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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

XV. The Progress of Science

§ 17. Contemporary Poets and Scientific Research: Cowley, Donne, Butler

Of all the poets of the time, Cowley took, perhaps, the greatest interest in science. He had, indeed, like Evelyn and at about the same date, developed a plan for the institution of a college of science. Evelyn explains his scheme in a letter addressed to Robert Boyle, dated 3 September, 1659 from Sayes court, which contains minute details as to the buildings, the maintenance, and the government of his college, the inmates of which were to “preserve science and cultivate themselves.” Cowley’s scheme was also elaborately thought out, and had the original and admirable suggestion that, out of the twenty salaried professors, sixteen should be always resident and four always travelling in the four quarters of the world, in order that they might “give a constant account of all things that belong to the learning and especially Natural Experimental Philosophy, of those parts.” To his “Philosophical Colledge” was to be attached a school of two hundred boys. Both these schemes, according to bishop Sprat, hastened the foundation of the Royal Society, of which both projectors were original members.

Cowley’s poems were greatly admired during his lifetime, later critics have considered him affected, perhaps because, like Donne, he understood, and was not afraid to use the technical language of the schools. We have quoted some of his lines on Harvey, and may add a few from the ode with which he greeted the birth of the Royal Society:

  • From … all long Errors of the way,
  • In which our Praedecessors went,
  • And like th’ old Hebrews many years did stray
  • In Desarts but of small extent,
  • Bacon, like Moses, led us forth at last
  • The barren Wilderness he past,
  • Did on the very Border stand
  • Of the blest promis’d Land,
  • And from the Mountains Top of his Exalted Wit,
  • Saw it himself, and shewed us it.
  • But Life did never to one Man allow
  • Time to Discover Worlds, and Conquer too;
  • Nor can so short a Line sufficient be
  • To fadome the vast depths of Natures Sea:
  • The work he did we ought t’ admire,
  • And were unjust if we should more require
  • From his few years, divided ’twixt th’ Excess
  • Of low Affliction, and high Happiness.
  • For who on things remote can fix his sight,
  • That’s alwayes in a Triumph, or a Fight?
  • Donne, who, like Cowley, indulged in quaint poetical conceits and who founded a new school of poetry, abjuring classical conventions and classical characters, and treating of topics and objects of everyday life, was not afraid of realism. “Upon common objects,” Dr. Johnson tells us, he was “unnecessarily and unpoetically subtle.” Space limits us to one quotation:

  • Marke but this flea, and marke in this,
  • How little that which thou deny’st me is;
  • It suck’d me first, and now sucks thee,
  • And in this flea, our two bloods mingled bee.
  • Donne did not of course foresee the appalling part that these insects, by the habits he mentions, play in the spread of such diseases as bubonic plague and many epizootics in animals.

    The dramatists of the Stewart period hardly afford us the help we need in estimating the position occupied by science and by men of science in the world of the seventeenth century. The astrologer and the alchemist were then stock characters of the drama of everyday life, just as the company promoter is now. “The Gentlemen of Trinity Colledge” presented “before the King’s Majesty” a comedy entitled Albumazar, which takes its name from the chief character, an astrologer, a very arrant knave, and the type of the false man of science. This play, originally printed in 1615, was soon forgotten, but it was revived in 1668 and met with great success.

    Samuel Butler, who was not a fellow of the Royal Society, for some reason difficult to explain, spent much time in attacking it. He wrote his entertaining satire on the virtuosi entitled The Elephant in the Moon in short verse, and was so pleased with it that he wrote it over again in long verse. Though this “Satire upon the Royal Society” remains a fragment, enough of it is extant to show Butler did not appreciate what even in these days is not always appreciated, that the minute investigation of subjects and objects which to the ordinary man seem trivial and vain often lead to discoveries of the profoundest import to mankind.

    Ben Jonson, with his flair for presenting what zoologists call “type species,” showed, as has been seen, in his Alchemist an unusual, but a thorough, mastery of the half scientific and half quack jargon of the craft, so that this play is a quarry for all interested in the history of chemical and physical studies. To the play-writer of the time, the man of science or of pseudo-science was a vague, peevish pedant, much occupied with physiognomies, dreams and fantastic ideas as to the properties and powers of various substances. But there seems to have been a clear distinction drawn between a real and a false astrology, as is shown in Dryden’s An Evening’s Love (1668).

  • The political economists of the seventeenth century were greatly influenced by the Baconian enthusiasm for empirical study; they were eager to accumulate and interpret facts, and to apply inductive methods to political phenomena. They therefore concerned themselves with the anatomy of the body politic, and with numerical observations which served as the best available substitute for experiment. They followed the analogy of the biological rather than of the mathematical science of their day; hence, their mode of thought has a close affinity with that which has become current since the decline of the classical school of Political Economy.