When Science Clips an Angel’s Wings

Joseph Wright of Derby, “Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump”

Spiritual Sunday

I received a superb essay on science, religion and poetry from one of the applicants for our Slovenian exchange program and got her permission to cite it in my blog. Zarja Gošnik (pronounced Zaria Goshnik) is fascinated by how John Keats and Edgar Allan Poe saw the practice of science as leeching wonder from the world and draws on scientist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins to argue back. I’m less convinced by Dawkins than Zarja is, but it’s a discussion worth having.

Zarja begins her essay with Poe’s sonnet “To Science” and follows it up with an excerpt from Keats’s Lamia. Poe compares science to a vulture “whose wings are dull realities” and accuses it of having dragged “Diana from her car”—which is to say, the moon from her mysterious journey:

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet’s heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree.

Meanwhile, Keats accuses science of unweaving the rainbow. Or as he says elsewhere, Isaac Newton reduced it “to the prismatic colors”:

Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomèd mine—
Unweave a rainbow, as it erewhile made
The tender-person’d Lamia melt into a shade.

Zarja counters these attacks on science by turning to Dawkins, who alludes to Keats’s observation in his book Unweaving the Rainbow. That Keats has Dawkins feeling defensive shows up as well in the title of his memoir, An Appetite for Wonder. Here is Zarja’s summation of Dawkins’s argument:

[Dawkins] attempts to show that mysteries don’t lose their poetry when solved, but rather that the solution is even more beautiful than the puzzle itself and that solving one mystery leads to uncovering others.

I’ll express my reservations about Dawkins in a moment after noting that I agree with Zarja’s conclusion that poetry and science should complement each other:

The appetite for wonder in itself is probably one of the more poetic aspects of human life, if not the most poetic. Today, many poets explore theories of physics, astronomy and nature, which are the most popular scientific fields for poets. The idea of scientists as poets has become common.


[Science and poetry] both address the big questions of life. Because they both focus on detail, neither of them can afford to be vague. In poetry, the attention may be on particular characteristics of people and feelings, while in science, the details may pertain to characteristics of objects and theories. It is reasonable to think that the two working together would account for a deeper understanding of the world. Keats’ rainbow is far more enchanting and poetic when “unweaved.”

One Romantic poet who agrees with Zarja is Percy Shelley, who kept abreast of the latest scientific developments and regarded Francis Bacon as a poet. Shelley used his scientific eye when poetically describing such natural phenomena as glacier creep:

But a flood of ruin
Is there, that from the boundaries of the sky
Rolls its perpetual stream; vast pines are strewing 
Its destined path, or in the mangled soil
Branchless and shattered stand: the rocks, drawn down
From yon remotest waste, have overthrown
The limits of the dead and living world,
Never to be reclaimed.

Where Shelley differs from Dawkins, however, is that he is interested in more than intellectual problem solving. Shelley would say that, while Dawkins is good at analytical reasoning, he lacks imagination.”Reason is the enumeration of qualities already known,” Shelley writes in Defence of Poetry, while “imagination is the perception of the value of those qualities, both separately and as a whole.”

A mere reasoner cannot experience true wonder, which has a spiritual dimension, because he/she reduces everything to the scientific method. As Dawkins sees humans, we are nothing more than “survival machines.”

Science owes much of its power to its practice of bracketing off the natural world from, say, soul, religion, art, consciousness, and other such intangibles. Having bracketed, they make amazing discoveries—Dawkins is right to be excited–but their discoveries are confined to that which has been bracketed. Humble scientists like Newton, Darwin and Einstein recognize this whereas the Dawkinses of the world think they possess the final key to the universe and make magisterial pronouncements. As John Gray writes in a devastating takedown of Dawkins, he is not engaged in restless searching but writes with the certainty of someone who thinks he is on the way to figuring everything out.

Put another way, when Dawkins speaks of wonder, it is less genuine wonder and more self-applause that he is so good at solving scientific puzzles. He thinks that, given enough time, the scientific method can solve all puzzles and that “God” is mere superstition of the ignorant.  Somewhere—I haven’t been able to locate the quotation—William Blake says something to the effect that a machine, even one as large as the universe, is nothing more than a clanking contraption. Those who think that all questions can ultimately be encompassed by science have a clanking view of creation.

Poe and Keats, I believe, were writing about the arrogance of Dawkins-like scientists, not science as a whole. Among such individuals, life indeed risks being reduced to “dull realities,” undermining the capacity for true wonder. As so often, perhaps Blake has the best response to narrow scientism. Voltaire and Rousseau here stand in for the European enlightenment, Israel for spirituality:

Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau;
Mock on, mock on; ’tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel’s paths they shine.

The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright. 

While beneficial when it knows its limits, science is blinded when it sees the universe as nothing more than atoms, cells, and genes. “You throw the sand against the wind,/And the wind blows it back again.”

This entry was posted in Blake (William), Keats (John), Poe (Edgar Allan), Shelley (Percy) and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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