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This article is taken from PN Review 159, Volume 31 Number 1, September - October 2004.

The Free and the Compromised John Constable

Science and Poetry

The record of relations between scientific thought and poetic form, particularly verse-form, is often seen as a process of gradual estrangement, a sad tale of hot love gone cold. In the beginning, or somewhere near it, the Greeks drafted the philosophy of physics in verse, and a little later Lucretius anticipated scientific materialism and evolution in much admired Latin hexameters, and then, somehow, there wasn't so much of this sort of work in poetry any more. In English, of course, there were a few alchemical pieces in the seventeenth century, a steady fall of leaden panegyrics about Newton in the eighteenth, and a lot of educational poems by doctors, but after that only a disgust at those who would probably botanise on their mother's grave, and a Tennysonian anguish at the harsh and aimlessly driven world the laboratories were representing and creating. Latterly, poetry has gone through a `shabby curate' stage, when it tried to keep its end up by doing good work in the community, and now seems content to magpie technical terms, and ally itself, in a half-hearted way, with `new age' research. There is, persistently, a vague feeling that this state of affairs isn't desirable, and that poets ought to be more involved with the scientific thought of their time, and scientists more alive to the riches of the most powerful means of human expression. This rapprochement is, many now think, badly needed, and not far beyond our grasp, if only ...


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