In the Poetry Lab with Dr. Frankenstein

Science and literature. They don’t have anything to do with each other, do they. Science: that’s heavyweight; that’s for rationalists, clear thinkers with a graphing calculator and the scientific method. Literature: that’s lightweight; that’s for idealists, romantic dreamers with stars in their eyes. Right? Dead wrong. Look at Frankenstein. Look at Mary Shelley.

Mary Shelley was 18. The year was 1816. She was sitting around on the shores of Lake Geneva with Percy Shelley –her already married lover–and Lord Byron (the bisexual Byron) talking about science. They were telling ghost stories, that’s true, but in the course of their ghost stories they were also talking about science. They talked about Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather, who predicted evolution decades before his grandson was born, who propounded accurate cures for a whole variety of 18th-century ailments, who described the sex lives of plants in poetic couplets that made his readers blush. They were talking about Luigi Galvani, the Italian physiologist from whom we get the word “galvanize,” the scientist who put severed frogs’ legs into his galvanic “trough” and watched them quiver and twitch when he shot them full of electricity (see link below).

You know the rest. Mary decided to write a ghost story, but she decided that it would be a scientific ghost story. Here it begins, in her words: “I saw the pale student of the unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.” From Galvani’s quivering frog-legs we get Mary’s shuddering man-monster.

But that’s not the half of it. Mary’s soon-to-be-husband, Percy Shelley, the archetype of the androgynous, cloud gazing, Romantic dreamer, kept a chemistry laboratory set up in his rooms in college and conducted scientific experiments during most of his adult life. His pal Byron, when he wasn’t riding gondolas in Venice or singing songs to Athenian maidens, wrote one of the first accurate descriptions of the earth seen from outer space in a play written in verse. Their colleague Coleridge, when he wasn’t doped up on laudanum, attended many of the important scientific lectures in the London of his day and corresponded with scientists while he was writing “Kubla Khan” (a geologist’s dream), “Frost at Midnight” (a meteorological masterpiece), and “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner” (natural history disguised as salvation).

The influence flows the other way as well. Joseph Priestley, whose scientific pieces of equipment (his telescope, his burning glass magnifiers) are on display in the Waidner-Spahr Library at Dickinson College, wrote poems aplenty while he was discovering oxygen. Cuvier, Lamarck, and Darwin all described the animals and plants they studied in a language that often rose to the rhetorical pitch of poetry. Here is a lyrical Charles Darwin, on a ship in South America, while on a voyage collecting beetles, and butterflies, and finches: “such a strange scene it is. Everything is in flames, the sky with lightning, the water with luminous particles, and even the very masts are pointed with a blue flame.” So a great scientist can think and sound like a poet as well. Don’t you think Copernicus had to use his imagination; he had to first “imagine” that the sun was at the center of the solar system, even though all the logical and even the visible evidence suggested otherwise. The sun goes around the earth every day, from east to west. So how could the earth be going around the sun? The key in this case was perspective. Similarly with Einstein; everything since Isaac Newton said that matter and energy could not be the same–Einstein said they had to be. The solution to this problem was velocity. That’s always the way it is with scientific discovery. No one believes the scientist at first because the scientist often goes directly against current knowledge received wisdom. It always takes time, and sometimes a fair amount of common-sense convincing. And who ever believes the poets, at first or later?

I’ll go out on a limb here. All of the greatest poets also think like scientists. All of the greatest scientists also think like poets. Need more proof. Take two concepts–the way a scientist does–that are defined as incompatible: energy and matter. Imagine–the way a poet does–that they might have more in common than we think. Put them together, go ahead, use an equal sign: E=mC2. I call that poetry in motion.


*”Dr.” Frankenstein is not a doctor in the novel. That error comes from numerous film adaptations. In the novel he is an undergraduate student at the University of Ingolstadt when he forms and animates his nameless “wretch.” We owe Holywood for the name confusion as well.

–Ashton Nichols (first published in The Dickinsonian, April 1999)


Watch a remarkable video of severed frog-legs and a dead squid moving with only salt as the stimulant

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