Does Science Diminish Wonder or Augment It? – Facts So Romantic

In its pursuit of explaining things that previously seemed beyond words, does reason stifle the imagination? Can rationalism coexist with a reverence for mystery?

Two great poems with opposing views, composed over 200 years apart—“Lamia” by John Keats and “Water” by Philip Larkin—address these vexed questions through the entangled concepts of water and light.

John Keats (left); Philip Larkin (right)Painting by William Hilton the Younger, housed in the National Portrait Gallery, London; photo by Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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 health, and 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,…

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