Scientists Fallen Among Poets


When one mentions the Romantics, poetry and not science is the first thing that comes to mind. The iconic Romantic image of the scientist is William Blake’s highly unflattering Newton (1795), a color print finished in watercolor, hanging in London’s Tate Gallery. The scientist appears as a heroic nude, imposingly muscled like a triumphant warrior. However, the figure’s pose is a far cry from the virile address of Michelangelo’s David or Cellini’s Perseus. Newton sits on a rock ledge, folded over so that his chest rests on his knees — an attitude that, assumed for more than thirty seconds, would serve as an acute stress position under enhanced interrogation. With a geometrician’s compass he is inscribing a semicircle within a triangle, and he embodies the mathematical order in which he is rapt. The muscles outlining his back ribs form a perfect row of rhomboids; an equilateral triangle set on its vertex and a larger triangle that caps the first define the junction of his hip and lower back; his left hand drops from his wrist at a right angle, quite uncomfortably, it would seem, and the fingers of that hand are bent to form a triangle along with one leg of the compass that they hold, so that the hand appears to be of a piece with the instrument; his left foot protrudes from beneath the ledge he is sitting on, as though he were riveted to matter; and he is clearly oblivious to everything but the figure he is drawing, the calculations he is making. What Newton cannot see is the spectacular iridescence of the immense rock he is perched on, and the tremulous darkness of the night sky that one would expect to entrance a natural philosopher, as it clearly does the artist. The appropriate amazement at nature’s magnificence is far beyond poor Newton. He is a grind, without imagination, without insight, without a chance of ever understanding what he is supposed to be doing on this earth.

more from Algis Valiunas at The New Atlantis here.