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 the air was heavy upon

and set forth 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.


The 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 exchanging the glowing child in the crib

with a lemonade jar and pickled human lung.


Standing on the table is the vessel of rarefied air

and cockatoo, its sluggish breast against the glass

pressed, its wing outstretched, accusing the lovers

who’ve both seen this trick a dozen times before.


The gray-haired man holds the stopcock

between his fingers like the stem of a cherry

he only needs lift it for the bird to breathe.

It reminds me of Merwin’s poem where he


kills a fat pigeon by accident, commanding

it to fly, throwing it in the air that weighs

fifteen pounds per square inch, 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

until Torricelli weighed it against a tube of

mercury, because no element weighs anything

when weighed within itself.


Jean Rey knew that.

The doctor from Bergerac wrote to the sieur Brun

explaining why tin and lead weighed more after

they’d been fired. Do you know why that is?


Neither did anyone else.


Not until a hundred years later when Lavoisier

declared there was no such thing as a phlogiston,

for he understood what it meant to burn air;

he named that element oxygen that forms a calx.


You know that now because I know that.


In Wright’s painting the gray-haired man stares

out of the picture, confronting its observer.

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

I have found spirit itself, the blessèd pneuma.


It is elemental, dear audience.


Do you know

what that means? It means your lungs

are the bellows of your very consciousness.

Body and soul are exactly the same thing.

We are the same down to the elements.


Even this cockatoo, it is in pain, it wretches

because it requires the same oxygen as us,

because it, too, turns air into life.

No different than a miracle.


You know this because you know it’s true.


At least that’s how Wright painted it. Something

like two hundred years later Kurt Vonnegut

said that artists were like canaries in a coal mine.


Miners used to send canaries into mineshafts

each morning before heading down themselves

making sure nothing poisonous had seeped in.


They would keel over, the canaries, their singing

would shrink down the tunnels so the miners

knew whether or not it was safe to come in,


the birds being as necessary to the miners as

those who gave their lives to Boyle’s experiments

or served to entice the audience in Wright’s work.


The gray-haired man has chosen a cockatoo

a rare sight even for the English elite of Derby.

Wright knew to use the beauty of the bird

and that its beauty was the beauty of tragedy


as Merwin discovered the fat pigeon would

let himself be picked up every time until

he found him in the dovecote dead

of the needless efforts.


But I don’t know because I think I need to know

what the air is, because that is what I am.


It’s why the gray-haired man is looking at you

because Wright was asthmatic and needed to know

his own inflamed bronchus.


We know this because they didn’t always know.

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

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