By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘I am no poet,’ the scientist Michael Faraday once said, ‘but if you think for yourselves, as I proceed, the facts will form a poem in your minds.’ Although they’re often viewed as being at odds – such as in John Keats’s famous worry about Isaac Newton unweaving the rainbow through explaining the colour spectrum – science and poetry have often been bedfellows.
Since the metaphysical poets such as John Donne and Andrew Marvell some four hundred years ago, whose work incorporated scientific ideas, poets over the last few centuries have engaged with scientific discoveries, questions, and ideas. Here are ten of the very best poems about science, technology, and machinery.
Edgar Allan Poe, ‘Sonnet – To Science’.
Poe was greatly interested in science, and among his literary achievements is a long prose-poem-cum-essay, Eureka, which is subtitled in some editions of Poe’s work ‘An Essay on the Material and Spiritual Universe’.
However, in this shorter poem, a sonnet following the Shakespearean or English rhyme scheme, Poe calls science ‘true daughter of Old Time’ which ‘alterest all things with thy peering eyes’, arguing that science has destroyed the human love of the fantastical or mystical.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Canto LVI from In Memoriam.
Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law –
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed …
This poem from Tennyson’s long elegy for his friend, Arthur Henry Hallam, was published in 1850. In this canto from the longer poem, Tennyson engages with the nineteenth-century geological debate surrounding the fossil record: the so-called ‘dinosaur canto’ sees Tennyson fearing the Nature (and God) don’t value either the individual creature within a species or the species as a whole, because so many ‘types’ have gone extinct.
Robert Browning, ‘Caliban upon Setebos’.
’Thinketh He made it, with the sun to match,
But not the stars; the stars came otherwise;
Only made clouds, winds, meteors, such as that:
Also this isle, what lives and grows thereon,
And snaky sea which rounds and ends the same …
A good science poem to pair with Tennyson’s above. Although its most immediate literary inspiration was Shakespeare’s The Tempest, this 1863 poem by Robert Browning (1812-89) was written just four years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and the poem is a response to the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.
Walt Whitman, ‘When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer’.
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,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself …
Science can increase the magic of the natural world, rather than detract from it. In this short poem, Whitman (1819-92) describes how hearing an astronomy lecture opens his mind up to the wonders of the night sky.
Emily Dickinson, ‘A Light exists in Spring’.
As the Keats example quoted at the start of this post demonstrates, not all poems about science have been celebratory. Here, Emily Dickinson examines the gulf between what science can analyse and understand, and what human nature somehow senses in a way that stands aside from the scientific:
A Light exists in Spring
Not present on the Year
At any other period –
When March is scarcely here
A Color stands abroad
On Solitary Fields
That Science cannot overtake
But Human Nature feels …
Ambrose Bierce, ‘Technology’.
Bierce (1842-c.1914) is best-known for The Devil’s Dictionary, but he was also a poet. Here he addresses in a comic poem the issue of technology:
’Twas a serious person with locks of gray
And a figure like a crescent;
His gravity, clearly, had come to stay,
But his smile was evanescent …
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Secret of the Machines’.
Kipling (1865-1936) was a prolific writer of short stories and poems, and in this poem he ponders new technology and machinery:
We were taken from the ore-bed and the mine,
We were melted in the furnace and the pit—
We were cast and wrought and hammered to design,
We were cut and filed and tooled and gauged to fit.
Some water, coal, and oil is all we ask,
And a thousandth of an inch to give us play:
And now, if you will set us to our task,
We will serve you four and twenty hours a day …
Stephen Spender, ‘The Pylons’.
For Spender (1909-95) in this poem, which spawned the name of a whole poetic movement (the ‘Pylon Poets’ of the 1930s), the electricity pylons springing up across the English countryside are symbols of the future, placed in a landscape that has been largely unchanged for centuries.
Whilst cities have been radically transformed in the last few hundred years by a succession of technological innovations – industry, factories, skyscrapers, the advent of the motorcar – the English countryside has largely remained the same, yet this is precisely where the pylons have been situated … or, at least, is the place where they are the most conspicuous.
Edwin Morgan, ‘The Computer’s First Christmas Card’.
In this poem, the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan (1920-2010) gives us an unusual Christmas poem supposedly ‘written’ by a computer, and its attempt to produce the simple message ‘Merry Christmas’. A humorous poem from the 1960s about the early technology of the modern computer.
Sarah Howe, ‘Relativity’.
Howe wrote this poem about scientific ideas – specifically relating to Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and its impact on subsequent physics – and read it to Stephen Hawking, to whom the poem is dedicated. It’s beautiful, moving, and shows that science continues to inspire some of the finest poetry.
Discover more classic poetry with these birthday poems, short poems about death, and these classic war poems. We also recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market (we offer our pick of the best poetry anthologies here).
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
The tables turned, by Wordsworth, also come to mind As a poem criticising science’ s need to dissect, to analyse.