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Humanities and the Culture of Science

"The Ancient of Days," frontispiece to William Blake, Europe: A Prophecy
“The Ancient of Days,” frontispiece to William
Blake, Europe: A Prophecy (Lambeth, 1794) –
Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of
English and American Literature, NYPL

Alexander Pope’s famous couplet eulogizing Newton – “Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night. / God said, Let Newton be! and All was Light.” – encapsulates the challenge that Newton’s success posed for men of letters and artists alike. On the one hand, his transcendent genius necessitated a view of him akin to that of a poet or a painter, thus insinuating a more prominent role for reason in the act of creation. On the other hand, since Newton had reconstituted nature, those who versified or painted it found themselves compelled to become more philosophical in their approach and training – if poetry and art were to maintain their age-old objective to instruct as well as to please.

Plate from James Thomson, The Seasons
Plate from James Thomson, The Seasons
(London, 1730) – Rare Books Division,

What ensued was half a century of ambiguity and tension between poetic license and the demands of a (quantified) nature, resolved only with the advent of Romanticism in the late eighteenth century. The Romantics sought to remove poetry and art from under the umbrella of science, substituting mysteries and emotions for laws and reason. To this end, Newton was excoriated as the chief culprit who had “decomposed the rainbow” (Shelley) and bequeathed that “single vision” that had deadened nature (Blake).

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