Researcher Profile: Wahida Amin
Humphry Davy: Science, Poetry and Romanticism
Sir Humphry Davy (1778-1829) was the foremost English chemist of his time, yet few know that he also wrote poetry throughout his life. Davy published at least five poems, and continued to write poetry in his notebooks and letters. In his 1817 poetry collection Sibylline Leaves, S.T. Coleridge wrote that Davy was ‘a man who would have established himself in the first rank of England’s living poets, if the Genius of our country had not decreed that he should rather be the first in the rank of its philosophers and scientific benefactors.’ Davy is now remembered for his invention of the miner’s safety lamp and as one of the first to isolate a number of elements including sodium, potassium and magnesium. He was also involved in researching the physiological effects of nitrous oxide (laughing gas), and developing the electro-chemical protection of the copper sheeting of Royal Navy vessels. Davy developed a varied social network while working with political radical Thomas Beddoes at the controversial Pneumatic Institute at Bristol. He later became one of the most famous lecturers at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, and then ultimately President of the Royal Society in 1820. His literary and scientific friends and acquaintances included Lord Byron, Coleridge, William Godwin, John Dalton, and Alessandro Volta.
My research investigates the manuscript poetry of Humphry Davy held in the archives of the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London. As an AHRC-funded Collaborative Doctoral Award student, I am working between the University of Salford and the Royal Institution to analyse Davy’s poetry for relationships between science, literature and medicine in the nineteenth-century. This is the first time Davy’s entire poetic work is being assessed from a literary critical perspective. Davy is often described as a ‘Romantic scientist,’ and I will evaluate what this epithet means for Davy’s work and to what extent his poems are ‘Romantic’ in their content and form. This is to perhaps confirm Romanticism as a cultural rather than solely literary movement. I am also investigating Davy’s literary and scientific social networks to examine how these may have influenced his poetry, and reveal how literary and scientific cultures mixed, socialised and exchanged ideas. My research supervisors are Sharon Ruston, Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the University of Salford, and Professor Frank James, Historian of Science at the Royal Institution.
Image: Wahida Amin in the Working Class Movement Library, Salford. Image by Ceyiz Makal