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Project throws light on the poetry of inventor Sir Humphry Davy

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Poetry written by the 19th century chemist Sir Humphry Davy, inventor of the miners’ safety lamp, will be read and discussed at a workshop at Morpeth library in Northumberland on Thursday 11 January from 2-4pm.

Davy’s poetry has been newly transcribed by thousands of volunteers working on the Davy Notebooks Project. Davy is better known for his work isolating chemical elements, his invention of a miners’ safety lamp, and for being the first man to inhale nitrous oxide. But he also wrote poetry throughout his life. Hardly any of his poems were published in his lifetime and many of them remain in manuscript.

The workshop will be led by Professor Sharon Ruston, of Lancaster University, and principal investigator on the Davy Notebooks Project. Researchers at Lancaster discovered that Davy penned hundreds of poems in the same notebooks he used to record his groundbreaking electrochemical experiments, discoveries and revelations, according to a report in the Observer

Rusotn said: “The poetry is just everywhere.” She and nine other academics and nearly 3,500 volunteers worldwide have spent the last four years transcribing 11,417 pages of Davy’s numerous 200-year-old notebooks.

Davy knew the poets Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Southey, helped to correct the proofs for Wordsworth and Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, and was born, said Ruston, “before we had this idea that there was a dividing line between the arts and science”. He only published a few poems in his lifetime. But Coleridge wrote that Davy was “a man who would have established himself in the first rank of England’s living poets, if the Genius of our country had not decreed that he should rather be the first in the first rank of its philosophers and scientific benefactors”.

Davy’s earliest surviving poems were written when he was 16 in 1795, as he began his apothecary-surgeon’s apprenticeship in Penzance, and he continued writing poetry almost up to his death at Geneva in 1829, at the age of 50.

His notebooks suggest that he even wrote poetry in his laboratory, where he pioneered the field of electrolysis. Ruston said: “He’s writing about nitrous oxide or galvanism. But then there are lines of poetry as well. These two things are happening simultaneously for him. He is trying to figure out what the world is and how to understand the world.”

One of the project’s finds is a poem Davy wrote about the ruins he saw in Greece and Rome while on a continental tour between 1813 and 1815, which is interspersed with scientific notes about the materials used in the ruins and sculptures.

It was during this tour of Europe with his protege Michael Faraday, who would go on to invent the first electrical generator, that Davy proved the elemental nature of iodine and that diamonds are made of carbon.

He would write about the chemical reasons why leaves change colour and then a few pages later compose a poem about the colour of leaves. He was thinking and writing about his ideas, said Ruston, “in both ways: poetry and science. And in his poetry, you can see his scientific knowledge, and in his science you can see poetic language and persuasive rhetoric, and his facility for expressing himself.”

Mark Miodownik, professor of materials and society at University College London, said the discovery of Davy’s poems demonstrates that “you can’t be a great scientist and not be a creative person. The idea that the creative industries are solely for the arts and humanities is a modern fallacy.”

An exhibition of Davy’s notebooks is being staged at County Hall in Northumberland until 12 January, His links to the north-east and Northumberland in particular came with his work on the Davy safety lamp. He was approached by The Society for The Prevention of Accidents in Coal Mines after the Felling colliery disaster in 1812 that killed 92 men and boys. A giant Davy Lamp stands outside the Stadium of Light, Sunderland, in recognition of the importance of Davy’s safety lamp to the mining industry.


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John F Keane

Wed 3rd Jan 2024 23:11

Very interesting piece. The poet Goethe made some creditable contributions to vertebrate biology and meteorology.

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Uilleam Ó Ceallaigh

Wed 3rd Jan 2024 12:01

There is no road to peace
peace is the road
no way to peace
only a way of being
peace lights our road
in our thirst for peace
we write and speak of it
it is our zeitgeist
we dream of it
it is the lichtgeist
within our imaginations
there’s the genius of poetry
that we who dare to dream
enact a collaboration
of hearts and minds
of writers and readers
and may give birth
to the beauty
of truth and peace.

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