W N Herbert I

I am one of those unfortunate souls who hear voices, usually indistinct, opinionated ones, which assail me when I wake up. My radio alarm afflicts me with a particular kind of information: the incessant voices of Middle Britain, for some years well exemplified by the writer and broadcaster Melvyn Bragg on his BBC Radio 4 programme Start the Week. Not so long ago I heard him yet again setting scientist against religious commentator whilst reserving writer (in this case Will Self) to throw in the cultural kedgeree. It was the usual scientist's argument that science is based on facts whereas religion is based on ideas, while Will Self claimed that his fiction occupied a parallel realm entirely. Listening dejectedly, I concluded that science appeared to be a bleak and doctrinaire dimension, populated by those so sure of their own rightness that they feel no need to pause and consider whether a fact is in fact all that different from an idea in the first place.

Had I, though, come to all that much of a conclusion, or did the conclusion simply arrive, predictable as the morning post, given these circumstances? The adversarial debate favoured by the BBC in these kinds of situations encourages listeners to take one or the other side of arguments to which we may prefer to have more complex responses. The media in general seems keen to promote a suppression of our subconscious life or individual inclinations in favour of some grand gesture of inclusion in a culture. More accurately, perhaps, the media strives to include us in their less than fully conscious agenda for a culture. We learn to endure this as we endure each morning's loss of the contradictory world of dream, and so our responses may become as passive as those of the Radio 4 scientist who uttered such a troubling banality—or those of Will Self himself who, for all his efforts at epater, was reduced to just another course in the British breakfast of ideas. Shall science and logic be forever at war with religion and metaphysics while literature stands around, concerned in the way a rodeo clown is concerned, to entertain us whilst separating wild steer from unsettled cowboy?

Shortly after listening to that radio debate, I was driving through the Lake District and found myself almost involuntarily in receipt of a broadcast from Lyric FM, better known as the Preface to Lyrical Ballads:

If the labours of Men of Science should ever create any material revolution, direct or indirect, in our condition, and in the impressions which we habitually receive, the Poet will sleep no more than at present, but he will be ready to follow the steps of the Man of Science, not only in those general indirect effects, but he will be at his side, carrying sensation into the midst of the objects of Science itself.1

The concept of 'sensation' has little value for the sort of methodological essentialist who occasionally broadcasts on the radio. Yet, perversely, as a poet who has been described as a 'Scottish Informationist', it is always this sort of figure—the scientist compromised by belief or the believer compromised by science—that I am most drawn to write about.

Stephen Prickett in his excellent study of this tension between belief and science, Words and the Word, describes it as follows: 'The principle assumes the possibility of knowledge of "things-in-themselves" once they have been laid bare by the march of knowledge.'2 It is this attempt to show the literalness of a truth that has no literal basis that I admire in, say, the writings of the nineteenth-century Reverend Thomas Dick, for whom the heavens were so vast and beautiful it seemed obvious that the reason we had an immortal soul was that it enabled us to become astronomers in the afterlife.3 And it is this laying bare of an otherwise covert belief structure that draws me to examples such as the following from Prickett's book:

In 1688 John Wilkins, then Dean of Ripon and a Fellow of the Royal Society, as a 'digression' in his Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language offers an exact reconstruction of Noah's ark from the information and dimensions given in Genesis vi-viii, showing that it was seaworthy and would hold all the animals then known and later discovered plus precisely the right amount of foodstuffs—including an appropriate surplus of sheep (1888 all told) to feed all the carnivores on the forty day voyage.4

It is wonderful what you can do with figures. Or perhaps I should say that it's terrible what, supposedly, you can't do without figures, as Wordsworth's other lyrical dictum suggests:

The Poet writes under one restriction only, namely, that of the necessity of giving immediate pleasure to a human Being possessed of that information which may be expected of him, not as a lawyer, a physician, a mariner, an astronomer or a natural philosopher, but as a Man.5

This sounds dubious to me, though it perhaps contains more of a hidden appeal to common sense than a desire not to alienate the ordinary reader. It would certainly appear to make it difficult to employ scientific or other jargons. I rather prefer Coleridge's views on the abstruser vocabularies:

The mere man of the world who insists that no other terms but such as occur in common conversation should be employed in a scientific disquisition, and with no greater a precision, is as truly a pedant as the man of letters who either over-rating the acquirements of his auditors, or misled by his own familiarity with technical or scholastic terms, converses at the wine-table with his mind fixed on his museum or laboratory.6

Really, being in the stomping-ground of the Romantics only meant that the same issue that pestered me awake in the ambit of Radio 4 was continuing to afflict me. Can poets write meaningfully about science, or are they instead limited to writing poetry that employs scientific terminology? Should they write about science? And are they called upon or do they feel drawn to intervene in the great debate between kinds of knowledge? And do Scottish poets have a particular engagement with all of these issues?

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