Bethany Nowviskie

“but who looks east at sunset?” gerard manley hopkins & scientific observation

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[This is the abstract of a talk I gave last weekend at “By the Numbers: The Victorian Quantification of Everything,” the 2010 gathering of the Victorians Institute, held at the University of Virginia. It was a splendid conference, hosted by NINES, and featuring an inspiring keynote address in which Dan Cohen presented the early results of his work in data-mining the Google Books corpus to study Victorian intellectual history. For me, the conference was notable because it was the first time in twelve years that I gave a paper not on digital humanities or institutional issues in publishing and higher ed. Since the conference didn’t publish a collection of abstracts, I thought I’d post mine (sans notes!) here. The paper itself goes into much greater detail on Hopkins’ approach to observation and the scene of Victorian scientific amateurism, and is available upon request.]

In October 1884, a letter appearing in the scientific journal Nature enjoined readers to place their faith in the measurements of “exact instruments” rather than in “untrustworthy impressions of the eye” in attempting to draw conclusions about sunsets and other natural phenomena. Spectroscopy, the correspondent suggests, is to be preferred to the idiosyncratic response of a human observer: colors should be calculable. He dismisses the recently-published sunset-speculations of a fellow amateur contributor, the painter Robert Leslie, as being founded more on conjecture and faulty observation than on measured analysis, and sharpens his own critique of observational subjectivity by insisting that the issue is not merely “a question of terms,” but that unsystematic examination can become “a hazardous thing” capable of reversing scientific progress.

And then this disciplined scientist becomes Gerard Manley Hopkins: “If a very clear, unclouded sun is gazed at, it often appears not convex, but hollow; – swimming, like looking down into a boiling pot or swinging pail, or into a bowl of quicksilver shaken: and of a lustrous but indistinct hue.”

Personal observation is promptly revalued in Nature, both through Hopkins’ evocative prose and his admission that commonplace but previously-unremarked natural occurrences may be revealed, not by the use of spectroscopes and anemometers, but by individuals in whom the “untrustworthy eye” has been made “unusually observant.”

Victorian eyes were made unusually observant in late 1883, when an enormous volcano erupted on the island of Krakatoa in the Straits of Java, filling Earth’s atmosphere with a lasting cloud of ash and debris. The effects of the Krakatoa eruption were seen around the world in the form of sensational atmospheric events, including bizarrely-colored sunsets and strange hazes and coronas.

Richard Altick is right to assess the Krakatoa-influenced poetic output of Hopkins’ contemporaries – Swinburne, Tennyson, and Bridges – as failures. But the meeting of one peculiarly-sensitive observer with this strange and wondrous volcano-light seems beyond serendipity. Gerard Manley Hopkins promptly put his linguistic inventiveness in service of scientific record-keeping: his letters to Nature from this period are remarkable for their lyric quality and their observational rigor. Hopkins’ language contrives to reconstruct some of the most extraordinary solar phenomena ever witnessed, paradoxically projecting objectivity through his willingness to employ unconventional metaphors and heightened phrasing.

Part of the beauty in witnessing, for Hopkins, lay in the linguistic precision with which observations might be expressed. His interest and expertise in Victorian philology is well documented. Language itself was, for this poet, naturalist, and priest, both a spiritual and a scientific tool – and Hopkins identified a near-mystical union in moments of verbal specificity. The “call of the tall nun” in his Wreck of the Deutschland gains spiritual and poetic power, for instance, from observational accuracy. The embodiment into words of that which is witnessed by a “single eye” – in this case, the name of Christ – is the greatest of heroic acts. The tall nun easily succeeds in observing and voicing that for which Hopkins strains his sight:

But how shall I… make me room there:
Reach me a… Fancy, come faster –
Strike you the sight of it? Look at it loom there,
Thing that she… There, then! the Master!”
     Wreck of the Deutschland, 11.217-220

Powerful, emotional, and disjointed observation suddenly is made complete by precise utterance. The subjective heart and objective mind must both come into play: “But here was heart-throe, birth of a brain,/ Word, that heard and kept thee and uttered thee outright.”

The desire to serve as an inspired witness, and therefore for “wording” observations perfectly, is as evident in Hopkins’ scientific writing as it is in his poetry. Henry Marchant, a science instructor from his days of Jesuit training at Stonyhurst Seminary, wrote of Hopkins: “He had a keen eye for peculiarities in nature, and hunted for the right word to express them, and invented one if he could not find one.” Hopkins himself, in a letter to the poet Robert Bridges, described a projected treatise on rhythm as “full of new words without which there can be no new science.”

It is, therefore, no surprise that when the astonishing atmospheric effects of the Krakatoa eruption began to make themselves felt in late 1883 – when, as Ruskin put it, the “ashes of the Antipodes” began to “glare through the night” – Gerard Manley Hopkins put linguistic inventiveness in service of his keen perceptive skills. His letters to Nature from this period are remarkable for their lyric quality and observational rigor. Hopkins’ language contrives to reconstruct, for a burgeoning popular science audience, some of the most extraordinary solar phenomena ever witnessed. One neglected indication of his poetic power is this willingness to use unconventional metaphors and heightened phrasing to achieve a paradoxically objective effect.

My essay examines Hopkins’ private journals and correspondence alongside his neglected scientific writing in the context of Victorian amateurism and a highly public debate – contemporary to the atmospheric phenomena of the Krakatoa eruption – on the relationship of quantification and precision to artistic or painterly (and, above all, perspectival) appreciation of form and color. This debate takes place in the context of what Patricia Ball defines as a Ruskinian “collaboration between scientific curiosity and aesthetic appreciation of colours, forms and relationships, and a verbal facility” common to writers in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was a scene, she holds, in which “both the professional and the amateur in science respect the activity of the sensitive observer; and that observer counts as part of his equipment the literary skill to do justice to the niceties of his visual sense.”

It was, however, also a scene in which Hopkins could only conceive of a planned “popular account of Light and the Ether” as meeting an audience “who will read carefully so long as there are no mathematics and all technicalities are explained.” Therefore, instead of drafting scientific studies based on laws of physics and statistical abstractions, Hopkins wished to make his readers more conscious of materiality – more thoroughly embedded in the natural world, and therefore more capable of poetic observation:

The study of physical science has, unless corrected in some way, an effect the very opposite of what one would suppose. One would think it might materialise people… but in fact they seem to end in conceiving only of a world of formulas – it being properly speaking in thought, towards which the outer world acts as a sort of feeder, supplying examples for literary purposes. (Letter to Dixon, 7 August 1886)

I present some aspects of the poetic and scientific writing of Hopkins and his contemporaries related to color and to Krakatoa dust-clouds, rainbows, and other atmospheric phenomena. Among these are rayons du crepuscule – striped beams of light only visible at twilight to those looking eastward, and therefore away from the beauty of a sunset. Hopkins posed a provactive question to the readers of Nature in 1882, two full years before his published Krakatoa observations: “But who looks east at sunset?” Consideration of shifted perspective (even extending to what Hopkins called a “perverse overperspectiveness of mind”) will help to delineate a brand of agency he proposes for subjective onlookers in situations where quantified, instrumental surveillance fails to capture the “inscape” of observed reality.

Creative Commons License This site uses a heavily modified version of Bryan Helmig's Magatheme. Work at by Bethany Nowviskie is always CC-BY. Want to know why? The falling letters are by Wayne Graham. He kindly made them to replace a set I designed in Flash in the late 1990s and had in place for more than 17 years. Not a bad run! Ave atque vale.