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2.2 Huxley & Other Critics on Science and Poetry

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2.2  Huxley & Other Critics on Science and Poetry

Aldous Huxley, in Literature and Science [New Haven CT: Leete's Island Books,1963], 
insists that "the purity of scientific language is not the same as the purity of 
literary language" [p.12], citing Emily Dickenson's "A Light Exists in Spring" 

			A color stands abroad
				On solitary hills
			That science cannot overtake,
				But human nature feels.

and also citing William Wordsworth on Isaac Newton [p.41], whose statue "with his
prism and silent face" was, for the young poet:

			The marble index of a mind for ever
			Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

That might almost serve as a definition of Science Fiction Poetry -- 
"voyaging through strange seas of thought," but Wordsworth went further than 
Huxley in linking the goals of science and poetry [pp.42-3]: 

     "if the labours of Men of science should ever create any material revolution ... 
     in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet 
     will ... be at his side, carrying sensations into the midst of the objects of 
     science itself.  The remotest discoveries of the Chemist, the Botanist, or 
     Minerologist will be as proper objects of the Poet's art as any upon which it 
     can be employed..." 

leaving open only the question of whether or not that revolution has yet occurred.

Huxley leaves the door open to Science Fiction Poetry as such in his remark 
[p.46] that "until very recent times, the creators of Utopias have been abysmally
uninventive in the fields of pure and applied science" and his citation [p.53] 
of Walt Whitman's famous:

			When I heard the learn'd astronomer,
			When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
			When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, 
				and measure them ...
			I wander'd off by myself,
			In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
			Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

and yet Huxley, by excluding Science Fiction Poetry from the canon, believes that
      "From their writings [the successors of T.S. Eliot] you would be hard put 
      to it to infer the simple historical fact that they are the contemporaries 
      of Einstein and Heisenberg, of computers, electron microscopes, and the 
      discovery of the molecular basis of heredity ... these have hardly found 
      their way into modern poetry.... In the forty years which have elapsed 
      since I first commented on the old subject matter of the new poetry, 
      astonishingly few poems with a scientific reference have been written.  
      Some elegant pieces of neo-metaphysical poetry by William Empson, Kenneth 
      Rexroth's reflective lyric 'Lyell's Hypothesis Again' -- these are the 
      only examples that come, off-hand, to my mind.  There must, of course, be 
      others -- but not many of them, I am sure. Of the better poems written 
      ince 1921, the great majority do not so much as hint at the most important 
      fact of contemporary history -- the accelerating progress of science and 
 Here is the mundane bias starkly put: that while only Science Fiction reflects 
 the reality of technological acceleration, it does not include the "better" 
 Science Fiction Poets aim to disprove this, as Huxley seems to urge in his 
 final sentence [p.118]: 
      "let us advance together, men of letters and men of science, further and 
      further into the ever-expanding regions of the unknown."
In 1895, Langdon Smith published a remarkable long poem "Evolution" in the 
Sunday New York Herald, which was widely acclaimed, has been repeatedly 
anthologized, and the likes of which he never wrote again.

It is commonly, but wrongly, thought that Science and Poetry are in opposition.  

As Robert Graves put it in the science fiction novel Watch the Northwind Rise 
[Farrar Strauss & Giroux 1949]: 

     "Poetry is not worth buying and selling on a large scale, so the businessman
     shows no interest in it.... The scientist disregards it because it can't be 
     reduced to mathematical equations and therefore seems to lack a principle." 
Centuries in the future, Graves' fictional poet Vives writes:

			Charlatans came forward,
			Boldly adopting titles
			Of mathematical virtue.
			Square Root of Minus One
			Proclaimed himself a dictator
			And swelled a private grudge
			By arithmetical progression
			Into a mad crusade.

Wordsworth contrasts the scientific and humanist spirit:
			Our meddling intellect
			Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:--
			We murder to dissect.
			Enough of Science and Art;
			Close up those barren leaves;
			Come forth, and bring with you a heart
			That watches and receives.

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Copyright 1996, 1997 by Magic Dragon Multimedia.
All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.
May be posted electronically provided that it is transmitted unaltered, in its entirety, and without charge.