The lectures of
Sir Humphry Davy,
A chemist with poetic side;
Davy will demonstrate
Batt’ries voltaic and
The varied July posts begin with a new non-Twitter poem. I originally wrote this a few months ago as part of the NaPoWriMo “Twitter bios” but didn’t post it in April; I thought I’d rather use the additional context that an essay could provide.
Electric, eclectic: /
The lectures of /
Sir Humphry Davy, /
A chemist with poetic side…
A fun aspect of exploring creative writing as it pertains to science has been learning more about the overlap of chemistry and poetry, more generally.
Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829), a chemist most famous for the isolation of several elements and the invention of an arc lamp, was also a contemporary of the Romantic-era poets William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and their three paths crossed constructively on multiple occasions. One of my favorite quotes on their creative collaborations is from Coleridge: “I attended Davy’s lectures to renew my stock of metaphors.”
Davy’s public lectures and chemical demonstrations at the Royal Institution were particularly famous in this era, as the second half of this poem highlights in more specific detail, and they included a variety of electrolysis experiments (“[e]lectric, eclectic”).
Davy will demonstrate /
Batt’ries voltaic and /
As Coleridge’s quote suggests, Davy’s lectures were intended to appeal to the general audience; he had been hired for that particular position due to his skill in scientific communication. Sam Illingworth’s excellent A Sonnet to Science: Scientists and Their Poetry explains this and tells Davy’s story in much greater detail (along with the stories of several other poetry-writing scientists!). Some of his most common lecture topics involved using voltaic batteries for his experiments in electrolysis and breathing nitrous oxide (which he was the first to dub “laughing gas”).
In addition to inspiring other poets’ metaphors, Davy is known for writing his own poetry about some of his scientific endeavors. The latter lecture topic cited here gave rise to perhaps his own most famous poem: “On Breathing the Nitrous Oxide,” reporting on his own observed experiences in doing so.
Much of Davy’s writing, both scientific and poetic, can be found in his research notebooks; The Davy Notebooks Project is a fascinating project dedicated to transcribing their contents.