I’ve been obsessed with this painting by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-97) for the last few weeks. I love the use of chiaroscuro in general, and I love how Wright has used it to deify the scientific experiment. I’ve also been reading Boynton’s Beginnings of Modern Science, a collection of the early letters and essays showing the development of major scientific fields of study. I am always in awe of our curiosity and ingenuity as a species.

This poem is also dedicated to Artschaft, whose excellent art criticism has exposed me to lots of new art and artists. I encourage you to have a look at her work.


An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump


And Boyle said let there be the element

primitive and perfectly unmingled body

made of no others nor of each other mixt

of one and only one kind making all things.


I know this because they know this.


And Torricelli saw that the air was heavy upon

and set to weighing it, proclaiming

We live at the bottom of a great sea of air

surely nature does not abhor a vacuum.


so Boyle commissioned one. In those days

they called it a pneumatic engine. It was

Robert Hooke who made it to specification

and with it suffocated many a lark and finch.


Upon greater exsuction of air one bird began

manifestly to droop and appear sick, was taken

with irregular convulsions as are wont to be

observed in poultry with their heads wrung off.


I know this because they know this.


That same spectacle Joseph Wright of Derby

committed to oil-on-canvas a hundred years later

when the air pump was a gimmick for dinner parties,

a spell of gray-haired men in velvet robes des chambres.


See how they gather closely by candlelight

such as Geertgen illuminated his Nativity at night.

Wright exchanges the glowing child in the crib

for a lemonade jar and pickled human lung.


High on the table is the vessel of rarefied air

and cockatoo, its breast sluggish against the glass,

its wing outstretched, accusing the lovers

who’ve seen this trick a dozen times before.


They know this because he knows it.


The gray-haired man holds the stopcock

between his fingers like the stem of a cherry.

He needs only lift it for the bird to breathe.

It reminds me of Merwin’s poem where he


kills a fat pigeon on accident, commanding

it to fly, throwing it in the air that weighs

fifteen pounds per square inch, much heavier

than fat pigeons. So that is what he is.


I know this because he knows it.


They didn’t used to think air weighed anything

not until Torricelli weighed it against a tube of

mercury, because no element weighs anything

when weighed against itself.


You know this because I know this.


In Wright’s painting the gray-haired man stares

out of the picture, confronting the viewer.

Do you know of my work, he seems to ask.

I have found spirit itself, the blessèd pneuma.


It is elemental, Oh audience. Do you know


what that means? It means your lungs

are the bellows of your consciousness.

Body and soul are exactly the same thing.

We are the same down to the elements.


Even this cockatoo, in its pain, wretches,

for it requires the same oxygen as we do,

because it, too, turns air into life.

No different than a miracle.


You know this because you know it’s true.


The gray-haired man uses a cockatoo,

a rare sight even for the aristocrats of Derby.

Wright knew the beauty of the bird was the beauty

of tragedy, of not knowing before it’s too late,


as Merwin discovered that the fat pigeon

let himself be picked up every time until

he found it in the dovecote dead

of the needless efforts, he admits.


But I don’t know about needless because

I think I need to know what the air is,

just as Joseph Wright, who was asthmatic,

needed to know his own inflamed bronchus,


and bore witness to the experiment often

among his friends the natural philosophers.

The moment in the painting is the moment

before knowing too much. The gray-haired man,


making certain that this is what we want,

will either lift the stopcock or not,

will show us ourselves weighed against

what we can bear to know and what we cannot.

R. Charboneau

4 thoughts on “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump

  1. Wow! Intelligent comments about a painting and from a non-painter. I’m impressed-a little. This kind of painting is too heavy on the story telling and not heavy enough on the more important aspects of painting for my taste, but it is still a good painting. Thanks for the heads-up about artschaft. I may check it out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks James! That’s high praise coming from a painter like yourself. I can see what you mean about the storytelling in the painting. That’s probably what drew me to it, since my background is in literature and narrative art. There’s more to interpret in the scene, the characters’ expressions and gestures, than in the actual painting itself.


  2. We know now that because you know that. Such a tour de force, Robert! It’s a breathtaking account of our incessant curiosity and how it morphed into science. The painting exemplifies it so well. My gaze is naturally drawn to the man doing the experiment and the emotional children who have a difficult time watching. Quite an emotional scene, suggestive of the sacrifices that needed to be made in the pursuit of knowledge.

    Now, how will I be able to wipe this blush off my face? People will look at me and instantly know that you dedicated a poem to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Gabriela! I’m glad you like it. Thank you for all your great writing. And you’re right, it is a very emotional scene. It’s like he snapped a picture at the perfect moment, caught everyone’s expressions just right.

      Liked by 1 person

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