The Great Chain of Being and Technology

What kinds of scientific sources inspired the poets' images and narratives? Two primary and complementary developments in technology were the microscope and the telescope; both instruments led science into science fiction. The telescope had revealed an apparently infinite universe — in contrast to the bounded Ptolemaic system centered on the earth — and it seemed further planets and suns were being discovered almost daily. This new space for the imagination was enthusiastically explored by poets and writers: voyages to the moon and soaring trips to the stars were the fodder of science fiction, while it also appeared likely that planets would be inhabited by other beings, as Mary Leapor wondered of the Moon: "What kind of People on her Surface dwell?" ("The Enquiry," l. 18). Edward Young's Night Thoughts (1742—5) ecstatically combined the praise of astronomy and "The mathematic glories of the skies" with the newly developing mode of the sublime:

O for a telescope His throne to reach!

Tell me, ye learn'd on earth! Or blest above!

Ye searching, ye Newtonian, Angels! Tell

Where, your great Master's orb? His planets where?

Microscopes, meanwhile, had revealed previously unimagined new worlds in even a drop of water. The Great Chain of Being so beloved of poets in previous eras was now spectacularly reconfigured to include microscopic organisms, as James Thomson's manuscript additions to "Summer" illustrate:

Downward from these what numerous kinds descend,

Evading even the microscopic eye!

Full nature swarms with life; one wondrous [heap] mass

Of animals, or atoms organiz'd,

Waiting the vital breath, when Parent-Heaven

The flowery leaf

Wants not it's soft inhabitants. Secure, Within it's winding citadel, the stone Holds multitudes . . . Where the pool

Stands mantled o'er with green, invisible, Amid the floating verdure millions stray.

(quoted in Jones 1996: 111)

Such images did provoke anxiety, but were contained within a religious framework best expressed by Alexander Pope's Essay on Man which, like Arbuthnot's Know Thyself, reflects on man's place in the Newtonian universe and, like other writers, subjects science to religion. The leaps in scale up and down the Chain of Being become part of God's "mighty maze, but not without a plan" (1. 6): a plan that Newton had helped to reveal. Animate nature stretches from God to

Natures ethereal, human, angel, man, Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see, No glass can reach; from infinite to thee; From thee to nothing.

Pope's poem is typical of the physico-theological approach in that — despite its being freighted with Newtonian terminology and ideas — he feels compelled to point out the limits of science. Man might follow "where science guides," but "superior beings" will see Newton as a circus act or freak:

Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides; Instruct the planets in what orbs to run, Correct old time, and regulate the sun . . . Superior beings, when of late they saw A mortal man unfold all Nature's law, Admir'd such wisdom in an earthly shape, And show'd a Newton as we show an ape.

Newton, the man who has revealed Nature's laws, is the best of puny mankind, himself the paradox of creation or "The glory, jest and riddle of the world" (ii. 18). Although his "rules the rapid comet bind," the great scientist cannot "Explain his own beginning or his end" (ii. 35—8).

0 0

Post a comment