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William Rowan Hamilton and William Wordsworth: The Poetry of Science

Article excerpt

LOOKING BACK TO HIS YOUTH, WILLIAM ROWAN HAMILTON WROTE IN 1847 to his friend and fellow astronomer, mathematician, and poet John Herschel that "it would really seem to have been at one time a toss-up, whether I should turn out a rhymer or an analyst [i.e., a mathematician]." (1) Hamilton elaborates upon his twin propensities for poetry and science in the early part of his poem "The Enthusiast," which he wrote in 1826 when he was twenty-one. Describing his unrequited love for Catherine Disney, a young woman he had met through the novelist Maria Edgeworth and her family in August 1824, Hamilton quarantines the meditative autobiographical preoccupations of his opening lines from confessional intimacy by casting them in the third-person:

   He was a young Enthusiast. He would gaze
   For hours upon the face of the night-heaven,
   To watch the silent stars, or the bright moon
   Moving in her unearthly loveliness
   And dream of worlds of bliss for pure souls hid
   In their far orbs. At other times he loved
   To listen to the mountain torrents roar,
   To look on Nature in her many forms,
   And sympathise with all: to hold sweet converse
   In secret with the genius of the stream,
   The fountain or the forest, and to pour
   His rapture forth in some fond gush of song;
   For the bright gift of Poetry was his;
   And in lone walks and sweetly pensive musings
   He would create new worlds and people them
   With fond hearts and sweet sounds and sights of Beauty.
   He had been gifted, too, with sterner powers.
   Even while a child he laid his daring hand
   On Science' golden key; and ere the tastes
   Or sports of boyhood yet had passed away
   Oft would he hold communion with the mind
   Of Newton, and with awed enthusiasm learn
   The Eternal Laws which bind the Universe,
   And which the stars obey.

   (Graves 1:183)

The year after he wrote "The Enthusiast," while still an undergraduate, Hamilton was made the Andrews Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College, Dublin, a position that included with it the title of Astronomer Royal for Ireland and the directorship of the Dunsink Observatory, where he would live. There is, however, little evidence of such a precocious professional capacity for astronomy in the opening lines of his poem, where the persona's gaze somewhat solipsistically meets "the face of the night-heaven," and its "far orbs" are seen to accommodate mythic or oneiric possibilities. Terrestrial nature is similarly anthropomorphized: in "converse" with a "genius of the stream" or "[t]he fountain," the speaker answers them in poetry and indeed in kind, with hydrodynamic force, "pour[ing] / His rapture forth in some fond gush of song." This "bright gift of poetry," inspired here by the experience of wild nature and "lone walks and sweetly pensive musings," is matched by another gift, the "sterner powers" of science that are identified with a precocious Promethean daring and a "communion with the mind / Of Newton," the genius of scientific reason who furnishes a counterpart to the poetic, pantheistic, "genius of the stream." The earlier description of the night sky as accommodating the poet's reverie, allowing him to "dream of worlds of bliss for pure souls hid / In their far orbs," is at the end of the extract complemented by a scientific apprehension of it, bound by "Eternal Laws."

Hamilton's science finds its place in "The Enthusiast" amongst a catalogue of romantic stances, which are in turn presented in the third person, as phenomena to be considered with a measure of scientific detachment. Such early poems display his enthusiasm for poetry and science as complementary modes of appreciating the richness of phenomena and the interpretations they can accommodate. This is most clearly demonstrated in his favorite early poem, "Ode to the Moon under Total Eclipse" (1823), which addresses the question of what the eclipse "means" not only with a scientific explanation--the Earth's "shadowy cone / . …