The Color Violaceous, or, Chemistry and the Romance of Dematerialization: The Subliming of Iodine and Shelley's Adonais

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PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY HAD AN ABIDING INTEREST IN THE CHEMICAL RESEARCHES of Humphry Davy (1778-1829). (1) Donald H. Reiman and Neil Fraistat attribute Ione's allusion to "fire that is not brightness" (2) in Prometheus Unbound (1820) to Davy. "As Shelley knew from Sir Humphry Davy's account of the findings of Herschel (1800), there are 'dark rays'--infrared emanations that produce heat without light--which, Davy suggested, might be given off by the moon" (276n.). And in a letter of 29 July i812 to Hookham, Shelley, eager to learn of Davy's recent work, placed an advance order for his Elements of Chemical Philosophy. (3)

One readily apparent reason for Shelley's interest in Davy's work has to do with what the former must have seen as an intellectual and metaphysical affinity with the latter with respect to understanding how causation operates in the world. As Christopher Lawrence has observed of Davy, "Anyone who reads Davy's works cannot fail to be struck by his repeated use of the word 'power' in every conceivable context, whether in his discussions of chemistry, poetry, the mind or society." (4) To restrict the field to Davy's "discussions of chemistry": in his Bakerian Lecture of 19 November 1807, "On Some New Phenomena of Chemical Changes Produced by Electricity, Particularly the Decomposition of the Fixed Alkalies ..." Davy announces the results of "the course of a laborious experimental application of the powers of electro-chemical analysis, to bodies [i.e., chemical unknowns] which have appeared simple when examined by common chemical agents...." (5) And in his Bakerian Lecture of 15 December 1808, "An Account of some New Analytical Researches on the Nature of Certain Bodies ... with Some General Observations on Chemical Theory," Davy proposes "laying before the Royal Society, an account of the results of different experiments, made with the hopes of extending our knowledge of the principles of bodies by the new powers and methods arising from the applications of electricity to chemistry...." (6) To see the affinity, one need only look to Shelley's "Mont Blanc" (1816). (7) There, he figures "power" as an unmoved mover, something which "dwells apart in its tranquility / Remote, serene, and inaccessible" (96-97), yet is the seat and source of causative agency for all the deployed and articulate forms in the world. Or one might look to the "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty" (1816). There, "The awful shadow of some unseen Power / Floats though unseen among us," an adumbrative presence suggesting that "Power" itself is somehow responsible for "This various world" (1-3). Shelley's use of the term power to denote causative agency that, while not fully understood itself, nevertheless gives rise to articulate form and the understanding consequent upon the observation of such form, seems thoroughly consonant with Davy's use of the term.

As the titles of the lectures cited above suggest, much of Davy's early fame stemmed from his isolation and identification of elements--alkaline earths such as calcium, barium, strontium, and magnesium, and halogens such as chlorine, fluorine, and iodine among these. With specific reference to the halogens, in a series of papers beginning with the second of the Bakerian Lectures cited above, Davy discovered and elaborated the elementary nature of chlorine. And while in Paris in 1813, Davy received a sample of an unknown substance from A. M. Ampere, Nicholas C1emont, and his father-in-law, C. B. Desormes. That substance, as Davy discovered by working on it at M. E. Chevreuil's laboratory, assisted by the young Michael Faraday, was iodine. The result of Davy's researches, as David Knight (99-100) reports, was the paper on the subliming and the elemental nature and behavior of iodine dated 10 December 1813, subsequently published as "Some Experiments and Observations on a new Substance which becomes a violet coloured Gas by Heat."

In that paper, Davy, basing his nomenclature on the Greek etymology for the word violet, confers the name iodine on the new element. …