "Cosmic Comics", "Seeing Things";
  9. Richard Wilbur (1921-xxxx) "Lamarck Elaborated";
  10. H. Witheford (1921-) "Bohr on the Atom";
  11. Dannie Abse (1923-) "Letter to Alex Comfort", "In the Theatre";
  12. John Woods (1926-) "Eye" ("we have eyes out, gyros spinning..."), "To the Chairperson of the Sonnets" ("In my Newtonian youth");
  13. Galway Kinnell (1927-) "For the Lost Generation";
  14. Charles Tomlinson (1927-) "A Meditation on John Constable";
  15. Peter Redgrove (1932-) "Relative";
  16. John Updike (1932-) "Seven Stanzas at Easter", "Cosmic Gall" (Neutrinos);
  17. Robert Wallace (1932-) "Experimental";
  18. Anne Stevenson (1933-) "The Spirit is Too Blunt an Instrument";
  19. Russell Edson (1935-) "Antimatter";
  20. Grace Schulman (1935-) "Surely as Certainty Changes";
  21. Anthony Piccione (1939-) "Nomad" ("The particle scientist");
  22. Peter Straub (1941-) "Wolf on the Plains";
  23. Eva Royston (1942-) "Working in the Laboratory";
  24. Peter Howe (1943-) "The Ascent of Man";
  25. Richard Ryan (1946-) "Galaxy";
  26. Bernard Saint (1950-) "The Earth Upturned";
and then the dominance of Science Fiction Poetry as a genre over the subgenre of Science Poetry commenced in earnest. Most of the pre-20th century poetry-writing mathematicians are discussed in David Eugene Smith's compendium History of Mathematics, New York: Dover, 1958, 2 volumes, copyright 1923. Many other of the above citations are drawn from Poems of Science, ed. John Heath-Stubbs & Phillps Salman, London:Penguin, 1984; and Science and English Poetry: A Historical Sketch, 1590-1950, [the Patten Lectures, Indiana University, 1949), by Douglas Bush, New York: Oxford University Press, 1950. As Goethe said, "the mathematician is only complete in so far as he feels within himself the beauty of the true", and as Weierstrass adds "a mathematician who is not at the same time a bit of a poet will never be a full mathematician." More recently Bob Dylan, in a radio interview, said "I'm a mathematical singer. I use words the way most people use numbers." Notable scientists and engineers who published poetry (primarily science fictional) in the 18th, 19th, and 20th Century include:
  1. Harold Baum, editor of The Biochemists' Songbook
  2. Elias Canetti, Bulgarian, 1981 Nobel Prize in Literature, PhD in Chemistry
  3. Humphry Davy: See "The Poet of Chemistry", Oliver Sacks' review of Humphry Davy: Science and Power by David Knight, Blackwell, in The New York Review of Books, 4 Nov 1993. This review links the famous Chemist Humphry Davy with Coleridge, Beddoes, the Romantic Poets, Wordsworth, Mary Shelley, Keats, Blake, T.S. Eliot, and others.
  4. Benjamin Franklin
  5. John Hay, Phi Beta Kappa poet at Harvard, ecologist/naturalist
  6. Miroslav Holub, Czechoslovakian immunologist
  7. Alan P. Lightman, Caltech/Harvard/ Smithsonian astrophysicist & award-winning author of Einstein's Dreams
  8. James Clerk Maxwell (1831-1879) whose equations were the key to electromagnetism published a number of scientific poems, including "To the Chief Musician upon Nabla" and "Molecular Evolution" (1874).
  9. J. Robert Oppenheimer [see 7.0]
  10. Nicanor Parra, Math Prof., University of Chile
  11. Joseph Swan
  12. Dr. Lewis Thomas (xxxx-1993), biologist/science administrator, essayist/poet
  13. Biologist Julian Huxley (brother of Aldous, grandson of Thomas) published poems such as "To a Dancer" and "Cosmic Death."
[and see the Russian scientist/engineer poets of Section 4.1].... See also the (month?) 1992? Omni magazine article on "Scientists who write Poetry", which reportedly quotes me...

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