Poetry is a world in which sentences becomes puzzles to unlock. This is literature of emotionally impactful form, and philosophically driven analysis. And sometimes, poets have used their art form to talk about science. Or maybe just use a petri dish to evoke the image of ‘something scientific’ in the reader’s mind’s eye.
This poem enters a pre-scientific world where a lab was an apothecary and the scientist, an alchemist for hire. Here, the narrator enters a shady ‘laboratory’ asking for powders capable of poisoning – and killing – her romantic rivals. So yes, it is only marginally related to science, but there is some required PPE:
Now that I, tying thy glass mask tightly,– Robert Browning, The Laboratory
May gaze through these faint smokes curling whitely,
As thou pliest thy trade in this devil’s-smithy –
Which is the poison to poison her, prithee?
T. S. Eliot
Prufrock draws us into a mysterious world as told through the eyes of an evasive narrator. The poor fellow’s internal dialogue ultimately ends in a failing courage; he spends the whole time wondering to himself if he should pursue some difficult conversation, and then ultimately decides to take a stroll along the beach.
Woven throughout are strikingly science-y images, such as etherized patients and bugs pinned to boards (as in a naturalist exhibit). These images illumine the narrator’s insecurities and self-doubt, in his hesitance to have his emotions placed under a microscope.
Edgar Allan Poe
Science doesn’t seem to get much love in the poems I found. Above, the narrator uses scientific imagery to highlight insecurity; here, Poe bewails science as a worldview, taking the fun out of everything for its rationalization of a previously mysterious (and thus, creatively inspiring) world. Much as Browning felt a deathblow to his childhood upon hearing that the Illiad‘s Troy was myth (spoiler alert: archaeologists later uncovered the real, historical place), Poe mourns that scientific analysis takes all the imagination and inspiration out of nature, killing artistic, classical, poetic, and mythical descriptions. As a fan of science myself, I must say I disagree, but hey – nice poem and all.
Wordsworth takes Poe’s sentiments a step further and throws science (as a formal training) out altogether. Forget books and learning; spend your days in the woods, discovering life hands-on. Of course, James Audubon, John Muir and countless others tell us that science can very well be learned by simple immersion, especially during the age of discovery.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;– William Wordsworth, The Tables Turned
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: –
We murder to dissect.
We still have discovery-based science today, of course, but there’s also a lot of applied sciences. Unguided tinkering and backyard science experiments definitely go a long way, but now, there’s an undeniable advantage to picking those books back up and going to school.
- What are your favorite science or nature-themed poems?