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My chemical romance

<strong>The Age of Wonder</strong>

Richard Holmes <em>HarperPress, 386pp, £25</em>

The Romantic generation of poets and thinkers, schoolchildren are often told, took a dim view of science. Like a lot of blunt instruments, this received wisdom is not without its uses. Wordsworth's witty and much-cited line, "We murder to dissect", pretty much sums up the bias: try too hard to understand, say, how a frog works, and all you'll end up with is a nasty, smelly mess of slop, bones and juices. (Wordsworth's line is also haunted by fears about the increasingly common practice of dissecting human remains, and by sinister rumours about how unscrupulous doctors might source their corpses. The wit is a hair away from shuddering horror.)

Other English Romantics appeared to share the sentiment: "Do not all charms fly/At the mere touch of cold philosophy?" (Keats's "Lamia"). And the most enduringly popular prose work of the Romantic movement, Mary Shelley's Fran kenstein - another creepy vision of human dissection - may be read as a fable about the hubris of natural philosophy.

That is one side of the story; Richard Holmes briskly concedes its measure of justice at the very outset and then goes on to cast light (sometimes bright and bracing, sometimes guttering and spooky) on its many other sides. His subject is what academics have lately been calling Romantic Science - a turbulent passage of the later Enlightenment, which Coleridge in 1819 identified as "the second scientific revolution", a successor to the 17th-century revolution of Newton, Locke, Hooke, Descartes and company.

Holmes's narrative is roughly bounded by two maritime expeditions: the botanist Joseph Banks's voyage with Captain Cook on the Endeavour in 1768 and the young Charles Darwin's departure on the Beagle in 1831. His leading characters are two major scientists, the astron omer William Herschel (plus his long-suffering, long-neglected sister Caroline, an invaluable assistant) and the chemist Humphry Davy. A hefty and colourful supporting cast includes balloonists, libertines and nitrous oxide sniffers, a doomed African explorer (Mungo Park), lots of searchers after extraterrestrial life . . . and the usual Romantic suspects: Keats, Percy and Mary Shelley, Byron and Coleridge.

As one would expect from Holmes, our leading biographer of figures from those momentous generations, it makes for an abundance of yarns, metaphors and insights, above all on the occasions when the author picks up some familiar or overfamiliar detail from a poem and makes it come alive in a new way.

Take Keats's sonnet of October 1816 "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer": "Then felt I like some watcher of the skies/When a new planet swims into his ken . . ." Most cultural historians would have been more than content with simply pointing out that Keats must have been thinking of Herschel's discovery of the planet Uranus in 1781 - a discovery that doubled the size of the known solar system at a stroke, and then led Herschel and others on to the part-terrifying, part-exhilarating idea of Deep Space (a sibling for the equally vertiginous prospect of Deep Time, which was being introduced by geologists).

But the assiduous Holmes goes on to unearth all manner of charming additional evidence for this "scientific" reading: for instance, that Keats was given Bonnycastle's Introduction to Astronomy as a senior prize in 1811; that, at his school in Enfield, children had once been organised into dancing round the playground as planets and satellites, like a kind of juvenile human orrery; that Keats may well have attended, and certainly knew about, Charles Babbage's "Lectures on Astronomy" in 1815.

Even had he not been so alert to the new astronomy, Holmes suggests, Keats's scientific training at Guy's Hospital told more deeply in his verses than has usually been noticed. (Although I did once teach a student who thought that the phrase "or emptied some dull opiate to the drains" in "Ode to a Nightingale" was a description of putting down rat poison. He concluded that the poem was about Florence Nightingale.)

This is delicious literary detective work in its own right, but it serves a much larger end. Holmes proves beyond reasonable dissent that, far from being consistently horrified by the recent developments in science, the Romantics were also thrilled, amazed and inspired by them. Shelley, who was taught by Joseph Banks's colleague Dr James Lind (Percy doted on his exciting, radical talk of Lavoisier, Herschel, Franklin and others), read widely in the fields of geology, cosmology, electricity and meteorology. When, in "Ode to the West Wind", he mentions the "locks of the approaching storm", he is tacitly alluding to the recent classification of cirrus clouds by the meteorologist Luke Howard.

Nor were the links between the boffins and the aesthetes merely those of reading and writing. As at an ideal High Table, the various faculties could talk freely together, to mutual benefit. Coleridge and Humphry Davy delighted in each other's company, and their mutual admiration coloured both a later preface to the Lyrical Ballads and many of Davy's subsequent scientific writings. (Holmes proposes that Davy's 1818 essay "On the Safety Lamp for Coal Miners" should be seen as one of the prose masterpieces of English Romanticism; and he knows what he's talking about.) Byron liked Davy, too, and in Italy said that the chemist was one of the few Englishmen he could stand to meet.

Holmes's account draws to a close with the widespread misgiving, in the 1830s, that the great names had all gone and British science was about to suffer a terrible decline: Banks died in 1820, Herschel in 1822, Davy in 1829. This was, to put it mildly, unduly pessimistic, given that the stars of Victorian science, notably Babbage, Faraday, Darwin and Herschel's son John, were already launched on their careers. Oddly enough, it was at this very moment of lost momentum that the word "scientist" was finally coined (by William Whewell, in 1833).

Still, the doomsters were right in thinking that some kind of change had taken place, and that science would come to occupy a different place in the national imagination. The outlook of scientists changed, too; they became, so to say, less poetic. (By all means wonder at the Universe, but do not be so naive as to mistake it for a Creation.) Thanks to the two Charleses, Lyell and Darwin, the next major corpse to be dissected was that of God. Yet, for all this hardening of attitude, most of the Victorian scientists kept faith with at least one major inheritance from the Romantic period: the belief that science should be conducted in a language available to all intelligent citizens, and that the public should always be educated both in its deepest fundamentals and in its most topical developments. Holmes's exuberant and thought-provoking book breath es that same noble, democratic spirit.

This article first appeared in the 13 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The facade cracks