Scientific poetry, the science of emotions

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A radio show from France Culture,  “Les nouveaux chemins de la connaissance“, recently explored a specific poetry that was developed in the early 1800s. Those poems were inspired by science. This movement attempts to provide sense to science through poetry. As the author invited on the show explains, scientific poetry was at that time considered a trend that would slowly disappear to let science reign over minds and eventually over the world. One of the poets quoted on the show caught my attention. Here is how Hughes Marchal introduces him:

“In 1800, Jacques Delille wrote “L’homme des champs, ou les Géorgiques Françaises”, a poem in which he intends to put man back in the nature he should observe to inspire change. In the midst of new science techniques that were taking place, including Buffon’s geology, Delille finds a new poetic material to express his view. He is one of the most renown writers of his time. His work consisted in spreading science with a different support, with rhymes. He is inspired by Voltaire’s and Diderot’s work for The Encyclopedia. In fact, Delille doesn’t write. He sings. He managed to translate Virgile’s work in French despite the high technicity of the original text. In “L’homme des champs”, Delille describes the happiness of those who live in the countryside. In his view, the pleasures of nature can only be heightened by the acquisition of knowledge. Through the entire poem, Delille intends to articulate Buffon’s theories of geology. He speaks of them with emotions, transforming the story of a grain of sand into the story of the world. This formulation aims at attracting the reader’s attention and generating an appetite for science. He was helped in his work by the world greatest scientists. He was later criticized for his classical view of poetry. Writers like Lamartine marked the supposedly end of the scientific poetry as developed by Delille. In fact, the poetic genre survived until late 1900s”.

Below is the poem extract in French followed by an English translation.

Mais sans quitter vos monts et vos vallons chéris,
Voyez d’un marbre usé le plus mince débris :
Quel riche monument ! De quelle grande histoire
Ses révolutions conservent la mémoire !

Composé des dépôts de l’empire animé,
Par la destruction ce marbre fut formé.
Pour créer les débris dont les eaux le pétrirent,
De générations quelles foules périrent !
Combien de temps sur lui l’océan a coulé !
Que de temps dans leur sein les vagues l’ont roulé !
En descendant des monts dans ses profonds abymes,
L’océan autrefois le laissa sur leurs cimes ;
L’orage dans les mers de nouveau le porta ;
De nouveau sur ses bords la mer le rejeta,
Le reprit, le rendit : ainsi, rongé par l’âge,
Il endura les vents et les flots et l’orage.
Enfin, de ces grands monts humble contemporain,
Ce marbre fut un roc, ce roc n’est plus qu’un grain ;
Mais, fils du temps, de l’air, de la terre et de l’onde,
L’histoire de ce grain est l’histoire du monde.

Source: Wikisource

From your cherished mountains and valleys,
Watch in the used marble the narrowest piece.
What a rich monument! What a great history
Is held by its revolutions as a memory!

Made up of living empire’s deposits,
By destruction itself this marble was molded;
To create the pieces for water to knead it
From many generations crowds had to perish!
Ocean flowed over it for ages!
How long did waves roll it from within!
Coming down from mounts into its deepest abyss,
Ocean once topped the heads of the hills,
Until storm brought it back to the sea,
And then back to the shore rejected it.
Took it back, gave it back: thus by age eroded,
It endured storms, flows and winds:
Finally, among these high contemporary mountains,
This marble once was rock, and now it is a grain.
But throughout time, air, rain and soil,
The story of this sand is the story of the world.


How can science be an engine to grow new poetry, and poetry used a means to spread science? Is it a question of words, or are the links rooted deeper, in a common belief that humans share languages to nourish knowledge and thoughts, eventually turning them into emotions, ideas, actions?


One thought on “Scientific poetry, the science of emotions

  1. Very insightful article! My background is in science and on the other hand I have always been in love with poetry as well. I would say that in my case, what the common thread between poetry and science is, is the quest for the unknown, a sense of curiosity (both inner and outer world).

    I would also recommend for you to check out the work of Canadian author Christian Bök. He is an experimental poet and has become famous by his book “Crystallography” – a unique way of looking at our microscopic world. A great read!

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