This is the second poem in a series I’m working on. You can read the first one here. This one is about the relationship of Humphry Davy and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The title is taken from one of Davy’s Bakerian Lectures. Thanks for reading, and feel free to comment.
On Some Chemical Agencies of Electricity
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge is come to London
to give some lectures on Shakespeare, of which one
concerning Hamlet, in two years’ time, will save the play
from the likes of Dr. Johnson and August Schlegel.
Tonight he calls upon an old friend from Bristol,
Humphry Davy, now a Fellow of the Royal Society
and regular celebrity of Albemarle Street.
Still, he resembles the dark-eyed youth
who used to pass the green bag of nitrous oxide
to Coleridge, pinching the mouth of the bag
between his fingers and trying not to laugh
at something that was funny only to himself.
Along with Robert Southey, they would spend
the lamplight of the hospital laboratory at Bristol
afterhours, draped over a chair with lungs of nitrous,
feeling the hum and throb of iron in the blood
that Coleridge once said made him feel
like the sound a harp makes, or that made
Davy exclaim, after twenty quarts of gas,
that nothing existed except thoughts.
Since then, Davy has gotten full lectureship,
and plays to packed amphitheaters like a magician.
He makes a nugget of potassium dance
over water and burst into flames of lavender.
He asks the beautiful woman in the front row
if she can please hold the bellows for him,
or connect the battery for proper electrolysis.
Always smiling handsomely, always the showman.
This screw-haired boy from backwater Cornwall
has discovered six new elements
and remade Lavoisier’s definition of acids,
to the humiliation of the French elite.
But Coleridge is another matter.
His second try at newspaper publisher
has failed, and before that, the Wordsworths
politely kicked him out of Kenswick.
He’s left his wife in Bristol, and lost
a good deal of his annuity from Wedgwood.
On his most recent trip home from Malta
he surrendered to the pain of constipation—
what he described as “dead Filth impaling the gut”—
from using sometimes two quarts of laudanum a week,
and squatted on the surgeon’s table for his enema,
balancing on his knees as the ship scudded forth.
His skin is aqueous and pale as cheese.
His hair is like corn silk, oily and flared,
and clings to the rim of his damp forehead.
He wears no cravat, and his redingote is pilling.
In a separate drawing room Davy demonstrates
the flow of electricity through a dish of alum salt,
guided invisibly from stacks of zinc and copper saucers,
as though the very aether could be wrung like cow’s milk,
quintessence drawn through platina wires
and made to kiss the salt and start it frothing
like a child who blows bubbles through a straw
of ryegrass into a bowl of heavy cream.
How can they not think of Prometheus
as they remark on the Galvanic, and stoop
and squint at the silent batteries left
and the swelling, bubbling salt right?
How else to imagine the metaphysical
become pure metaphor, but by summoning
the occult and the mythological,
the old tropes of creation and generation?
No more an enfant terrible of Bristol’s
Pneumatic Institute, an earnest pupil of Kant
declaring brashly that nothing exists but thought,
now Davy wields a Voltaic fire
and turns his thoughts into existence,
at will plucking questions from his mind
and giving substance to their answers
in the form of white, crumbling beads.
Davy says the oxide has a metal base
he’s decided to call alumium, and cites
Pott and Vauquelin on the differences
between alum and lime and chalk.
He says it’s only a matter of time
before he isolates the pure metal form
as he’s already done with potassium
and sodium, magnium and calcium.
How little it all seems to cost,
the thinking impossible to detect
like the stillness of the batteries,
observed only through its effect.
Coleridge is quick to remark how
chemistry has a way of turning
its priests into sacrifices, and cites
Karl Scheele and the great Joseph Priestley,
then asks if Davy has that old breathing machine
that James Watt built for them at Bristol,
and why don’t they cook up some nitrate
of ammoniac in one of those empty retorts?
He can almost imagine how his fingertips
would hum pleasantly, and pressure against
the wall of his chest would float his head
with only the barest strand anchoring.
Even the thought is enough to animate
the eyes out of their dark craters,
the body itself stirred by the hope
of some analgesic for its own weight.
And wouldn’t it be nice to carouse
the streets of lamplit London
just as they did down the Avon Gorge,
passing the Hippocrene gas back and forth?
But Davy says quite carefully that he’s
used the last of his batch for a seminar,
and besides his workshop isn’t set up
at the moment for making any more.
Just as well, Coleridge replies, the hour’s late
and he must get his carriage on the road.
Once more they attend to the alum salt,
tapping the white crust from the electrode,
the mineral all but decomposed
in a crucible of milky soup
as oxygen steams on the surface
like a fog whipping the top of a lake.
Soon Coleridge will return to Allan Bank
where Dorothy will remark to her brother
how their friend looks “unburdened by sleep.”
The love of his life, Sara Hutchinson,
will leave for Wales, her farewell acutely
formal, rebuking his sympathies one last time,
and there will be nothing left of him but lectures
and lixivium of half-finished poems.
Not long after the carriage has gone,
Davy retires to his rocaille study,
to the scrolled arms of a scarlet settee,
and squeezes his head between his palms,
and reaches underneath his seat
for a bag made of green silk.