A&O READING – EXCERPT: Keats on science






The romantic poet John Keats, one of the most sensuous masters of the English language, proclaimed his objection to science when he derided Sir Isaac Newton for “unweaving the rainbow.” During a drunken Christmastime dinner party in 1817, in the approving presence of the poet William Wordsworth and the writer Charles Lamb, Keats raised his glass to drink, facetiously, to Newton’s healthand confusion to mathematics.” (Newton had died almost a century before.) He endorsed Lamb’s view that “Newton had destroyed the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to a prism,” and that the eminent scientist was “a fellow who believed nothing unless it was as clear as the three sides of a triangle.”


Two years later, in his long love poem Lamia, Keats returned to his lament about how cold science had stolen the sheen from the “awful rainbow” (“awful” being used in the old sense of “full of awe”):


There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture — she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine,
Unweave a rainbow…


Keats’ reactionary attitude may seem surprising and disappointing for an intelligent and worldly young man who had been training to be a surgeon. All Newton had done, after all, was to reveal the natural machinery of water and light that created a rainbow, with droplets of water acting as billions of tiny refracting prisms that break rays of light into seven soft hues. One might think that Keats, an ardent apostle of truth and beauty, would be enchanted by this explanation that fused the two. His own poetry sparkled with references to water: Dewdrops are the “early sobbing of the morn,” and the delicate epitaph he composed for himself as he lay dying in Rome read, “Here Lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.” Surely the image of water and light conjoining in an airy ballet to create a band of colors would amplify rather than diminish his sense of wonder?

Keats’ resistance was rooted not in specific religious belief (he despised organized religion and said the sound of the bells of St. Paul’s gave him the creeps) but in his reverence for the pagan forces of nature. To him, the synthesis of the rainbow was a celestial drama that should be accepted as is, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” In short, he wanted to let sleeping rainbows lie. His beautiful if wrong-headed phrase, “unweave a rainbow” was chosen by Richard Dawkins as the title of his 1998 book, Unweaving the Rainbow, in which he argues that science actually supplies a kind of poetry, that it lets us better appreciate the wonders of the world.


(excerpt from Nina Martyris’s brief essay, “Does Science Diminish Wonder or Augment It?” (NAUTILUS, August 2019  http://poetry.nautil.us/article/441/does-science-diminish-wonder-or-augment-it)