Johnson's Imlac, urging that the poet neglect the 'minuter discriminations' of the tulip leaf in favour of 'general properties', has been unpopular for two hundred years, never more so than now, when it is believed that accumulated tiny detail - thinginess - vouches for a poem' s authenticity. But Imlac also argues, apparently contradicting himself, that 'to a poet nothing can be useless,' that he 'must know many languages and many sciences' and through his command of botany, zoology, astronomy, politics, ethics and so on become a 'legislator of mankind'. This is familiar enough for us to see that there is no contradiction: our own version is that the poet be learned but wear his learning lightly, that he know more than he lets on. We expect the poet to know in a general way that his physics are Einsteinian, so that (like Imlac crossing deserts and mountains for 'images and resemblances') he may draw if he wishes on a language of atoms, anti-matter and black holes - but not, like Empson in 'Doctrinal Point', to cite individual physicists such as Heviside and Eddington. We may ask for 'scientific precision' in poetry but we don't want displays of scientific knowledge any more than Johnson did: these will earn the epithet 'cerebral'. Poems of Science, an anthology of seven centuries of scientific verse (from Anon on the structure of the cosmos - 'as appel the eorthe is round' - to John Updike on cosmic gall), is therefore fighting a lost battle. The editors make out a brave case for the similarity of poet and scientist ('the starting-point for both of their activities is the imagination'), dispute old distinctions between 'fact' and 'feeling', and think it important for poets to keep abreast of scientific advance. But then comes their selection. Donne is there, not for those compasses in 'A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning', but to expound the new philosophy in 'An Anatomy of the World'; Empson is there to haggle a doctrinal point rather than let it go. That's science for you.
LRB 6 September 1984 | PDF Download