Monday, 21 December 2009

The Age of Wonder....indeed.

An incredibly readable document of a period of time I knew very little about. Ostensibly a study of the intense period of scientific development between the late 18th and early 19th Century. But offers a lot more than that. It explores the intimate links (sometimes literally) of the Romantic poets of the time and the Scientists or more accurately Natural Philosophers of the time. In particular the Shelleys, Keats, Coleridge - of which I think Holmes has written biographies (not read them but am now tempted). There is a lovely intertwining of verse in the context of various scientific developments. It introduced a lot of poetry I was not really aware of.
It also is really a study of knowledge being in the hand of an elite and the tension that brings. Should there be a broadening out of this or kept in the hands of an elite. At this time there seemed to be a slight broadening of knowledge in the relatively new British state from the aristocracy to slightly more middle class geniuses - personified here by William Herschel and Humphry Davy(pictured). But what I like is Holmes introduces a whole new generation of young Turks who challenge these modest advances.
It is also a time of revolution - American, French, industrial which is a constant background though never dominating the discussion. It is telling how men of science fell into the nascent capitalist state - Mungo Park becoming seemingly reluctant imperialist adventurer. Davy developing his lamp in the face of major industrial change - one of the best chapters of the book I think.
By combining quite indepth personal details of several individuals with societal and artistic context the work comes across as very full. Radical politics are examined - notably with the intriguing figure Dr Beddoes in Bristol. But equally aristocratic machinations are explored representing the dichotomy of the day I think.
A great platform to explore this era - with a very inviting bibliography. Holmes is also a brilliant writer if perhaps a little inconclusive. One to keep if only for the excellent quotes